There is a saying in the wine world that “All roads lead to Burgundy”. This may not ring true for all wine drinkers, but for many of us, Burgundian whites and reds can be the ultimate goal; offering sublime and complex wines that capture the, often elusive, essence of terroir. When asked by my colleague recently what my death row wine would be, I immediately responded with white Burgundy- top tier Meursault- even though I regularly seek out and consume Italian wines (Second pick, aged Barolo).
Bourgogne, as the region is called in French, can be confusing for consumers and students of wine alike. Though there are essentially only two grapes you need to know, this narrow strip of land has many appellations and vineyards split between many owners. There are over 4000 individual domaines, the great majority farm less than 10 hectares of vines. There are large producers, 250+ negociants, and around 20 caves co-operatives.
The overall production is low, however, and accounts for only 3% of France’s total. Quality varies throughout the region and, generally, the best wines are made by the smaller grower-producers.
A Brief History
The origins of Burgundy’s vineyards go back to medieval times when Cisterian monks planted grapevines in walled vineyards, called “clos”, in an attempt to ward off the plague. While the monks grew grapes for the nobles of Burgundy, the French revolution gave the land back to the people.
The implementation of Napoleanic Code in the early 1800s is the reason why vineyards in Burgundy are now split up into tiny parcels. Landowners were required to divide their property equally among their heirs, so with each subsequent generation, the land was further divided. For example, the Grand Cru vineyard, Clos de Vougeot, was once wholly owned by the Catholic church but is now broken up into more than 80 parcels- some plots comprising just a few rows of vines!
Climate, Soils and Grapes
Burgundy has a northern continental climate, with cold winters and hot summers. This region was once covered by the sea and its limestone soil composition reflects this geological past.
The two main grapes are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Generally, Chardonnay does well in calcareous clay dominant soils and Pinot Noir takes to the more limy, marl areas. The best sites are found mid slope with optimal sun exposure- though I question how this may change with global warming. The soils are generally shallow and the vine’s roots penetrate deep into limestone bedrock.
Both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are very sensitive to variations in terroir; this is obvious by tasting not only wines from different appellations within Burgundy, but one can note this by tasting these two grapes grown throughout the world – there are so many available styles and expressions.
The main wine growing areas in Burgundy from North to South are:
- Chablis – Chardonnay, crisp mineral style.
- Cote d’Or- both Chardonnay & Pinot Noir
- Cote de Nuits – Pinot Noir dominates. Ethereal, complexity; benchmark style.
- Cote de Beaune – Chardonnay dominates. Tension, complexity; benchmark style.
- Cote Chalonnaise – Chardonnay & Pinot Noir. Softer, more approachable styles.
- Maconnais – Chardonnay dominates. Full, softer styles.
The Appellation System
The appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) which translates as “controlled designation of origin” is based on the concept of terroir; the alchemy of grape, soil, climate, vineyard location and cultural tradition. The easiest way to understand this system is to think of it as an address that appears on the wine label indicating the place where the grapes have been grown. Burgundy has close to 100 different AOC wines. You can visualize the system as a pyramid with 4 tiers. The base of the AOC pyramid is the largest and accounts for the Regional appellations, followed by Village, moving up the pyramid to Premier Cru (single vineyard) to arrive at the top Grand Cru (top single vineyard)
The wine can come from a number of different plots throughout the Burgundy area carrying Regional classification. There are 23 regional appellations making up 52% of total wine production.
Here are a few main ones: Bourgogne, Bourgogne Cote d’Or, Bourgogne Cote Chalonnais, Bourgogne Macon, Bourgogne Macon Villages, Bourgogne Passe Tout Grains, Cremant de Bourgogne, Bourgogne Aligote….
In this designation the grapes must be grown in and around the village named on the bottle. Makes up 35% of total wine production. Ex. Vosne Romanee
Premier Cru Appellations
The grapes are grown in one single vineyard (Climats) within the named village. Both the village and vineyard name appear on the bottle. 12% of total wine production. Ex. Vosne Romanée 1er Cru Les Suchots
Grand Cru Appellations
The grapes are from a single vineyard and only that vineyard name appears on the label. Less than 2% of total wine production. 33 Grand Cru Vineyards. Ex. Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru
Note that sometimes a vineyard name will appear on a bottle of a village appellation wine that is not a registered Premier Cru (climats) vineyard. These are called Lieux Dits.
Discover Burgundy at Bishop’s Cellar
Can you taste terroir? How does a Marsannay from the northern tip of the Cote de Nuits compare to a Santenay from the southernmost part of the Cote de Beaune? Can you taste the difference between a regional Bourgogne wine and a Premier cru?
Try some of the wines on our shelves! Here’s your chance to take a trip through Burgundy from our shop here in Nova Scotia.
Huguenot Cotes D’or Bourgogne Rouge (Regional AOC)
Geantet Pansiot Marsannay Champerdrix (Cote de Nuits, Village AOC, Lieux-dits)
Cyrot Buthiau Pommard (Cote de Beaune, Village AOC)
Jean Marc Boillot Volnay (Cote de Beaune, Village AOC)
Robert Ampeau Volnay 1er Cru Santenots (Cote de Beaune, 1er Cru AOC)
Bruno Colin Santenay 1er Cru Gravieres (Cote de Beaune, single vineyard AOC)
Bruno Collin Bourgogne Chardonnay (Regional AOC)
Domaine Maillard Chorey Les Beaune Blancs (Cote de Beaune, Village AOC)
Domaine du Clos de Rocs Pouilly Loché (Maconnais, Village AOC)