Famous for both its incredible red and whites, Burgundy, like Bordeaux, is up there as one of the top wine regions in the world.
However much other winemakers may try, nowhere on earth can produce Pinot Noir or Chardonnay with such subtle nuances that give these wines such glory and a sense of place.
Have you ever seen ‘Bourgogne’ written on a wine label and wondered what it meant? Well your first step to learning about the region of Burgundy and its wines is that you should be looking out for this word- it is the French word for Burgundy! Yes, France speaks French and they haven’t and won’t change their labels to help us!
But don’t be put off- see Wine Angel’s Dictionary and there are notes here to explain a few French words and definitions and you’ll be away!
Burgundy (Bourgogne) also doesn’t mean just a red wine. Burgundy is a wine region like any other, and produces all different types of wine; full-bodied, strawberry reds, varying whites from complex, full-bodied to crisp, steely and high acid ones. And not forgetting their sparkling wines of course.
Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Gamay are the main grapes grown in Burgundy and here, like nowhere else on earth, wines are expertly produced in such a wide range of styles and different flavours due to the huge variety and affects of terroir.
Yes, the dreaded ‘terroir‘ word, but here in Burgundy, you can literally see its magical concept at work. Remember ‘terroir’ is the French word for the certain je ne sais quoi that makes a wine so special, that it has a sense of place.
Every possible factor such as climate, soil, slope, and many more plus this magic factor, all makes a wine what it is and it is never as evident as here in Burgundy.
Scientists have been trying to explain it for years in this region, but they can’t- the sales of one wine from a particular vineyard next door to another, (both of top quality and made in exactly the same way from the same grapes), can outstrip it ten-fold! Truthfully, that particular wine really is that much better…you can taste it but you can’t explain it; but why try? It’s just so.
Burgundy produces very, very expensive, top quality wines in only minute amounts. This is one of the reasons the price is so high. They produce less than 10% per winemaker compared to those in Bordeaux Premier Cru Chateaux!
But Burgundy also produces some superb regional wines and negociant wines. These are wines produced by merchants who buy in the grapes directly from the growers, make the wine themselves, and sell it under their own name. Like a brand really.
Many growers use brokers to sell their grape nowadays, to attain the best possible price. Some fantastic wines are made from this source (common practice in New World countries) and allow the wines to be easily recognised by the consumer rather than individual producers. This allows us to have a more informed choice and trusting in a ‘brand’. One famous merchant is Louis Latour and his wines frankly speak for themselves in quality!
Burgundy is very different than Bordeaux. No grand chateaux exist for starters! They have harsher winters and hotter summers due to its easterly, inland location and can be badly affected by rain and frosts.
They produce single varietal wines (they don’t blend grape varieties like in Bordeaux) and in a terrifically vast array of styles, due to this terroir influence.
Chardonnay is grown on clay soil, Gamay on granite soil and the temperamental Pinot Noir on limy marl soil. Nowhere in the world can replicate these styles, however hard they try.
Burgundy wine estates are called domains, not chateaux. They consist of tiny stretches of vine dotted in lots of different vineyards, and each vineyard is owned by lots of different people. It sounds complicated but just accept that this is the way it works here and has done for centuries.
It is all due to the French inheritance laws where property and land is passed down and divided equally amongst family (think how difficult it could be to buy a house here?). The ownership is ridiculously diluted- you can have over fifty owners of a single vineyard? They’ll own per grape next! Ha!
This does somewhat confuse us though when we are looking to buy certain Burgundian wines, as we have to know the name of the vineyard AND the producer to know what we are buying! But, only 1% of the total wine produced are Grand Cru wines requiring this type of specific knowledge so don’t be put off! As I said before, many merchants are making our life a lot easier with their ‘branded’ wines so you can get to know these and trust the name of the producer/merchant.
The classifications of wine quality are very different to that of Bordeaux.
Their best wine is Grand Cru. So remember that Prémier Cru means the top ranked wine in Bordeaux, but the second best in Burgundy.
Here in Burgundy, every Grand Cru and Premier Cru has its own AC (Appellation Controleé), its own stamp of approval and requirements to meet. This is unlike Bordeaux, where Chateau names are like brands all from within a particular ‘AC’ commune/area. e.g. Chateau Latour has the AC Pauillac as it is from the Pauillac commune. Burgundy therefore has many, many AC’s, over 600 in fact!
Grand Crus are the best
(Vineyard is named only as they have such a high reputation)
(Village and Vineyard are stated on the label in same size print)
(Village is named but the vineyard is in smaller print as not so relevant)
(Always have the word ‘Bourgogne’ on label e.g. Bourgogne Rouge AC)
Also, to confuse things, a long time ago, mayors of certain villages decided to attach the most famous vineyard of the area to their village name. They actually changed the village name to a double-barrelled one. This was to try and encourage sales of their local wine as people would recognise the name and think it was the same! Cheeky but great marketing. e.g. Nuits-Saint-Georges was once just called the village of Nuits. So beware!
From North to South we will now look at each area of Burgundy, five main districts in all, and their different wines. But believe me, just go there, visit this fabulous region and taste these incredible wines and you’ll then believe in them and the magic of terroir.
Most northerly in Burgundy, is Chablis (pronounce ‘shab-lee’). Only two hours from Paris, this has to be one of my favourite types of wines in the world.
The grape used to produce these steely, crisp, clean and generally un-oaked wines is Chardonnay. Banish any preconceived memories of Chardonnay flavours as this is totally unique, and is the opposite end to the spectrum of the oaky, full-bodied Chardonnays of the New World (Australia, Californian etc).
Here, it is grown on Kimmeridgian clay which has a high proportion of marine fossils/shells in it- this is one of the reasons I think that Chablis is the best wine to drink with oysters! Well…the oysters shells are in its heart?! Ah!
Drink this young or at the other end of the scale, when it is aged. Chablis tends to have a midlife crisis around five years old so stay well clear!
The most famous Chablis vineyards (Grand Cru AC’s) are Les Clos, Les Preuses, Valmur, Vaudésir, Blanchot, Bougros and Grenouilles. You can also try Petit Chablis. This is good quality but less so than Chablis itself and is produced from the vineyards outside of the Chablis boundary, on the outskirts.
Next is the Côte d’Or(pronounced ‘coat-dor’). This really is the heart of Burgundy and the very best wines of the region are made here. The name Côte d’Or literally means the ‘golden hillside’ as the vineyards are flooded with morning sunshine and face eastwards. A beautiful site to see. It is divided into two
- Côte de Nuits (on the right, mainly producing red wines)
- Côte de Beaune (on the left, mainly producing white wines)
The most important villages for wine in these areas are
Côte de Beaune Côte de Nuits
Aloxe-Corton AC Gevrey Chambertin AC
Beaune AC Vougeot AC
Pommard AC Vosne-Romaneé AC
Volnay AC Nuits-Saints-Georges AC
*Here, aged for over a decade with perfect nuances in terroir and shared between these two villages, Le Montrachet Grand Cru is produced in the vineyard of Le Montrachet. This is one of the best and most expensive Chardonnays in the world.
Less expensive than these single village AC’s are the Côte de Nuits Villages AC and Côte de Beaune Villages AC (pronounced ‘vil-arge’). These are an AC in their own right and are a mix of different vineyard’s grapes to produce an atypical style of wine of the area. A must taste!
Also note, Musigny Blanc is the only white wine to be produced in the Côte de Nuits, an otherwise red, Pinot Noir dominated area. It is very rare and therefore very expensive..and very good!
Next we move to the Côte de Chalonnaise. Here, wines are less expensive, good value and good quality as they haven’t got the same reputation as Côte d’Or wines. There is some great finds form here and you must try and look at them if you can e.g. Mercurey AC, Givry AC, Montagny.
Then we move to the Mâcon area. Red and white wines are produced here, but generally the white wines are apple fruited, crisp and medium-bodied- Mâcon AC, Mâcon Villages AC or with a specific village attached.
You get great value for your money here. The most famous wine from the Mâcon is Pouilly-Fuisse AC (pronounced ‘pwee-fwee-say’, not Polly!). This is an oaked, peachy, full-bodied wine. Utterly divine!
Finally Beaujolais..Many believe it is a separate wine region but it is still part of Burgundy, though its wines are totally different!
It’s the furthest southerly part of Burgundy, near Lyon and here the Gamay grape is grown on the different granite based soil.
Beaujolais is a love it or hate it wine, as it is so different. But it really is worth a revisit if you have blurred memories, and just don’t compare it to anything else. Beaujolais is what it is.
Even non-red wine drinkers should enjoy it as it is meant to be served lightly chilled, around 12 degrees centigrade. Very little tannins, cherry fruits, bananas and even bubblegum flavours have been used to describe Beaujolais. It is really interesting to note that half of the wine produced in the whole of Burgundy is Beaujolais and millions of litres are drunk a year! So its popularity speaks for itself.
There are ten top Beaujolais Crus (growths) e.g. Brouilly AC, Moulin-a-vent AC, Fleurie AC, Juliénas AC. These are just a few examples of the ten. They all differ in their flavours and expression of the Gamay grape so you can explore which one you prefer by trial and error.
Beaujolais Villages AC is also good and this is a blend of grapes from the different villages to produce a standard style- so you know what you are going to get!
Once very fashionable in the 1980′s, Beaujolais Nouveau is a different wine to ordinary Beaujolais AC.
It is made to drink young, early and well chilled! It’s only good to drink in its first year of release. It is not released until the third Thursday in November each year. Remember those Beaujolais Nouveau parties to taste the new release??! Now the Americans and Japanese have taken this tradition on and its all the rage- lets revive it in the UK ourselves. Great fun, even if it’s mainly hype!
So, enjoy Burgundy, it’s not as complicated as it seems. And anyway, how can something as enjoyable as discovering wine be complicated? Just get out there, buy some new wines and relish in what this incredible region has to offer!
- Strawberry, soft, gamey reds
- Complex, full-bodied whites to crisp, steely, high acid whites
- Young, fruity, cherry, banana and bubblegum flavoured reds
- Chardonnay (white)
- Pinot Noir
(some merchant and specific vineyard wines have been listed)
- Louis Latour Puligny-Montrachet
- Coche-Dury Meursault
- Le Montrachet
- Romaneé Conti
- Les Musigny
- Chablis(Prémier and Grand Crus)
- Beaujolais (all types)- Louis Jadot is a fine merchant