A Beginners Guide to the Wines of Burgundy
I am NOT a wine expert by any stretch of anyones imagination. Wine experts? I think of those as people with years and years of training and study, who have traveled extensively and visited scores of vineyards around the world.
That’s not me.
However, my husband and I have taken multiple wine classes, we are in a wine tasting club, and we like to study the local beverages and foods of anywhere that we plan to visit. So when we knew we were going to Burgundy we studied the wines of the region…and man…it is complicated!
Going to Burgundy with even a little bit of knowledge about the wines of the area will make your trip more enjoyable.
Here is the information I wish I had known before we went!
By the way, this is the Cliff notes version of the wines of Burgundy also known as, A Beginners Guide to the Wines of Burgundy.
Burgundy is a region of France:
I mean, of course it is, right? In the French language Burgundy is Bourgogne and this is the name you will see on the wine bottles. It’s in the eastern part of the country, long and skinny, landlocked, and has a fairly dramatic climate with short hot summers and cold winters. It can have drought or storms, hail or relentless sun. People from the US tend to call a wine from Burgundy, well, a Burgundy. We may call a wine from the region a white Burgundy or a red Burgundy, but that doesn’t really mean much does it? And I assure you the wine producers from the area would be appalled by that nomenclature!
A wine from Bourgogne is SO much more than just a Burgundy.
Burgundy wines come from only 2 different grapes:
Yep. You read that right. This is the only simple part of the wines of Burgundy! A red wine from Burgundy comes from the Pinot Noir grape and a white wine from Burgundy is a Chardonnay. I’m serious! So, how can they all taste so different? Well, it’s because of…
It’s all about terroir! You will hear this word again and again while in Burgundy. Imagine it said with all those French r’s! Terroir, loosely translated, means soil, but it really means so much more than that! It is the geography, the geology, the soil, the micro-climate, the sun-exposure, the shade, the elevation…it is what makes wine from one hillside different than wine from the neighboring hill. Heck, according to the winemakers in Burgundy it is what makes wine from one row of vines different from the row beside it!
In most wine growing regions the grapes from a single slope of land would all go into the same bottles of wine. Not in Burgundy! They are known for and pride themselves on preserving the character of the wine brought on by tiny differences in terroir.
Terroir is a bit unquantifiable and a bit intangible, but if you listen to French vintners you learn that it is everything.
Burgundy wine regions:
There are distinct wine regions within Burgundy. It’s definitely not one homogenous wine growing region. Here is a map that will help to clarify things. Even though we are talking about predominantly just two types of grapes, the wines from the different areas will vary a lot because of, duh, the terroir!
The very, very short description of wines from the various regions:
- Chablis – The style is so distinct from the other wines of Burgundy that it is sometimes treated as it’s own region. Chablis is produced from Chardonnay grapes grown right on the edge of being too far north to grow grapes. It is dry and refreshing and they typically don’t use oak. I have never been a big fan of California chardonnays but discovered while in Burgundy that I love a good Chablis.
- Cote de Nuit and Cote de Beaune together make up the Cote d’Or or the gold slope. This is where the most famous and renowned wines of Burgundy are produced. These are the big daddies of Burgundy wines people! The Cote de Nuit or dark slope grows mostly pinot noir and the Cote de Beaune, because of its more open rolling hills, produces more Chardonnay, but both areas grow both grapes. The Cote de Nuit has some of the most expensive wine real estate anywhere in the world.
- Cote Chalonnaise – This area has wines that are known for being a better price value and this is also where the French sparkling wine known as Cremant is produced. These sparkling wines are made in a traditional manner, but because they aren’t in the Champagne region they can’t be called Champagne. I discovered a love for Cremant while we were in Burgundy. In this post I tell about how well it pairs with Lay’s potato chips.
- Maconnaise – I don’t believe that we ever tried a wine from this region while we were in Burgundy. They are known for their whites and I was told that they are a little less dry with a softer, slightly fruitier taste than the white Burgundy wines from farther north. They have been consistently improving their wines from this region and these could be a decent price for value for the area.
Classifications of the wines of Burgundy:
One of the complicated things about French wine in general is that each wine growing region of the country has its own system of classification.
In Burgundy wine is classified by, no surprise here, terroir.
The wines of Burgundy are classified based on the consistency of the quality of the grapes grown in a particular vineyard or even in a particular part of a vineyard due to its terroir. The difference in wine in the highest classification and the one just below can be grapes grown a foot or two apart. The classification system stays steady throughout the years and does not have anything to do with vintage. Here are the classes from what is considered lowest quality to best. However, this does not mean that there aren’t good wines in every category! In fact, there are wonderful wines in the regional and village categories that are actually affordable for the average person.
- Regional A.O.P. – can be made from grapes grown anywhere in Burgundy. Cremant is also in this category. These are the wines which will say Bourgogne rouge (red Burgundy) or Bourgogne Blanc (white Burgundy) on their label.
- Village wines – made from grapes grown near the village for which they are named.
- Premiere Cru – made only from certain vineyards or areas of vineyards within a village area.
- Grand Cru – the highest quality vineyard areas. Grown in very specific areas. These are the most famous and expensive of all the Burgundy wines.
You can see that the Grand Crus are in limited supply! But they are also so expensive that most of us can’t afford to drink them anyway!
Did you see the word appellation in the previous chart? And AOC? You will see this a lot in Burgundy. Again, it’s complicated, but the wines of Burgundy are further broken down from the 4 classifications above into 84 appellations. These are known as Appellations D’Origine Controlee or AOC. From regional wines to the grand crus the vineyards are divided into appellations based on the natural conditions or terroir of the vineyard The AOC guarantees the authenticity of the wine, the terroir and the traditional production methods. Basically, they verify for you that your expensive Grand Cru wine is definitely from Grand Cru grapes!
Every AOC wine is rigorously checked in every step of its production.
A Burgundy wine label:
Wine labels from this regions are known for being complex. But it is worth taking some time to look a couple of them over at your local wine store before your trip to Burgundy. Because terroir is all-important in Burgundy most of the labels will tell you not only the producer name, but also the village name as well as the vineyard name and the appellation.
There ya go! This should be more than enough to get you started!
Hope this beginners guide to the wines of Burgundy will help you on your trip!
When you arrive in Burgundy you will discover that additional opportunities for learning about the local wines are practically endless.
Learn as much as you need to know to fully enjoy the best part of the wines of Burgundy…tasting them!
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