The Down and Dirty on Burgundy

Everything you need to know about this red wonder


Burgundy is a region I visit often and love fervently, but early on it took years to come to grips with Burgundy’s skeleton, much less its innards. At times, I wondered if I’d ever dig past the topsoil; as for reaching the bedrock, I couldn’t find the drill bit to dig that far.

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


Photo courtesy of dimitrij via Flickr/cc

Juice Production

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!


Photo courtesy of net_efekt via Flickr/cc

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.


Photo courtesy of nikoretro via Flickr/cc


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!


Photo courtesy of jeffdevries via Flickr/cc

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  • Snooth User: JonDerry
    Hand of Snooth
    680446 3,110

    Nice article Greg, my palate continues to appreciate Burgs more and more.

    Jun 07, 2012 at 9:10 PM

  • Snooth User: Christy Canterbury MW
    Hand of Snooth
    1060100 93,448


    Glad you liked my piece. What is it about Burgundy that's luring you over?

    Christy Canterbury MW

    Jun 07, 2012 at 11:05 PM

  • Snooth User: SM
    1097030 218

    Thanks for the article Ms. Canterbury it was well written and informative. I find myself drinking more and more Bourgogne wine these days. The balance, elegance and fruit of the wine from there is outstanding. An interesting book that I just finished reading is: "Burgundy and Bordeaux, a vintage rivalry",(I will try to post the author's name later.) It's all about the history and development of these world famous and key wine regions. If you are interested in Bourgogne (Burgundy) I would recommend you read this book as its fascinating. Cheers!

    Jun 08, 2012 at 12:09 AM

  • Snooth User: JonDerry
    Hand of Snooth
    680446 3,110

    Christy, I apologize, assumed it was Greg who wrote this!

    I'm finding Burgundy wines more friendly on the alcohol side, almost always good acids, and plenty of the soil comes out in the wines. It's like a comfortable pair of shoes with plenty of intrigue.

    Jun 08, 2012 at 2:28 AM

  • Snooth User: Oude Singel 160
    Hand of Snooth
    1048383 24

    Up to my opinion this either Blackberry or Beaujolais, but certainly not a vineyard inside Côte d'Or!

    Jun 08, 2012 at 5:24 AM

  • Can you clarify the lieux-dit? Above it sounds as if it IS a 1er cru, whereas I thought it was a recognized vineyard but without an official 1er status?

    Jun 08, 2012 at 8:30 AM

  • Snooth User: Christy Canterbury MW
    Hand of Snooth
    1060100 93,448

    Hi Boymeetsvine,

    A lieu-dit is nothing more than a recognized vineyard, as you say. You can find lieu-dits at village, Premier Cru and Grand Cru level. For example, consider Meursault Meix Chavaux at the village level and Corton Les Renardes at the Grand Cru level.

    Jun 08, 2012 at 10:05 AM

  • Snooth User: duncan 906
    Hand of Snooth
    425274 2,272

    Interesting articles.I am definitely a Burgundy lover and have reviewed several for Snooth although I have never had a Grand Cru and only once a Premier Cru.Most of the ones I have been able to afford have been negociant wines.Burgundy has got to be one of the world's best,if not the best,wine producing region.Interestingly,when President Obama stayed at Buckingham Palace last year,Her Majesty served Grand Cru Burgundies at the official State Banquet

    Jun 10, 2012 at 1:28 PM

  • Snooth User: Christy Canterbury MW
    Hand of Snooth
    1060100 93,448

    Hi Duncan906,

    Keep an eye out for my next will be on lesser-known appellations. The reason for this upcoming post is to point out easier-on-the-wallet wines!


    Jun 11, 2012 at 12:42 PM

  • Snooth User: duncan 906
    Hand of Snooth
    425274 2,272

    Burgundy does tend to be an expensive appellation or appellations unless you are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.The only one that is usually easier on the wallet is Passetoutgrains and that is a pinot noir/gamay blend.I look forward to your next article as I have probably had many of your lesser known easier on the wallet appellations

    Jun 13, 2012 at 6:21 PM

  • Snooth User: Christy Canterbury MW
    Hand of Snooth
    1060100 93,448

    Passetoutgrains definitely can pass the eco test...thanks for staying tuned!

    Jun 14, 2012 at 3:42 AM

  • I continue to be fascinated by Burgundy, even as I am buying and enjoying more Oregon and New Zealand Pinot noirs, which can be much easier on the wallet. I find that some reputable Burgundies, mostly Bourgognes, are unfortunately "lean and mean" to my palate. Hopefully, the 2009's will be more to my liking. Keep up the good articles! Bob Williams

    Jun 16, 2012 at 6:33 PM

  • I have some moderately priced 2005 Burgundies in my cellar. Can you give me an idea when I should start drinking these? Thanks!

    Jun 16, 2012 at 6:36 PM

  • Snooth User: Christy Canterbury MW
    Hand of Snooth
    1060100 93,448

    Hi RCWilliams-3,

    I love Oregon and NZ Pinots. They can bear many resemblances to Burgundy - they are often (though not always) svelte and have a love earthiness.

    2005 is a wonderful vintage. You can drink them depending on how old or young you prefer your wines. A lot of Premier Cru 2005 will be 20-30+ year wines. If it's village level, they're still 10+ year wines...but they don't have to be! You can always pull a bottle here and there to see how they're evolving.

    Jun 17, 2012 at 2:58 AM

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