Burgundy is one of the most famous and historic wine regions in the world, yet wine drinkers find it to be one of the most difficult to understand. At face value, it should be easy to comprehend, as there are essentially two grape varietals — Chardonnay for white wine and Pinot Noir for red wine. The difficulty arises with the complex system of subregions, microclimates, appellations and villages, the many vineyard designations and the sometimes not so subtle distinctions between them, and the classification system, which is based on the hundreds of vineyard sites. Burgundy is all about understanding the individual vineyard sites, the soil, the micro-climate, the altitude, the people and the vineyard practices — all of which the locals refer to as the terroir and climat — and how these factors ultimately cause just two varietals to produce wines of such diverse character.
For wine purchasers, Burgundy can be frightful territory. High prices, seemingly undecipherable labels, and tremendous vintage variation make buying these bottles a bit of a crapshoot. And, as much as you read, taste, and speak with winemakers and producers, it is very difficult to grasp a clear understanding of the region without actually going there and standing in the vineyards. Having a good guide is essential.
This past summer, I had an in-depth course on Burgundy from some of the region’s most knowledgeable individuals. I retuned with an understanding far beyond what I had previously, but also knowing, as with anything in wine, that what I learned was just the tip of the iceberg.
Our focus here is to provide a basic understanding of the region and the basis for the tiered classification system of the various vineyard sites. Burgundy producers take great pride in allowing the wine to express the vineyard, though each may have a slightly different interpretation.
The classification of Burgundy’s vineyards is rooted in the Church; its work and attention to detail first defined the individual vineyard areas. Orders of monks and nuns devoted their time to the vineyards and making wine. Up to 1000 years ago, ecclesiastical orders such as the Cistercians delineated and looked after some of the best in Burgundy — the Grand Cru Clos de Vougeot being the most famous example.
And in contrast to Bordeaux, where most great wines come from producers who own large blocks of vineyards, some of the greatest Burgundies have typically come from small winemakers. Before the French Revolution, the church owned most of the vineyards, which were seized and dissolved in the new French Republic, resulting in today’s 4,000 wineries, most with tiny vineyards of 5 to 10 acres. As a result of inheritance laws, vineyards continued to be divided into smaller and smaller plots, and now many are owned by multiple individual growers (the 50-hectare Clos de Vougeot vineyard, for example, has over 80 owners).
One of the most enlightening experiences was travelling vineyard to vineyard with a trunk full of wine with Jean-Pierre Renard of the Burgundy Wine School. We drove south from Gevrey Chambertin to Beaune, stopping in vineyards along the way to, quite literally, get down on our hands and knees, touch the dirt, feel the sun and the breeze, and stand on the slopes. Jean-Pierre would provide the “story” of each vineyard and then open a bottle of wine from that vineyard. I can’t think of a better way to experience the diversity that Burgundy has to offer or gain a better understanding of why wines from a particular vineyard site taste the way they do.
But let’s break it down.
Burgundy has five regions: Chablis, Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune (the Côtes de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune together make up the Côte d’Or), Côte Chalonnaise, and Maconnais. Approximately 27,600 hectares of vines are cultivated here (three per cent of the total vines in France) resulting in 200 million bottles of wine (0.3 per cent of the world’s total wine production) with twice as much white wine being produced as red.
1. The northernmost region of Burgundy is Chablis. Chablis is a town where the Chardonnay grape produces quality dry and crisp wines with steely, mineral and flinty characteristics. Its temperamental climate leads to significant vintage variation.
2. Côte de Nuits is the northern part of the Côte d’Or. This is the home of famous towns such as Gevrey-Chambertin, Morey-Saint Denis, Chambolle-Musigny, Vougeot, and Nuits-Saint-Georges. Here, the Pinot Noir grape finds its greatest expression, as the Côte de Nuits possesses all but one of Burgundy’s red Grand Cru appellations. Sometimes heavy rain can cause producers havoc.
3. Côte de Beaune is the southern part of the Côte d’Or. This is often referred to as Burgundy’s wine capital because the town of Beaune is located here, along with the headquarters of many of Burgundy’s largest producers. Other famous towns include Pommard, Volnay, Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet. This region is best known for its Chardonnays (although there are many great Pinot Noir wines produced as well). The climate is a little warmer than the Côte de Nuits, thus the grapes ripen a little earlier.
4. Côte Chalonnaise is probably the least known of Burgundy’s wine regions. It produces crisp Chardonnays as well as fruity Pinot Noirs. Many great values can be found here.
5. Mâconnais is Burgundy’s largest wine-growing district. The most famous wines of the area are the Pouilly-Fuissé wines produced from Chardonnay.
The vineyards of Burgundy currently have 100 appellations divided into four levels:
1. Regional appellations: Wines produced from grapes harvested anywhere in Burgundy. There are 23 regional appellations that comprise just over 50 per cent of Burgundy’s total production. Wines belonging to this category will generally have the word “Bourgogne” on the label. Varietals such as Aligote and Gamay may also be used in addition to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Examples are Bourgogne Pinot Noir, Bourgogne Aligote, Macon-Villages, and Passe-tout-grains (a blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay).
2. Village appellations: Wines produced on land around wine-growing villages and bearing their name. There are 44 village appellations in Burgundy that comprise almost 37 per cent of the region’s production. If the grapes that go into a wine are grown completely in one of these villages, then that wine’s label will carry the village name. These villages represent much more defined growing areas than the entire region of Burgundy, therefore, a village wine is generally of higher quality than a regional wine. Also, if all the grapes were from a certain vineyard, then the name of that single vineyard can also be mentioned on the wine label. Examples are Pouilly-Fuisse, Côte de Beaune, Côte de Nuits-Villages and Saint-Veran.
3. Premier Cru appellations: Wines produced on very specifically defined plots of land called “climates,” within a village. There are 684 climats comprising 10 per cent of the region’s total production. Basically, these wines are single-vineyard village wines where that single vineyard is recognized as producing consistently higher-quality grapes. The wine label will bear the name of the village, the single vineyard and also the designation of “Premier Cru” or “1er Cru.” Examples are Aloxe-Corton 1er Cru, Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru, Chablis 1er Cru, Meursault 1er Cru and Nuits-Saint-Georges 1er Cru.
4. Grand Cru appellations: Wines produced on the best plots (climats) on village land. There are 33 Grand Cru appellations comprising the finest 1.5 per cent of Burgundy’s wines. The consistent level of quality of the wines produced from these climats has brought them the distinction of being elevated to the designation of Grand Cru. Everything is done to ensure the maximum expression of the grape and the terroir. The words “Grand Cru” must be indicated on the wine label. Examples are Chambertin, Charlemagne, Clos de Vougeot, Corton, Montrachet, and Romanee-Conti. In the vineyards of Chablis, there are seven climats classified as Grand Cru. However, unlike those Grand Cru mentioned above, they do not give their name directly to an appellation, since, despite their differences, they have been brought together under one single appellation — Chablis Grand Cru. On the label, the name of the climat will be preceded by the name of the appellation (i.e., Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos and Chablis Grand Cru Blanchot are from a single appellation, but represent two distinct climats within the appellation).
Burgundy can be overwhelming, with as many styles as there are producers. The most complicated aspect of Burgundy, the climate, presents an assortment of altitudes, slopes, exposures and soil types. Proximate vineyards separated by a stone wall or a dirt road or even a small path will produce wines that can possess very different in flavours as well as levels of quality.
The other major confusion is the label. Burgundies are labelled not for the grape, but for the region where the grapes are grown. This makes Burgundy both simple and complex. The simplicity is knowing the varietal (Chardonnay for white and Pinot Noir for red). The complexity lies in becoming familiar with the different regional names that comprise Burgundy.
Making great wine here is challenging. An unpredictable climate, inopportune rainfall, and small, steep, labour-intensive vineyards all contribute to low yields and premium prices. Contrary to popular belief, though, there are great values in Burgundy. The secret is to know the producers, the vineyards and the vintages, which makes it possible to get the best wines in each quality and price category. The preceding is an attempt to explain basics of the appellations and provide a starting point to deciphering, experiencing and discovering Burgundy for yourself. Note that seeking the guidance of a knowledgeable wine retailer is always a benefit.
And while much of the wine world pursues a homogeneous flavour profile (fat, fruit-forward and oaky), Burgundy, for the most part, ignores that trend (the region’s cool climate contributes to this). Instead, winemakers aim to create wines that uniquely reflect a sense of place. The resulting variety is why exploring Burgundy is so exciting.