French Wine 201: Burgundy is Not Complicated

Keep your eyes peeled, on the way from Chassagne-Montrachet to Volnay, you may see this. Grand Cru!

 

Wine 201 – Burgundy (France) Just the Facts
Burgundy is complicated, you can’t possibly understand it.  Many different whole books have been written to try to unravel the mystery. Damn the experts! Burgundy isn’t complicated. It’s perfectly logical:
  • Grapes: Pinot Noir for red, Chardonnay for white
  • 4 levels of officially judged quality potential due to the vineyard site: Bourgogne, Village, 1er Cru, Grand Cru
  • 5 sub regions: Chablis, Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune, Côte Chalonnaise, Mâconnais
Bourgogne Basics
Burgundy’s problem is that it isn’t a large area. Simple supply vs. demand means the price goes up because more people want to drink Burgundy than there is wine available for drinking. Burgundy is not complicated, but it is expensive.

Climats (vineyards) in the village of Chassagne-Montrachet located in the Côte de Beaune. Note the Grand Cru and 1er Cru vineyards. Village level vineyards are also named, not listed here. Finally, Bourgogne growing area is outside the orange colored areas. Map courtesy of http://www.bourgogne-wines.com

Key Concepts for Understanding the Region

  1. Burgundy is all about the place, down to individual vineyards. The plots were classified centuries ago by the monks who owned the vineyards and were making the wine. They noticed certain vineyards year in and year out, gave higher quality wines compared to other vineyards.  They also noted that both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (native grapes to the region) were capable of prominently showing that unique exposition of the vineyard if allowed to do so.  When you hear about the “Burgundian” approach, it means the vigneron is trying to show the place more than their own hand.
  2. All over Burgundy, plots are graded in 4 levels (ascending): regional labeled “Bourgogne”, Village named for the village closest to the vineyard, Premier Cru also listed as 1er Cru, and Grand Cru. The rating of a plot of land is officially determined and doesn’t change year to year as it refers to the long term assessment of the ability of that plot of land to deliver that level of quality.
  3. Quality pyramid: Bourgogne at the base, 50% of Burgundy wines are “Bourgogne”, Village wines 35% of the total, 1er cru represent 13%, and Grand Cru is the pinnacle with just 2% of Burgundy wines labeled Grand Cru. Cost tracks up as well, Bourgogne wines in the US are generally $20-30 per bottle. Grand Cru wines are $200 and up. (Prices approximately 1/2 the US price in Europe)
  4. As you ascend the quality (and price) ladder, the intensity, complexity, and ageability of the wine increases as well.  Individual villages are known to produce wines of a certain nature.  Of course, who is making the wine also matters.  This is where Burgundy does get complicated, but really only at the 1er Cru and Grand Cru levels.
Burgundy wine map courtesy of Bourgogne Wines

5 main sub-regions in Burgundy (Bourgogne). Chablis is physically separate. Then, from north to south: Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune, Côte Chalonnaise, Maconnaise (map courtesy of Bourgogne Wines)

There are 5 sub-regions: Chablis (white only) is physically separated from the other four. Then starting just south of Dijon, the regions are north to south: Côte de Nuits (most famous for reds), Côte de Beaune (most famous for whites), Côte Chalonnaise (more moderate price, both red & white), Mâconnais (more moderate price, mostly white).  In the strip of 4, Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune are the highest regarded ($$$) and together are referred to as the Côte d’Or.

A “Clos” is a vineyard surrounded by a stone wall

Dipping Your Toes in the Burgundy Pool
General rules for the varying levels of the Burgundy pyramid:

  • Start with basic Chablis, Bourgogne Rouge and Bourgogne Blanc. These wines will give you an idea of what Burgundy wines are about.  Try a couple different vignerons.  Be sure to drink the wines with food, it’s what they’re made for.
  • There’s nothing wrong with the larger negociant wines (Drouhin, Jadot, Leflaive, Louis Max).  Because of inheritance laws, many winegrowers have multiple tiny plots, sometimes not enough to make a commercially viable wine. They sell their grapes to a negociant, often under long term contracts. The negociants care a great deal about their wines and the wines they produce for their grapegrowers, they are continually working to mutually improve the quality of the wines.
  • More famous villages command higher prices.  There are also some less known villages nearby the famous ones where you can learn for a smaller investment.
  • As you ascend the pyramid, the intensity of the flavor will increase.  The ageability of the wine will increase, in fact, many 1er Cru and Grand Cru wines won’t really show their best until 5-15 years of aging after their vintage date. Also, as you ascend the pyramid, the price of the wines will rise dramatically, be ready!
  • One analogy for the quality level is chocolate. Hershey’s and Mars basic chocolates are a little like Bourgogne level wines. Widely available, pleasant and definitely chocolate. Dove chocolates (a Mars brand) and basic quality chocolates from Lindt and other brands are more intense, and a bit higher in price, like Village level wines. Once you get into labeled % of cacao with Ghiradelli, Lindt, Valrhona and artisan brands you’re up at the 1er Cru and Grand Cru level.
  • You may find a winegrower whose style you like. The domaine’s style will stay consistent from the top to the bottom of their line-up.  There are also famous winegrowers whose wines draw dramatically higher prices compared to their neighbors.  Again, you may find a less famous winegrower whose wines suit you just fine at a much lower cost.

Reading a Burgundy Wine Label

Explanation of a Burgundy wine label

A Sampling of Burgundy Wines
(click on any photo for slideshow, “escape” to return)
 Burgundy is not complicated at www.foodwineclick.com
Comments
15 Responses to “French Wine 201: Burgundy is Not Complicated”
  1. Good point, Jeff! Burgundy is indeed not as difficult as it seems. I have a harder time explaining to people all the different classifications in Bordeaux for example!

    • Thanks Oliver. I agree; virtually every region gets (delightfully if you’re ready) complicated when you dig in deep. Cru’s in Barolo, Napa Valley floor vs. hillside, Bordeaux (sheesh!)

  2. Julie Burrows says:

    This is just awesome hon! Julie Burrows

    >

  3. SOIF says:

    Great piece. It’s just so tiny within tiny. Shared.

  4. I agree and applaud the simplicity with which you explained a complicated region. Well done. For those that want to have a deeper understanding of vineyard designations as it pertains to the 1er and Grand Cru, Burgundy is quite complicated. At times the labels are easy to read but because they lack uniformity there are other times they are a challenge. I would gladly follow you around all of Burgundy to soak up your knowledge because some day I really want to understand it in depth. Today I am focused on viti and vini.

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