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 labeled 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.
Geography and climate
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
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 southern limit of Burgundy. Wines tend to be cheaper and made
for drinking young but can be excellent value.
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
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
Appellation Contrôlée areas
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:
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
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.
such as AC Pommard, AC Gevrey-Chambertin and AC Vosne-Romanée are
commonly known as "village wines". Bottles labelled, 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
Individual Vineyard Premiers Crus
come from superior vineyards, the name of which is shown on the
label: Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru Champagnes 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.
Domaine or Négociant bottled?
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 labeling 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.
Terroir! - the war-cry of Burgundy
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 great red wines
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
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.
The great white wines
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