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Burgundy: a primer

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Sunday sessions take two, and this time around we’re rolling into Monday (a public holiday in NSW at least) and I’ve decided to take a look at what is probably my favourite wine growing region in the entire world: Burgundy.

The entire idea for this article had its genesis in a conversation in the cellar door whereby a customer was annoyed with the whole  concept of French wine and, more precisely, French wine labelling.

To this person, the whole notion of not putting a variety on a label was such an anomaly that attempting to understand French labels was an exercise in futility. I didn’t ask how they managed the maze of Italian, Spanish, German, et al, wines and wine labels but I can readily guess the answer.

To me, these wine labels are easy. Understand the region and you understand the wine. It may seem a little counter-productive to the New World experience but when you think about it, it makes perfect sense.

Consider: what comes to mind when you think of the Barossa Valley? Shiraz, right? What about the Clare Valley? I’d suggest Riesling. Mornington – Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Hunter Valley – Shiraz and Semillon. The list goes on.

If I labelled the wines we produced as ‘Hunter Valley Red’ and ‘Hunter Valley White’ there’s a better than even chance that you’d think they were Shiraz and Semillon wines respectively. The same is true in French wines and French wine labels.

There’s a lot to be said for regional heroes. There’s nothing stopping a wine producer in Burgundy growing Tempranillo, for example, other than that those wines would be required to be labelled as Vin de France (completely excusing the fact that such an example is likely never going to happen) and not Bourgogne, because Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (along with Gamay and, to a lesser extent, Aligoté towards the south) are the regional heroes of Burgundy.

So let’s look a little deeper into Burgundy, and hopefully remove some of the mystique.

Firstly, the hierarchy. 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 (as mentioned above, sometimes the reds are 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 is knowing the geography in conjunction with the appellation rules.

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 – Côtes de Nuits in the north and the Côtes 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. 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.

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 suffice to say, 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 geek like me.

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 it should be stated.

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.

Next time, we’ll continue to explore France and head a little further south into a region that has quickly become a firm favourite of mine – the Northern Rhône.

* Some of the information in this article comes from the WSET Level 3 Award in Wines text book, ‘Understanding wines: Explaining style and quality’. If you are interested in pursuing further wine education, I cannot recommend the WSET enough. They have courses delivered all across the globe, visit www.wsetglobal.com for details and to find an education provider.

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