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Berger: 50 years of Gallo Hearty Burgundy


Ardent wine lovers who are passionate about the best wines of France rarely call Burgundy "Burgundy." They simply know it as Bourgogne, and even that term is pass?

At its best, great Bourgogne — either rouge or blanc — is seen as the result of small production off one of the smaller regions of the Cote d'Or. The top wines cost an oil sheik's ransom, are hard to get, and are, supporters say, the greatest wines in the world.

Yet that very term, Burgundy, has become synonymous with American red wine of any stripe and has been etched into our culture since well before Prohibition, when varietal wines all but didn't exist.

It wasn't until the late 1950s that Californians even began to think of the validity of making wines named for the varietals from which they came, and even then the practice was limited.

California "burgundy" seemed to be everywhere, blends of any grape the winemaker chose to use, and usually it was sold as an everyday table wine, not some exalted elixir. (In the United States, burgundy always referred to a red generic wine; generic white was called chablis.)

So to write about Burgundy and use a capital B is an affront to all of France as well as all wine lovers for whom Bourgogne is a unique place, where pinot noir and chardonnay rule, and where some of France's greatest wines are grown by small vignerons. And from where come some of the wine world's most sublime wines.

Into this world leaped the E&J Gallo Winery, first with a wine called Burgundy and then adding, some years later, a wine called Hearty Burgundy.

Gallo's Burgundy was a nice quaff. Hearty Burgundy was a step forward in terms of depth, richness, intensity, flavor, and even nuance.

I grew up on it; I bought half gallons for $1.39 each. It was reliable and even satisfactory when cold.

Today, Gallo is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the release of the first Hearty Burgundy, and the company does not ask anyone to confuse this with, say, Jayer Echezeaux or Louis Latour's Corton Grancey.

Available only in 1.5-liter, cork-finished bottles, Gallo's Hearty Burgundy is $9 and hearkens back to an era when the majority of Americans still drank more dessert wines (mainly ports, sherries, and sauternes) than they did table wines. That didn't change until 1967.

The commemorative bottling is 37 percent zinfandel, 29 percent petit verdot, 25 percent petite sirah, and 9 percent alicante bouschet. That last grape may account for the wine's inky dark color. Alicante is a teinturer grape, which means it has red juice and thus imparts substantial dark color to any wine it's used in.

Soon after the release of Hearty Burgundy 50 years ago, Los Angeles Times wine columnist Robert Lawrence Balzer (who died at age 99 in December 2011) called Gallo Hearty Burgundy "the best red wine value in the country today."

It was a comment that spurred sales of the wine for decades, and some of the same Gallo winemakers who were involved with that first wine were also involved with the decisions leading to the blend in the commemorative bottling.

Real Bourgogne it isn't, nor was it ever intended to be. But an iconic American wine it is.

<b>Wine of the Week:</b> Nonvintage Gallo Hearty Burgundy, California ($9/1.5 liters): The wine, just released for a limited run, is exactly the way it was in 1964 when it was launched, a deeper, richer, and more substantial example of a blended red wine. And it is reminiscent of its predecessor, with a soft entry and fruit-forward mid-palate flavors.

<i>Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes "Vintage Experiences," a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com.</i>