The Enigma of Burgundy and its Wines

If you want to become a knowledgeable wine connoisseur, then at some point you will have to come to terms with Burgundy and its wines. But I do not recommend that this be the first wine region you study. If you know quite a bit about Bordeaux, then you can approach Burgundy by looking for the differences. Sometimes these differences are obvious, sometimes they are subtle. You may find my comparison chart for these two regions helpful.

I think more people know the name of burgundy than know its wines. For starters, Burgundy with a capital B is the English word for this region, and with a small b it refers to the wine. But that name will never appear on a label, because the French name for the region and the wine is Bourgogne. As with other regions of France, there is a complex hierarchy of regulations for naming the wines based on where they are grown. In Burgundy it is the patch of ground which is classified and named, and there may be many different grape growers and wine makers who own a piece of a particular patch of ground.

Burgundy wines are named according to the French “Appellation Controlée” system, under which wines are identified by the place where the grapes are grown and the wine is made. Each province in France is divided into communes – usually a small town with its surrounding lands, something we might call a township. The better communes have the right, under the regulations, to name the wines produced there after the commune. Lesser wines from lesser communes may only bear a regional name, the lowest ranking name being simply Bourgogne. In total there are several dozen different “Appellations” in Burgundy.

The highest classification in Burgundy is called “Grand Cru” meaning “great growth”. A grand cru name will be applied to a single vineyard, which may be as small as 4 or 5 acres, or as large as 125 acres. There are also limits on the amount of wine that can be produced from each acre, the idea being that quality and quantity don’t go together. Only one grape variety may be grown – the Pinot Noir for red wines; the Chardonnay for white wines. The names of these grapes will very rarely be provided on the label.

The next highest classification is called “Premier Cru” meaning “first growth”. As with grand cru vineyards, it is the actual piece of ground, that vineyard, which bears the name. Once again, only Pinot Noir is permitted for red wines; only Chardonnay for whites.

A Burgundy wine estate is usually called a Domaine, sometimes a Chateau. So here are some examples of what you might find on a label of burgundy wine:

Chambertin Appellation Chambertin Controlée – this is the red wine from a single vineyard of some 30 acres south of the city of Dijon. Only red wine is made here, of the highest price and quality.
Gevrey-Chambertin Clos St. Jacques Appellation Gevrey-Chambertin 1er cru Controlée – this is from a nearby vineyard deemed not quite so fine as the great Chambertin itself, so it is a ‘premier cru’ wine, not a grand cru. Note that the village at the centre of this commune, the village of Gevrey, has added the name of its most famous vineyard to that of its own. All the greatest communes of Burgundy have done this; the most famous are listed below.
Gevrey-Chambertin Appellation Controlée – so now we have a wine grown in the same commune, but not from a classified vineyard. This wine will be good, but not so great or long-lived as the preceding. parts of the region are allowed to add the word “Supérieur” to their name; they are held to a slightly higher standard of quality and production to exercise this entitlement.
Cote-de-Nuits Village Appellation Controlée – this wine may be blended from grapes grown in different communes within the Cote-de-Nuits region of Burgundy, or may be from a lesser commune that does not have the right, under the regulations, to its own Appellation Controlée. Such a wine should be moderately priced, and may be quite good.
Bourgogne Appellation Controlée – this is the basic wine of Burgundy. It must also be made from Pinot Noir grapes for red, or from Chardonnay for white. At this level other grapes may be permitted: Gamay for red and Aligoté for white, but then a different name must be applied to the wine.

Some communes whose names you should learn to recognize:

Gevrey-Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny, Morey-St.-Denis, Vosne-Romanée, Nuits-St.-Georges – these are the five most famous communes of the northern half of the Cote d’Or – the slope of gold – which is where the best wines of Burgundy are made. This northern half of the Cote d’Or is called the Cote de Nuits. All of these communes produce red wine almost exclusively (less than 1% of the wine from the Cote de Nuits is white) and all the grand cru vineyards produce red wine only.
Aloxe-Corton, Savigny-lès-Beaune, Beaune, Pommard, Volnay, Meursault, Chassagne-Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet – these are the eight most famous communes of the Cote de Beaune, which forms the southern half of the Cote d’Or. You will have already noticed that some of these are do not use hyphenated names; that is because these communes do not have any ‘grand cru’ vineyards within their boundaries. Corton is the only red grand cru vineyard in the Cote de Beaune, and both red and white grand cru wines are made there, the white known as Corton-Charlemagne. The great white grand cru vineyard of Le Montrachet straddles two communes, both of which have appropriated its name.

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