Burgundy – it just seems complicated

Santenay

Santenay Clos des Cornières

Recently I was invited over to Burgundy as the guest of a campaign called Discover the Origin whose job is to promote traditional European products that have a clearly defined place of origin – Burgundy is a classic example. It was a wonderful trip and gave me a realinsight into this incredible wine region.

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Beaune, Burgundy’s main town, is a delightful place to explore.

All those medieval building still need looking after, so the old skills still exist here

All those medieval building still need looking after, so the old skills still exist here.

Many of my students find the sheer variety of Burgundy wines intimidating and the array of labels bewildering, which is presumably why some of the easier to understand examples are the best sellers.

I agree that at first glance Burgundy can look complicated, but actually it isn’t hard once you strip it down to basics and learn to trust Burgundy rather than fight it.

Of course that does depend on how much you really want to get to grips with the place and its wines. Becoming a world authority on Burgundy will be fiendishly difficult, but the good thing is that no one really needs to understand everything about it. Most of us just need enough information to enable us to enjoy the stuff without worrying too much about the potential pitfalls.

Here is my best advice to those of you who would like to get to grips with Burgundy, but find the complications off-putting – oh and if you do know about Burgundy, look away now, this is for the many interested, but nervous wannabe-Burgundy drinkers I meet.

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The basic thing to get to grips with, perhaps more than any other wine region, is the geography. The wines are not big, rich and fruity, but dry and savoury because they come from somewhere cold with short summers. The fundamental dimensions and weight of most of the wines are similar as you would expect given that almost all the white wines are made from Chardonnay and the reds from Pinot Noir – both these grapes originate here. The winemaking is pretty similar too and the grapes are grown over a relatively small area, so the climate does not change much and variations are subtle. Every time I taste a lot of Burgundy I find myself writing many of the same words. I know the wines are different, but those differences are so subtle that they are very hard to sum up in a simple way.

Tradition

Frédéric Drouhin, urbane and charming director of Maison Joseph Drouhin which was started by his grandfather.

Frédéric Drouhin, urbane and charming director of Maison Joseph Drouhin which was started by his grandfather. The visit here was delightful and the wines had all the elegance you would expect.

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En garde – the delightful Alain Hasard with his pigeage plunger. Note the small scale of the vats at his wonderful little domaine Les Champs de l’Abbaye. All his viticulture is organic and indeed biodynamic inspired – I liked him and his wines.

Jean-François Chapelle of Domaine Chapelle in Santenay

Jean-François Chapelle of Domaine Chapelle in Santenay – his wines are superb too.

Marion Javiller of Domaine Patrick Javiller. They made 2 of my favourite wines from the trip and rather wonderfully I could afford them too -

Marion Javiller of Domaine Patrick Javiller. They made 2 of my favourite wines from the trip and rather wonderfully I could (almost) afford them too – 2010 Bourgogne Blanc Cuveé Oligocène and their wonderfully silky 2010 Savigny-les-Beaune 1er Cru Les Serpentières.

The tool rack at Domaine Joseph Voillot. I loved their Volnay wines, especially the sumptuous, yet mineral 2010 Volnay 1er Cru Les Caillerets.

The tool rack at Domaine Joseph Voillot, note the Tastevin. I loved their Volnay wines, especially the sumptuous, yet mineral 2010 Volnay 1er Cru Les Caillerets.

Patrice Olliver of Domaine Fougeray de Beauclair in Marsannay. Amongst many other lovely wines he makes an intriguing and rather good white from 100% Pinot Beurot which is the local name for Pinot Blanc.

Patrice Olliver of Domaine Fougeray de Beauclair in Marsannay. Amongst many other lovely wines he makes an intriguing and rather good white Marsannay from 100% Pinot Beurot which is the local name for Pinot Blanc.

Remember that Burgundy is a deeply traditional wine region where most of the producers are really just small family owned farms. This is not a place of big brands and industrial sized wineries and this traditional outlook shows in the wines, probably more than any other place in the world today. These wines are made by people who passionately believe this is the best place on earth to make wines and that the wines of their region are the best in the world.

As a consequence the idea of a wine being bright, bold and very fruity is almost an impossible concept for a traditional Burgundian to understand. Therefore expect elegance not weight, delicacy not power and the wines to be fundamentally savoury rather than sweetly fruity. As a consequence Burgundy wines really are best suited to being drunk with food. Most Burgundians would never think to drink a glass of wine on its own, that is what a Kir or Kir Royale is for. Wine, Burgundy wine anyway, accompanies food.

Vineyards

Santenay again

Santenay again

Marsannay

Marsannay

Something else that is a little different here. Very few vineyards in Burgundy have just one owner. Usually a single vineyard site is owned by several different growers and producers all making their own version of the wine. That is why a wine that appears to come from a specific vineyard often has many different labels. That is why wines that perhaps ought to be the same can sometimes taste more varied. If there is a single owner of a specific vineyard it will usually say ‘monopole‘ on the label to show it is that grower’s monopoly.

Geography
To enjoy and appreciate Burgundy you need to either be vaguely aware of the geography or at least choose to accept it or find it interesting rather than intimidating. All the important information on the labels is geographical, it’s all just place names, the region, district names, village names or vineyard names. Personally I find it useful to embrace the unknown on a wine label – if you have never heard of the place or grape on a label, try it. What is the worst that can happen?

Understanding the Labels

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A good quality Bourgogne from a famous producer – this one informs us that it made from Chardonnay, most Burgundy labels do not mention grape variety.

The more basic wines from Burgundy are labelled as Bourgogne, which is French for Burgundy and is the catch all appellation for the whole region. Bourgogne is an appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC or AC), which is a system of guaranteeing provenance to the consumer. Similar controls are found throughout the EU – and beyond – to regulate traditional products like ham, cheese and spirits, but wine is the most famous.

Some seemingly humble Bourgogne wines are very good and will give you an idea of the fundamental style of the region. These wines tend to be the more affordable ones – but that is not always the case and knowing the exceptions is where your hard won experience will eventually count.

Districts

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The district names of Burgundy appear on many labels as a more specific place of origin than Bourgogne. These show that the wines comes from a distinct part of the region, rather than  the region as a whole. Chablis and Mâcon are districts, as are Bourgogne followed by the name of an area, such as Bourgogne Côte ChalonnaiseBourgogne Côtes-du-CouchoisBourgogne Côtes d’Auxerre or Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes-de-Beaune. No one knows them all, well I don’t anyway, but once you understand the principle this sort of labelling is quite straightforward.

After a while you will start to notice the subtle differences in how these various wines taste. For instance the wines of Mâcon are clearly softer, fruitier and taste as though they come from somewhere warmer than the cold northerly slopes of Chablis. While Chablis wines are more mineral, taut and crisp than a Mâcon – the cool climate shows in the wine.

Villages

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This white wine comes from the village of Puligny-Montrachet

Quality in Burgundy is supposed to be all about the vineyard site – remember those subtle variations – so in the quest for quality it is always good to know where your grapes were grown. Therefore the benchmark for Burgundy is the wines that have the name of a village on their label. The grapes that the wine is made from were grown in vineyards that surround that particular village, so we know where the wine originates. Meursault, Beaune, Nuits-St-Georges, Puligny-Montrachet, Mercurey and Givry are examples of these village wines.

Premier Cru & Grand Cru
You have to remember that grapes have been grown and wine has been made in Burgundy for hundreds and hundreds of years. Over that time certain places have come to be regarded as having the inherent ability to produce better wine than others. This accounts for why some villages are so famous.

Some specific vineyard sites within the villages can also be thought of as producing better wines than others, or at least to be capable of producing better wines. To celebrate and affirm the potential quality of these vineyard sites many have been awarded Premier Cru /1er Cru status and if the fruit all comes from a single 1er Cru vineyard the name of that site will appear on the label together with the village name.

1er

This white also comes from Puligny-Montrachet, but more specifically the 1er Cru site called Les Folatières.

The very pinnacle of Burgundy production though is the Grand Cru vineyard sites. These are places that are thought to be capable of producing the very finest and most concentrated Burgundy wines of all – there are not many of them and they do not produce much wine at all, so are often eye-wateringly expensive.

Grand

The Montrachet vineyard is shared between the villages of Puligny and Chassagne and has been added to the name of both villages.

So many UK wine drinkers brought up on wines labelled by grape variety seem to want to rant, rail and kick against the traditional French way of doing things. It makes life much easier to just accept it, pay attention to the information on the label that is useful to you and ignore the rest. I always warn my students to never go looking for consistency or logic in French wine regulations as they often mean subtly different things from region to region even when they use the same words.

On my trip I visited a wide range of producers, from big names with grand cellars and lots of employees to tiny, hands on vigneron who scratch a living from a tiny patch of vines. All were passionate about Burgundy though. They all loved their land and thought the site mattered. None of them in their hearts believed they were producing Pinot Noir or Chardonnay wines. They were merely using those grapes to express the character of the land they farmed – they were bottling Meursault, Volnay, Savigny-les-Beaune, Mercurey or Montagny. Their wines were capturing and celebrating the subtle differences and variations that make each of these wines unique.

It is precisely these differences that make Burgundy so interesting and worthwhile to the wine enthusiast and over time the very real, but subtle variations between wines from the Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune and the Côte Chalonnaise become apparent.

The beautiful cellars of Domaine Heresztyn in Gevrey-Chambertin

The beautiful cellars of Domaine Heresztyn who make lovely wines in Gevrey-Chambertin.

What makes the differences is best shown by using the Côte d’Or as my illustration. This part of Burgundy is the most celebrated and contains most of the really famous wine villages of the region. Of the truly renowned Burgundy areas and villages, only Pouilly-Fuissé and Chablis are not found in the Côte d’Or.

Map of Burgundy – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

Map of Burgundy – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

At first glance the Côte d’Or, made up of the Côte de Beaune and the Côte de Nuits, would appear to be so small that the wines it makes must surely all be pretty similar – after all it is sometimes less than half a kilometre wide. However, this is the place that really demonstrates the French concept of ‘terroir‘. The soils and conditions really matter here and make for the differences between the wines, although nuances might be a better word than differences as they are slight. The limestone ridge or escarpment that is the Côte d’Or consists of layers of different limestones, some more porous than others, as well as marls made up of clay, sand and gravel.

That makes sit sound as though it is all uniform, but it really isn’t. The limestones have weathered and decomposed at different speeds and are pierced by small rivers and dry valleys making for great variation as to which limestones dominate different parts. The topsoil also varies, as some are flinty and some a more chalky scree and the collapsing of the limestone ridge leaves different types and depths of topsoil.

Another variable is aspect, there are fissures, gaps, ravines and valleys in the limestone which change the direction a little, so some vineyards face more directly south than others – these will generally produce bigger wines as the grapes get more sun and so have more sugar which produces more alcohol and extract in the finished wine.

Luckily for us we don’t have to learn what the soil composition is of each and every village, let alone vineyard site, which is good because there is a great deal of overlap and variation making it very difficult to generalise to any useful degree. No, we only have to try the wines and see which ones we particularly enjoy.

So the next time you fancy some good charcuterie, try a red Burgundy with it, or it would be perfect with Boeuf Bourguignon or Coq au Vin too, those wonderful classic dishes of the region. White Burgundy really comes into its own with soft, squidgy cheeses or a simply cooked piece of fish.

If you really want to open your eyes to Burgundy though I would really recommend visiting the place for yourself, there is so much to see and enjoy.

Reluctantly leaving Beaune behind.

Reluctantly leaving Beaune behind.

13 thoughts on “Burgundy – it just seems complicated

  1. On the other hand, in my view, much of the details of the geography and of the appellations etc are mainly “irrelevant”.

    What really counts in Burgundy is the name of the producer. If you know the name of the producer, and he/she is good, then you’re fine. Then it does not matter much if it is appellation communale or grand cru (you’ll tell the difference by the price tag).

    The trouble is that most big and famous producers aren’t producing wines that exciting.

    The best wines, and at the same time affordable, are made by small producers. But they have a hard time to become well known by the general public.

    The situation actually is the same e.g. Bordeaux. It is the name of the producer that is important. Not the appellation or the (increasingly irrelevant) classification.

    The difference is that in Bordeaux (and even more so in the “New World”) the good wine producers are generally bigger.

    So my best advice for “understanding Burgundy” would be to get to know a few good producers. They will most likely be small and unknown. And better value that the big names.

    And I could not agree more with your final word: you really should visit the place yourself! (And if you do, why not do it with http://www.bkwinetours.com?)

  2. Until quite recently, it was difficult to get international wines in South Africa. This is changing, and I attended an introduction to Burgundy tasting evening and talk in Cape Town recently. Reading your article after attending the lecture was great; it consolidated what we learned. We were lucky enough to taste some Drouhin wines – I fear I am ruined now 🙂

  3. What a fantastic introduction to Burgundy Quentin! I hope this encourages many to really explore this region and it’s wines (I’m sure it will). The greatest wines to ever pass my lips have been from Burgundy and I think once you have experienced the ethereal pleasure the top wines offer, no other wine can really compete (with the reds at least). Burgundy seems to be the region that many wine lovers find after going through other regions such as Bordeaux, due to added complexity this really is a wine geeks paradise.

    I do fear that due to increased worldwide interest in this relatively tiny region, (especially from Asia), only the most wealthy wine lovers will have the opportunity to buy, cellar & enjoy the top wines as there prices continue to rise. Not only that, but many big Burgundy collectors that I know have been complaining of decreasing allocations year on year and under handed (and often well known) merchants professing not to have wines then sending them straight over to Asia to be sold at a premium (surprise, surprise!).

    I’m still only just getting stuck into this region but have found that technology has helped in the form of an app called Oenotourisme (available on Apple App store, not sure about an android version). Inside Burgundy By Jasper Morris on the iPad is a fantastic resource, well set out, great pictures and video integrated within and it even lets you add your own notes (though at the time of writing only the Cote De Beaune part had been released). On-line I really like Bill Nanson’s site & Diary found here – http://www.burgundy-report.com/diary/
    Again, great article, many thanks!

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  5. Very good overview of Burgundy but there’s no substitute to actually being here than having a Burgundy resident & wine guide explain it to you in the vineyards, a glass of wine in hand!

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