Burgundy Wine Regions Guide

Where Tradition Meets Innovation in the World's Most Diverse Wine Region



The term Burgundy is astonishingly misleading: this is an extremely fragmented region, with numerous appellations (over 70), subregions, and terroirs. It is the least unified – and consistent – vineyard on earth. Yet we continue to assign the catch-all term ‘Burgundy’ to this complex web of soils and microclimates. Why? Perhaps it is because we associate the broader region with two (and only two) key grape varieties: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Red Burgundy from the Côte d’Or, solely based on the Pinot Noir grape, should dazzle us with its perfume, complexity, and finesse rather than power and concentration. White Burgundy is almost exclusively based on Chardonnay. It should express complexity in aroma and flavor, be it minerally, buttery, and nutty, and have depth, structure, and a moreish quality. Oenophiles have adored these wines since Thomas Jefferson wrote enthusiastically about Montrachet in the 1700s.

However, although Burgundy is a region of great heritage, it is also willing to adapt to modern times, ensuring that the twin virtues of tradition and innovation are balanced. Younger, highly trained, and talented winemakers have played a major part in transforming quality in this most complex and magical of France’s wine regions; the organic and biodynamic movement, adopted by such luminaries as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, is growing at a substantial pace as growers reject synthetic inputs for a more sustainable approach. But, in conjunction with modernity comes the ancient notion of terroir, where subtle differences of climate, soil composition, and aspect identified over centuries and expressed in individual climats (vineyard sites) make this region so fascinating. You could spend a lifetime studying these ancient soils and still find unanswerable questions. That is the inimitable allure of Burgundy: the world’s most diverse wine region.

Winemaking and regional classifications

Chateau de Meursault in Côte de Beaune
Chateau de Meursault in Côte de Beaune

Burgundy is a region of structure and hierarchy where vineyards are ranked and graded according to the perceived quality of the terroir. From the perspective of collectors and buyers, this classification is as important as the reputation of an individual producer or the winemaking employed. In Burgundy, terroir is king.

The basic hierarchy in the Côte d’Or has remained unchanged for centuries. The creme de la crème are Burgundy’s Grand Cru vineyards, followed by premier crus – always associated with one of 25 villages, then the level of the village itself (i.e., Meursault) before the sub-regional appellations, and finally the generic appellations of Bourgogne Blanc/Bourgogne Rouge. The ethos behind this strictly enforced classification is simple: as far as a Burgundian is concerned, one vineyard site (even ones close together) is different and perhaps inferior or superior to another; where the wine came from is crucial, not the grape variety.

The best domaines take a nuanced approach to winemaking in Burgundy, ensuring the fruit and terroir character shine through. This is achieved with meticulous work in the vineyard and winery, carefully avoiding over-extraction in the case of Pinot Noir. Most favor a certain percentage of stems in the vat (in good vintages) as it enhances complexity without subverting terroir. The critical mass is also convinced that vinification should reach a relatively high temperature, extracting just the right amount of color, flavor, and tannin to produce quintessential red Burgundy: elegance personified. Both red and white Burgundies are typically aged in wood, although the type and length of maturation can vary dramatically. The conservative view is that new barrique can subjugate terroir character and should never be used. Yet it is fundamental to the winemaking philosophy at DRC, Leroy and Domaine Dujac. This debate will run and run.

Burgundy Wine Regions Map

wine-maps - burgundy-wine-region-map
Download Burgundy Wine Regions Map

Geography and terroir

Burgundy is a geographically vast region, encompassing Chablis (98 miles east of Paris), the Côte d’Or, Côte Chalonnaise, the Maconnais, and the vineyards of Beaujolais, situated less than 60 minutes from Lyon. Therefore, a tidy summation of this fragmented wine growing area is impossible.

Yet Burgundy enjoys a continental climate defined by cold winters and (relatively) dry summers. Temperatures hover around the late-70s in the summer, with approximately 740mm of annual rainfall. But there are significant variances in soil and macroclimate, as we will discover.

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Key Grape Varietals

  • Chardonnay

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  • Aligote

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  • Pinot Noir

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The lowdown

Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, La Tache
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, La Tache

In the 20th century, Burgundy had no serious challengers. There were drinkable Pinot Noirs from Italy’s Alto-Adige region, some quaffable wines from Germany/Alsace, and a smattering of Loire Pinots that were pleasantly fruity. Meanwhile, the best Chardonnays from Australia and Napa bore little resemblance to the supreme elegance of Montrachet. Once again, Burgundy expert Clive Coates had his finger on the pulse. “Other parts of the world, particularly California and to a lesser extent Australia, can and do produce plenty of competition for village Burgundy. But at the Grand Cru level, the best white Burgundies remain unequaled. Elsewhere, the terroirs have not yet been found or have not yet been correctly exploited,” said the late author. Indeed, even the most hardened skeptic had to concede that Burgundy was very special – an inimitable combination of soil, climate, and tradition.

But is this assessment still valid today? Particularly when one considers the awesome quality of Chardonnay wines made in Margaret River and the cooler parts of California, it is getting harder and harder to justify a myopic fixation on the Côte d’Or. Once upon a time, New World expressions of this flexible variety were associated with butterscotch, pineapple, and oak – hardly a facsimile of Puligny-Montrachet. Yet times have changed, and so has New World Chardonnay. It is a case of out with the butterscotch and in with the elegance. Today, if you gravitate toward cool-climate spots like Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula or California’s Santa Barbara Country, you’re awarded with all the wonderful complexity – and finesse – that defines white Burgundy. And what of Pinot Noir? Growers in the US, New Zealand, Germany, Australia, and even England are producing stunning wines from this mercurial grape: reds that run the whole gamut from light and crunchy to exotically voluptuous. From that perspective, it is becoming difficult to justify paying a large premium for the label alone. In 2023, New World winemakers can rival – or even trump – Burgundy as its own game.

Of course, this matters not to collectors. They will continue paying exorbitant sums for the most famous Grand Crus and domaines. However, the appeal is not simply Burgundy’s global cachet or the immense bragging rights flowing from cracking open a Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tache ($25,000!) On the contrary, Burgundy’s unique soils complement Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in a way that has no direct parallel. The geology of Burgundy (dating back to the Jurassic period) has been studied for generations; however, the relationship between different minerals in the soil and the variety planted is still not fully understood. Thus, you can taste 50 Burgundies made in the same vintage, and by the same house, yet they will all be remarkably different. Such is the great mystique of Burgundy: it tickles your sensual and intellectual fancies with equal force. Close your eyes when drinking Meursault Charmes and be transported to the fractured, ancient geology of the Côte d’Or. That’s something no other region can provide.

Facts & Figures

Key wine styles

  • Pinot Noir-based red; Chardonnay white wines; Aligote; a small volume of sparkling wine

Appellation structure

  • Over 75 AOCs in the Burgundy region

Hectares under vine

  • 25,000 hectares

Average annual production

  • 185 million bottles per annum

Approximate number of wineries

  • 3000

Burgundy gastronomy

Burgundy is regarded as France’s seminal gastronomic region, only rivaled by the globalized offerings of Paris. The four most famous ingredients, Charolais beef, Bresse chicken, mustard, and red wine, are used in various classical dishes that reach an apogee in the legendary Boeuf bourguignon. How could beef marinated and cooked in young wine with mushrooms, onions, carrots, and bacon be so utterly delicious? The answer is simple: fresh seasonal ingredients, cooked with skill and panache, represent the pinnacle of culinary excellence. Bon appetit!

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Hospices de Beaune, Fifteenth-century Burgundian Architecture
Hospices de Beaune, Fifteenth-century Burgundian Architecture

This corner of eastern France (118 miles south of Paris) has been an important winegrowing center since the Romans took control of Gaul (France) in the last century BC. Yet it is believed that the native Celts had planted vines long before Caesar’s armies subjugated this rich and fertile land. Nevertheless, the Romans created a thriving industry from the vine, exporting wines to all corners of their vast Western Empire. This ambitious political project endured over four centuries until arrogance and overreach weakened its hold over European territories. Rome’s enemies were circling: by AD 476, the empire collapsed as rival powers attempted to conquer Gaul.

Thus began the so-called Dark Ages. During this time, France was controlled by the Frankish Merovingian dynasties – powerful families that consolidated their hold over lost Roman territories. However, state control over winegrowing was supplanted by the increasingly powerful Catholic Church in the 8th century as Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (from the rival Carolingian dynasty) was crowned by Pope Leo III. During the Middle Ages, two Burgundy-based monastic orders exerted considerable influence on cultural affairs: the Cistercians and their bitter rivals, the Benedictines. However, the former created Burgundy’s first terroir hierarchy, studying the soils of the Côte d’Or and laying the groundwork for a codified framework formalized in the 1800s. Many centuries earlier, the Cistercians unveiled Burgundy’s seminal Grand Cru: the walled vineyard of Clos Vougeot. It remains in great demand.

Yet there have been many viticultural changes since the late Middle Ages. In the vineyards of Chambertin and Volnay, the red grape of Beaujolais, Gamay, was once widely planted and adored – Gamay’s generous yields were undoubtedly part of the attraction. However, the rise of the Dukes of Burgundy profoundly impacted the region’s winemaking culture: Dijon served as the capital of the duchy of Burgundy from the 11th to 15th centuries. Its most famous leaders, including Philip the Bold and Philip the Good, declared ‘war’ on Gamay, forcing growers to rip it out and replace the variety with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. At the height of their power, the dukes controlled territory in Burgundy, Alsace, Luxembourg, and Holland. Meanwhile, painters, sculptors, and architects from around Europe were brought to Dijon, turning this prosperous city into one of the leading centers of European haute couture.

Nevertheless, this was a time of bitter rivalry between Burgundy and France. The latter finally seized control of this bellicose region in 1477; Burgundy became part of a unified French state. This relative stability was shattered, however, by the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. After that, land owned by the church was seized and redistributed among private owners. Winegrowing entered a golden age in the 19th century, as Europe’s aristocracy surrendered to the charms of Burgundy’s stratified hierarchy; Grand Crus became one of the most prized commodities in the global wine market. Unfortunately, its renown declined after the Second World War due to economic pressures and realignment toward bulk wine production, aided by the liberal application of synthetic herbicides and fertilizers. Thankfully, the current generation has abandoned this paradigm, and Burgundy’s global reputation is again riding high. The most iconic Grand Crus, such as La Tache and Montrachet, sell for lavish sums that break records on a monthly basis.

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