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Fine Wine Guide to Burgundy

Fine Wine Guide to Burgundy

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A village in Burgundy, France.

For any aspiring wine connoisseur, Burgundy is an important region to know about. Out of all 11 wine-producing regions in France, Burgundy isn’t the biggest, but it certainly has a huge influence. Burgundy, or Bourgogne, is famous for producing some of the most expensive wines in the world; of the top 50 highest-priced bottles, Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from the Burgundy region hold an impressive 32 spots. These are the main grape varieties used in Burgundy, although Aligote, Pinot Gris, Gamay, and even a rare Sauvignon Blanc can be found. 

Luckily for us, there are plenty of options in this wine region even if you don’t have $10,000 to spare. Armed with a little knowledge about Burgundy and it’s wines, anyone can find a delicious and affordable bottle, whether you’re visiting France or just your local wine shop. Unlike Portuguese Green Wine, Burgundy has been a well-known and very popular wine for decades. However, its reputation as an expensive wine can easily put-off any wine enthusiasts on a lesser budget. However, we’re here to tell you everything you need to know to enjoy and love Burgundy wine, no matter the contents of your wallet. Read on to discover the rich history and exciting present of this delicious wine. 

 

Some yellow grapes on a vine.
Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the main grapes grown in Burgundy.

 

Some background on Burgundy in comparison to Bordeaux

One charming aspect of Burgundy wine is the influence of the grower. Take a look at Bordeaux wine, where production is handled by many different people or one large corporation. Conversely, Burgundy wine domains operate like small family farms, so the wine is much more characterful and distinctive. In Burgundy, you’ll notice a change in taste when children take over their parents’ vineyards, and this gives Burgundy wine such a unique flavor. 

Bordeaux wine is more reliable in quality and taste, as it’s production is more rigid. Most Bordeaux wine will have been influenced by owners, consultants, winemakers, and viticulturalists, whereas in Burgundy almost all decisions come down to the grower. Although there’s more of a risk in this technique, as the wine reflects the individual taste of only one person, making it highly changeable, it’s also what allows for such excellent and singular wines to be produced in Burgundy. 

 

History of Burgundy

It would be remiss not to include a small history lesson in our fine wine guide to Burgundy, so you have a more complete understanding of where this wine comes from. Millions of years ago, Burgundy was underwater, this part of France still covered by the ocean. This created its limestone and marl (clay) soils, which causes the distinctive minerality in Burgundy wines. Winemaking has been a part of life in Burgundy for eons, with the Romans and the Celts before them believed to produce wine in the area all the way back to 50 BC.

Following the fall of the Roman Empire, Catholic monks became the primary winemakers in Burgundy. By the 11th century, Cistercian months had elevated Burgundian winemaking to a whole new level. Not only did they tirelessly cultivate the rocky slopes where they grew grapevines, but they also began keeping detailed records of all their winemaking. This included developing the term “terroir”, an incredibly important element in Burgundy wine. 

Terroir is a term used to describe the taste, aroma, and overall character of the wine that originated from the environment where it was produced. It includes the grapes, soil, climate, vineyard placement, and even human touch, which all affect the end result. Terroir is incredibly important in Burgundy wine, as it doesn’t only describe the wines origin, rather the overall experience. 

As well as intellectualizing the Burgundian winemaking process, the Cistercian monks also created the very first enclosed vineyard in the region. This vineyard, Clos Vougeot, has been producing wine since 1336 and continues to do so to this day. Into the 14th and 15th centuries in Burgundy, Dukes ruled the region and its wines. Pinot Noir was so popular that Gamay grapes were actually outlawed, along with manure fertilization. This fertilization increased the yield of grapevines but diluted their flavors, so the rule contributed to the quality over quantity mindset that the Burgundy region still holds. 

Later in the 15th century, Burgundy became a part of the French monarchy and was subjected to the country’s laws. One such law required inheritance to be split equally among children, leading to many divisions of the land. The French Revolution meant winemaking land had been confiscated from the church and sold off. Therefore, a few hundred years down the line, chateaus in Burgundy are split between many owners and growers. 

 

A woman looking at a vineyard.
A wine-producing chateau can be split between numerous owners.

 

Where is the Burgundy region?

Burgundy wine comes from central-eastern France, where the region is split into 5 primary sub-regions or wine-growing areas. There’s Chablis, Cote de Nuits, Cote de Beaune, Cote Chalonnaise, and Maconnais. Beaujolais and Chatillonnais also produce wine within Burgundy, however, these five are the most important. Burgundy is about two hours from the capital of Paris, 93 miles long, and makes up only 3% of all wine produced in France. 

 

Chablis

Chablis is the furthest north sub-region in Burgundy, where the river Serein flows. This river dictates much of the area’s climate, which is similar to the famous Champagne region. Here, the winters are cold and harsh, while the summers hot. Like in Champagne, the dominant soil is “Kimmeridgian”, which helps the grapes ripen and gives the wines a pure and crisp taste. All wines in Chablis are made using Chardonnay grapes, and they’re all white wines. There are two AOC classifications in Chablis, divided by the Serein River, but we’ll explain all this later in the article. Chablis is the region of Burgundy closest to Paris. 

 

Cote de Nuits

Cote de Nuits is where some of Burgundy’s famously expensive wine originates, particularly Pinot Noir. There are 24 Grand Cru vineyards here, just south of Dijon. 80% of the wine produced in Cote de Nuits is Pinot Noir, with the remaining made up of Chardonnay and Rose. This region is Burgundy’s epicenter of red wine, arguably some of the finest in the world. This tiny 12-mile sliver of land produces excellent bottles of Pinot Noir, some aged for decades, and you can expect a price tag of thousands to go along with it. 

The Grand Cru vineyards cover the eastern slopes in Cote de Nuits, facing the valley of the Saone River. Here, wines are highly refined and pricey too, but there are options for a smaller budget. Equally delicious village wines from Cote de Nuits are available from the Premier Cru category at more affordable prices. These Burgundy’s are still classic Pinot Noir; full-bodied with fruity notes as well as earthy mushroom and spice. 

 

Cote de Beaune

Cote de Beaune is another tiny 12-mile section of land that produces impressive and tasty wines. The valleys of this area are open and rolling, meaning more sun exposure for grape ripening. An impressive 7 out of a total 8 white wine Grand Crus find their home in Cote de Beaune, with famous names like Corton, Corton Charlemange and Montrachet producing fantastic Chardonnay. 

Aside from Grand Cru, there’s some choice of more affordable Premier Cru and Core de Beaune Village wines. These white are floral and aromatic, with flavors of fresh apple and pear, grasses, and sometimes hazelnut. This region also produces a few great red wines as well, featuring plum and white tobacco alongside Burgundy’s signature minerality. 

 

A field during sunset.
The rolling hills of Cote de Beaune receive plenty of sunlight to ripen their grapes.

 

Maconnais

Maconnais is the southernmost and largest sub-region of Burgundy. Historically, Maconnais is an unlucky area, falling victim to misfortune during wars and worldwide depression. Many local growers sold their grapes to larger co-operatives, changing tastes and leading to a drop in wine consumption. Once growers realized this, the wines began to improve and standards were raised. Many younger growers decided to produce their own wines after inheriting family vineyards. 

In Maconnais, grape varieties are mostly Chardonnay, with a little Gamay. The climate is warmer than the rest of Burgundy, for example, harvest begins a full two weeks sooner than further north in Chablis. The region was only classified in 1999, but wine has been produced here for hundreds of years. Chardonnays from Maconnais are well-structured, with aromas of honeysuckle, citrus peel, and ripe stone fruits. White Burgundy from this region is soft, fruity, and fresh. 

 

Cote Chalonnaise

There are no Grand Cru vineyards in Cote Chalonnaise, as ruling Dukes back when classifications were being made preferred their vineyards closer to home, near Dijon. However, the Dukes missed out, as the hills of Cote Chalonnaise produce some superb, and now, more affordable wines. The Cote Chalonnaise region produces both white and red Burgundy wine, mainly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with some Aligote grape varieties making their way in. 

The village of Bouzeron is the only one producing exclusively white Aligote grape wine, which is a delicious summer drink. White Burgundy made using Aligote is citrusy and floral, great for pairing with shellfish and other seafood. Rully, another village within Cote Chalonnaise, creates sparkling white and rose. These wines are made using the traditional method, the same as Champagne, and given the two regions’ similarities and proximity, it’s no wonder Rully’s wines are so good. 

Burgundy wines from Cote Chalonnaise are a fantastic choice for value, as their unique position offers top-class wines at lesser prices. Chardonnays are smooth with subtle oak influences and ripe tree fruits in this region, and Pinot Noirs are fruity and earthy, with suede-like tannins. There are over 13 types of soil in just one small area of Cote Chalonnaise, and we see individual character and variation between winemakers because of these differences. 

 

Grape varieties in Burgundy

Burgundian wine is made primarily with either Pinot Noir or Chardonnay grapes, however, there are a few other varieties that grow in the region. Burgundy is the original home of the famous Pinot Noir, which accounts for 29% of overall wine production. Interestingly, 34% of grapevines in the region are Pinot Noir, meaning the yield of these grapes is lesser than other varieties.

Pinot Noir is a red grape that grows well in the mineral soil of Burgundy, helping to create the complex flavors we love in red Burgundy. They range in hue from cherry to brick red, light in body and usually with flavors of spice and red fruit. The other red grape of note grown in Burgundy is Gamay, but this grape only makes up about 10% of vines. 

When it comes to white Burgundy, Chardonnay has no match. 48% of vines within the Burgundy region are Chardonnay grapes, and they make up a huge 68% of all wine production. Chardonnay grows well in Burgundy’s soil, developing floral and fruity aromas, and giving the minerality and full-bodied flavor that we love in a white Burgundy. Aligote is another white grape grown in the area, but only accounts for 6% of total vines. 

Burgundy also produces a sparkling wine, called Cremant de Bourgogne. This wine can be made from several grapes including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Aligote, Gamay and more. Varieties of Cremant de Bourgogne include blanc, blanc de blanc, blanc de noirs, and rose. 

 

A bunch of oak barrels.
As well as the grape variety, production method and aging process all have a huge impact on the end taste of the wine.

 

Burgundy wine classification

When selecting a French wine, it’s of utmost importance that you read and understand the label. Here you’ll find all the usual details such as producer, vintage, and best before date, but there’s also wine classifications which will inform you of the quality. There are over 100 appellations in Burgundy (or wine-growing areas), and they’re divided into 4 different levels of quality. In Burgundy, wine is classified according to the land it is grown on, rather than the producer. Although this leads to a more accurate classification regarding the lands where the grapes are grown, it can cause some difficulties as well.

Because land in Burgundy was divided so many times, some vineyards can have numerous owners as we mentioned before. This means that if two producers grow in the same vineyard, their classification is the same, no matter the differences in production and taste. This means when it comes to selecting a Burgundy, you have to pay attention to the producer’s name as well as the vineyard. 

Grand Cru is the top classification, translating to “great growth”. Grand Crus from Burgundy are extremely fine wines which make up only 1% of production. There are 33 Grand Cru appellations in the Cote d’Or (Cote de Nuits and Cote de Beaune), and about 60% of all their production is incredibly fine Pinot Noir. One Grand Cru from Burgundy is Le Chambertin, which has 21 different producers even though it all originates from a single appellation.

This outlines the flaw in Burgundy’s classification system; although certain producers in Le Chambertin certainly deserve the Grand Cru label, others might not, but are still awarded the classification because of their location. Grand Crus are powerful and complex wine, made to be treasured and aged in your cellar. These Burgundy wines are the very best Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs in the world, and you can expect a price tag to match. 

One out of every ten Burgundy wines is classed as Premier Cru, the second wine classification in the region. There are 640 Premier Cru plots (or climates) in Burgundy, which produce Premier Cru red and white Burgundy wines. Premier Cru vineyards generally have a special something that sets them apart from other wines produced in the area, such as more morning sun, or a longer oak-aging. Whatever the reason, you can expect a delicious wine, more affordable than Grand Cru but tastier than village wines. Premier Cru Burgundy is an ideal dinner wine, perfect for accompanying some delicious French cuisine. 

Village wines (37%) and regional wines (52%) form the bulk of all wine produced in Burgundy. There are 44 villages that produce wines named after them, including Chablis and Macon-Villages. You can expect a Village Burgundy to be fresh and fruity, with a little complexity. Regional wines such as Cremant de Bourgogne and Bourgogne Rouge include just about everything else from the overarching Bourgogne appellations. Regionally classified wines can be made from grapes grown anywhere in Burgundy, and lean towards fresh, light, and lively flavors. A regional Burgundy is ideal for sipping, or as an aperitif, and is available as a white or red wine. 

The complication when it comes to Burgundy village wines is that a tradition developed where villages decided to take on the name of their most successful vineyard. This meant the village of Gevery, there Le Chambertin is produced, became Gevery-Chambertin. Although Le Chambertin is a Grand Cru wine, Gevery-Chambertin is classed only as a village wine. This is why it’s so important to read the label and not just the name, or you may end up with a village “Chambertin” instead of a top-class fine wine. 

 

At the end of the day, there’s nothing better than enjoying French chateaus and Burgundy wines.

 

Final Verdict:

The Burgundy wine region arguably produces some of the best wines in the world. Delicious Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are what the area is known for, with some of the absolute best, as well as the most expensive bottles originating here. The wines of Burgundy are world-famous, and rightly so, as Grand Cru and Premier Cru wines offer complex and full-bodied flavors to be savored and enjoyed. 

More affordable Village and Regional Burgundy is equally enjoyable, and with Burgundy wine, you can find a fantastic bargain. Certain Premier Cru Burgundy wines are grown right next to their village counterparts, so you can taste the area without spending a fortune. There are so many great wines produced in this area of France, so it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re a wine lover! 

 

Bonus tip: Watch this video to find out how to tell the quality of Burgundy wine!

 

 

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