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Burgundy's time arrives — and the price is right

These days, kind of out of nowhere, Burgundy's wines are a bargain. At least by my definition, which starts with the premise that a mediocre wine costing $5 or $10 is worth approximately $0, that "drinking up" from whatever price point constitutes a bargain.

The wines from that part of southwest France are not cheap. Never have been, never will be. But in the $15-to-$30 range, the reds and whites from Burgundy more often than not provide solid to super value — and a great introduction to a region that for many (present company included) had been a perennial crapshoot.

In the 1990s, chardonnay became Americans' favorite white, and in the mid-2000s pinot passion engulfed the wine world. But aside from a rather bizarre Pouilly-Fuisse dalliance in the 1970s (my theory: People simply liked to say "poo-ee foo-say"), Burgundy's versions of those varietals never caught on.

And with good reason: Inconsistent quality, spotty availability and high prices were hallmarks of the Burgundies that reached these shores. At its best, red and white Burgundy always has been an indelible, almost mystical delight. But even those who shopped at the high end often ended up with profoundly disappointing stuff; at lower price points, austere, "dirty" reds and acrid, often oxidated whites prompted many a "What the heck is the fuss all about?" reaction.

No more.

The 2009 and '10 Burgundies currently on local shelves are almost universally worth a try. The '09s tend to be fruitier, but both vintages produced tasty, balanced and approachable wines.

"The last couple of vintages have been ready to go right off the bat," said Peter Vars of Thomas Liquors in St. Paul, Minn., "with big fruit and good textures. We've just seen a lot of consistent, pure wines coming in."

Even the "simpler" Macon-Villages whites and Beaujolais-Villages reds are inviting and intriguing. Almost all these wines come in at $20 and under, and the higher-end Beaujolais from Brouilly, Fleurie Morgon and Moulin-a-Vent rarely exceed $30. (These are not your party-hearty niece's Nouveau Beaujolais.)

Meanwhile, in the northern reaches of this region — which actually extended to the Netherlands during its Late Middle Ages heyday — Chablis is also on a major roll with limestone-laden, bright and lively whites that many consider chardonnay's purest expression.

And in Burgundy's heartland, the Cote d'Or, small and large producers are crafting perhaps the world's finest pinot noirs and chardonnays (and often priced accordingly). The difference today: more reliability, as many of the more cavalier or inept producers have been weeded out.

A bigger factor, though, lies in what gave Burgundy its reputation: the terroir. Long the province of hundreds of small producers — it's not uncommon when visiting to hear "those three rows belong to Jean-Paul, and the next three to Armand" — this land underwent a de-evolution and then a revolution in the second half of the 20th century.

In the 1960s and '70s, many growers embraced chemical fertilizers, and by the early 1980s French scientists had declared that the soil of Burgundy had less life than the Sahara Desert. Burgundians, especially younger ones, listened, returning to the farming practices of their grandfathers (who were organic decades before organic was cool).

The soil recovered — even large vintners such as Maison Joseph Drouhin now embrace organic and biodynamic practices — and so did winemaking techniques. Just as important, the notoriously secretive Burgundians started sharing information about what was working (they always had been quite willing to share what wasn't working).

"They've got the land already," Vars said. "When they incorporated newer, cleaner techniques, you started to see what can happen."

The task was particularly difficult because of Burgundy's famously unpredictable climate from year to year. "A vintage like 2004 in Burgundy, 40 years ago they would have dumped it in the street," Laurent Drouhin said. "Now we know what to do with it."

And it shows in the bottles. Even the not-so-spendy ones.