As with many approaches to learning, some are smarter. Assuming you prefer the former, here’s my down-and-dirty overview on Burgundy’s classifications, its history and its styles that will super-charge your wine lexicon…in 10 minutes or less. Consider it your P90X or UFX system of wine training.
Photo courtesy of Dinner Series via Flickr/cc
The Skeleton, or How Burgundy is Classified
Burgundy works on a hierarchy of vineyards. Today’s system was enacted in 1936, but its origins date back to the monks of the Cluny and Cîteaux abbeys. (Here’s a big shout-out to those guys!) All of their tedious work and documentation, passed on and ameliorated throughout the centuries, led to a very precise systemization. The Burgundians call these climats. And, they are quite fond of them. There are almost 700 just within the Premier Cru category! They break down like this:
Grand Cru - 33
Premier Cru (including lieux-dits) - 684
Village - 44
Regional - 23
Despite all these climats, there’s not much Burgundian juice. Burgundy only counts for about 3 percent of French vin. Within the quality rankings listed above, here’s how Burgundy’s production falls out:
Grand Crus = 1.4%
Premier Crus = 10.1% (even with all those climats!)
Village = 36.8%
Regional = 51.7%
This is why Grand Cru and Premier Cru level Burgundies usually drain the coins from your pocket! With that exclamation, it seems to go without saying that Grand Cru sits at the top of the totem pole of quality with Premier Cru a notch below and so on down the list. The trick is that within these quality bands, there are Grand Crus that might be no better than top Premier Crus and very good village wines that might taste like they should be Premier Crus. So, there is a little wiggle room, but this happens mostly with just a handful of wines.
Here’s the skinny on lieux-dits. A lieu-dit is a particular plot of land within an appellation that possesses special characteristics that contribute a distinct element of terroir, separating it from neighboring rows of vines. Lieux-dits are not technically an appellation, but they are listed on the label with the name of the Premier Cru so it’s clear it’s not just any old Premier Cru!
The Innards, or Why Burgundy Tastes the Way it Does
Burgundy lies in eastern central France. It stretches out in a narrow strip for just over 140 miles, beginning about an hour south of Paris in Chablis and stretching about 4.5 hours south to Beaujolais. The heart of Burgundy, called the Côte d’Or, is a 2.5-3 hour drive from Paris. With this in mind, it’s Cartesian to assume there are both resemblances and differences in the wines from north to south.
Burgundy’s location gives it a semi-continental climate. Translation: it’s rainy, foggy, cloudy and cold in the winter but the summers are warm – rarely hot – and full of sunshine. In fact, Burgundy has more sunshine hours within its growing season than any other major Pinot Noir region. It is sunlight that is most important in ripening Pinot Noir; Pinot Noir doesn’t play nicely with heat.
In addition to the climate, a few other natural elements make Burgundy particularly special.
1. Most vineyards sit on east and southeast facing slopes, meaning they receive early morning to mid-afternoon sunshine.
2. The slope of the vineyards protects the vines from the cold, westerly Atlantic winds.
3. The limestone soils, created 150-180 million years ago, are primarily composed of marls and marine limestone. This limestone is free-draining and rather poor in nutrients (seemingly counter-intuitively, this is good for vines) and contributes to Burgundian wines its restrained fruit and distinct minerality.
The Innards, Continued
Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the two grapes that respond particularly well to these conditions. Together they comprise 82 percent of the grapes grown here. Aligoté, Pinot Blanc and Gamay are among the others.
The resulting style of Burgundian wine tends to show:
-Pale to moderate color for Pinot Noir
-A pleasantly tugging texture and very little viscosity
-Savoriness and intense minerality
-Moderate ripeness levels, sometimes weaving in herbal notes
-Medium plus to high acidity, often mouth-watering
-Moderate alcohol, with some top wines registering at moderate plus
-Structuring, lightly drying tannins for Pinot Noir
-Increasing layers of smells and flavors and longer finishes as the quality scale crescendoes
Well, that’s the end of the Down-and-Dirty Burgundy reference. Check back in a few weeks to discover six villages you should be putting in your glass and why!