Simplifying Burgundy

Unpretentious, rustic and comfortably affluent, Burgundy consists of 50-plus villages and 100-plus appellations. From the minerally laced Chablis at the far north to the freshly crushed strawberry flavors of Beaujolais at the southern end, Burgundy is one of the most fascinatingly different wine growing regions.

You could say its diversity comes from its vast expanse of land, stretching over 200 miles from north to south, while only a few hundred yards wide at some parts. It’s also where the first vineyard designated wines were made. Think about how many times you have bought a bottle that listed the individual vineyard the grapes came from. Kudos to the Benedictine and Cistercian monks who began analyzing and dividing individual Burgundian vineyards back in the 11th century.

Unlike Bordeaux, there is NO varietal blending in Burgundy. It’s a crime that not only can land you in jail with hefty fines but tarnish a family’s hard earned reputation. It is here that a family’s vineyard inheritance is more desirable than a fiscally liquid option. Vineyards are passed down from father to son or father to daughter in some cases. As much as Burgundy is a family operation there are some big players called negociants who buy wine from various families to blend together to produce under their own label. Just to clarify, this blending is only Pinot with Pinot and Chardonnay with Chardonnay from within the same appellation, so it’s entirely legal. You will probably recognize most of them: Jadot, Latour, Joseph Drouhin and Bouchard Pere et Fils.

Classic Pinot Noir/Burgundy stemware

There are three main grapes grown in Burgundy: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Gamay. Yet there are five main growing regions: Chablis, Cote d’Or, Cote Chalonnaise, Maconnais and Beaujolais. Chardonnay is the sole grape grown in Chablis. The wines produced there are pure & focused, sporting flavors of tart apple and citrus. Here they almost always use stainless steel or cement vat fermentation and aging instead of oak. Hence if you love the buttery, rich, oaky taste of Chardonnay these wines are not for you.The Cote d’Or can be divided into two regions, the Cote de Nuits in the north (Pinot Noir country), and the Cote de Beaune in the south, where both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are grown. These two regions are the heart and soul of Burgundy. Home to almost all of the best wines in the area, they can leave you speechless and awestruck. Be prepared to shell out at least $25 for a decent wine and don’t be surprised to find $50 – $75 bottles from the same vintage and village but from a different producer.

Both the Cote Chalonnaise and the Maconnais are regions where value is to be found. It’s just slightly south of the Cote d’Or, and both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are subject to the same growing conditions and held to the same standards there. All the way to the south is Beaujolais, the fruity, forward quaffer that can be so delicious, just slightly chilled on a hot summer day. Made from the Gamay grape, it is a wine best enjoyed in its youth; unless made from one of the top ten crus.

Labeling in Burgundy is a little different from Bordeaux. The producer’s name is usually at the bottom of the label in smaller font while the appellation or commune and/or vineyard takes the focus in the center of the label. This is because each village and vineyard within the Cote de Nuits, Cote de Beaune, Cote Chalonnaise & Maconnais are known for different styles of wine and I will be doing an article on each of those areas in the future.

For starters, the best way to understand the wine hierarchy in Burgundy is to picture a triangle. Vineyards are ranked according to the quality of wine that they have produced over time. The best are known as grand cru of which there are around 40; they are at the top of the triangle. Just below them are premier cru vineyards (around 500), followed by village level wines ( i.e. Pommard, Volnay, Chassagne-Montrachet, Nuits St. George, Vosne-Romanee, Meursault, Gevrey-Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny), and at the bottom are the basic Borgogne Rouge (red) and Borgogne Blanc (white).

Generally speaking, wines of the highest price, smallest production and best quality are at the top of the triangle, while value priced wines with a larger production are at the bottom.

Unfortunately there can be a lot of variation in Burgundian wines from within the same appellation, even vineyard. Some individual vineyards are divided amongst many growers. Some of those growers may produce their own wine, some may sell to another grower, while others may opt to sell to a negociant. I don’t know every producer’s business but there is one dead giveaway to determine the basics. Any producer whose name is prefaced by ‘Domaine’ is the proud owner of an estate produced wine. Meaning all the grapes are grown by the person producing the wine. None of the grapes were purchased from someone else. Having autonomous control of the vineyard allows the grower/producer to better control, yields, sun exposure & overall grape quality.

Three stellar vintages to look for in Burgundy are the 2002, a very classic vintage for both red and white. The super ripe 2003 vintage produced some profound reds due to the extreme heat. Be leery of the 2003 whites though, some are lacking the vivacity and freshness that white burgundy is known for. Yet to be seen is the 2005 vintage which is being touted as the best of 2002 and 2003. If you have money to buy futures of these wines, DO IT! Your palate won’t regret it, although your wallet or significant other might.

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  • The Wine Guy June 18, 2007, 11:10 am

    Great job with the visual aids Jimbo!