Introduction to the Wines of Burgundy
What is Burgundy?
Burgundy is a wine producing region in eastern France and also the name of the wines, mostly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, that come from there.
But Burgundy (or “Bourgogne,” as they say in France) isn’t just any region, and Red and White Burgundy aren’t just any Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
No, Bourgogne is a sort of spiritual homeland to wine lovers the world over. To so many of us, it’s the north star of wine as something more meaningful than a mere beverage; of wine as key element of cuisine, as a cultural experience on par with literature or music or art; of wine as a connection to a wider world and to a rich history.
Burgundy is the wine that makes you fall in love with wine.
What do Bourgogne wines taste like?
The best wines of Burgundy, both red and white, have a balance of fruit and minerality, of earthiness and sometimes spice, of intensity and subtlety that come together in a way that is truly ineffable but can be experienced as a sort of magic.
Even more remarkable, you don’t have to pay an arm and a leg for this thrill: even entry level Bourgogne Blancs and Bourgogne Rouges will give you a taste of this magic.
But more than that, they are wines that could come from no place on earth other than Bourgogne. You get this precise thrill nowhere else in the world of wine. Wines of Bourgogne are the quintessential wines of terroir.
Getting to know Burgundy
Burgundy is complex but approachable. You could spend a lifetime studying the wines of Bourgogne, the nooks and crannies of the land, its histories and traditions, its growers and vintages, and never completely wrap your head around it. And yet, it couldn’t be any easier to jump in and start enjoying the wines themselves!
So grab a bottle and join us while we walk you through it...
Bourgogne, Home of Terroir
Bourgogne fills this role in so many wine lovers’ hearts in no small measure because it is the region, more than any other, that teaches us about the mystical, magical influence of “terroir.”
What does this terroir mean in practice?
It means if you are standing in a Grand Cru vineyard you can move a few yards one way and that Grand Cru becomes a village wine. That small difference in space will make a huge difference in taste and aroma, in texture and age-worthiness. And it will make a huge difference in price too.
How did Bourgogne become the birthplace of terroir?
It may be in part that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are particularly good at expressing the terroir they grow in. Or it may be that the terroir differences seem starker, since any time you taste two Burgundies of the same color you know the grape varieties have (almost certainly) been held constant and the only variable is the site.
But the truth lies in the terroir of Bourgogne itself. The subtle variations from site to site are more affecting in Burgundy than in nearly any other region in the world. Whoever drew that line between the Grand Cru and village wine had it right: those few meters make a huge difference -- and that isn’t something you see in many other wine regions in the world.
Legendary Wines: Humble but Unique Excellence
The Burgundy region is big and Bourgogne wines cover a lot of ground, both literally and figuratively. The region stretches from Chablis in the north, a very short drive from Champagne, to the Maconnais in the south, which abuts Beaujolais. And the wines range from inexpensive every-day bottles to some of the rarest, most collectible wines in the world.
Within those borders lie the most revered wine terroirs in the world. Names like Chambertin and Romanée Conti, Montrachet and Meursault live there.
But Bourgogne isn’t just a land of giants. In fact, those most illustrious names (the Grand Crus) make up less than 2% of all of the wine of Burgundy. And more than half of the wine made in Bourgogne comes from the most basic appellations, with names like “Bourgogne Rouge,” “Bourgogne Blanc,” “Mâcon-Villages” and “Crémant de Bourgogne.”
There’s a thrill in discovering that even these regional appellations are chock full of excellent sites farmed by devoted vignerons. Here, you can find truly delicious wines. Wines that are the very model of food-friendly, with flavors that complement a variety of dishes, freshness to bring out the best in almost any meal.
Bourgogne wines: What Makes the Magic?
Why are the terroirs of Bourgogne wines so distinct and fascinating, and how did they come to be so well understood? It may not be possible to say exactly what makes the wines of Burgundy so wonderful, but we can identify a few key factors. And understanding a little bit about these factors can help to get comfortable with Bourgogne and its wines.
Wine geeks may talk about Burgundy’s soils more than any other factor affecting the wines, save the vignerons. Once you start to pay attention to the wines, it’s hard not to be fascinated by the soils.
The whole expanse of Bourgogne is, it turns out, a patchwork of subtly varying mixtures of clay, marl and limestone. That short walk from the Grand Crus to the village site? You can be sure the soils changed!
Limestone is a favorite of wine lovers -- and winemakers -- the world over. It’s often thought to bring acidity and bright structure to wines.
Clay, on the other hand, is thought to bring more power and body.
A classic example of these roles is the neighboring villages of Volnay and Pommard:
- Volnay, light in clay and heavy in limestone makes the lightest, most aromatic red wines of the Côte de Beaune region;
- Pommard, with iron-rich clay in the soils, makes a denser, chewier wine.
Of course, these are just generalizations. Up and down the vineyards of Bourgogne, Pinot Noir grows in rocky, limestone rich soils that are low in clay, and yet many of those wines are full of depth and power. Whole books have been written about the soils of Burgundy, and we’ll go into more detail when discussing individual regions and appellations.
Millenia of study and practice
If it takes 20,000 hours to become an expert, what does 2000 years get you? It gets you really, really good wine, I guess! Bourgogne has been making wine for at least that long.
In fact, by 92 AD French wines were already so good that the Roman Emperor prohibited them to limit competition with Italian wines. They even tore up the early Roman plantings in Burgundy. But you can’t keep a great region down, and within about 200 years people were writing about Bourgogne again. By the 500s AD it was considered one of the greatest wines in the world.
Monks took on a lot of the viticulture in the following centuries. But they didn’t just farm the vines to make and drink their wine. They studied the land and the wines, paying close attention to all those variations in soil, to the variations in drainage, to exposure to sunlight and to the other elements. They defined and ranked the vineyards and in the process formulated the idea of terroir. In fact, many of the distinct plots they defined based on terroir in their centuries of research are still with us in the Climats recognized to this day.
The vignerons of Bourgogne have also had ages to learn the ways of their grape varieties. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir weren’t always the grapes grown in Bourgogne. But Chardonnay is believed to have been planted at least since the 12th C., and Pinot Noir has been recognized as the perfect grape for high quality red Burgundy for so long that all the way back in 1395 the Duke of Burgundy issued an edict banning Gamay for making inferior wine.
When you consider that Napa has only really been experimenting with Cabernet Sauvignon since after prohibition and the War, you get a sense of how deep Chardonnay’s and Pinot’s roots are in the region.
Bourgogne wines have played an important role in French culture. It has been the favorite wine of Kings and Emperors (Corton Charlemagne, of course, is named after the Emperor who owned the hill) and the conception of terroir developed in connection with Bourgogne wines has been adapted to many foodstuffs across France, from cheese to strawberries, to meat to oil. The wines themselves, of course, continue to be benchmarks to ambitious winemakers all across the country.
Burgundy is largely a continental climate, without maritime influence to moderate temperatures. This makes for big temperature swings, both between day and night, and from season to season. The high temperatures help to ripen the grapes and develop flavors, while the cool temperatures help to preserve acidity and freshness.
The climate also presents significant risks to farmers and their vineyards. Cool springs can mean terrible frosts that not only ruin harvests but can destroy vines. Temperature swings can lead to hail that destroys foliage and damages vinewood, leaving a goût de grêle (taste of hail) for multiple vintages.
Bourgogne, a land of regions, North to South
The first step to understanding the wines of Burgundy is to understand that Bourgogne is composed of a few rather distinct regions.
Chablis and the Grand Auxerrois in the North
Only two hours from Paris, Chablis and its neighbors in the Grand Auxerrois is Burgundy's northernmost region. Before the French crown developed good roads and communication, this was what Parisians meant when they referred to the wines of Bourgogne. Back then, the region was covered in vines. But over the centuries it was displaced from its top position, and after phylloxera devastated the vineyards it was never fully replanted.
Which is a shame. The wines are unique and delicious. The cool climate makes for extremely direct and fresh flavors, with bright, high-toned fruit. The region is particularly famous for its kimmeridgian limestone soils, made up of tiny, fossilized seashells. This soil is a particularly active limestone and contributes to Chablis’ trademark flavors: laser-focused acidity, minerality that won’t quit, and even a hint of saline oyster shells.
After years of being under-appreciated compared to their southern counterparts, Chablis wines are gaining popularity. And neighboring appellations in the Grand Auxerrois seem destined to be rediscovered. St. Bris, a unique Sauvignon Blanc-only white Burgundy AOC is a natural for our Sancerre-crazed era. And we are starting to see delicious wines hit the US market from new appellations like Bourgogne Epineuil, Bourgogne Côtes d’Auxerre, Bourgogne Tonnerre and more.
The Côte d’Or
Moving south from Chablis, we quickly come to the Côte d’Or -- indisputably Burgundy’s crown jewel. Literally, “The Golden Slope,” the name refers to an east-facing slope that is is home to all Bourgogne’s most famous villages (like Vosne-Romanée, Gevrey Chambertin, Puligny Montrachet) and vineyards (Romanée Conti, Le Chambertin, Le Montrachet).
The Côte d’Or is made up of two world famous wine regions, the Côte de Nuits in the north, and the Côte de Beaune in the South.
The Côte de Nuits, sounds like it should translate as “The Slope of the Night” (nuits being French for nights). But apparently there’s no connection: the word is said to come from the Latin name of a nut!
Etymology aside, the Côte de Nuits is home almost exclusively to red wines. It’s the land of Gevrey Chambertin, Chambolle Musigny, Vosne Romanée and Nuits St. Georges. But even in this hallowed land there are villages like Marsannay and Fixin with fantastic terroir and prices that are not quite so anxiety inducing.
The Côte is a single, undulating, east-facing slope that is rich in stony, limestone soils. The best Climats are neither too high up, nor too low down the slope. There are some values to be found in the flatlands below the slope itself, and also especially in the hills above the slope, known as the Hautes Côtes de Nuits.
The Côte d’Or’s other key region, the Côte de Beaune, is also an east-facing slope that runs directly south of the Côte de Nuits. It is home to the greatest Chardonnay-growing villages and vineyards in the world: Corton Charlemagne, Le Montrachet, Meursault. The soils are again highly varied with lots of limestone and marl, but include more clay -- which the Chardonnay loves.
The Côte de Beaune is also home to more under-the-radar Villages than the Côte de Nuits (for now, at least...). From Ladoix-Serrigny and Pernand Vergelesses in the north, past St. Romain and Monthélie in the center, to Santenay and Maranges in the South, there are villages with incredible Climats for both red and white wine and boasting hard-working vignerons committed to raising their village’s reputations.
- The Côte Chalonnaise
Heading south and east from the Côte de Beaune brings us to the Côte Chalonnaise, probably the least famous of Bourgogne’s Côtes. The hills here tend to slope a little more gently and in more varied directions than in the Côtes de Beaune and Nuits, giving more variety of exposition. In addition to the limestone, clay and marl, there is some sand to be found.
Even the most famous village in the Côte Chalonnaise, Mercurey, is still not all that well known. But it should be! It has a top champion in Domaine Faiveley, a producer with four monopole vineyards (sites they own 100% of) including La Framboisieres which, I swear, tastes like raspberries. Relative to the rest of Burgundy, the Côte Chalonnaise can represent a good value.
Bouzeron is a super-interesting appellation devoted exclusively to a white wine not made from Chardonnay, but from the Aligotė variety. These wines can be particularly fascinating as they are so clearly Bourgogne, and yet so different from Chardonnay-based white Burgundy. A delicious head trip!
This appellation, and indeed the whole Côte Chalonnaise, has been helped along by the success of the Domaine deVillaine, started by Aubert deVillaine who has been in charge of the Domaine de la Romanée Conti for decades, and his wife. Their wines give you a taste of absolutely top-flight winemaking expressing a special, if off the beaten path, terroir.
But we don’t think that the Côte Chalonnaise will be off the beaten path for long! We’ve been writing about its villages and producers for years and are finally going to write a guide to the region as a whole… Stay tuned!
Bourgogne’s southernmost region, the Maconnais, is best-known for white wine and is even home to a village called “Chardonnay”! It’s another region we’ve championed for ages but have never written a full guide to. But it’s coming… once again, stay tuned!
Why do we love the Maconnais? Partly, it’s the values -- the region is still mostly considered a land of incredible quality for the price. But it’s not just a deal: it’s very real and true Bourgogne. With a mix of stone and clay and limestone terroirs, and even more varied exposition than in the Côte Chalonnaise, it gives us a broad variety of expressions of white Burgundy, from the deeply stony and mineral to the luxurious, creamy and smooth.
Much of the wine is labelled simply “Macon” and others “Macon Villages.” And there are special areas that can add their village name to Macon, like “Macon Igé.”
But the Maconnais is also home to some excellent appellations like Pouilly Loché, Pouilly Vinzelles, Saint Véran and Viré-Clessé. They make Chardonnay that manage the trick of being clearly Bourgogne (they don’t really taste much like, say, a Cali Chard) but that also clearly taste Maconnais. If you tasted them side by side with a Chablis or Chassagne (and you should try it some time for fun!) you would see a difference right away.
Most amazingly though, they also taste very much like themselves: the Saint Véran is different from Pouilly Loché, which is distinct from the Viré-Clessé. It’s this fractal-like identity that shows you they’re legit Burgundy. Indeed, while the Maconnais is definitely home to many great values it is not only that; the best-known sites, in Pouilly-Fuissé for instance, produce some collectible wines that are age-worthy and not exactly budget options.
But Mâconnais vineyards have generally been less expensive than much of Burgundy for years, which has made it a great area for young upstarts and genuine farmers to make their wines. Lately though, that pricing has also lured some of Burgundy’s top names to the region, including Comte Lafon (one of the world’s acknowledged white wine masters), which in turn is raising the region’s profile.
In addition to the well-known white Macon, there are some red wines which tend to be juicy, easy-going and budget friendly wines, with flavors of red berries and subtle but not especially complex aromatics. There are also Macon rosés, but we don’t see many of those in America.
Hierarchy of Bourgogne Wines: What should you drink?
You walk into a store and see a shelf labelled “Burgundy” full of great looking bottles. But how can you tell them all apart?
Where in Burgundy does it come from and how fancy a bottle is it? More importantly: What does it taste like and...will you like it?
Well, now that we have an understanding of the lay of the land, history and culture, we can talk about how to tell what’s inside your bottle of Burgundy.
When you pick up a bottle, you’ll see quite a few French words. But, don’t let that scare you off!
There could be the word “Bourgogne” or “Macon.” There could be the name of a village, like “Rully” or “Chablis.” You might also see a vineyard name or even the words “Premier Cru,” or “Grand Cru.”
What do these different names tell us? A whole lot actually!
We will be doing an entire blog post dedicated to understanding these designations and what they mean for the wine in your hand.
But, for now, let’s just look at the what these words tell us about the quality of the wine:
Wines from Bourgogne generally fall into one of four quality levels.
- Regional wines, such as Bourgogne and Macon, are wines made within that region.
- You’ll probably see more of these wines than any other: wines from regional appellations account for 52% of Bourgogne on the market.
- Village wines, for wines coming entirely from within that village (such as Chablis or Gevrey Chambertin).
- You’ll find plenty of these wines too: 47% of all Bourgogne wines are Village wines.
- Premier Cru, on a label means that the wine comes from a single vineyard that has been designated as “Premier Cru,” the second highest designation a vineyard can be given. Premier Cru wines are pretty rare: roughly 10% of production.
- Grand Cru for wines coming from a single vineyard designated at this, the highest level in Bourgogne.
- These wines are very rare: only 1% of Bourgognes are from Grand Cru sites
Are Grand Cru wines actually “better” than the rest?
Not necessarily! It depends on what you mean by "better"…
The “higher quality” vineyards have been designated Premier Cru or Grand Cru because, over the centuries, wines from those sites have been discovered to have special attributes: a clear personality that shows itself vintage in and vintage out; depth of flavor without ever sacrificing elegance or finesse; and most astonishing, the potential to improve with years or even decades of age.
These are wines that grab your attention. They can elevate food. They are worthy of contemplation.
But what if you just want to sit on a patio with friends and drink something delicious and refreshing? You don’t want a wine that’s going to demand all your attention, that needs to be contemplated to be enjoyed. You don’t want a wine you have to fuss about serving right: the right temperature, the right glass, the right amount of air.
No, you want something delicious. Interesting enough that if you stop to pay attention there’s a there there, but not so "special" that you won't be able to fully enjoy it without making it the centerpiece of your evening. It should work with whatever snacks or meal you eat, but it shouldn't require a careful meal plan to get just right.
And that’s what the so-called “lower” levels of Bourgogne wines are for! When you’re hanging out with friends in the park a Bourgogne Blanc may well be “better” than Corton Charlemagne Gran Cru -- even if it costs a fraction of the price!
So go ahead and pop a Bourgogne Rouge with your burger and don’t spend even a millisecond worrying that you’re missing out by not opening something “better.” The best bottle of Bourgogne is the right bottle for the moment.
Some Recent Vintages
Burgundy has historically been one of the most vintage-sensitive regions in the world. The marginal climate risked under-ripeness. Hail, frost and heat could all leave their mark.
But Burgundy is one region that has had an incredible run of great vintages in the last two decades. Global warming is expected eventually to take a toll, but so far the vignerons have learned to deal with rising temperatures and to make some of the finest wines in memory.
The 2019 vintage is starting to arrive to much hype and early tastes suggest… it is merited! The wines, both red and white, have beautiful fruit and yet plenty of the freshness, minerality, and mystery that make Burgundy “Burgundy.” We look forward to tasting more.
The 2018 vintage is very highly rated for both reds and whites. The whites are immediately pleasurable and have very broad appeal. The reds are fruit focused and for now offer a particularly good introduction to Bourgogne for drinkers more habituated to, for instance, California Pinot Noir. But there is little doubt that these wines will age gracefully and show the true taste of Burgundian terroir.
The 2017 vintage was a bit of a two track vintage. The Whites have been lauded as among the greatest vintages we’ve seen, while the reds are a bit of a sleeper vintage, stuck between the legendary 2015/2016 duo and the much anticipated 2018. But the reds are classics and, indeed, staff favorites around Flatiron Wines. Plenty of acid and freshness balancing pretty fruit reveal true Bourgogne character at all levels of wine and prices.
The 2016 and 2015 vintages are considered all time greats. 2015 presents as the riper of the two, so wine lovers never tire of arguing about which one is better. There are fewer wines on the market now but if you find one from a good producer that’s been well stored, jump!
Bourgogne: We’re Just Getting Started
If you’ve made it this far, you’re obviously fascinated by Burgundy and don’t need us to tell you that it’s one of the absolutely greatest wine regions in the world. 84 of the world’s greatest vineyards lie in one small corner of France. So much of the world’s most coveted bottles come here, yet it’s less than 5% of all Frances wine!
But it may be that, having read through all of this (hopefully with glass of wine in hand!) you feel like there’s a lot of details to absorb.
Don’t sweat it! There’s no reason to obsess over the details unless you want to. Lots of people fall in love with these wines in large part because of the details -- the details in the wines that come from details of terroir and winemaker. To these fanatics, the details are their own reward.
But if you stick with us through these Bourgogne blogs, we’ll arm you with the background to go as deep as you like into the weeds. More importantly, you’ll have the knowledge you need to be able to pick up the perfect bottle of Bourgogne for any occasion.
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