Burgundy, or Bourgogne, is a world-renowned wine region that needs little introduction. This is an area of great heritage and prestige that is continually struggling to ensure that the twin virtues of tradition and innovation are in balance. Younger, highly-trained and talented winemakers have played their part in transforming quality in this most complex and magical of France’s wine regions. Yet, here in conjunction with modernity comes the ancient notion of terroir, where subtle differences of climate, soil composition, and aspect identified over the course of centuries and expressed in individual climates make this region so fascinating. Red Burgundy, 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 and should express complexity in both aroma and flavor, be it minerally or buttery and nutty, and have depth, structure, and a moreish quality.
In the Côte d’Or, Burgundy’s heartland, the fragmentation of the vineyard area is extreme, and a complete contrast to Bordeaux’s more coherent, larger patchwork. With a few rows here and a few there, and the difficulties of vinifying such small quantities of grapes, it made sense to sell grapes to the merchants as almost all growers did in the early 20th century. However today, through buying, trading, and marriage, a host of new independent growers are producing their own wines and have provided much of the impetus for higher quality. The grower strikes back!
Burgundy is most definitely a region of structure and hierarchy, where your vineyards are ranked and graded according to the perceived quality of the terroir. The vineyards run south of Dijon along the hillsides down towards Lyon. The basic hierarchy in the Côte d’Or is of grand crus at the top, 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, and Bourgogne Aligote. The lowest level is not necessarily the humblest, however, as wine from any level may be sold as generic. Confused yet? Well, to get to grips with Burgundy it is crucial to understand the concept of climats or individual vineyard areas. As far as a Burgundian is concerned, one vineyard site (even ones close together) is clearly different and perhaps inferior or superior to another, where the wine came from is of key concern, not the grape variety.
The Côte d’Or is split into two distinct areas, the Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune. Generally speaking, the Côte De Nuits is famed for producing complex, elegant and structured reds while the Beaune is known for its lighter reds and elegant whites. Production from the Côte de Nuits is almost exclusively red. The villages of Marsanny and Fixin begin our journey down the Côte d’Or, at the northern end of the Côte de Nuits. Marsanny tends to be light but scented and produces, unusually for the area, a significant amount of rose and white. Fixin in contrast, produces quite forceful, earthy Burgundy, including some powerful reds from premier crus on the slopes above the village. Gevrey-Chambertin is one of the most famous names in the region and next on our journey. It has 26 premier crus including the famous Clos Saint-Jacques. South of the village begins the great chain of grand crus that run almost to the southern edge of the village Vosne Romanée. Gevrey at any level should be distinguished by its great power, concentration and structure than its neighboring villages. Morey-Saint-Denis lacks the glamour of Gevrey and Chambolle but boasts 20 premier crus and four grand crus nonetheless. Chambolle Musigny is known for producing elegant, light Burgundy; the grand cru of Le Musigny within its boundaries is like no other, expressing the sumptuous beauty of red Burgundy.
The village of Vougeot further south is dominated by the massive 50-ha Grand Cru of Clos Vougeot. Neighboring Vosne-Romanée is a village like no other in the Côte de Nuits. Behind the village lie the great vineyards that produce Burgundy’s most expensive and sought-after wines. At the heart of these are the justly famous vineyards of Romanée-Conti, with La Tache and Richebourg also superb and vastly expensive. These, in turn, are flanked by some marvelous premier crus; the best of these are rich, intense and concentrated. True elegance in a glass.
The last major village in the Côte de Nuits is Nuits-Saint-Georges though vineyards continue on south to Comblanchient. Here, the best wines offer power and intensity as well as a degree of finesse in the best of the 38 premier crus. There are no grand crus. There is scarcely time for a breath before the wine lover enters the Côte de Beaune, the heartland of fine white Burgundy. Its reputation is certainly more for white, yet the majority of wines are in fact red. It begins with a cluster of villages around the famous hill of Corton. Aloxe-Corton at the foot of the Corton hill includes the famous appellations of Corton and Corton-Charlemagne. Intense, structured white wines and full-bodied flavorsome reds are produced here. To the west of the Aloxe-Corton lies Pernand-Vergelesses, some of it tucked into the folds of the hills. Increasingly good value white and red is being made here. To the south, it adjoins Savigny-Les Beaune, which extends east up a little valley to the village itself. Importantly, this is a source of reasonably plentiful, good value Burgundy, not a common thing in the region!
Côte De Beaune
Beaune, historically and commercially, is the heart of Burgundy but it is also one of the three leading Côte De Beaune red wine villages and includes some excellent premier crus from the gentle slopes west of the town. Pommard is a continuation of Beaune and its reputation for sturdy, full-bodied reds is in part due to the local terroir, more clayey, iron rich soils dominate the village. In neighboring Volnay the soils are lighter and poorer, contributing to the wine’s refinement and elegance. Moving south we arrive at Meursault, one of the three biggest villages in the Côte d’Or, this is the most important white wine village. Some of the finest white wines in Burgundy are made here; intense, stylish and rich. There are no grand crus but plenty of fine premier crus. Next door is arguably the most famous white village in the world, Puligny Montrachet. ‘Puligny’ and world’s best often share the same sentence. The village includes the grand crus Chevalier-Montrachet and Le Montrachet. Le Montrachet is the greatest, and most expensive white wine of all time, a wine capable of marvelous concentration, sublime proportions and exquisite complexity. As well as the continuation of grand crus Le Montrachet and Batard Montrachet, the village of Chassagne-Montrachet adds the tiny 1.57-hectare grand cru of Criots-Batard-Montrachet. The wines sold under the Chassagne AC were once predominantly red but its reputation is now emphatically white.
Behind Chassagne and Puligny lies the village of Saint-Aubin. Some fantastic value white wine is being produced by the best growers as the potential of this site is being realized. The reds tend to be relatively light, perfect for drinking alone. Santenay is the Côte de Beaune’s last significant village of quality as the tail of the vineyards area swings west. From south-facing vineyards red wines dominate, the best of these are full and stylish. One or two excellent whites are also being produced. Although the Côte d’Or reaches its end at the village of Maranges, its neighbor the Côte Chalonnaise also deserves a mention. The Chalonnaise is not a continuation of the Côte d’Or but rather an area of less sheltered rolling hills where grapes ripen later and the wines are light. However, as a source of quality and value, the best producers can provide a real alternative to lesser villages further north. Rully is known for making good whites; the best have a real touch of class. Another village to watch out for is Mercurey, the region’s most important appellation. Most of the wine is structured, rich and intense, from a top year and producer, you can buy with confidence.
Chardonnay and Pinot Noir
Burgundy is dominated by the two noble grapes of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and yet the wines are far more than just a varietal expression of the grapes planted. They represent hundreds of years of tradition married with innovation and new blood. At their best, the wines are unrivaled for finesse, elegance and great complexity. The region is at first slightly daunting, but once you visit these beautiful medieval towns and walk the streets you realize that actually it is all united by a common factor. The producer. Nothing should guide you more than who made the wine, as even grand cru level can be disappointing in the wrong hands. Wines from Burgundy can astound or it can leave you wanting. However, there is nothing disappointing about visiting the region, one of the most beautiful and hospitable in the world. A wine lover’s paradise.