Burgundy

Climate

Burgundy experiences a continental climate characterized by very cold winters and hot summers, yet relies upon the slate soils to collect the midday heat as evenings can become quite cool. 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. A good rule of thumb is to go with less known producer/village in a good to great vintage (as everyone will do well enough) and stick to the top names in an off year.

Wine characteristics and classification

Burgundyis 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 four prominent regions North to South are: Chablis, Cote d' Nuits, Cote d" Beaune, and Beaujolais.

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 Cruwines 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 - e.g. "Volnay 1er Cru" as the appellation, and then the name of the individual vineyard (e.g. "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, e.g. "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 BourgognePassetoutgrains(which can contain up to two thirds Gamay(the grape of Beaujolais) in addition to Pinot noir), and Bourgogne Aligoté. 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. Chablis wines are labeled using a similar hierarchy of Grand Cru, Premier Cru and Village wines, whereas wines from Beaujolais only have the 10 Cru staus wines or regional.

Production

Burgundy vineyards make up some 60,000 acres 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.

Grape Varieties

For the white grapes, Chardonnay is the most common. A secondary grape is Aligoté which is lower cost and higher in acidity; this is a very aggressive grape and is grown in small quantities. Aligoté from Burgundy is the wine traditionally used for the Kir drink, where it is mixed with blackcurrant liqueur. 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.

History

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.

Burgundy 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 this century. 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.

Expensive reputation

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 Leflaiveand 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 Janice Robinson emphasizes that "price is an extremely unreliable guide". While Grand Crus often command steep prices, village level wines from top producers can be found at quite reasonable prices.

It has been pointed out that there are no shortcuts to understanding the region of Burgundy.... If you want to become a Burgundy expert, be prepared to memorize 1,000 names, take a course in French pronunciation and expect to get lost in a maze of appellations (officially delineated wine zones). In addition, get ready to part with a good chunk of change—Burgundy wines are expensive. It is like buying designer wine, you pay for the name. And the smaller the appellation within burgundy, the rarer the wine and the higher the cost.