Wine 101 - The Wines of Burgundy

Why this complex region is one of the world's best


Let me start off by letting you know that I am smart enough to not attempt to conquer Burgundy in a single bound. In fact, even two will only just begin to cover this most complex of regions. Ironically, it’s also one of the simplest. Almost every wine relies on a single variety, with the two main grapes Pinot Noir and Chardonnay accounting for the lion’s share of the wine and two contenders, Aligoté and Gamay, playing a distinctly supporting role (though Aligoté’s might more accurately be referred to as a cameo).

So, that’s the easier part. From here on, it gets incredibly complex, and the simple fact that one of the world’s absolute finest wine regions can produce so many profound wines with such a limited repertoire offers the first clue as to why that is. In a word: Terroir.

With these two grapes -- one particularly malleable, the other exceptionally site-sensitive -- the vignerons of Burgundy have been able to produce distinctive wines from vineyards separated by a few feet, and sometimes less than that. Let’s take a look at what makes Burgundy so special.


What we call Burgundy is actually a set of appellations that stretches across a fairly long swath of central France. These are often referred to as northern vineyards since they lie at the northern edge of viability for growing wine grapes. In essence, there are six regions that make up Burgundy. From north to south they are: Chablis, the Côte d’Or (comprised of the Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune), the Côte Chalonnaise, the Mâconnaise, and Beaujolais to the south.

Map courtesy of Kobrand


Chablis is one of the two most-renowned regions for Chardonnay in Burgundy. As you can see on a map, Chablis is actually a fairly distinct appellation, falling to the northwest of the main northerly track of the rest of the appellations of the district.

Chablis is produced exclusively from the Chardonnay grape. It gets its classic Chablis profile -- lean, flinty, and almost steely with bright citrus-tinged fruit flavors -- primarily from the soil in which the vines grow. Known as kimmeridgian, this clay-rich soil is rich with chalk and fossilized oyster shells.

The winemaking style in Chablis is generally quite neutral, with the use of new oak barrel quite limited, resulting in vibrant wines that can be lean and firm in their youth but can age quite well due to their firm acidity.

Map courtesy of Kobrand

Côte d’Or

The Côte d’Or, or “Golden Slopes,” is the heart of Burgundy, though the term is actually used to refer to both the more northern Côte de Nuits as well as the Côte de Beaune that lies to its south.

In fact, the term is actually rather whimsical for one of the departments of France, taken as it was from one of the dominant features of the region, a limestone spice that runs through the region, and on whose slopes are produced some of the finest wines in the world.

Map courtesy of Kobrand

The Côte de Nuits

The Côte de Nuits is arguably the epicenter for the best red Burgundies. Here, one finds communes such as Gevrey-Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny, Vosne-Romanée, the less well-known Flagey-Echézeaux and, of course, Nuits-Saint-Georges, from which the region gets its name.

Because of the nature of ownership in Burgundy, with producers having plots in various areas, the region classified the vineyards as opposed to the Domains, as was done in Bordeaux. Vineyards are classified as either Premier Cru or Grand Cru.

Any wine from within Burgundy made from Pinot Noir or Chardonnay can be labeled as AOC Bourgogne. The next step up in quality would be the AOC Côte de Nuits Villages, which is used for the villages that are not included in the main communes. Up next we find the main commune, like Chambolle-Musigny, for example, listed alone on the wine’s label. Then you will find specific vineyard names on the label which, when listed with the commune name, can be either unclassified or “1er cru.” Grand Cru Burgundies are among the most discreetly labeled wines, simply marked with the name of the vineyard and the Grand Cru designation. 

Hautes-Côtes de Nuits

The Hautes-Côtes de Nuits, literally “the high slopes,” is used for vineyards that lie to the west of Nuits-Saint-Georges. In the Hautes-Côtes de Nuits, all vineyards are labeled under the AOC Hautes-Côtes de Nuits since there are neither Grand Cru vineyards here nor are there communes like in the Côte de Nuits. In fact, AOC Bourgogne wines are not even required to be 100% Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. The whites can include Pinot Blanc, while the reds can include up to 15% Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and/or Chardonnay planted within a Pinot Noir Vineyard.

A fair percentage of the wine from these vineyards is vinified as rosé wine. The wines tend to be a bit darker than many typical rosés and fall into a category referred to as Oeil de Perdrix, or “eye of the partridge.”

Map courtesy of Kobrand

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  • Hi Gregory. The map is too small. Could you create an image that could be enlarged if you click on it?

    Nov 24, 2010 at 6:17 PM

  • Snooth User: japiok
    558329 2

    Jullie vergeten de Santenay. Smaakt beter dan de Côtes.

    Nov 24, 2010 at 10:12 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 238,749

    Hi Elinore,

    You can visit Kobrand's website to see the image in their full glory. We do not, at this time, have the systems in place that would allow enlarging the images.

    Thanks for your thoughts though, we will add this to or to do list!

    Nov 25, 2010 at 3:28 AM

  • The author Roald Dahl once wrote that "to drink a Romanée-Conti is like having an orgasm in the mouth and nose at the same time".

    Is that all we need to know?

    Nov 25, 2010 at 11:02 AM

  • A very nice overview but, as you allude to in the introduction, is really only scratching the surface of the complexity that is Burgundian wine; a complexity that can be very vexing to fans of the region that are not flush with cash. The fragmentation of the vineyards, and the vast cast of characters at work within them, means that there is a tremendous diversity of styles and quality within each commune, making it very difficult to really ascribe a particular character to a commune and, from the consumer's point of view, extremely difficult to make an informed buying decision. One thing is certain: there is no such thing as a good cheap Burgundy from the Beaunes or Nuits; there may well be plenty of not-so-good expensive ones though. Nonetheless, we forgive all such shortcomings upon opening a good one, for the rewards are beyond the narrow view of accounting.

    Nov 26, 2010 at 2:07 PM

  • Nodding in agreement with Aylwin Forbes here. For years I had same issue. Occasional beauty with real strawberry, tannin, oak balance, others smelling of damp cabbage, thin and acidic. Many just dull compared to more reliable Oregon, Russian River, US wines.
    I was only helped by going to tastings of the en primeur offerings.
    I would still recommend dumping any prejudices against new world pinot noirs, there are many fine ones coming out of NZ for instance.

    Feb 23, 2011 at 4:55 AM

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