The land of milk and Chardonnay
Burgundy; an onomatopoeia? There’s something hungry about the word. The sound of the bullock in the field; the slamming of the oven door; the swallowing of the trencherman. Naturally, a land of such gastronomic riches requires a superlative wine to wash it all down, and in those rare few glasses when the stars all align – a good vineyard, good grower, good producer, good year – a bottle of Burgundy is surely as superlative as any wine can get.
If Bordeaux is the front of house, Burgundy is the kitchen. Instead of the great estates and Chateau, Burgundian domaines are smaller, humbler affairs, owned and run by an ancient breed of farmer-winemaker, or, in native parlance, vignerons. The land is old, and so are its traditions. A refusal to indulge in the sweeping (and often modernising) mercantilism of many of Frances other wine regions has left Burgundy as something of a fossil. Things are largely as they used to be. Vineyards are rarely owned by one, single proprietor, but are farmed by many. One domaine may own a strip here, a few rows there, and a hectare somewhere down the road. This fragmentation, along with the nearly 100 appellations to be found across the region, each comprised of plots of land registered with different ‘quality’ laws and levels, combine to make Burgundy a complex entity to wrap one’s head around. This article will attempt to navigate the curious drinker southwards from Chablis to Macon, assessing the various appellations of the region – their grapes, their stylistic nuances, and the vineyards to look out for.
But first, a few explanations. Burgundian wine classification can be confusing, but the system is centred around a basic vineyard ranking system. The top vineyard sites are known as Grand Cru. These generally occupy the prime spots on the upper slopes of the hillsides, situated with the best south-eastern aspects and with distinctive soil composition. Wines of Grand Cru status are allowed to solely place the vineyard name on the bottle label, be it Corton, La Tache or Montrachet.
Premier Cru is the next rung down. These wines may use their vineyard name, but must precede it with the name of the commune at large. An example would be, for instance, ‘Gevrey-Chambertin’ (the commune) ‘Clos St-Jacques’ (the vineyard). Premier Crus are naturally more numerous than Grand Crus, and in some cases the quality of their output can rival those of their more prestigious neighbours – matched in turn by similar pricing.
The third class is inhabited by ‘village’ wines. These wines are not sourced from particularly prestigious sites, but are of quality enough to be allowed to be known by the name of the commune from which they are from – a simple ‘Chassagne-Montrachet’ or a ‘St-Aubin’ for instance. Some may display a vineyard name in distinctly smaller typeface, but the words Premier Cru will not appear on the label.
The final tier is for wines from the least impressive vineyards, labelled simply as ‘Bourgogne’ blanc or rouge. Although the vineyards they originate from may not be lauded, many of these wines are of reasonable quality can at times represent fantastic value for money. There are many other aspects of Burgundian wine law aside from this vineyard ranking system. An important example would be the restrictions on grape varieties that can legally constitute a bottle of wine labelled as ‘Burgundy’. In the case of white wine, this means Chardonnay and a lesser planted grape called Aligote; for reds, Pinot Noir and Gamay Noir. Wines that are made within the region but not from these grapes will not be allowed to be registered as Burgundy under this classification system. Such restrictions naturally breed rebels and inventiveness, but this is a topic for an article all to itself.
Now however, the geography. To the north west of the Burgundian heartland lies the celebrated white wine enclave of Chablis. Slightly cooler than the rest of the Burgundy, the flavours of Chablis are steelier, more mineral, harder perhaps, than the Chardonnay grown elsewhere in the region. The terrain is the credited crux of its brilliance. Chablis lies on a band of Kimmeridgian marl (the same which extends across the channel and into Southern England); a mixture of limestone and clay that imbues the wines with a taut mineral streak that can develop and evolve in premium examples for well over a decade. The best vineyard sites are to be found on the south facing slopes of the hill overlooking the town of Chablis itself - 257 Grand Cru acres that produce wines of great fragrance and complexity. Chablis is generally cheaper than the rest of Burgundy, and all wines from Grand Cru to the so-called Petit Chablis (lower quality vineyards at the outer reaches of the appellation or on lesser-positioned hillsides) represent fantastic value for money for drinkers seeking a unique, mineral driven style of white Burgundy.
South of Chablis, the heart of Burgundy begins proper. This is the Cote d’Or – the Golden Slope – a long ridge running the course of an ancient geological faultline, comprised of layers of calcareous marlstone topped with rich, yet stony earth. The Cote is where the very finest Burgundies are grown and fashioned, split into two distinct sections of hillside – the northern half, or Cote de Nuits, and the southern, the Cote de Beaune.
The Cote de Nuit is Pinot Noir country. This is where the finest red Burgundies are made – and indeed, arguably the finest Pinots in the whole world. The upper section of the Cote de Nuit centred around the town of Gevrey-Chambertin contains the highest concentration of Grand Cru vineyard sites in the region. Wines from such hallowed vineyards as Chambertin, Charmes and Clos de Beze are rich yet soft, tannic yet surprisingly delicate, and are capable of ageing for 40 years or more. As one heads south down the Cote de Nuits, through the communes of Morey-St-Denis, Chambolle-Musigny and Vougeot, the wines get discernibly lighter, more fragrant, perhaps juicier. A large number of excellent Premier Cru vineyards can be found in this region, at times almost equal peers to their Grand Cru neighbours but usually markedly cheaper. Heading towards the large town of Nuit-St-Georges (after which the northern Cote is named), one enters the appellation of Vosne-Romanee, home to the famous Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, makers of the most expensive wines in the world. These wines come from La Tache and Le Richebourg, perhaps the two most prized vineyards in all of Burgundy, on the east facing slope to the west of the town, and are rich, opulent and enticingly spicy. Further south of Nuit-St-Georges, a succession of more affordable Premier Cru vineyards run along the ridge (Les Cailles and Les St-Georges are names to look out for) before crossing over into the Cote de Beaune – the southern, busier half of the Cote d’Or.
From Beaune southwards, Chardonnay reigns supreme. The northern reaches of the commune, around the towns of Aloxe-Corton and Pommard do however make some quality red wines. The wines produced from the Grand Cru slopes of the hill of Corton are particularly notable, as are the tannic, firm and long-lived examples from the Premier Cru sites surrounding Pommard. Skirting the summit of Corton to the more southerly facing slopes, one can find the vineyard of Corton-Charlemagne. The whites made from here are rich and scented, yet more elegant than a Meursault, and highly prized for this finesse. Naturally then, they are expensive, but the wines sourced from the hills above the large town of Beaune itself increasingly represent excellent value for money, often made by the larger negociants in the region.
Onwards lie Volnay and Meursault. Volnay is famous for its softly perfumed and delicate reds, the perfect foil to the richer, more tannic offerings found in the Cote de Nuits. There are no Grand Cru sites here (or in Meursault, for that matter) but Premier Cru vineyards such as Clos des Chenes produce some of the finest reds in the commune. Meursault is lauded for its distinct style of Chardonnay; often judiciously, yet not overly-oaked, with a typically full and creamy texture displaying an almost nutty quality. Meursault represents the quintessential food wine, and the lack of Grand Cru and indeed, relative scarcity of Premier Cru sites render many good examples affordable. Next door is Montrachet, first Puligny and then Chassagne, perhaps the most famous name in Burgundian white wine. Here lie the only Grand Cru sites in the southern Cote de Beaune. Limestone soils, excellent eastern exposure and perfectionist viticulture – low cropping, old vines, and careful picking and soil management practices – combine to produce Chardonnay of unrivalled finesse. A scattering of red wine is made from vineyards south of Chassagne-Montrachet, often representing good value for money, but the primary centre for red wine production in the southern Cote de Beaune is Santenay, whose Pinots are flavourful, tannic and Cote de Nuit in style. Down a valley (in Burgundian parlance, a combe) to the west lies St-Aubin; an appellation of increasingly promising white wine that is typically something of a stylistic bridge between Montrachet and Meursault.
The Cote d’Or may be the famous heart of Burgundy but it is by no means all. For those without the budget to buy from the golden slope itself, the lesser hills of the Cote Chalonnaise and the Cote Macconais offer much more affordable shopping. There is geography at play here, as the ridge of the Cote d’Or loses some of its consistency, softening in places and rising to new, cooler heights in others. In the north of the Chalonnaise, the appellation of Rully makes some fine still white wine. In particularly cool vintages where grapes may have struggled to ripen desirably, the crop is sometimes turned into sparkling wine, known as Crement de Bourgogne. Further south, the appellations of Mercurey and Givry produce red wine of a perhaps more rustic style than their peers to the north. There has been a rise in the number of vineyards that have been designated successfully as Premier Cru in the last few decades, and although this may have diluted some of the original Premier Cru quality, it has also resulted in a general upsurge in standards throughout the area as a whole. An unusual anomaly exists in the region in the form of Bouzeron – a town granted an appellation for single varietal wines made from Burgundy’s other white grape, Aligote. Very different from Chardonnay, Aligote wines are acidic, often tart, yet textural, and examples from better producers are worth seeking out for those who are curious.
Heading southwards still, the climate of the Macconais is noticeably warmer than that of the Cote d’Or, and these extra few degrees allows this southerly part of Burgundy to produce comparatively large quantities of reliably ripening Chardonnay. Lots of the wine made here is sold as simple Bourgogne Blanc, and many good examples can be found from the better cooperatives in the area. To the east of the city of Macon itself however, lies a pocket of villages known for producing wines of particularly good quality; Pouilly-Fuisse. The best wines from here are full, rich and succulent, although the lack of consistency between producers and their use of oak, length of ageing and picking times means that quality can vary considerably. Wines from appellations within this region, such as Pouilly-Vinzelles and Pouilly-Loche are often slightly cheaper than Fuisse itself, but can be hard to find. The wines of St-Veran however are easier to procure, with a distinct leanness to them that distinguishes them from the rounder, more mouth-filling wines of Fuisse. A quality drive has surged through the Maconnais in recent years, driven in part by investment from negociants from the Cote d’Or, and a movement is now afoot to quantify and designate some notable vineyard sites as Premier Cru – a move that could prove to alleviate some of the areas inconsistencies.
And there you have it, a brief overview of Burgundy from north to south. The region of Beaujolais to the south of Macon is often considered a satellite of the region, yet the stylistic differences – both in taste profile and winemaking – are great enough to make their association more geographical than topical. Although small in comparison to Frances other wine regions, Burgundy has had more global impact than perhaps any other. It’s unique geology and ancient traditions form the foundations of the original notion of terroir, while its army of humble vignerons have influenced the back-to-the-vines movement of modern, artisan, winemaking philosophy. The wines of such extraordinary elegance produced here have inspired countless winemakers and wine cultures throughout the world, from the Pinot Noirs of Oregon and New Zealand to the famous Chardonnays of California and Australia. Although original in their own ways, these imitators are, ultimately, merely worshipping at the age-old altar of Burgundian winemaking. It might not be fashionable, but it is the best.