How to Read a Burgundy Wine Label
That info is key to understanding the basic qualitative differences among Regionale, Village, Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines.
But if you dig deep, there’s so much more you can tell about a wine by looking at the label. So for everyone who wants to go a little deeper, here’s a backgrounder on everything you can learn from a Burgundy label.
Quality and Burgundy’s Appellations
So, you’ve seen this chart and you know that along some dimensions wine lovers from medieval monks down to today’s “Masters of the Universe” have concluded that Grand Cru > Village Premier Cru > Village Wine > Regionale wine:
But what do those labels really mean and how are the wines different?
Let’s take a deeper dive into what all these things (“Grand Cru” or “Village”) actually mean in practice.
We’ll start by breaking things down by Appellation.
Regionale appellations are by far the most common in Burgundy and account for more than half of all Bourgogne wine. The Regionale appellations we see most often in America are Bourgogne Rouge, Bourgogne Blanc and Mâcon-Villages. There are others you will see from time to time, like the Côteaux Bourguignons (for certain Gamay-based wines), Bourgogne Aligoté, for white wine made with Aligoté, and Crémant de Bourgogne.
Regionale wines will express the characteristics of their region and can be beautiful bottles in their own right. But they won’t generally have the terroir precision of a wine from a more specific appellation, like a Village wine or Premier or Grand Cru.
There are, of course, exceptions. You will sometimes see a wine labelled with a regional name (Bourgogne or Macon) plus another place name such as Hautes Côtes de Nuits or Pierreclos. So, the label could read, “Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Nuits,” or Mâcon Pierreclos.
This “Region+” naming tells you that the wine wasn’t grown just anywhere in the region, but in that specific named geographical area. And that can be very interesting information, because those little terroirs may make quite different wines from the region as a whole.
The Hautes Côtes de Nuits and Beaune, for instance, are in the hills above the Côtes de Nuits and Beaune. The weather is often cooler up there and the wines can therefore be particularly fresh and may be especially delicious in warmer vintages. As you familiarize yourself with Bourgogne wines you may find that you come to appreciate subtle differences between regions and even have preferences for one over another in some situations or with certain foods.
In fact, we think that these Regionale+ wines are some of the most exciting “insiders secrets” for finding great values in legit Burgundy. So we’re going to do a whole post on them… Watch this space!
The next tier up in the hierarchy of Bourgogne Wines is the Village appellation.
There are 44 villages that have been considered special enough to be able to use their name on a label. When you buy a village wine, you expect that it will have the special taste and characteristics of that village in particular.
So if you have a Meursault, it will be distinct from a Chablis, and if you are drinking a Vosne-Romanée, it will not taste quite like either a Savigny Lès Beaune or Mercurey.
A Village appellation can cover a fair number of vineyards around the literal village it is named for.
But because the Village appellations denote a smaller geographical area than the Regionale appellations, they are generally more terroir specific than lower-tiered Bourgogne or Mâcon wines. Any two bottles of Aloxe Corton Rouge are more likely to have plenty in common than any two bottles of Bourgogne Rouge. Moreover, the Aloxe Corton bottles are more likely to have distinct personalities, more complexity and length than the Bourgognes.
There are, as always, some exceptions. Occasionally a producer will make a “mere” Bourgogne Rouge or Blanc from a single Climat that is, for whatever reason, not part of a designated village. Some of those Climat wines can be not only beautiful but fascinating and unique terroirs.One of our favorite examples of this is Ghislaine Barthod’s Bourgogne Rouge from the Climats, “Bons Batons.” And it may always be possible that you will find an exceptional producer’s Bourgogne Rouge more exciting than a lesser producer’s Village Premier Cru.
Village Premier Cru Wines
Some of the finest Climats in Bourgogne’s most sought-after villages are rated “Premier Cru,” the second highest level of vineyard. “Les Amoureuses,” for instance, in the village of Chambolle-Musigny, is a Premier Cru and a wine made entirely from this vineyard could qualify for the label, “Chambolle-Musigny Premier Cru, Les Amoureuses.”
The quality of Premier Cru wines will vary: not all premier cru vineyards are as good as Les Amoureuses (in fact, almost none are!). But when you open a bottle of Village Premier Cru it should not only have a specific taste of terroir (or goût de terroir, as they say in French), but it should also be a step up from village wines in complexity, aromatics, and length.
Technically it is possible to blend multiple Premier Cru vineyards from the same village together and label the wine without vineyard name, but this is rare. One excellent example, however, is Joseph Drouhin’s “Chambolle-Musigny Premier Cru.” Drouhin owns many small plots in various Premier Cru vineyards within the village of Chambolle-Musigny, each too small to bottle on its own. So they blend them together, leaving off the vineyard names but noting that the wine is a Premier Cru from Chambolle.
Need a list of all the Premier Cru Vineyards in Burgundy? There you go!
Grand Cru Appellations
At the top of the pyramid are the Grand Cru vineyards. As previously noted, these represent less than 1% of all the wines of Bourgogne and they are every bit as unique and delicious as they are rare. There are 33 of these Grand Cru Climats, including some of the smallest appellations in the world. La Romanée, for instance, is only 2 acres.
Needless to say, when you open a bottle of Grand Cru, you are expecting great things. The wines have unique personalities, an incredible capacity to evolve and improve with age as with exposure to air in the glass, marvelous complexity and stunning length.
And yet, many are famous for their subtlety: although a top Village Premier Cru may wow you with a Peacock tail-like explosion of flavors on the finish, some Grand Crus will sneak up on you rather than reveal themselves all at once.
But if you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to spend time with one of these wines, you will no doubt be richly rewarded with an unforgettable sensual experience.
While you’re at it, we have a list of all Grand Cru vineyards in burgundy.
Put a Label on It
Now that we know what these designations mean, you may be wondering how they will come up.
Turns out, they’ll come up a lot! Not on a test, luckily. But, they’ll be prevalent at your local wine shop and on wine lists. And, if you can navigate the Bourgogne section, all the other sections become a cake walk.
Let’s look at a label:
Again, looks easy enough. But, let’s break these categories down a bit more.
What does a Vintage tell us?
Obviously, the vintage tells us what year a wine is made; or more specifically, what year the grapes for that wine were harvested (since the wine will usually only be finished in a later year). But, more than that, it can tell us something about what’s really going on inside the bottle.
In our introductory post, we discussed some of the more recent vintages in Bourgogne. The weather and overall quality of the wines in a certain year will ring through almost every bottle.
Maybe you’ve heard of the electric 2017s? Or the iconic 2015s. While it’s not always a catch-all, a vintage’s reputation has a lot to say about the wine.
Don’t feel pressure to memorize all the vintages. If you happen to remember a great vintage and see a wine labeled with that year--great! If not, always ask us. If we don’t know much about the year off the top of our heads, we will look it up for you!
And the Producer? How much do we know about them?
Here’s the fun part! Diving into new producers and up-and-coming winemakers, is one of the greatest joys of drinking wine.
Each winemaker has a unique style, and no matter how hands-off, you can taste their touch on a bottle.
Aha! A Village name! Didn’t we just cover those?
Yes we did. And now you know that, since we see that name on the label, this is a village-level wine.
More than that, we know that it comes from a specific village. In this case, the wine comes from Chambolle-Musigny.
By learning more about specific appellations, you’ll eventually be able to tell a lot about the wine in the bottle at this level.
Like producers, each AOC has specific terroir which imbues the wine with special qualities. Chambolle-Musigny, for instance, is famous for making the most “perfumed,” and among the subtlest, wines of the Cote de Nuits. Vosne-Romanee, as a point of contrast, is famous for an aristocratic elegance and often exotic spice notes.
“Premier Cru” and Quality Distinctions
This is one of those special Village wines, one of the elite 10% that can be labeled as “Premier Cru.” Lucky us!
Those two words tell us that the wine is known for being even more complex and having the potential to age a bit longer than other village level wines.
Okay, but what else is there to know? A Climat?
Uh oh, I can hear the panic in your voice. Don’t worry, Climats are not scary. We broke down what exactly a “Climat” is in our introductory post too!
But, in practice, it’s just even more detail as to what the wine behind the label is really like! If you find a favorite Climat in Bourgogne, you can keep your eyes peeled for that exact Climat from other producers.
What does all the French at the bottom mean?
The bottom of the label reads “Mise en bouteilles par Faiveley à Nuits Saint Georges." This translates to “Bottled by Faiveley in Nuits-Saint-Georges.”
Don’t let this fool you! The grapes were grown in Chambolle, as we know from above. But, this is the added information that Faiveley made the wine in their cellars in NSG.
While there are very specific laws in France about what wines can be made where, what is important is where the grapes are grown. Terroir! You can expect to see disclaimers like this one on many bottles from Bourgogne. It’s just more of that extra information winegeeks love to have.
A good rule to live by when reading wine labels: Don’t be daunted by extra information. If you don’t know what or where something is, just ask!
It’s a lot to remember! That’s why we have so many books in the shop.
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