- an explanation of the region and its wine styles
It is no secret that my desert island wine comes affixed with a label from Burgundy. In fact,
I’d likely make a few trips back to the sinking ship to nab the remaining
bottles; that, and a shovel to begin construction of a cellar in the sand. Come
to think of it, wild game on the island and fresh scallops in the sea… don’t
bother sending a search party. That said, I also appreciate that the thought of
complex labels, classified vineyards, and high price tags is enough to steer
many people away from
The best explanation (that I have) for the continued
attraction to this exceedingly complex network of vineyards is that once you
sample a superb bottle of Burgundy, nothing else seems to shine quite as bright.
The challenge, however, is that these bottles are few and far between, and thus
it becomes a quest to repeat something that arguably may never be duplicated.
I do not intend to present anything
pioneering in the way of ideas here, but rather I'd like to simplify the
technicalities that intimidate newcomers when confronted by a bottle of
on the store shelf.
Burgundy is any one of the following: Chablis,
the Côte d'Or,
Beaujolais, Mâconnais, and the
Côte Chalonnaise. As a comparison,
has Niagara, the Beamsville Bench,
and Prince Edward County. Each region has its own flare and sense of
place and you can draw a similar parallel almost anywhere grapes grow for the
production of wine. The French call it terrior, as does anyone who has chosen
to make a life of the vine.
taste of Burgundy is
one that varies dramatically in terms of style. To understand this, we
must first define the geographical region. The landscape is literally a
patchwork of vineyards spread over a vertical axis along a twisted line of
rolling hills. The vines begin only 150 km southeast of Paris and extend well
south to encroach on the vineyards of Rhône. To the north is the satellite
of Chablis and the home of mineral driven, unoaked Chardonnay. In nearby
Irancy, a small amount of Pinot is grown, and only a few kilometres southwest
the village of Saint-Bris crafts respectable Sauvignon Blanc.
Further to the south again, the focus becomes rather intense, and as you enter
the famous Côte d’Or or ‘golden slope’ where richly complex Pinot Noir dominates
the vineyards of the Côte de Nuits. These unassuming vines are without
question the benchmark by which all Pinot is compared. As a rule, the red wine
begins to lighten in body as you travel south through the Côte d’Or into Beaune
where Pinot then takes a backseat to the delicately oaked and ever changing wine
The Chalonnaise and Mâconnais follow and are home to more reasonably priced wine
of the same varieties, in addition to a hearty supply of lighter bodied wines
and crémant (sparkling) sourced from the Aligoté grape.
On the third Thursday of each November, the Beaujolais releases their fruity
Nouveau to a world of enthusiastic partygoers, but Burgundy’s most southern
sub-region may also be its most misunderstood. Those in search of age
worthy Gamay should explore the wines of the 10 Beaujolais Crus for a deeper
expression of flavour and intensity.
Historically, each vineyard in the region was awarded a
classification based upon its position on the hillside and resultant potential
for ripening fruit. Typically, there are three tiers of vineyards: an
upper exposure, the mid-slope, and lower flat associated with each village.
The favourable climats or plots of vines are generally those found on the mid-slope with a
southeastern exposure in any given village.
With some exceptions in Chablis and Beaujolais,
the classification of these vineyards and composition as a percent of the total
production is as follows:
Regional (basic wine blended from anywhere in the region) 51%
• Village (better quality from a specific village or
• Premier Cru (better still) 10%
• Grand Cru (exceptional) 1.5%
Chablis has a similar hierarchy with the addition of Petit
Chablis below the Village level. Beaujolais is
a bit different with its Nouveau, Regional, Village, and Cru classes.
It goes without saying that as you ascend through the
hierarchy, the price increases (rather aggressively, I might add). Considering
the rarity and auction hammer prices at
Burgundy's top-end, it's not all that
surprising to learn that the Côte d‘Or is also home to the world's most
expensive farmland - but let's steer clear of that topic.
complication of Burgundy only becomes obvious when we
introduce the issue of ownership. In Bordeaux, California,
or most other wine regions, the vineyards on a given property are controlled by
a single body, be it a person or corporation. All fruit is accounted for,
and the resultant wines are crafted through a reasonably consistent technique
and/or style. In Burgundy,
consistency takes a turn for the worst, but not without reason: A bizarre
Napoleonic law stipulates that with each passing generation, the ownership of
property is split between siblings. And while the concept is not
unreasonable, a percentage of the new ownership (of say, a premier cru vineyard)
may lack the experience, interest, or resources to make quality wine.
Regulations permit ‘anyone’ producing wine from these vineyards to label his or
her bottles accordingly. That means that while you may think you are
purchasing a finer bottle from one of Burgundy’s better plots, the product can vary
dramatically in terms of quality.
Enter the négociant: Within the body of Burgundy, there are
individuals who purchase bulk grapes and/or juice from small owners to craft
wine under their own name. While the négociant may or may not own vines in the
vineyard, he or she is free to label and sell the bottles under the name of the
village or vineyard of origin.
To put the subject in perspective, the majority of Burgundy is produced by
approximately 120 négociants who in total, own less than 10% of the land in the
A few big name négociants to look for are: Louis Latour,
Louis Jadot, Bouchard Père et Fils, Domaine Faiveley, Vincent Giradin, Domaine
Roux Père et Fils, and Joseph Drouhin to list only a few.
That certainly does not imply that you should avoid the small
and more focussed production from individual ‘Domains’. Indeed, the very best Burgundy is that of
single ownership and which originated from the soil and was nurtured to
perfection with minimal influence. You just need to know what to look for
before purchasing these wines.
For additional information on the
classification and ranking of Burgundy,
I strongly recommend that you consult Hugh
Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine.