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A Little Bit About Burgundy: Great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay

France, and specifically Bourgogne, what we in the great USA call Burgundy, is where the world’s best Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays are grown. And I say “grown” because Burgundy is all about the vineyard rather than the chateau or winery.

Not to say that there aren’t some excellent Pinots and Chardonnays from other places – old world and new, oaked and unoaked, cool climate and hot climate, austere and crisp.  Of course, there are also sweet, caramel-y, and in my view pretty much undrinkable wines from those places, too. Think Yellowtail, or, actually, don’t.

I’ve tasted Pinots from New Zealand and Oregon that rival the best from Burgundy, and recently I had a Chardonnay from Italy that I might have sworn was a Premier Cru from France. But for a whole bunch of reasons, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay just seem to grow better in Burgundy than just about anywhere else on earth. Incidentally, several other grapes are at home in Burgundy including Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Aligote—a totally under-appreciated white grape that has some similarities to Chardonnay—and last but not least, Gamay, the great grape of Beaujolais.

Now you could spend a lifetime learning about all the vineyards in Burgundy. You could memorize all 33 Grands Crus and win a wine-trivia contest, and you could read the 821 pages of Clive Coates’s The Wines of Burgundy and learn far more than you wanted to know about this almost perfect wine-growing place. I’m about a third of the way through it and frankly it’s more like a career than a book. But maybe you just want to know a little bit.

A Reign of Terroir

What you might find more interesting if you care about any of this, beyond just how good these wines taste, is the idea of terroir.  This is the somewhat mystical concept which holds that the wine is a result of the soil, subsoil, temperature, rainfall, elevation, drainage, sun exposure and hours of sunlight, density and orientation of the vines, wind, cover crop, and a bunch of other things related to the vineyard, far more than anything the winemaker does. Nowhere in the wine world more than Burgundy is the idea of terroir held so absolutely, regardless of whether any of it can be proved. And I don’t think it can.  Yet many people believe absolutely in the idea.

A Brief History of Burgundy

For hundreds of years leading up to the French Revolution, the great vineyards of Burgundy were owned by the nobility and the Catholic Church, who leased them out through a chain of proprietors down to the tenant farmer who actually maintained the land and the vines, and grew the grapes. While the nobility is long gone and the Church has invested in other things, this fragmented owner/operator system still exists.

The first Burgundy chateau we know of was built by monks from Citeau in the year 1115. And as far back as 1395, a focus on quality was formally established through an ordinance published by Duc Philip “the Bold.” Twenty years later, King Charles VI set the original boundaries of the Burgundy wine-producing area.

In 1720, the merchant company Champy was founded…and is still in business today. And as the French Revolution came 60 years later, vineyards owned and operated by the Catholic church were confiscated and auctioned off, setting the stage for today’s Burgundy where even tiny vineyards often have multiple owners. In 1861, Beaune’s Agricultural Committee issued the first classification of Burgundy wines of the Côte d’Or.

In 1875, the nasty little louse Phylloxera began destroying the vines in Burgundy, and in return, huge vineyard areas were eventually torn out and replanted. On the eve of WWII, Morey-Saint-Denis became the first Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC) in Bourgogne; on the eve of D-Day, the “Premier Cru” category was created in the region.  In 1975, Burgundy’s version of Champagne called “Cremant de Bourgone” was granted AOC status, and just five years ago, Bourgogne Tonnerre became the region’s 100th appellation.

Understanding the Classifications

Burgundy is composed of five distinct regions, from north to south: Chablis, Cote d’Or (Cote de Beaune in the north and Cotes de Nuits in the south), Cote Chalonnaise, Maconnais and Beaujolais. The Cote d’Or alone has 28 different wine-producing villages called communes, with a total of 20,000 acres or 8100 hectares of vineyards. The entire region has about 72,000 acres of vineyards, and produces about 200 million bottles of wine a year.

The classifications in Burgundy do have a certain logic to them, but they’re still a pain in the ass, and they’re far different from the Bordeaux ones. The important thing here is the vineyard and village where the grapes are grown, rather than the Chateau (winery) as in Bordeaux.

The top classification is Grand Cru— there are 33 Grand Cru Appellations representing about only 1.5% of the wines produced here —and they’re named by the single vineyard alone. If you’ve spent some time in the Burgundy section of a wine store, some of these names might ring a bell: Bâtard-Montrachet, Chambertin, Clos de Vougeot, Échezeaux, Montrachet, Musigny, Richebourg, and Romanée-Conti. Each Grand Cru wine really is its own Appellation.

The second tier is ironically named Premier Cru or “first growth”, sometimes abbreviated 1er Cru. These also represent great terroir and about 10% of Burgundy’s production. In an interesting twist, a few 1er Cru wines will actually take grapes from more that one named vineyard, and then they’ll keep the Premier Cru designation but name the wine for the village only. But they’ll always say “Appellation Premier Cru Controlee.”

Tier 3 are true Village wines, about 37% of all Burgundies, and the grapes for these wines are sourced from vineyards within a single village or commune…and that’s what they’ll say, the village name; for example, “Appellation Nuits-St. George Controlee.” The thing here is that the vineyards themselves have to be classified at the village level or better.

Bringing up the rear, but by no means bottom-feeders, are wines from the 23 Regional AOCs, making up about 52% of all Burgundies. Make no mistake, the wines from regional appellations can be superb and command pretty big prices. These will be labeled by the broad region alone, such as Appellation Bourgogne Controllee, or by a smaller sub-region such as Cote de Beaune. Regional wines can also have the name of the grape on the label, and this is the only level in Burgundy where this is permitted.

The Wines: Chardonnay

Chardonnay is far too often grown in hot-climate areas all over the world, allowed to overripen, and then turned into high-alcohol, over-oaked, sweet caramel bombs. I know that some people like these, including a lot of Americans, so who am I to say they shouldn’t drink them…just because I won’t?

But since we’re on the subject of White Burgundies, I want to mention that while there are a lot of lousy ones from here, there are also the world’s best, with names on the bottles that you’ve probably heard of such as Chassagne, Meursault and Puligny. The finest are rich without being sweet, with enough oak to balance their acidity and bring out the honey, nutty, vanillin and toasty flavors that make this wine, well, the best white wine on earth.

As an aside I want to give a shout-out to Chablis, and no I don’t mean the crappy, sweet and watery California jug wine I drank in college, made from French Colombard grapes. Although it’s considered the northernmost part of the Burgundy region, Chablis is actually about 70 miles northwest of the top end of the Cote d’Or. Its chalky soil (similar to the soil of Champagne), relatively cool climate, and restrained style of winemaking produces wines that are often described as austere or flinty. What they are for sure is about the purest “expression” of Chardonnay.

The Wines: Pinot Noir

The merits of Burgundian Pinot Noirs are probably discussed and debated among wine lovers more than any other grape, wine or wine region. People that love them don’t think anything else comes close, and they’ll give you the reasons: they’re elegant, perfumed, silky, subtle, nuanced, and glorious! Notoriously thin-skinned, Pinots are lighter in color and lower in perceptible tannin than almost any other red wines, and deliver up a lush bouquet of summer fruit: to me, red cherries, strawberries and raspberries. As they age they gain spiciness and complexity that they clearly lack in youth, and contrary to a lot of conventional wisdom Red Burgundies can age for a very long time, at least those from good terroirs in the best vintages.


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