Burgundy Wine - All You Need To Know
Burgundy is a region in the central eastern part of France that is famous for its wines. However from a vinous point of view, there are several subregions which go to make up the overall picture. They are, from north to south, Chablis which is close to the town of Auxerre, the Cote d’Or just south of Dijon but around the town of Beaune, The Cote Chalonnaise just to the west of Chalon sur Saone, The Maconnais around the town of Macon and finally the Beaujolais running down from Macon to Lyon.
The Heart of the region is without doubt the Cote d’Or which runs from Dijon down to Santenay and this is where all of the great growths of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir originate. But it is Chardonnay and also Pinot Noir to a slightly lesser extent that bring the whole thing together. Chablis to the north uses the grape to make some incredible white wines but the soil structure hear owes more to the region of Champagne than it does to the Cote d’Or. However the merchants of the Cote d’Or also sell the wines as they are Chardonnay based, thus it has gradually been included.
Down in the south the wines of the Maconnais are also based on Chardonnay and thus they became included. The lighter reds of the Gamay grape in the Beaujolais have also been sold by the same merchants further north and thus they too have been included.
One thing that is essential to know about Burgundy is that the name of the wine is not the be all and end all of the quality but rather the main thing to be aware of is the name of the man that has made it. Thanks to the French inheritance laws, the vineyards of Burgundy are split into many small parcels of ownership and in some cases a man can simply own a small strip of vines in a vineyard rather than one contiguous block.
The classification of the wines is almost a pyramid with the base being made up of generic wines named Bourgogne Blanc or Bourgogne Rouge. The next level up takes us to regional wines - Cote de Beaune Villages and Cote de Nuits Villages. Then come the village appellations such as Chassagne Montrachet or Nuits St Georges. The penultimate level is the Village 1er Crus that are sold with or without the name of a vineyard attached - Meursault 1er Cru or Meursault 1er Cru Les Charmes. Finally, the ultimate in quality is the individual Grand Cru sites - Le Musigny or Le Montrachet - where the absolute ultimate wines are produced.
Up in the north, Chablis takes its name from the village of the same name that lies at the heart of the region. Although there are a scattering of smaller, less well known sub regions such as St Bris and Irancy, the great bulk of the wines here are Chardonnay based. The vines thrive in the limestone soils of the area but yet the cold climate thanks to the northerly aspect there means that not every year sees a ripe harvest and the wines take on a crisp acidity and saline minerality which makes them perfect food partners.
The quality can vary enormously as the name Chablis has become so famous that growers don’t have to work too hard to achieve a good living and in our view not enough care is taken either in the growing the grapes or making the wine. Late frosts can often ruin a harvest here, but when the wine is well made, it is sublime and certainly makes for great drinking. The hierarchy here is Petit Chablis at the lowest level, rising through Chablis, Chablis 1er Cru and rising to the small steep hillside of Grand Crus. The Cave Cooperative here is a major player.
From Chablis, there is a gap in the vineyards until you arrive just south of the city of Dijon, not only famous as the seat of government of the region but also for its mustard. The village of Marsannay-la-Cote marks the beginning of not only the Cote de Nuits but also the Cote d’Or. Driving south here is like driving through a wine list with famous names coming one after the other. Gevrey Chambertin, Morey St Denis, Chambolle Musigny roll off the tongue as if you were drinking them. The Grand Crus come one after the other - Mazis Chambertin, Ruchottes Chambertin, Chambertin Clos de Beze, Chapelle Chambertin (the latter not always worthy of Grand Cru status in our book), just to name a few. This is very much a red wine region with only a small handful of Chardonnay vineyards.
Once you arrive just south of Nuits St Georges, the region changes to become the Cote de Beaune yet it remains the Cote d’Or, the golden slope. Both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay fare well here and perhaps the greatest white wine of the world comes from the small parcel of vines that straddles the vineyards of Puligny and Chassagne Montrachet. Le Montrachet is the most expensive parcel of agricultural real estate in the world and if you couldn’t grow vines here, very little else would be worthwhile. Yet the sheer subsoil of limestone and a near perfect exposure gives grapes of absolutely incredible quality that make the ultimate in white wines.
Between the towns of Nuits St Georges and Beaune can be found many of the most famous negotiant houses that house and sell the regions wines. But the finest wines are to be found in the small estates that hide away in small villages that scatter the roads in the 38 miles that link Marsonnay-la-Cote and Maranges.
Immediately that you leave the Cote de Beaune you arrive in the Cote Chalonnaise. This region has a mix of agriculture with wheat and sunflowers sharing the panorama with the lovely vineyards. There is one village at the start, Bouzeron, where the Aligote grape grows to perfection and where a white wine that was at one time was only deemed suitable for making kir has come to fame. Thereafter both red and white wines are to be found that although of great quality, tend to be slightly more rustic than those of the Cote d’Or.
Onwards going south you enter the Maconnais. Just south of Tournus begin a collection of villages that can sell there wines either blended together to produce Macon Villages or be sold with the addition of the village name to be called such as Macon Peronne. It’s here that the village of Chardonnay is to be found, possibly the origin of the grape variety. In the south of the region, just south of the town of Macon lie the villages of Pouilly and Fuisse which make up the top cru of the region, Pouilly Fuisse. A wine that at its best can rival the great growths of the Cote de Beaune. Look out for the wines of the Chateau de Fuisse. They are spectacular. There are also some lesser crus such as Vire Clesse and St Veran which offer lesser prices too. This is a region where the best wines give the best value of Burgundy.
Finally we end up in the Beaujolais. Often dismissed by wine drinkers as being inferior, in our opinion when well made the wine can be stunning and again give great value. This is the land where the Gamay grape rules the roost. In the north there are 10 villages that sell the wines either under the village name or in the case of Romaneche-Thorins under the name of a local windmill - a monument that becomes Moulin a Vent in the name of the wine. Again, these villages such as Fleurie and Morgon have become very famous thanks to the wines. To the west are a collection of some 50 odd villages that are collectively known as the Beaujolais Villages, and some great quality and value is to be had here. South of Villefranche sur Saone we arrive on the plain of the Beaujolais where simple, easy wines are to be found that are best served cool in the pots Lyonnaise of the bistros of Lyon.
All in all, Burgundy is a fascinating region that offers all things to all men. Ignore it at your peril and rest assured that some of the finest bottles the world has to offer come from here.