Ah, Burgundy. The other great wine area in France. Burgundy along with Bordeaux produce some of the finest wines in the world, though it only produces about 25% as much wine as Bordeaux. It’s also a place that many people find intimidating to understand. From the confusing labels, to the négociants, to the confusing property ownership, and the misuse of terms by wineries in other parts of the world, Burgundy is a handful. Today I will try to make it less confusing. Over the next two weeks I will go into more depth of the specific areas. So get ready to learn about Burgundy.
Where to start? Well everyone starts differently when talking about Burgundy. I’ll start with the geography. It’s located in the eastern central part of France. But it’s not a compact and contiguous area like Bordeaux. It has three main areas. Chablis, the area to the south that includes 3 more districts, and then to the far south, Beaujolais. Each of the 3 areas produce different styles of wine. Chablis is purely whites, the middle 3 districts vary in percentages of whites vs. reds, and Beaujolais is almost 100% reds. The heart of Burgundy is made up of 3 districts. They are the Côte d’Or, the Côte Chalonnaise, and the Mâconnais. Within the Côte d’Or you have the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune. Below is are a map of France and a general map of Burgundy:
Maps by Fredrick L. of France
The specific breakdown of whites vs. reds is as follows:
- Chablis is 100% white.
- Mâconnais produces about 90% whites and 10% reds.
- Côte Châlonnaise produces about 45% whites and 55% reds.
- Côte de Beaune produces about 40% whites and 60% reds.
- Côte de Nuits produces about 5% whites and 95% reds.
- Beaujolais produces about 1% whites and 99% reds.
One thing about Burgundy that is not confusing is the grape varietals used in the region. There are 3 main varietals used – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Gamay. A fourth varietal is also used called Aligoté. While it’s the second most planted white varietal in Burgundy, it only has a small amount planted – 13% of Chardonnay. Almost all Burgundian wines are 100% of a specific varietal, though some blending is allowed. And don’t confuse all of this with those bulk wines that just say “Burgundy” or “Chablis.” They are not even close to being the same.
Next let’s talk about the AOCs. Burgundy has 100 AOCs out of a total of 477 in France. That’s a lot. These AOCs are divided into four levels:
- Régional – grapes harvested from anywhere in Burgundy
- Village – the specific village where the grapes are harvested
- Premier Cru – specific plots of land within a village. These plots are also called “climates”
- Grand Cru – The best of the best of the climates.
Within each of these levels there are the following number of AOCs: 23 Régional, 44 Village, 635 Premier Cru, and 33 Grand Cru.
Now to decipher all this on the actual label gets a bit confusing. But the trick is this. The more specific you can get, the better the wine. So if the label is the specific vineyard AND has the words Grand Cru, then it’s a top quality wine. Examples are below:
- Régional – Bourgogne Rouge or Bourgogne Blanc (boor guh nyeh)
- Village – Mâcon Villages
- Premier Cru – Nuits-Saint-Georges Les Vaucrains Premier Cru
- Grand Cru – Musigny Grand Cru
So where are all the Chateaux names? Well, in Burgundy they aren’t called Chateau. Domaine is the the term used instead. However, not every label will use the word Domaine. And these Domaine could literally have 80+ individually owners. One owner for each row of vines.
Huh? Blame the French Revolution. Back in the day or 1789, the French nobility and Catholic churched owed much of the land in Burgundy. As opposed to Bordeaux who had a lot of English ties that also included not being Catholic. In addition to that, many of the estates there were owned by the bourgeoise rather than the aristocracy. Burgundy’s proximity to Paris also didn’t help during the uprising. Once the Revolution was over, the vineyards in Burgundy were divided up among the people who lived there. To further complicate matters, the Napoleonic Code requires land to be divided equally among the heirs. So you can see how over a 200 year period these properties can have multiple owners.
At this point we will talk about the Négociant. This is really who sells the wine. While the importance of the négociant is less than is used to be, they are still the big players. What is a négociant? This is the person or company who buys everything from the actual grapes to the finished wine and is responsible for selling it. Most of the time, they are the ones who actually make the wine. They may combine grapes from different vineyards, or from within the same vineyard from all those different owners to produce the wine. And despite the problem of Napoleonic Code, many of these négociants are the actual owners of vineyards. So instead of seeing a Domaine’s name on a label, you will very likely see the name of the négociant instead, like Loius Jadot. Below are some of the better producers:
- Louis Jadot
- Louis Latour
- Bouchard Pere & Fils
- Chartron et Trébuchet
How about the terroir that was so important in Bordeaux. In Burgundy it’s very imporant. In general, Burgundy’s soil is mainly limestone and clay. This works well for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. When you go farther south to Beaujolais, the soil is mostly granite but also has clay and sand. This works very well for Gamay. However, the soil varies quite a bit throughout the area. It can vary even within each vineyard. The climate here is considered to be continental. That means the summers are warm and the winters are cold. When we go into each area, I’ll go into more detail about the terroir.
But realize that many of these wines are created by the négociants. Grapes or juice can come from many different plots of land, and it’s really their winemaking skill rather than getting all the grapes from one plot of land with a specific terroir. Also, these wines are almost always single varietal. One of the big parts of a Bordeaux wine is the blend of varietals. Here, it’s the blend of the same varietal from different parts of the area.
This pretty much wraps up the Burgundy introduction. Next week and the week after we will describe the specific areas within Burgundy. I hope this was informative for you. Thanks for stopping in.
Mark V. Fusco
Aspiring Sommelier in Training