In the first of a series of articles, Phil Jones DipWSET takes a deep dive into the major regions of France. When read in conjunction with our ‘Decoding French Wine Labels’ series, these articles will provide a bedrock for further enjoyment of these classic regions and their wines.
When starting a series of articles on the topic of classic French Wine Regions, often we start in places like Bordeaux. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Bordeaux, but it’s hardly the easiest region of France to get your ahead around and I’ve often found that starting there just confuses more than it helps. So for that reason, I like starting with Burgundy.
Not only is Burgundy the home of some of the world’s most amazing (and expensive!) wines, it also has a relatively easy structure with just four levels to its hierarchy; and for the most part grows only two grape varieties: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. With exceptions that I’ll go into a bit later on, if you pick up a red wine with ‘Burgundy’ on the label, your likely drinking Pinot Noir; if it’s white, it’s likely Chardonnay.
Here endeth the lesson.
Ok, maybe not. It does get a little trickier than just that, especially when you start breaking up each commune into individual vineyards. Getting your head around Burgundy is going to require a bit more thinking time.
Burgundy: The Pyramid
Firstly, the hierarchy – or pyramid as it’s better (and more aptly) known as.
There are four levels of quality in Burgundy. At the most basic level are the regional appellations. These wines are variously labelled as Bourgogne Blanc or Rouge, Bourgogne Haut Chalonnaise or just Bourgogne (or some variation on the theme). More often than not the reds are made from Pinot Noir, the whites from Chardonnay but a small amount of variation can occur (the reds are occasionally made with Gamay, sometimes the whites with Aligoté). Interestingly, the Mâconnais in the far south of the region uses both the Mâcon (for reds and whites) and Mâcon-Village (for whites only) designation at the regional appellation level, probably only to confuse the non-French drinking public.
Above the regional level sits the commune or ‘village’ level. These wines will be usually named with the commune, or vineyard area, from which the grapes were grown – for example, Puligny-Montrachet or Chablis. Bourgogne Côte Chalonnaise applies to all Pinot Noir and Chardonnay produced in the Côte Chalonnaise and sits at this level.
Above the commune level sits the two ‘Cru’ levels – Premier Cru and finally Grand Cru. Premier Cru wines can be either a single vineyard wine, and will invariably carry the name of that vineyard on the label (‘Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru Les Champs Gains’, for example), or they may be a blend of Premier Cru vineyards within a single village (Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru would be the label on this case, and generally – but not always – attract a cheaper price than the named, single vineyard wines). Grand Cru wines are always single vineyard wines. These labels will generally only have the name of the vineyard with the designation ‘Grand Cru’ (Chambertin Grand Cru, for example).
Clear as mud? Excellent.
The trick really is understanding the geography in conjunction with the appellation laws. You can, and I have, gone down the rabbit hole of studying individual villages, communes and climats (vineyards), but in reality you don’t need to know things in that detail to still get serious enjoyment out of the wines of Burgundy. I’ll save that for a 201 level discussion.
Burgundy: The Geography
Burgundy can be divided up into four main regions – Chablis, the Côte D’Or, the Côte Chalonnaise and the Mâconnais. The Côte D’Or can be further divided into two distinct areas – Côte de Nuits in the north and the Côte de Beaune in the south.
Chablis is pure Chardonnay country divided into four main sub-regions – Petit Chablis and Chablis sitting at the village level, several Premier Cru level vineyards and one Grand Cru vineyard (confusingly, broken up into 7 separate named sites). The village level wines are simply named Petit Chablis or Chablis (in order of quality level) and can be quite austere with high acidity – although some riper examples will show more fruit character. Premier Cru and Grand Cru Chablis will, almost invariably, include the name of the site on the label (Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos, for example). This can confuse the drinker into thinking Les Clos is a named Grand Cru vineyard when, in reality, it is a division of a single Grand Cru vineyard area. This is simply a legal definition under French law and there is certainly argument that the 7 sub-divisions should be considered as single vineyards in their own right. That is a debate for another time however.
South of Chablis is the Côte D’Or and it’s two regions, the Côte de Nuit and the Côte eu Beaune. Keeping things very simple, if it’s a red wine it’s Pinot Noir, if it’s white it’s Chardonnay. Easy, isn’t it? So a wine labelled Côtes de Beaune-Villages would be Pinot Noir (only red wine can carry this designation) and could be a blend of grapes from any commune in the Côtes de Beaune. Likewise, a white carrying the designation Côtes de Nuits-Villages would be Chardonnay, the red being Pinot Noir, and could be a blend from any of the Côtes de Nuits communes. Above these wines sits the named village wines, then the premier cru then the grand cru wines. There are 33 grand cru vineyards in the Côte D’Or with all but one Pinot Noir vineyard found in the Côtes de Nuits with all of the Côte D’Or Chardonnay Grand Cru vineyards found in the Côtes de Beaune.
Let’s go a little deeper here.
Burgundy: The Wines
You can spend years studying Burgundy (and I can’t recommend Clive Cotes MW’s book The Wines of Burgundy enough here, even if it is a little dated now), but shortcut is to just know the main villages in the Côte D’Or and you’re on your way. For Pinot Noir, the villages of Gevrey-Chambertin, Vougeot, Vosne-Romanée, Nuits-Saint-Georges, Aloxe-Corton, Pommard and Volnay are arguably the most important. For Chardonnay it’s Aloxe-Corton, Meursault, Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet. Premier Cru wines from any of these villages are of extremely high quality but it’s important to note that the wines produced from each village and each single vineyard, can (and will) be very different – both in quality and taste. These differences in style and flavour is what makes Burgundy so fascinating to a wine geeks the world over.
For Grand Cru wines, it’s important to note that every grand cru can be expected to be exceedingly high quality. The best Pinot Noir vineyards include (but are not limited to) Chambertin, Clos de Vougeot, Romanée-Conti, La Tâche and Corton-Charlemagne. For Chardonnay, Corton and the Montrachet sites (Bâtard-Montrachet, Bienvenue-Bâtard-Montrachet, Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet, Chevalier-Montrachet, Montrachet and Le Montrachet) are all exceptional wines, with prices to match.
However, it is important to note that even at the Village level, great wines can be found from these villages of the Cote d’Or. For example, a white wine labelled as Puligny-Montrachet without a further ‘Premier Cru’ vineyard designation will still be an excellent example of Chardonnay. The wine may lack some of the intensity or structure of a premier cru, but it is still very good drinking. The same applies with a red listed simply as Volnay or Pommard. And that is the trick to these wines – there is quality throughout the pyramid if one choses to look for it.
South of the Côte D’Or comes the Côte Chalonnaise. Regarded as somewhat less prestigious than the wines made from the Côte D’Or, most wines produced here sit at the commune or village level. There are four main village appellations – Rully, Mercurey, Givry and Montagny – of which Montagny produces only white wines, Rully more white than red with Givry and Rully reputationally considered the highest. These communes do have some premier cru vineyards, but no grand crus. These labels are likely to be labelled as, to give an example, ‘Rully Premier Cru’ + vineyard name, or just ‘Rully Premier Cru’. The whites will be Chardonnay and the reds Pinot Noir.
Further south comes the Mâconnais with Chardonnay the most planted grape and red wines that tend to be made from Gamay, although some Pinot Noir is grown. Wines labelled as simple ‘Mâcon’ can be red or white, however wines labelled ‘Mâcon-Villages’ or ‘Mâcon’ plus a village name are universally Chardonnay – the two most famous of these villages are Pouilly-Fuissé and Saint-Véran (these two will be labelled with just the village name, under their own AOC rules). These are some of the richest Chardonnays in Burgundy, so if you like rich, ripe flavours complemented by toasty oak then start look for either of these two village names on the label.
As one of the worlds highest quality wine producing regions, Burgundy is a great place to start looking at French wine and understanding what the labels mean so that you go beyond looking for a varietal label. When you dig a little deeper, you start to understand the complexities that go into these wines, what makes each village, each premier cru vineyard and each grand cru vineyard different from each other. Go deeper still, and you get a firm understanding of the French concept of terroir and how vineyard position and location, the soils and the climate all work together to make one Chardonnay lean and mineral and another rich and ripe, one Pinot Noir fruity and another with more body.
And after that, well you might just be a bit of a wine geek!