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.
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.
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.
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.”
Côte de Beaune
To the south of the Côte de Nuits, and separated by only a line drawn in one’s imagination, lies the Côte de Beaune -- the name coming from the town of Beaune, the region’s largest. In contrast to the Côte de Nuits, the Côte de Beaune is more renowned for its white wines, though world-class reds are also produced here.
The hill of Corton is one of the most important features of the Côte de Beaune. With more than 160 hectares of vines it is the largest Grand Cru in all of Burgundy, larger even than some communes in their entirety.
The red wines of the Côte de Beaune tend to be lighter and more elegant than those found in the Côte de Nuits -- lighter and more elegant being relative of course, since these are all Pinot Noir-based wines. The most famous communes include Pommard and Volnay for red wines; Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, and Chassagne-Montrachet for white; as well as Corton for both.
Hautes-Côtes de Beaune
The labeling conventions in the Côte de Beaune are identical to those of the Côte de Nuits. Essentially all the wines are entitled to be labeled as AOC Bourgogne, and the next classification is generally the Côte de Beaune Villages wines, though there are the slightly confusingly labeled Côte de Beaune wines, coming from a tiny set of four vineyards that lie above the hills of Beaune.
As in the Nuits, the additional designations identify each village appellation, then the Premier Cru vineyards and finally the Grand Cru vines. Wines labeled as Hautes-Côtes de Beaune come from a distinct appellation that is comprised of hillside vineyards located to the west of Beaune.
This appellation is much like that of the Hautes-Côtes de Nuits in that both Chardonnay and Pinot Gris are allowed for the whites, and up to 15% of Pinot Noir vineyards used for red wines’ production can be planted to Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and/or Pinot Blanc.
The Côte Chalonnaise
The Côte Chalonnaise abuts the southern reaches of the Côte de Beaune, and the vineyards in the north of the Côte Chalonnaise pick up right where the Côte de Beaune leaves off -- which is to say that the wines tend to be a bit rustic and, while they can be very good, there is a distinct difference in quality if we are to paint with a broad brush. Having said that, the prices don’t even approach those garnered by the more famous appellations to the north, so this is prime country for discovering Burgundian values.
There are Premier Cru vineyards in the Côte Chalonnaise, though no Grand Cru, and while the labeling regulations require that wines labeled as Premier Cru come from these designated vineyards, the truth is that here in the Côte Chalonnaise the designation Premier Cru is much more loosely applied. In practice, virtually all wines from the region that have a minimum alcoholic strength of 11.5% can be labeled as Premier Cru.
The best villages in the Côte Chalonnaise include Rully, Mercurey, Givry and Montagny.
The Mâconnais picks up the Burgundy wine trail several kilometers after the Côte Chalonnaise peters out. Unlike in the Côte Chalonnaise, where both reds and whites abound, the Mâconnais is primarily Chardonnay country and in fact some of the most well-known white burgundies come from the southern Macon.
While there are no Premier Cru vineyards in the Macon, Pouilly-Fuissé is a near equivalent, though the name is no guarantee of quality. Additional villages that have become associated with the production of rather fine wines include Mâcon-Viré and Mâcon-Clessé in the north of the region as well as Saint-Véran, the most southerly portion of the appellation and in fact an only relatively recently created appellation that includes wines previously been referred to as Beaujolais Blanc.
This similarity to Beaujolais also extends to the small amount of red wines produced here. In addition to Pinot Noir, Gamay grapes are allowed in the red wines.
Beaujolais is often considered the southern-most extension of Burgundy and, while the wines frequently do have a certain character that links them to the wines of Burgundy, they are a breed apart. To learn more about Beaujolais, visit Wine 101 – Beaujolais.
To view the photos for this article, go to Wine 101 - The Wines of Burgundy.