The fine wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux could not be further apart in terms of what “makes them tick”. Whilst Bordeaux is dominated by large estates each producing a classic red wine, Burgundy is composed of thousands of small-scale growers, often with only tiny parcels of land, who may make a range of a dozen or more different wines, both red and white. In Bordeaux, almost all wine is labelled Mis en Bouteille au Château which means the whole process, from growing the grapes to bottling the wine, is carried out by the Château. Whilst there are many similar producers in Burgundy (usually referred to as “domaines” rather than “châteaux”), a very significant part of the production comes from négociants: merchants who may own no vineyards, but who buy grapes and finished wines for blending and bottling under their own label.
The Burgundy region lies a couple of hundred miles east and north of Bordeaux. It covers a large area, the vineyards running in a long, thin line from Auxerre in the north to Lyon in the south. The climate is continental, with cold winters, hot summers but plenty of rain. It is easiest to think of Burgundy in terms of its distinct regions. Running from north to south, these are:
Chablis by far the most northerly of Burgundy's regions, known exclusively for dry white wines. The Côte de Nuits home of the great red Burgundies. Some white is produced too, but the reds are the region's glory. The Côte de Beaune known for both red and white wines, but the greatest white Burgundies (other than Chablis) are from here. The Côte Chalonnaise generally regarded as a lesser district. It still produces some extremely fine wines, both red and white. The Mâconnais the southern limit of Burgundy. Wines tend to be cheaper and made for drinking young but can be excellent value. Beaujolais is quite a bit further south. Though not part of Burgundy, it is usually included when we talk about the region.
The great Burgundies, both red and white, are un-blended wines made from a single grape variety. This again is a major difference from Bordeaux. The grapes used are:
Pinot Noir (red wines) Chardonnay (white wines)
Various other grape varieties are permitted within Burgundy, though these are never used in the great wines and can be considered as the “second rank” of grapes. They will appear in budget level bottlings and are increasingly common the further south you travel into the Côte Chalonnaise, Mâconnais and Beaujolais. Varieties include:
Gamay (red wines) Aligoté, Pinot Blanc (white wines)
Burgundy is divided into many, many different appellations. Often these are tiny, sometimes covering only a single vineyard. This, along with a rather complicated system for naming wines, can make the region seem quite difficult to understand for the Burgundy beginner. Like Bordeaux, there is a quality hierarchy. Partly, this is governed by Appellations that cover tighter and tighter geographical areas. The main geographical unit of Burgundy is the village. The original wine villages gave their names to many of the wines as we will see. But let's look at the Appellations in ascending order of quality:
AC Bourgogne covers all of Burgundy. Just like AC Bordeaux, it is a generic AC that covers those wines that don't qualify for a higher level of classification.
Regional Appellations cover groups of villages, such as AC Côte de Nuits-Villages. These are usually good quality wines that don't qualify for the next rung up the ladder, individual village AC's.
Village ACs such as AC Pommard or AC Gevrey-Chambertin are commonly known as “village wines”. Bottles labeled as coming from a particular village should be of quite high quality though they will usually be blends from many different vineyards.
The Village Premiers Crus are from particularly good vineyards surrounding a village. A wine labelled AC Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru should be significantly better than AC Chassagne-Montrachet. These wines are usually blended from various smaller individual Premier Cru vineyards.
Individual Vineyard Premiers Crus come from superior vineyards, the name of which is shown on the label: Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru Champgains for example. These wines should be extremely fine and worth the considerable money they cost.
Grands Crus are the élite of Burgundy. These wines come from the very best slopes and the label will bear only the name of the vineyard, not the name of any village. Examples include: Musigny, Montrachet, Echézeaux. These wines - both red or white - cost a small fortune but should be the epitome of fine wine.
Often the 1er or Grand Cru sites are shared by many growers, the land divided into small parcels owned by each. A dozen different producers might each make an Echézeaux Grand Cru, for example. Other sites are Monopoles, that is the whole Cru is owned by one domaine, like La Tâche Grand Cru, owned solely by Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
The tradition of négociants in Burgundy is as old as Burgundy itself. Négociants play a vital role in taking the grapes and sometimes finished wines from small estates to produce wines which they can market on a commercially viable scale. Their role can range from simple labelling and distribution, to carrying out the entire wine-making process. Négociants may supply wines at all quality levels, including Grand Cru.
Many négociants are also vineyard owners, producing domaine bottled wines alongside their négociant bottlings. The larger houses are generally very reliable and their wines widely available. Look for Jadot, Drouhin, Bouchard, Louis Latour and Faiveley amongst others.
The Burgundians are the great believers in terroir. Terroir is a French word without a direct English translation. It is applied to specific vineyard sites. Roughly translated, it means the combination of soil, climate, aspect to the sun and geography which believers maintain is a fundamental, defining influence on a finished wine.
It would be easy to dismiss the Burgundian adherence to terroir as little more than self-interest, but there are growing numbers of believers amongst New World wine-makers too. It is certainly true that there can be marked differences between two wines, made from grapes grown in adjoining fields. All over Burgundy you will find Grand Cru vineyards, with 20 yards away, vineyards that are designated to produce simple regional wines. This is all down to terroir.
The Pinot Noir seems happiest on the cool limestone slopes of Burgundy, finding only limited success when planted elsewhere in the world. The area lies on the edge of the quality wine-making zone.
The Pinot Noir is also a fickle grape and is easy to over-crop. These factors, along with the question of terroir and the vast range of wines and domaines, mean that choosing red Burgundy has to be done carefully.
The Côte de Nuits (which together with the Côte de Beaune are known as the Côte d'Or, or “Golden Slopes”) is the home of the great red Burgundies and the vast majority of Grands and Premiers Crus. Here too are some of Burgundy's most famous villages such as Gevrey-Chambertin and Vosne-Romanée.
Any wine from this region will be expensive but all should be of good quality. The wines from each village area have their own character: sturdy, tannic and long-lived from around Nuits-St-Georges, aristocratic, rich and complex from Vosne-Romanée for example.
Further south the Côte de Beaune is most famous for its whites, but there are very good, reliable, sturdy Pinots Noirs. They might lack the finesse of the best Côte de Nuits, but they are also a little cheaper. Corton is the only red Grand Cru of the Côte de Beaune, whilst Pommard is probably the most widely known red of the region, made just south of the city of Beaune.
Chardonnay has, of course, been grown very successfully all over the world. As a variety it is relatively easy to grow and tolerant of a wide variety of soil and climatic conditions.
By far the most northerly area of Burgundy, Chablis lies almost half-way between the Côte d'Or and Paris. It is home to one of the world's best known Chardonnay wines which should be steely and dry with flavours of lemon and minerals. Traditionally Chablis is un-oaked, setting it apart from most other top Chardonnays from Burgundy and elsewhere.
There are 4 quality levels for Chablis, each with its own AC:
AC Petit Chablis Arguably not true Chablis at all, from grapes grown on the outskirts of the area. Usually fresh and pleasant, but rarely showing the true character of Chablis.
Chablis proper consists of:
AC Chablis AC Chablis Premier Cru esp. Fourchaume, Montmains, Montée de Tonnerre AC Chablis Grands Cru
It is a consistent area, so most Chablis is good - look out for wines made by a huge co-operative of growers called La Chablisienne - unlike some other co-operative wines, these offer good value for money.
Chardonnay from here is quite different from Chablis. It is generally aged in oak barrels and the fruit is usually more ripe giving much fuller, rounder wines. The best known villages of the area include Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet.
As elsewhere in Burgundy, quality and prices vary dramatically. The wines at Premier Cru level and above should be nutty, buttery and toasty, but with racy acidity and often hints of unusual mineral and stony flavours. Unusually, these are white wines that can reward cellaring for between 5 and 15 years.
Again. As with Bordeaux there are many excellent wines available from outwith these great regions. The Côte Chalonnaise has many fine mid-range reds which have good, strawberry fruit and will keep for 5 years or so. Top villages include Mercurey, Givry and Rully. Look for the wines from the Co-operative at Buxy - very reliable.
The Mâconnais is better known for its Chardonnay whites which are fresh and sappy with honeysuckle aromas. The top wines come from Pouilly-Fuissé and St-Véran, though wines labelled Mâcon-Villages or Mâcon-Lugny should come from the better vineyards, are reliable and should be quite cheap.
Beaujolais can range from the light, hopefully fresh and fruity wines of Beaujolais Nouveau to the more serious wines of the Beaujolais-Villages. The best 10 Villages have their own ACs and often the name “Beaujolais” doesn't appear on the label. These wines are known as the “Crus”: Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Morgon, St-Amour, Côte de Brouilly, Moulin-à-Vent, Réginié, Juliénas.