Burgundy wine (French: Bourgogne) is wine made in the Burgundy AOC region of France. Most wine produced here is either red wine made from Pinot Noir grapes or white wine made from Chardonnay grapes, although red and white wines are also made from other grape varieties, such as Gamay and Aligoté respectively. Small amounts of rose and sparkling wine are also produced.
Geography and climate
The appellations of Burgundy (not including Chablis)The Burgundy region runs from Auxerre in the north down to Mâcon in the south, or down to Lyon if the Beaujolais area is included as part of Burgundy. Chablis, a white wine made from Chardonnay grapes, is produced in the area around Auxerre. Other smaller appellations near to Chablis include the Irancy AOC, which produces red wines.
Some way south of Chablis is the Côte d’Or, where Burgundy’s most famous and most expensive wines are found. The Côte d’Or itself is split into two parts: the Côte de Nuits which starts just south of Dijon and runs till Corgoloin, a few kilometers south of the town of Nuits-Saint-Georges, and the Côte de Beaune which starts at Ladoix and ends at Dezize-les-Maranges. The wine-growing part of this area in the heart of Burgundy is just 40km long, and in most places less than 2km wide. The area is made up of tiny villages surrounded by a combination of flat and sloped vineyards. The best wines - “Grand Cru” - from this region are usually grown from the middle and higher part of the slopes, where the vineyards have the most exposure to sunshine and the best drainage, while the “Premier Cru” come from a little less favourably exposed slopes. The relatively ordinary “Village” wines are produced from the flat territory nearer the villages. The Côte de Nuits contains 24 out of the 25 red Grand Cru appellations in Burgundy, while all of the region’s white Grand Crus are located in the Côte de Beaune.
Further south is the Côte Chalonnaise, where again a mix of mostly red and white wines are produced, although the appellations found here such as Mercurey, Rully and Givry are less well known than their counterparts in the Côte d’Or.
Below the Côte Chalonnaise is the Mâconnais region, known for producing large quantities of easy-drinking and more affordable white wine. Further south again is the Beaujolais region, famous for fruity red wines made from Gamay.
Burgundy experiences a continental climate characterized by very cold winters and hot summers. The weather is very unpredictable with rains, hail, and frost all possible around harvest time. Because of this climate, there is a lot of variation between vintages from Burgundy.
Harvest time in the Chablis Premier Cru of Fourchaume.From about the year 900 up to the French Revolution, the vineyards of Burgundy were owned by the Church. After the revolution, the vineyards were broken up and sold to the workers who had tended them. The Napoleonic inheritance laws resulted in the continued subdivision of the most precious vineyard holdings, so that some growers hold only a row or two of vines. This led to the emergence of négociants who aggregate the produce of many growers to produce a single wine. It has also led to a profusion of increasingly small family-owned wineries, exemplified by the dozen plus “Gros” family domaines.
Burgundy wine has experienced much change over the past seventy-five years. Economic depression during the 1930s was followed by the devastation caused by World War II. After the War, the vignerons returned home to their unkempt vineyards. The soils and vines had suffered and were sorely in need of nurturing. The growers began to fertilize, bringing their vineyards back to health. Those who could afford it added potassium, a silver-white metallic chemical element that contributes to vigorous growth. By the mid-1950s, the soils were balanced, yields were reasonably low and the vineyards produced some of the most stunning wines in the 20th century.
Understandably, the farmers had no inclination to fix what wasn’t broken. So for the next 30 years, they followed the advice of renowned viticultural experts, who advised them to keep spraying their vineyards with chemical fertilizers, including potassium. While a certain amount of potassium is natural in the soil and good for healthy growth, too much is bad because it leads to low acidity levels, which adversely affect the quality of the wine.
As the concentration of chemicals in the soil increased, so did the yields. In the past 30 years, yields have risen by two-thirds in the appellations contrôlées vineyards of the Côte d’Or, from 29 hectoliters per hectare (yearly average from 1951 to 1960) to almost 48 hectoliters per hectare (1982-91), according to a study by the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine. With higher yields came wines of less flavor and concentration.
The Burgundians pushed their vineyards. They fertilized them, sprayed them and replanted them with high-yield clones to increase crop levels. Like overfishing that can leave a lake practically sterile, overworking the soil sapped it of its natural balance. Soils that had contributed to Burgundy’s reputation for a millennium became depleted by overdependence on chemicals and other modern techniques in just 30 years.
The period between 1985 and 1995 was a turning point in Burgundy. During this time many Burgundian domaines renewed efforts in the vineyards and gradually set a new course in winemaking. All this led to deeper, more complex wines. Today, the Burgundy wine industry is reaping the rewards of those impressive efforts.
Wine characteristics and classification
2 bottles of Red Burgundy from Gevrey-Chambertin, Côte de Nuits.Burgundy is in some ways the most terroir-oriented region in France; immense attention is paid to the area of origin, and in which of the region’s 400 types of soil a wine’s grapes are grown. As opposed to Bordeaux, where classifications are producer-driven and awarded to individual chateaux, Burgundy classifications are geographically-focused. A specific vineyard or region will bear a given classification, regardless of the wine’s producer. This focus is reflected on the wine’s labels where appellations are most prominent and producer’s names often appear at the bottom in much smaller text.
The main Burgundy classifications, in descending order of quality, are: Grand crus, Premier crus, Commune or Village, and finally generic Bourgogne.
Grand Cru refers to wines produced from the small number of the best vineyard sites in the Cote d’Or. Grand Cru wines make up 2% of the production at 35 hectoliters/hectare. These wines need to be aged a minimum of 5-7 years and the best examples can be kept for more than 15 years. Very few Chardonnays or Pinot Noirs in the world can be aged and continue to improve as well as these wines. Grand Cru wines will only list the name of the vineyard as the appellation - such as Corton or Montrachet - on the wine label.
Premier Cru wines are produced from specific vineyard sites that are still considered to be of high quality, but not as well regarded as the Grand Cru sites. Premier Cru wines make up 12% of production at 45 hectoliters/hectare. These wines need to be aged 3-5 years, and again the best wines can keep for much longer. Premier Cru wines will usually list both the name of the village of origin - together with the status of the vineyard - eg “Volnay 1er Cru” as the appellation, and then the name of the individual vineyard (eg “Les Caillerets”) on the wine label.
Village wines can be a blend of wines from supposedly lesser vineyard sites within the boundaries of an individual village, or from one individual but non-classified vineyard. Wines from each different village are considered to have their own specific qualities and characteristics. Village wines make up 36% of production at 50 hectoliters/hectare. These wines can be consumed 2-4 years after the release date, although again some examples will keep for longer. Village wines will show the village name on the wine label, eg “Pommard”, and sometimes - if applicable - the name of the single vineyard where it was sourced. Several villages in Burgundy have appended the names of their Grand Cru vineyards to the original village name - hence “Puligny-Montrachet” and “Aloxe-Corton”.
The AOC Bourgogne classification refers to wines that can be sourced or blended from anywhere in the Burgundy region. These wines make up the rest of production at 55 hectoliters/hectare. These wines can be consumed up to 3 years after the vintage date. Appellations between generic “Bourgogne” and individual Village wines are also found, such as “Macon-Villages” or “Cote de Beaune-Villages”, where the wines can come from a wide but defined area which will include several individual villages.
Other Burgundy AOCs that are not as often seen are Bourgogne Passe-Tout-Grains AOC (which can contain up to two thirds Gamay (the grape of Beaujolais) in addition to Pinot noir), Bourgogne Aligoté (which is primarily made with the Aligoté grape), and Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire. The latter is the lowest AOC, and Grand is intended to refer to the size of the area eligible to produce it, not its quality. There are certain regions that are allowed to put other grapes in miscellaneous AOCs, but for the most part these rules hold. These regulations are even confusing to the majority of French adults, according to research (Franson). Sparkling wine is also produced, as Crémant de Bourgogne. Chablis wines are labeled using a similar hierarchy of Grand Cru, Premier Cru and Village wines, whereas wines from Beaujolais are treated differently again.
In total, there are around 150 separate AOCs in Burgundy, including those of Chablis and Beaujolais. While an impressive number, it does not include the several hundred named vineyards at the Village and Premier Cru level which may be displayed on the label, since at the Village and Premier Cru level, there is only one set of appellation rules per village. The total number of vineyard-differentiated AOCs that may be displayed is well in excess of 500.
One of the main wineries that produces Crémant de BourgogneBurgundy vineyards make up some 60,000 acres (240 km²) of production. Generally, the small wine growers sell their grapes to larger producers called negociants who blend and bottle the wine. The roughly 115 negociants who produce the majority of the wine only control around 8% of the area. Individual growers have around 67% of the area, but produce only around 25% of the wine. Some small wineries produce only 100-200 cases/year while many producers make a few thousand cases/year. Grower/producer made wines can be identified by the terms Mis en bouteille au domaine, Mis au domaine, or Mis en bouteille à la propriété. The largest producer is Maison Louis Latour in Beaune with 350,000 cases/year. The negociants may use the term Mis en bouteille dans nos caves (bottled in our cellars), but are not entitled to use the estate bottled designation of the grower/producers.
For the white grapes, Chardonnay is the most common. Another grape found in the region is Aligoté, which mostly produces cheaper wines which are higher in acidity. Aligoté from Burgundy is the wine traditionally used for the Kir drink, where it is mixed with blackcurrant liqueur. Sauvignon Blanc is also grown in the Saint Brix apellation. Chablis, Macon wines and the Cote d’Or whites are all produced from 100% Chardonnay grapes.
For the red grapes, all production in the Cote d’Or is focused on the Pinot noir grape while the Gamay grape is grown in Beaujolais. In the Cote de Nuits region, 90% of the production is red grapes.
Burgundy is home to some of the most expensive wines in the world, including those of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Domaine Leroy, Henri Jayer, Emmanuel Rouget, Domaine Dugat-Py, Domaine Leflaive and Domaine Armand Rousseau. However, some top vintage first growth Bordeaux wines and a few iconic wines from the New World are more expensive than some grand cru class Burgundy.
The British wine critic Jancis Robinson emphasizes that “price is an extremely unreliable guide” and that “what a wine sells for often has more to do with advertising hype and marketing decisions than the quality contained in the bottle.” While Grand Crus often command steep prices, village level wines from top producers can be found at quite reasonable prices.