BURGUNDY; The Background, History and Classifications, By Nick Adams

Of all the genuinely fine wine regions in the world Burgundy could rightly claim to be the most authentic – certainly in France. Maybe not quite the pizzazz of Champagne, nor quite the polished grandeur of Bordeaux, it exudes a sense of place and restrained confidence that you come to absorb and realise over time – rather than it being force fed as a mantra, or modish need.

Included within its portfolio of wines are simply some of the finest dry white and red wines of the world – from around £10-£15, to the dizzy heights of well over £10,000 a bottle!

Wine Trust have always seen Burgundy as a fundamental part of their portfolio and their selection has always been based on a mix of provenance, quality, and authenticity. Over the next three bogs we will look at the region and highlight what makes their white and red wines so exciting and revered.

Background

Burgundy (or Bourgogne in France) is a long, thin region in the central eastern section of France and is split into 5 main areas – from Chablis in the north west to Beaujolais in the far south, with the Côte d’Or, Chalonnaise and Mâconnais in between. The AOC (delimited Appellation) was formally established on 30 July 1935. There are an incredible further 150 AOCs subregions within these main areas. The total area under vine is around 25,000 hectares, mainly on clay, marl and limestone soils. Production is roughly 59% white, 34% red and 7% sparkling (called Crémant de Bourgogne).

There are well over 3,000 growers (Domaines) so it is no surprise that average holdings are tiny in many cases. Many of these are farmers who grow grapes to sell onto Négociants who then make the wine. Today there are around 115 négociants in Burgundy. “Domaines” own 67% of the land but make only 25% of the total wine production. A “Domaine” burgundy example is a wine made by a producer who owns their own vineyard(s) and does not buy in any grapes or wine from another area or producer.

The relative rarity of high quality wines from top producers, sourced from small, delimited vineyard areas, has fuelled the steepling rise in price for top wines as demand remains insatiable. Many top wines and estates are only available via allocation. This has been exaggerated by recent climatic problems – such as frost and hail – which have dramatically reduced production – eg 2013, 2014, 2016.

By far the most important sub district is the Côte d’Or – which is split into two areas – the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune. These tiny areas are barely 30 miles long and no more than 1.2 miles wide. The total area under vine here is smaller than in St. Émilion – just one sub district of Bordeaux – to give you a sense of scale.

Burgundy Quality Hierarchy

The hierarchy is quite simple – and covers 4 main layers:

  • Regional or generic – eg “Bourgogne”, or Côte de Nuits Villages, for example – 51% of total production
  • Single Villages – eg Gevrey Chambertin – 37% production
  • Premier Cru within that Village– eg Gevrey Chambertin Clos St. Jacques – 640 single vineyards – 10.5% production
  • Grand Cru within that Village – eg Le Chambertin – 33 AOCs – 1.5% production
    • please see further notes below on these classifications

The Côte de Nuits is almost exclusively red wine production and has 25 Grand Crus sites. The Côte de Beaune is a mix of red and white with 1 red Grand Cru and 6 white Grand Crus sites. The red|white dividing line is between Volnay and Meursault heading south in the Côte de Beaune, although the Corton Grand Cru in the north includes both red (Corton) Grand Cru and white (Corton and Corton-Charlemagne) in the appellation. Chablis has 1 Grand Cru split into 7 climats (individual vineyards within that Grand Cru – eg Les Clos)

The main grapes are:

Pinot Noir for all reds (except Beaujolais)

Chardonnay for white

Gamay for red Beaujolais (there is a little white Beaujolais made from Chardonnay)

The climate is continental, with hot dry summers and cold winters, but the region is prone to hailstorms (which can be devastating) and spring frosts.

Burgundy has the highest number of AOCs of any French wine region and is often cited as the most “terroir aware”, or sensitive, of all areas – especially given that there is a constant reference in that the wines are all single varietals – ie Chardonnay for white and Pinot Noir for red

Brief History

Vines have been grown for well over 1,500 years. Cistercian monks created the largest single (still walled) vineyard – Clos de Vougeot – in 1336. They were the first vineyard owners to start recording differences between wines from different vineyard areas.

The wines were well known by the 14th century and were further promoted by the House of Valois, which ruled as Dukes of Burgundy in the 14th and 15th century. Pinot Noir was first mentioned in 1370. Operating as a separate country from France the first major Burgundy “houses” were established in the early 18th century and the region courted the monarchy and lucrative Paris market making the name even more famous. After incorporating back into the kingdom of France the French revolution and subsequent (Napoleonic) inheritance laws saw the gradual fragmentation of land ownership and unintentional creation of the small estates – or Domaines – specialising in more select village only wines, and with these, indirectly, the development of négociant houses.

After the depression of the 1930s and Second World War it took until the 1960s for Burgundy to re-establish itself – led by increased focus on yields in the vineyard. The average yield rose from 29hl/ha in 1951 to 48hl/ha in 1982, which had a detrimental effect on quality.

It was from 1985 that the modern renaissance of Burgundy really took hold. Reduced levels of artificial fertilizer; switching to more qualitative based clonal selection; reduced yields; increased investment and technology in the cellars all combined to lead into what is now described as a “golden era”.

Classifications

In Burgundy, these are geographically focused as against the Bordeaux system which is producer focused. Grand Crus are also their own AOC’s, again a major difference versus the Bordeaux regime. Premier Crus are still referenced to the overall Village AOC and may be cross blended in a cuvée (which Grand Crus cannot). Production ceilings on Grand Cru are 35hl/ha, whilst Premier Crus are 45hl/ha. Villages make up 36% or production and can crop up to 50hl/ha. Generic and regional Burgundy can crop at 55hl/ha. Please note that these yield ceilings are significantly lower than average Bordeaux Grand Cru Classé examples.

The Grand Crus of the Côte d’Or run like a vein though the central part of the elevated slopes running north to south. The lower, flatter and siltier soil land is where the generic and lower village vineyard examples are found. The highest land is often too cool and also close to woodlands which affect the quality of grapes. The Premier Cru vineyards act like the bread in a sandwich, with the filling being the Grand Crus.

Two wines to whet your appetite

Often one of the best finds in Burgundy is the entry level wine from a specialist Domaine. These often include declassified wines from high quality vineyards in prestigious appellations. The Bourgogne Blanc from Domaine Bachey-Legros is a good example. This medium bodied, finely tuned and gently oaked wine includes selections from their parcels in both Santenay and Chassagne-Montrachet (in the Côte de Beaune). It punches well above its weight.

And another highly encouraging aspect in Burgundy has been the revitalisation of famous old houses in the last 20 years or so. Château de Santenay is just one of those examples with this Mercurey Rouge. This house is really on top form these days and produces a wide range of wines – all of which are finely crafted and precise examples of their Appellation. They have a large holding in Mercurey, which is in the Chalonnaise region. This is a lovely, savoury red Burgundy with plenty of cherry fruit – no more than medium bodied – and with a lilting style.

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