The region of Burgundy is the fairytale land of vines. There are stories of kings, conquerors and commoners recounting the seductive effects of a Burgundian wine. Even now, many wine aficionados and lovers will pinpoint their most memorable wine moment at that first taste of an aged Burgundy. Much of this can be related to the terroir of Burgundy. Centuries of winemaking have led the Burgundians to know which grape clone grows best on which plot of land, including the soil, the angle towards the sun and the elevation – all of these factors contribute to the terroir of Burgundy. Vineyards from around the world plant cuttings of exact Burgundian clones, trying to replicate the Burgundy style.
Burgundy is a small region, only about a fourth the size of Bordeaux
. The narrow thread of vineyard land stretches from the city of Dijon to Lyon. The five main districts of Burgundy are – from North to South - Chablis
, Côte d'Or, Côte Chalonnaise, Maconnais, and Beaujolais
. Chablis is far removed geographically (above Dijon) and adheres to its own classifications. Beaujolais is its own region due to grape variety, vinification methods and regulations. Leaving us with the Côte d'Or, Côte Chalonnaise and Maconnais as the heart of Burgundy.
Grapes of the region are easy to remember - Pinot Noir
for reds, Chardonnay
for whites. Indeed, Burgundy can be called home for both varietals, despite their increasing presence in every winemaking country. Other grapes are used in some of the lower AC levels, but the primary grapes stay constant. In this area red wines out number whites, although the quality for both is unparalleled.
A bit of History...
The big drawback of Burgundy is its unpredictability in quality. Much of this is due to the fragmentation of the vineyards and producers. Once owned and run by the church and nobility, the vineyards of Burgundy were seized during French Revolution and sold off piece by piece. Further separation occurred with Napoleonic Law, which ordered that inherited land be divided among children equally. These two factors put Burgundy where it is today – a myriad of vineyards and villages, each with a number of growers and producers. As an example, the grand cru Clos Vougeot has 125 acres of vineyards. These 125 acres have more than 80 growers, some who own as little as 2 rows of vines.
Burgundy is organized by plots of land and labeled as such. About half of Burgundy works on a négociant system. Growers of small plots sell grapes, or more often, barrels of already made wine, to négociant houses who then blend it with other wines from that region and put it under their label. While the négociant system may sound like a way to produce mass amounts of anonymous wines, that is, luckily, not the case. Wines are labeled with a sense of place, so you know what land you are getting. There are some négociant houses that are much more renowned and consistent than others, and for the most part, the system works. But times are changing. Some growers are purchasing more land and making the wine on their property, under their label, for more consistency. On the other side, négociant houses are buying up their own vineyards so they will have more control over winemaking. Either way, buying Burgundy often depends on being familiar with the producer or négociant. It's the best way to start if one is unfamiliar with the intricate classification system of the region.
Burgundy may be known for its delicious and life-altering wines, but it is also known for having a most confusing classification system. This is most apparent in the Côte d'Or, or the golden slope, which encompasses the Côte de Beaune and the Côte de Nuits. The classification system is similar to a pyramid. At the base of the pyramid is the most basic of the classifications, the Burgundy AC, meaning grapes can come from anywhere in the Burgundy region. Next up is a village wine, such as Côte de Beaune or Côte de Nuits, or the villages within these regions, like Givery-Chambertin or Puligny-Montrachet. The label will say Appellation Puligny-Montrachet Controlée. At the next level is the premier cru. A wine that says Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru will still be Appellation Puligny-Montrachet [premier cru] Controllée, but may include the premier cru vineyard name, such as Les Pucelles. At the tip of the pyramid are the grand cru vineyards. There are only 30 in the Côte d'Or and the name of the vineyard is the appellation name.