Burgundy’s complexity and tremendous diversity are the result of geological accident. Centuries ago, faulting tore the great valley apart, easing the passage of the nearby Saône River. The slope thus formed is irregular and intricate making for a rich tapestry with which to create stunning Burgundy. Burgundy begins in Chablis, isolated some 80 miles north of the rest of the region with its very individual terroir. The region then extends over some 180 miles of varied, spectacular countryside, as far as Lyon in the south, via the Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune, Côte Chalonnaise, the Mâconnais and Beaujolais. Travelling south, the differences in slopes, altitudes, soils and aspects are obvious and impressive. Many of the villages house extraordinarily fine estates, producing wines of world renown, yet all so very different, even before producers have had their input.
Red, white and rosé wines are produced in Burgundy, as well as sparkling – Crémant de Bourgogne. Happily there is at least one relatively simple element within Burgundy, its grape varieties. Essentially Pinot Noir is responsible for most of the red wines, with the exception of Beaujolais, and Chardonnay produces the whites. Gamay is king in the Beaujolais and allowed in Passetoutgrains and Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire. Aligoté is an additional white varietal. Aligoté has some notoriety as the inspiration for the ubiquitous kir. Its racy acidity in the past clamoured for something to counter it – and the local Crème de Cassis found favour. There is some wonderful, characterful Aligoté to be found today, special enough in Bouzeron to have warranted its own appellation.
Burgundy wines - classification system
Given the diversity and complexity outlined below, it is perhaps no surprise that the system of classification is also complicated – not helped by the odd spelling anomaly.
Grand Cru : This is the top category and these bear a single vineyard name – eg. Le Montrachet.
Premiers Cru : First growth, in this case, is the second level, bearing the commune name followed by the vineyard name – eg. Puligny–Montrachet (the commune) 1er Cru Les Pucelles.
A blend of premiers crus will simple be called by the commune, followed by Premier Cru – eg. Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru.
Villages : Commune wines simply bear the villages name, though a specific parcel (lieu-dit) is permitted – eg. Puligny-Montrachet Les Meix.
Bourgogne : The generic appellation is a catch-all but here there can be bargains when exact origins and producers are known and understood. Examples include Domaine Leflaive, Domaine Matrot, Olivier Leflaive, Domaine Patrick Javillier and Domaine Trapet.
Burgundy wines - geography & terroirs
The stand-alone island of Chablis vineyards, in the Yonne département is not only geographically but geologically set apart, having much more in common with the base soils of the Loire, Champagne and the Dorset coast than the Burgundy heartland.
As mentioned earlier, the core of Burgundy begins to the south of Dijon in the département of the Côte d’Or . Essentially a long thin fault escarpment interrupted by side valleys and small streams, presenting an immense diversity in terms of altitude and aspect, it comprises the Côte de Nuits to the north and the Côte de Beaune in the south. No sooner has the wine lover left Dijon than the checklist commences: Fixin, Gevrey-Chambertin, Morey-Saint-Denis, Chambolle-Musigny, Vougeot, Vosne-Romanée and Nuits-Saint-Georges. A quick breather on the hill of Corton marks the beginning of the Côte de Beaune and the medley continues with Beaune, Pommard, Volnay, Meursault, Puligny- and Chassagne-Montrachet, having observed further west and lying above Meursault, Auxey-Duresses and Saint-Romain and, above and to the west of Puligny, Saint-Aubin.
The escarpment then changes, fragmented into blocks in a series of hills. This is the Côte Chalonnaise where Mercurey, Rully, Bouzeron, Givrey and Montagny all provide slopes with fine potential. Thence to the Mâconnais : the area north of Mâcon produces most of the bulk wine on gentle hills. South of the town, the geology and topography become more remarkable and more conducive to making fine wine. Here we find the Pouilly wines as well as various Mâcon satellites. It is traditional, if not entirely logical, to include Beaujolais within the Burgundy portfolio. The vineyards of the Mâconnais do run into the hills where the best Beaujolais crus are produced on, what is now, granite.
Soils are complex and diverse across Burgundy. Until Beaujolais, the base is fundamentally limestone, but limestone of various types and origins, mixed to various degrees with sand, marl, pebbles, shale, alluvial deposits and clay.
Those of us curious enough attempt, in some way, to reverse the alchemy, picking out the tapestry in an effort to understand its make-up. Appeals for help in this, generally, are met with an inimitable Burgundian shrug, a reminder that the most important thing is what lies in the glass. It takes a vigneron a lifetime to get to grips with his own terroir without complicating the issue by comparisons with others.
We should recall that before all of the scientific instruments now available to analyse the myriad appellations, lieux dits and climats of Burgundy, to the nth degree, the area was first delineated by taste, largely by the monasteries. Their judgements are, to all intents and purposes, the same classifications which exist today.
Burgundy – in a nutshell
In part nature is responsible, through centuries of geological activity, for the fragmentation which complicates this wonderful region. Napoleon Bonaparte’s laws of succession are another. Breaking up Burgundian estates, into ever smaller parcels, had widespread ramifications. Vineyards can be mapped in minute detail and logic can be applied as to expectations from terroir but the human effect cannot be overestimated, particularly in Burgundy, rendering it something of a minefield – but the rewards to be gained between pitfalls are captivating.
Puligny-Montrachet village in the winter Credit: Domaine Leflaive
Town Hall of Meursault Credit: Domaine Matrot
Cellar at Domaine Patrick Javillier, Meursault
Vineyards at Château de la Tour, Clos de Vougeot
Horse ploughing at Domaine Trapet in Gevrey-Chambertin