Why is Burgundy so difficult to get a grasp of? For me, it’s a few things. I do not speak French, which makes a lot of words difficult. The pronunciation is really more like memorization than intuition since, again, I don’t know French. Then there is Napoleon. Yes, Napoleon. I mean, I guess what he did was great for a while but now there are just too many descendants of his countrymen (and I will explain why that’s important later) which makes Burgundy a bit of a cluster-fuck.
The area of Burgundy has been making wine since the 6th century.
By the middle of the 1600’s, the wine was being exported. Very soon thereafter Burgundy began to be in high demand in different parts of the world and therefore was commanding a high price for these sought after wines. Some things never change. Then fast forward 100 plus years to the start of the French Revolution. A time which always makes me think of that actor Gerard Depardieu in some movie that he did about the French Revolution. Yes, even though I am a history major, he still is the first thing that comes to mind. That aside, after the French Revolution, Napoleon made a namesake law, call the Napoleonic code. The basic premise of this law states that a person’s inheritance be split equally among heirs.
At first glance, the law seems completely fair and just.
The only problem is when people have children for the next several hundred years, the available inheritance gets progressively smaller. One can imagine that the situation in Burgundy, given it still accepts the Napoleonic Code, has led to some very silly situations, such as some citizens owning half of a vine of grapes. I mean, I really do believe that Napoleon meant well with this law…. but perhaps he just didn’t take fractions seriously in math class.
The solution to this problem is generally to have people called Négociants.
Négociants are around to make this jumbled mess a bit more unified, and to turn a profit. Négociants will buy a bunch of grapes from the farmers or landowners and make wine in larger quantities than they could manage themselves, then sell it off under their label. The Négociants were kicking some butt in the market and to a lesser extent are even doing so today. However, Négociants been supplanted in the wine market by Domaines, or farmers and landowners who are doing their own bottling. This cuts out the middleman, though it certainly does not cut the prices. The big difference is that Domaines are more consistent, but are also smaller operations that charge a lot more. Négociants, though less expensive can often be a gamble. If you think about it, most people don’t do everything the same way. For example, let’s say you have 14 people who all have 2 rows of grapes each and they are all purchased to make a wine, is it certain that all 14 growers are using the same methods and take the same care? It is hard to get two people to do anything exactly the same, let alone fourteen. Given that, there will be variation, on top of there being difference of terrior, or soil type.
So with all that in mind, let’s move on to grapes and geography of Burgundy.
The Côte d’Or (aka the Golden Slope) is one of the most famous regions in the world for wine, and a super important one in Burgundy. Most of the Grand Cru’s come from this region that is divided up into the Côte du Nuits and Côte du Beaune. If you want a few mnemonic devices to remember these things: I remember it by using the N in Nuits to remember it is in the north and Côte du Beaune being in the south. In addition to that, when I think Beaune, I think of bones. Bones are white, and this region is more known for white wine, while Côte du Nuits is more known for red wine. Also, as a whole (although there are exceptions to everything), if a wine is red it is typically Pinot Noir and if a wine is white it is typically Chardonnay.
If you go North, it’s the Yonne area which contains Chablis, Irancy, St-Bris and Auxerre. South of the Côte d’Or is Côte Chalonnaise and the Mâconnais. Beaujolais is another region in Burgundy and its made of the Gamay grape. Gamay is also used in the Mâconnais. Pinot Noir is and has been the most important grape of Burgundy until about 100 years ago when Chardonnay started playing a more active role and it now doing pretty well for itself. So in other words, the main grapes are Pinot Noir for red in Burgundy and Chardonnay for white. That being said, there is another white of some importance called Aligoté which is found in Bouzeron AOP in the Cote Chalonnaise region.
Obviously Chablis is an incredibly important region as well which is also part of Burgundy yet it so far north it is closer to Champagne! This is a cooler climate that only produces white wine, the famous one and only Chardonnay. There are some grand crus in the Chablis and make some of the best whites in the world. Again, this is a whole other topic which I am not touching on here but I can’t leave out one of the most important white wine regions in the world.
Another region of note is Beaujolais though closer to the Rhone region is still a part of Burgundy. This is a warmer region than the rest of Burgundy and the grape for the area is Gamay. Technically this region can produce red, white and rosé even though I think mostly of the Gamay based easy drinking reds that come from this region. Again, there are some great wines that come from here and you can get great value wines as well.
Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais
Lastly are the Côte Chalonnaise and then a bit more south is the Mâconnais regions within Burgundy. Both regions can make red, white and rosé and also make some great wines with some really famous villages.
Moving away from geography and going into the classification starting from entry level to highest level in regards to quality is: regional, village, premier crus and grand cru.
The basics in appellation start with the Bourgogne AOP region being the largest and intro level which can include red, white and rosé. If it is sparkling it will be called Crémant de Bourgogne. Simple enough, right?
Then there is village level which is labeled by commune and will not be as expensive or terrior specific as the next levels up but you can get some fantastic wines for a deal in this category. Whether it is red or white will be decided by village and what is allowed. Marsannay does in fact allow red, white and rosé. What makes this hard for me to understand now is these villages add the names of the famous wineries to themselves.
Next is the Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines which are some of the most expensive wines in the world. The producers range in sizes from tiny to huge and everything in between. One big difference between Bordeaux and Burgundy is who gets the status of grand cru and premier cru. In Bordeaux it is the Chateau that owns the vineyards who has the statues and in Burgundy it is the vineyards with the status regardless of who owns it.
There still is a lot to learn about Burgundy.
There are whole books on Burgundy and this hardly scratched the surface of this interesting section of France. I am just in the middle of studying this crazy amazing region and just wanted to point out why it is so difficult. The natives of this region have had to come up with their own inventive solution to make the best of an old, antiquated law, and surprisingly succeeded! For hundreds of years through today (and probably into the future), Burgundy is a complex region with incredibly expressive wines, which surprisingly utilize mainly just two iconic grapes. Despite this, they are able to have established such a powerful identity for their region. If you ever wonder what terrior means, Burgundy is the best example.
Métayage – sharecropping
Fermage – leasing arrangements
Regions within the Yonne department – Chablis, Irancy, St-Bris, Auxerre
Where is Gamay allowed? – Mâconnais. Beaujolais, Bourgogne Passetoutgrains and the Sparkling red Bourgogne Mosseux.
What is Pinot Gris known as in Burgundy? – Pinot Beurot and its permitted in many appellations but hardly used.
Where is Pinot Blanc most notable produced? – Nuits-St-George
Name the villages in the Yonne department that can add their name to a label? – Chitry, Vézelay and Épineuil