Following on from our look at Alsace, we move a little south and take a glimpse at one of the most revered regions of France, Burgundy. This article should be read in conjunction with French Wine Regions 101: Burgundy to fully appreciate this amazing wine region.
Very few wine regions across the world can evoke so much emotion in the consumer as Burgundy can. The world’s most expensive wine, most expensive red and most expensive white all come from Burgundy, after all. But beyond that, not only is Burgundy the home of the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir varieties, the wines of Burgundy at their best are, quite simply, the best expressions of these grapes bar none.
But understanding Burgundy when faced with a restaurant wine list or bottle shop shelf can be a tough ask. Hopefully, this article will help you confidently navigate the minefield that this region can be.
The regions: Chablis
We’ll start our exploration of Burgundian wine labels with Chablis, located to the North West of the Côte d’Or and geographically closer to Champagne than it is to Dijon.
This is Chardonnay country, quite simply, and the label structure is relatively straight forward.
Like Burgundy more generally, Chablis has four levels to it’s structure. Two effective village levels, Petit Chablis and Chablis; a Chablis Premier Cru appellation; and a Chablis Grand Cru appellation; each level rising in quality. The climate is Chablis is cold and the wines tend to reflect this – lower in alcohol, and in their youth they can be quite austere and high in acidity. But at their best, Chablis Grand Cru can be the purest expression of Chardonnay, with winemaking invariably taking a back seat – restrained use of oak, no malolactic fermentation, and generally limited time on lees. (Editor’s note: We are compiling a glossary of common winemaking terms and what they mean and will provide a link here once it has been completed)
Chablis Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines will have a vineyard designation on the label as well, for example Chablis Premier Cru Cote de Lechet or Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos, whilst the village level appellations will simply say Petit Chablis or Chablis, hence understanding Chablis can be a very straightforward exercise: it’s always Chardonnay, Petit Chablis at the bottom of the tree, Chablis Grand Cru at the top. Occasionally, a producer may name a particular vineyard on the label without Premier Cru or Grand Cru. This is solely at the producers discretion, however, and should not be mistaken for thinking the wines are materially a Premier Cru or Grand Cru.
As an interesting aside, there is only one Grand Cru appellation in Chablis, with 7 named vineyards. Many a wine scholar has been tripped up on an exam for confusing these named vineyards as individual Grand Cru appellations, but in reality they are not considered such under AOC law.
The regions: Côte d’Or
The Côte d’Or is probably the most famous of Burgundy’s regions and for good measure: these are the most sought after Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines in the world. The Côte is broken up into two, equally important, parts – the Côte de Nuits in the north, and the Côte de Baune in the south. I argue they both carry equal weight where some may disagree purely based on the fact that the Côte de Nuits is Pinot Noir territory and the Côte de Baune is Chardonnay central. For me, the wines that each produces at the top domains are without peer in the world, so for this reason they carry equal weight.
As discussed in the regional profile, the Côte follows a very simple pyramid, similar to that of Chablis. At the base of the pyramid is Bourgogne AOC, or regional appellation. The grapes for these wines can come from anywhere across Burgundy and in practice, a lot of grapes used for these wines come from the flatter areas of the Côte d’Or and the lesser sites in the Côte Chalonnaise and Maconnais further to the south. These wines are intended for immediate consumption and are relatively simple wines. The will be labelled as ‘Bourgogne’ or Bourgogne Rouge or Blanc.
Above this sits the Village appellation – labelled normally with the name of the village where the grapes are grown, for example ‘Puligny-Montrachet’, ‘Pommard’, ‘Vosne-Romanée’, etc. These wines are a serious step up in quality and can represent a great starting point to understanding the nuances of each of the Côte d’Or’s villages and vineyards. Some villages are reds only, some are whites only, and some are a mixture of both. The wines can represent, for French imports at least, a great value way to start exploring Burgundy.
Like Chablis, Premier Cru sits above the Village appellation and it is here that we see a very marked improvement in quality and price. As Grand Cru Burgundy starts to increase in price, these wines are beginning to become the ‘stretch’ wines for a number of wine lovers. The Premier Cru vineyards across the Côte d’Or straddle the Grand Cru vineyards, in many cases being separated by less than twenty metres of gravel road. In exceptional vintages, Premier Cru wines can match, or even surpass, Grand Cru wines in concentration and structure. The wines will be labelled with the village name, plus ‘Premier Cru’ plus vineyard name (see label example). If the wine is a blend of several Premier Cru vineyards, then just Premier Cru will be on the label.
Finally, at the top of the tree sits Grand Cru. These wine are always single vineyard and attract the highest prices. Indeed, both the most expensive red and white in the world is produced by Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC), their Romanée-Conti Pinot Noir Grand Cru attracting a retail price of over US$20,000 at release, their Montrachet Chardonnay Grand Cru a much more modest US$5,000. That is per 750ml bottle, mind you. In saying that, ‘value’ is what you make of it, and there are some fantastic wines being made by less famous producers for just a fraction of the price. To put things simply, these wines are the pinnacle of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines in the world, so if you see them on a wine list (and the budget stretches), buy them.
It is important to note, that a number of Burgundian producers will not label their wines as ‘Grand Cru’. Call it arrogance, but they consider the vineyard to be so famous that the do not need to put those two words on the label – it should speak for itself. Considering the prices they charge for these wines, it is difficult to argue against them. The most famous, and as a result most expensive and sought after, is Domain de la Romanée-Conti’s Romanee-Conti Grand Cru.
The Mâcon and Côte Chalonnaise
Directly south of the Côte d’Or lies the Côte Chalonnaise with Mâconnais further south towards Beaujolais. In the Côte Chalonnaise, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the main grapes, however, due to the higher altitude of the majority of the vineyards, harvest tends to be later in the Côte Chalonnaise with ripening a bit less reliable.
Four main village appellations make up the Côte Chalonnaise – Rully, Mercurey, Givry and Montagny (from north to south) and each appellation has some premier cru vineyards but no grand crus. The wines tend to be lighter in style than those of the Côte d’Or and mature somewhat earlier and are considered not as prestigious as the wines produced further north. Labels generally will state the name of the village plus premier cru and possibly vineyard name if a single vineyard wine. The whites of Montagny and the reds of Gibry and Mercury enjoy a somewhat good reputation and can be reliable sources of value.
The Mâcon is generally Chardonnay country, however some Gamay is also produced and limited amounts of Pinot Noir. Mâcon is the regional appellation and can apply to both red and white wines, with Mâcon-Villages being reserved strictly for white. A number of villages in the Mâcon have built up a reputation for quality, however don’t have their own appellation so as such labels may contain terms such as ‘Mâcon-Villages Lugny’ indicating the wine comes from the village of Lugny.
There are also a number of village appellations with Mâcon, perhaps most famously Pouilly-Fuissé and Saint-Véran. These wines are always Chardonnay and produce some of the ripest and richest wines in all of Burgundy. Oak is often used in these appellations as well. The quality of these wines is unquestionable and can provide great value, high quality drinking for riper styles of Chardonnay.
Burgundy in a nutsell
At first glance, Burgundy, with its multitude of vineyards and label terms can feel a bit confusing and daunting but, at its most basic is really a simple region to get one’s head around. A few simple rules apply.
Whites are generally Chardonnay, reds Pinot Noir; Bourgogne is the most starting point, then a regional denomination, then village, then Premier Cru and finally Grand Cru. Once you’ve mastered the five major regions of Burgundy described above (Chablis, Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune, Côte Chalonnaise, Mâcon), you can start to dig deeper and discover producers – and eventually even vineyards and individual sites (yes, even down to particular collections of rows in a vineyard) – that you love. It’s this aspect to Burgundy that has captivated me from the beginning, and still does to this day.