15 Mar A Primer on Burgundy: The 5 Things You Need To Know
You should see my desk right now. Boring and dork-ass wine books corner to corner, more tabs open than my browser can handle, and notes scrawled down in my notebook and on a few post-its to boot. This isn’t usually how I work, but in the name of Burgundy I’m willing to make a mess to do it right.
What’s even nerdier — I’ve been thinking about this post for about 2 or 3 weeks now. Bourgogne (said Boor-GON-Yuh, which you’ll see on bottles), as they say in France, is a hard topic. Like Bordeaux, there have been books and books and tons of articles and other stuff written on this pretty small region. But unlike Bordeaux, which is all about brand and marketing and lavish Chateaux, Burgundy is about farmers and terroir (that’s why this post fits so well with the podcast from the past two weeks! See Part 1 and Part 2) and little differences in the wines based on nuances in the land.
Wine geeks say that the final destination in learning about wine is Burgundy because you can never know everything there is to know or really wrap your head around every difference of every vineyard.
Thankfully, we’re not trying to go there. For our purposes we’ll just talk about a few keys to understanding Burgundy so it’s easier to try and buy. Once you figure out the basics, I swear you’ll want to tiptoe into this crazy, convoluted French world. I’m not saying you have to become a Burgundy scholar, but while you’re exploring the world of wine, Burgundy is a mandatory stop on the train so you may as well read this quick “travel guide” so you know what to expect, no?
Below I’m going to break down Burgundy in as normal a way as possible. I won’t review any wines here, but later this week I’ll do a post on a tasting of Louis Latour wines that I was privileged to attend and talk about how some of the factors discussed here affected the taste of what I had. My hope is to give a good, tangible explanation to some of the stuff discussed here.
1. Where the hell is Burgundy? Geography and a short word on climate…
Why are we even talking about this? Because if you want to know how to get good Burgundy and appreciate it, you’ve got to know that geography and geology are king, queen, emperor and everything in between. With no understanding of that, you better pack your knives and go, as Padma from Top Chef would say.
So to start, Burgundy is in central eastern France. It’s a narrow strip of land and kind of disjointed — stretching from 187 km/116 mi southeast of Paris down nearly 288 km/179 mi to the city of Lyon. It’s packed inland and like all continental locations, it has pretty extreme weather (in the US, think Omaha, Nebraska). It’s freaking freezing in the winter, has crazy rain and hail storms, and pretty short, but flaming hot summers.
Its climate and weather are erratic at best. It’s a nail-biter every year to see what Mother Nature is going to dole out, hence vintage (which just indicates what the weather did that year) is huge in determining quality.
Burgundy has 5 distinct regions, each a little different. From north to south, they are:
- Chablis (pronounced Sha-BLEE and no, it’s not a jug wine, but a fine wine region)
- The Côte d’Or (Coat Door), made up of the Côte de Nuits (Coat-deh-Nwee) and the Côte de Beaune (Coat-deh-Bone)
- The Côte Chalonnaise (Coat Shallow-NAZE)
- The Maconnais (Mah-coh-NAZE),…
- and the real black sheep of the region (think Sesame Street “one of these things is not like the other”) Beaujolais (boh-jzhoh-LAY).
Out of these areas, the most complex part of Burgundy, and what people get geeked up on is the Côte d’Or or “golden slope,” which is named for either the color of the leaves in the fall, or the serious coin the producers here make by churning out some the most expensive wines in the world (Domaine Romanée-Conti’s Romanée-Conti, a Pinot Noir, routinely goes for $10,000+ a bottle).
Although it kind of ties into the geography, we’ll move on to key point #2, grape types, and talk about how geography influences the wines of each area, which are dramatically different from each other…
2. The Grapes of Burgundy: Where it gets simple (and where it gets hard again… the styles of wine they make)
This may be the only thing you care about with regards to Burgundy (I hope it isn’t but no judgment if so). Unlike Bordeaux where it’s blends galore and there are 8 grapes to keep track of, there are only two main grapes in the prestigious part of Burgundy…and a third if you count Beaujolais.
If you’re drinking Burgundy, you’re drinking Chardonnay if it’s white, Pinot Noir if it’s red, and Gamay if it’s from Beaujolais. Done.
Now, the complicated part is that there is a huge variation in style, based on where in Burgundy the grapes are grown…terroir reigns supreme here and changes everything (again, listen to the podcast if you have no idea what terroir is!). But we’ll touch on that in point 3. For now, here’s a rundown of those 5 regions above and what kind of wines they make:
- Chablis: This part of Burgundy is totally detached from the main drag (i.e., the Côte d’Or and down to Beaujolais), which is 60 miles south. The area used to be part of Champagne, which is a much closer neighbor and definitely has more traits in common. Chablis is at about 48 degrees latitude — the outer reaches of where grapes can grow before they turn into potatoes and make vodka (just kidding…they just can’t ripen at cooler temps). Here, Chardonnay is the big dog. It’s a tough-ass grape so it can stand a little chill in the air but except in warm years, the grapes don’t get super ripe so there is a ton of acid in the wine. And as far as fruitiness goes — a little lemon, lime, and green apple flavors are the most you’re gonna get.
The soil is chalky limestone and you can usually taste that in the wine (no joke, think of beating chalk erasers together). These wines will make your eyes water and peel the enamel off your teeth from acidity — they need food to shine. They are almost never aged in oak, which really lets you see what the Chardonnay grape tastes like.
We’ll split out the Côte d’Or here because there are different styles produced in Nuits v. Beaune…
- Côte de Nuits (which means “dark/night slope,” so you should think dark grape, hence Pinot Noir!): Go 60 miles south from Chablis and this 15 mile strip of land contains vineyards that make the most famous Pinot Noir on earth. Although the climate is cool and unpredictable, this is the grape’s native home and it has adapted. The best Pinot is grown on steeper hillsides, where the sun hits the vines perfectly to allow for ripening. What’s amazing about this area is that the style can vary so much from one patch of land to another. In some areas the Pinot is dark colored, saturated in raspberry/blackberry fruit flavor, and has all sorts of spicy (like cinnamon and licorice), earthy notes. In others the wine is much lighter in character and more like a floral perfume with exotic spices and a violet smell. It’s this insane variation within a small space that allowed the monks to formulate the idea of terroir…but we’ll get to that in section 4.
- Côte de Beaune: You want to taste a Chardonnay like you’ve never imagined? Look no further. Although there are some great Pinot Noirs that come out of this region too, the finest, most complex and most ageable Chardonnays grow in this area, south of the Côte de Nuits. It’s slightly warmer and wetter here than further north and Chardonnay loves it. The wines are much fruitier than in Chablis with ripe apple and sometimes tropical fruit flavors. What makes these wines different from Chardonnay grown elsewhere in the world is that they’re honeyed, spicy, floral, and creamy but always have an acidity and mineral thing going on that makes them more balanced then some Chardonnays from warmer climates. Beaune, the town that is the heart of the Burgundy wine trade is situated here.
- The Côte Chalonnaise: You know, these wines really get the shaft. This is a great region that makes Pinot Noir and Chardonnay but it’s hard to find in the U.S. It has similar soil to the Côte de Beaune, but because it’s not part of the big slope of the Côte d’Or, people kind of write it off. I’ll concede that the wines are less consistently good, but some are a lot better than what you get from the mass produced wines in lower-level Côte de Beaune and are cheaper! If you see a Pinot from Mercurey, definitely try it — it’s like a lighter, less complex version of its cousins up north but is a great price and delicious!
- The Maconnais: Who hasn’t seen Louis Jadot’s iconic Macon-Village or Pouilly-Fuisse labels? Both are Chardonnay and that’s what’s exported from this area (although some red from Pinot Noir and Gamay are also made). This is Chardonnay country (actually the town of Chardonnay is located here!) and the whites are awesome values. They’re a little fruitier and more simplistic than the wines from other parts of Burgundy, but still have a good dose of acid and minerality that give the wine a certain balanced, ying-yang, fruit and mineral quality that’s typical of whites from Burgundy.
- Beaujolais: I’m not going to go into depth on the blacksheep of Burgundy except to say that it produces 50% of all the wine in the region and 50% of that is the yick that is Beaujolais Nouveau. Its main grape is Gamay, and it is here and only here from which Gamay can make a wine with class. Gamay hasn’t had an easy run of it — it’s always being compared to its pretty, smart, and complex sister, Pinot Noir. It really couldn’t get more humiliating for this poor grape — it’s the only one I know of that has been publicly slandered! It was banned from Burgundy, said to be bad for human health, and ordered to be pulled up in 1395 by Phillip the Bold, the son of the King, even though it’s capable of making some magically delicious wines.
Beaujolais from one of the 10 classified villages is so floral and fruity and soft-feeling in your mouth. It’s delicious, but, honestly has nothing to do with the rest of Burgundy. If I were Beaujolais, I’d secede. At the Latour tasting, I also tried 6 Beaujolais from the same year, which I will post about separately since it deserves separate treatment.
3. Third But Most Importantly: Terroir…Or all the stuff that goes into making the wine growing area distinct
Ok, the podcast mentioned above goes into big detail on this, so all I’ll say here is that the idea that a specific place — an area as small as a row of vine for instance — has distinct character was born in Burgundy.
Burgundy has varied terrain — some slopes, some flat, different sun exposures, altitudes, and microclimates — but the thing that distinguishes it is the variance in soil from which the vines derive nutrients and flavor. The geology of the region over the last 150 million years has created such diversity in soil type that in areas as small as a vineyard, the soil can vary dramatically and change the flavor and character of the grapes grown there. The Official Burgundy Wines Website says it perfectly when stating that the vineyards are “a mosaic made up of thousands of plots of land.”
So it should be no surprise that quality varies dramatically based on the terroir of the plot and that the most coveted and expensive wines of Burgundy come from the best plots of land with the best combination of sun, slope, climate, and soil. That coupled with the knowledge gained over 1100+ years of experience in these vineyards, means that these wines have a truly unique character.
To harken back to points 1 & 2 — you’ve got to know your stuff when it comes to geography in Burgundy and the style of wine you like, because unlike anywhere else in the world, a matter of a mile can alter the character of a wine so much (and sometimes the price!) that it actually makes a huge difference.To get started buying and trying Burgundy wines you don’t need to know all the differences in vineyards and terroirs, but you DO need to know that there is variability.
Bottom line: Because of this nuance in Burgundy, within the world of non-sparkling Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the region has nearly limitless possibilities in styles, so don’t write anything off immediately. Keep on trying.
4. Catholic Guilt, A Short War-Monger, and Burgundian History: Yes, it’s really important
Again, you may be asking…why the hell do I need to know the history of this region to appreciate the wine? I don’t need to know the history of Monte Carlo to go lose my shirt at the gambling tables. Can’t I just drink the stuff?
Sorry. You gotta know about this.
I don’t know if history matters to the modern day structure of any wine region more than it matters to Burgundy. I’ll try to be quick on the facts but if you hate history, this may be entirely banal to you.C’est la vie.
Wine has been made in Burgundy for millennia, but the earliest records we have are from the second century AD when the Romans came in. Things ticked along and then a big change took place that set up Burgundy to be what it is today.
In the 900s, the middle of the Middle Ages, Burgundy found religion. The Catholicism of the dark ages was fully in swing and the guilt of the church loomed large over the area — what a boon for wine! Dying land owners bequeathed the monasteries in the area with their land, as a last ditch attempt to make it to the pearly gates. And with that land, the Benedictines (who were known for their love of luxury, BTW) created a form of heaven on earth with wine.
Blessed with nothing-but-time on their hands and the ability to read and write, this ostentatious, wine-loving sect set about cultivating grapes as more of a science project than a means to create sacramental beverages. They kept meticulous records of every vine, vineyard, and area they planted.Although kind of counter to their austere reputation, about 200 years after the Benedictines had a monopoly on Burgundian wine, the Cistercians got in on the act too and these two sects created the foundation for modern-day Burgundy wines.
Men of the cloth from both sects began recording some very cool, weird, unique-to-Burgundy stuff about the vineyards. Namely that each small climat, or plot of vineyard, produced totally different wines even if planted with the same grapes and made the same way. These dudes were the first to recognize and describe terroir, and to delineate vineyard areas and separate the best from the less good. That classification still exists in Burgundy (told you it was relevant!).
There is just one more wrinkle before we leave the history of the place that you should know about. And this is really where I think the s*&t hits the fan and over-complicates Burgundy to the point of craziness. The small vineyard plots certainly would be confusing enough since, as you’ll see in the Classification section, there are a buttload of them, but if each were owned by a single person or group, it would be easier to understand. But, alas, that short, war-mongering dude couldn’t leave well enough alone: in his anti-monarchy opus, the Napoleonic Code, Bonaparte convoluted Burgundy beyond belief.
Issued in 1804, the Code stated that any property left behind by dying parents to their kids had to be distributed equally among the kids. In the world of the Brady Bunch, that means if dad wanted to leave land to just to Greg — no dice. It would have to be split evenly among Greg, Peter, Bobby, Marsha, Jan, and Cindy. That legacy lives on today, with some growers owning a few rows of vines and the most famous vineyard sites having dozens and dozens of owners. This fragmentation led to the rise of négociant– winemaking outfits that buy grapes from these dozens of owners and then make, age, bottle, and sell the wine that’s on our tables.
How does this matter to us? Well, even if you know that a specific vineyard is amazing, if the right person doesn’t buy the right mix of grapes from the right part of the plot that go together harmoniously, it may not be worth the money. If the monks had just sold their plots to Chateaux, like in Bordeaux, then you’d know that one place was making wines from good vines year after year. In Burgundy you’ve got to keep your eye on the region, the vineyard, AND the producer/négociant to make sure they know what their doing. Damn Napoleon.
5. The Classification System: We did it in Bordeaux and we’ve got to do it in Burgundy
I told you in the Bordeaux Primer that the French LOVE to rank their wines, but Burgundy’s system is so different from the one in Bordeaux. Where Bordeaux is all about brand (the Chateau) and bling…and somewhat about terroir, Burgundy is all about land — and given what’s laid out above, the fact that this is the focus makes a lot of sense. As discussed, the geologic machinations that took place in this area made it a place for vine growing like no other…a fact that the best vineyards are rewarded for through price and prestige.The vineyards are classified in four main quality levels in Burgundy. There’s an inverse relationship, like everything in the world: as quality goes up, quantity goes down. The levels are:
- Grand Cru Vineyards: The best of the best, there are 33 vineyards that are classified Grand Cru (great growth). This level represents only 2% of the wine made in Burgundy. 32 of the 33 are in the Côte d’Or, the other is in Chablis. The other regions of Burgundy got snubbed and fall to the lower end of the quality pyramid. How do you know if something’s a Grand Cru? The label is required to state that with the vineyard name. How else do you know? It’s ridiculously expensive!
- Premier Cru (Pre-mee-aay Crew) Vineyards: There are about 600 of these, and they vary a ton in quality. Many of them are amazing, and some are good or better than the Grand Cru. These wines make up about 14% of all the wine made and you can always tell that it’s a Premier Cru because it says the village name, “1er Cru” somewhere on the label, and the vineyard name. These can be expensive but you can find a bunch in the $20 – $30 range too. In my opinion, this is the best bang for your buck but, as noted above, you have to study the geography/wine style of the region before you buy to make sure you’ll like the one you’re choosing.
- Village (vill-AHHZHE) Level Wine: Ok, here’s where things can get a little confusing. Like the Premier Cru wines, these wines have the name of the village listed on them. There are 44 village names that are permitted and they are supposed to have distinct characteristics (some do, some don’t to be honest). You can usually tell it’s a Village wine because of the price (much lower than a Premier Cru) and the absence of another vineyard name or the 1er Cru notation. I love buying these wines because they are completely affordable and give me a taste of Burgundy without a bite out of my wallet.
- Regional Wines: This is the most general and the grapes can come from all over Burgundy. You’ll often see AOC Bourgogne as the classification. Macon-Villages is another big one in this category. These wines are affordable and some are good, but I think the négociants lose a lot of the Burgundy style in these wines and they can taste kind of generic. I’m not saying you have to spend a ton, but I would recommend trying to go up a level at least to buy a Village so you can taste the most important thing about Burgundy — differences in terroir.
So there you have it.
I hope I haven’t completely exhausted you with this 101. Burgundy is a subject that I could study for the rest of my life and only still scratch the surface (and I’m not really that old!). I hope it helps you understand and appreciate this complicated but awesome region a little more and encourages you to buy it, rather than fear it!!!
Let me know what you think and what your experiences are with it!
Sources for this post were:
The Oxford Companion to Wine, Third Edition, Jancis Robinson
The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, Fourth Edition, Tom Stevenson
Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, 25th Anniversary Edition
The Wine Doctor’s Burgundy Wine Guide
The Official Burgundy Wines Web Site
Terroir France Web Site
Burgundy & Beyond (for Maps) Web Site