Whether you’re a wine novice or well on your way to becoming a connoisseur, you’re bound to be enamored with Burgundy at some point on your wine journey. Home to some of the world’s most sought-after wines, Burgundy sets the gold standard for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The region’s first vineyard was planted in Meursault in the first century A.D. Notably, for a thousand-year period from the eighth century until the French Revolution, Benedictine and Cistercian monks became the largest landowners in Burgundy. With their methodical nature, these monks cultivated the vineyards of the region plot by plot. They systematically studied Burgundian vineyards over this millennia, determining the best sites and establishing the concept of terroir. All things considered, there’s a ton to discover when it comes to this region. So, here is a basic guide to Burgundy to help you get started.
Burgundy’s climate ranges from a cool continental climate in the north to a more moderate continental climate in the south. The cooler climate means this is prime real estate for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. However, it can also lead to spring frosts, which can be problematic for bud break. While rains and hailstorms also potentially wreak havoc on a grower’s crop.
The simplest way to think of Burgundy is in terms of red and white. If you’re drinking red Burgundy, or Bourgogne Rouge, then you’re drinking Pinot Noir. If it’s white Burgundy, or Bourgogne Blanc, then you have Chardonnay. Actually, white wines claim 59% of Burgundy’s annual production. You’ll also find minimal plantings of Aligoté, a somewhat neutral white variety, and Gamay, a red variety which makes fruity wines with low tannins.
Pinot Noir claims one third of Burgundy’s totally vineyard area. Burgundian Pinot Noir typically offers high acidity with medium to low tannins and red fruits notes when young. These fruit flavors evolve into earth, game and mushroom notes as the wine matures.
Chardonnay accounts for around half of all vineyard area of the region. Wine styles vary from lean and steely with high acidity from Chablis in the north to full-bodied, riper styles of Mâcon in the south. Plus, more nuanced, complex examples in between. Additionally, Burgundian producers pioneered certain Chardonnay winemaking techniques implemented by winemakers around the world today. These include barrel fermentation, barrel aging, malolactic fermentation, and lees stirring.
Soil & Terroir
We would be remiss to not discuss terroir in a guide to Burgundy. As you drink more wines from the region, you’ll become intimately familiar with this concept. Terroir describes how climate, grapes, soil, vineyard sites, and human influence work synergistically to produce wine with a sense of place. Burgundy is all about terroir. Plus, it’s a concept easily grasped here where you have the opportunity to drink thousands of unique wines made from the same grape.
As far as soil goes, Burgundy is home to a countless number of soil types. However, limestone soil is common throughout the region. It gives Burgundian wines their signature minerality and heightened acidity. In fact, 200 million years ago the region was under a tropical sea. These origins created the limestone soil. It’s actually common to find fossils of ancient seashells amongst the vineyards of Burgundy today.
The Hierarchy of Burgundy Appellations
Think of Burgundy’s appellations like a hierarchy determined by the quality of the vineyard site. Regional appellations are at the bottom of the hierarchy. They account for half of the total production of Burgundy. Bourgogne Rouge and Bourgogne Blanc are the most basic regional appellations. These wines come from anywhere in Burgundy. You’ll find other examples of regional appellations below.
Commune or village appellations are the next level up in the hierarchy. These cover around a third of total production. Only the name of the commune appears on the label, for example Gevrey-Chambertin or Pommard.
Premier Cru and Grand Cru single vineyard appellations lie above the villages. These cover sites which consistently make high quality wines year after year. There are over 600 premier cru vineyards in Burgundy whose wines must state premier cru on the label. If the wine comes from a single vineyard, the vineyard name will appear on the label as well. For the 34 grand crus of the region, grand cru and the vineyard name will both be on the label.
The Main Appellations
Burgundy encompasses 29,395 hectares of vineyards and is home to 84 different appellations. All of this can be classified into five regional appellations: Chablis, Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune, Côte Chalonnaise, and the Mâconnais.
Chablis is a village appellation which lies in the northern most part of Burgundy. Situated in the River Serein’s valley, Chablis exhibits one of the region’s coolest climates. In such, vineyards are planted on south-facing slopes along the river to benefit from reflected sunlight off the water and air circulation from the river’s running waters. Lesser vineyards are labeled as Petite Chablis. Whereas better sites are classified as Chablis Premier Cru and Chablis Grand Cru.
This is Chardonnay territory where the cooler climate produces wines with high acidity. Chablis typically shows green apple notes and a steely character, yet the best sites produce riper citrus flavors. If you enjoy an unoaked Chardonnay, then Chablis is your jam.
The Côte d’Or
The Côte d’Or, which aptly translates to golden slope, includes Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune. The Massif Central mountain range runs alongside the western edge of the Côte d’Or providing a variety of hillsides with favorable conditions for vineyards.
Côte de Nuits
The Côte de Nuits begins just south of Dijon and is famous for full-bodied, age worthy Pinot Noir. Prominent villages include Gevrey-Chambertin, Vougeout, Vosne-Romanée, and Nuits-Saints-Georges. Côte de Nuits is also home to all of Burgundy’s red Grand Cru vineyards except for one. These include Chambertin, Chambertin Clos de Bèze, Clos de Vougeot, Romanée-Conti, La Tâche, and La Romanée. Some of which run price tags well into the 5 figures for a single bottle! However, you can find great value and much more accessibly priced wines in the Côtes de Nuits as well.
Additionally, Côte de Nuits-Villages includes red and white wines. Those sites which do not qualify for one of the previously mentioned famous village appellations are encompassed here.
Côte de Beaune
Côte de Beaune lies just south of the Côte de Nuits stretching from north of Beaune to Chagny in the south. Here, a fruitier style of Pinot Noir is made. However, Côte de Beaune is most famous for Chardonnay. All but one white Grand Cru vineyard grows here. Highly revered Grand Cru sites include Corton, Corton-Charlemagne, and Montrachet. Furthermore, Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, and Chassagne-Montrachet are villages with the highest reputation for quality white wine. Other villages of Côte de Beaune you’re likely to encounter include Aloxe-Corton, Beaune, Pommard, and Volnay. The latter two solely produce red wine.
Within the Côte d’Or, there are two other regional appellations set at higher altitudes: Borgougne Hautes Côtes de Nuits and Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Beaune. These lie just to the west of the main strip of vineyards along the Côte d’Or. Their cooler climates gives Chardonnnay and Pinot Noir wines slightly less concentration and body.
The Côte Chalonnaise
Next, south of the Côte d’Or lies Côte Chalonnaise. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay both thrive here. Vineyards sit at a higher altitude. Therefore, harvest is typically later, and ripening is less reliable. Rully, Mercurey, Givry, and Montagny are four significant village appellations of this zone. Givry produces red, white, and sparkling wines. While the red wines of Mercurey maintain a high reputation. Givry is the smallest of the villages and Montagny only produces white wines. The Bourgogne Côte Chalonnaise regional appellation covers all wine made here.
Finally, the Mâconnais lies furthest south in Burgundy where Chardonnay is the most planted grape. Reds are made from Gamay, though you’ll find Pinot Noir here, too. Mâcon, the local regional appellation, includes both red and white wines. These Chardonnay have a balance of citrus fruit, medium to full body, and medium acidity. The reds are normally light, fruity, and meant to be consumed young. Wines labelled Mâcon Villages, or Mâcon plus the name of a village, are where you’ll find the most bang for your buck. These wines are typically riper with more body and character than the regional appellation wines. Two of the most famous villages in the Mâconnais are Pouilly-Fuissé and Saint-Veran.