Alba Vineyard Consulting - Wine Casks Alba Vineyard Consulting - Wine Casks Alba Vineyard Consulting - Wine Casks
Alba Vineyard Consulting - Wine Resources France

Burgundy

There is an old French saying that a rich bourgeois opens an old bottle of Bordeaux every Sunday with lunch, but only opens a good bottle of Burgundy for his birthday or the engagement of his daughter to a promising suitor. This saying, like most old sayings, is full of wisdom, because it reflects the rarity and uniqueness of Burgundy, and it also rightly implies that Burgundy does not have to be old to be good (unlike Bordeaux which almost always requires aging). Like all wines, every Burgundy is not a stellar wine, in fact, I do not know one Burgundy enthusiast who has not been disappointed by a Burgundy wine at least once. But when you find a great Burgundy it is truly peerless. Burgundy is an incredibly unique region in France, and the most confusing one to master.

Geography

Burgundy incorporates five distinct regions spread over a north-south axis stretching over 200 miles. Chablis is a unique white wine region located about 90 miles northwest of Dijon. Côte d'Or is the most famous wine region in the world. It is located on a ridge beginning at Dijon in the north and going south for about 35 miles to the village of Chagny. The medieval town of Beaune, roughly situated in the middle, splits the ridge into Côte de Nuits in the north, and Côtes de Beaune in the south. Beyond Chagny, starts a new Côte going north-east/south-west called Côte Chalonnaise. This ridge is not as regular as Côte d'Or and the hilly territory is much wider. Further south, comes the Mâconnais, a compilation of gentle hills without any particular order. It took the name of the town at its center called Mâcon. Finally, between the Mâconnais and the vast urban concentration of Lyon further south, one can find a separate geological formation, composed principally of granite, called Beaujolais. While technically a part of Burgundy, the wines made there are from a different grape (the Gamay), which the founders of Burgundian wine rejected centuries ago as inferior to the "fair" Pinot Noir.

Early History

Although vines were probably planted in the Burgundy region as early as the 4th century AD, it was through religious monasteries and under the impulse of the Dukes of Burgundy that the Pinot Noir vineyards developed. In the 17th and 18th centuries, all the vineyards of Côte d'Or belonged to the church or to powerful aristocratic families (the Prince of Conti bough "la Romanée" vineyard in the early 18th Century and parlayed favors at Versailles with his delicious wine since then known as Romanée-Conti). After the French revolution, the estates of the church and nobility were put up for sale, but since the "ordinary people" encouraged to buy the land had no money, the estates were split into very small lots. The subdivision process continued under the Napoleonic Law of Succession; a code instituted in 18th century dictating that one's possessions be distributed equally among one's children. Burgundy has a great deal of tradition and people seldom sell off their holdings. Consequently, one vineyard could be owned by 20 different people; indeed the vineyard Clos de Vougeot is owned by 80 people! Another way of putting it is that some growers have only a few rose of vines in 4 or 5 different vineyards, often miles apart. To further complicate matters, unlike Bordeaux where a Chateau could expand its land by purchasing a neighboring vineyard, a Burgundian vineyard can never be expanded.

The Rise of the Negociants

The inheritance laws created a very insular community where property remains in the hands of family-members, and families often marry among themselves to expand their number of cultivated rows. As a result, it is very difficult to penetrate this closed world of farmers, who, by nature are not very extroverted. These problems prompted the formation of a link between the growers and the wine consumers. To buy the wine as cheaply as possible, they bought the wine in advance (just after fermentation) thus becoming involved in the wine-making process by determining how long the wine would age in casks and when to bottle it. These intermediaries became known as "negociants." Unsurprisingly, many negociants gained such power and wealth that they were able to buy their own vineyards and producing their own wines, including such famous names as Jadot, Drouhin, Latour and Bouchard.

The Fall and Rise of Burgundy

The economic boom of the 1960s and 1970s created lasting problems for Burgundy. Demand grew five-fold, while supply grew only modestly. To keep up with demand wines were thinned or blended with darker wines from the south completely altering the quality of wine produced. In addition, some fraudulent practices were exposed, discrediting the whole region. These issues had dire consequences by the early 1980s, as many negociant businesses were sold, or disappeared, leaving growers with few buyers for their grapes. In response, many young producers with oenology degrees decided to make their own wine instead of selling grapes to negociants. This raised the quality standards tremendously and, as a result, Burgundy now reaches quality levels rarely matched previously. While quality has increased rapidly, price has not kept pace. In addition, the larger number of new independent growers (often equipped with the latest oenology diplomas) reinforced individual characteristics of each village. Although all Burgundian reds are made with one single variety, Pinot Noir, and the white only with Chardonnay, there are vast differences in tastes from village to village. Santenay wines, for example are known to be light and mineral. Pommard is always the most powerful red of all the Côte de Beaune reds. The Côtes de Nuits reds are generally more meaty and punch, but then Aloxe-Corton, a village in the Côtes de Nuits, produces delicate and "feminine" wines.

^back to top

Alba Vineyard Consulting - The Hierarchy of Appelations

Classifications

French wine regulators have classified the Burgundy vineyards in 4 categories (see chart). The top 2 layers of the pyramid only represent 12% of the overall Burgundian production, but they incorporate all the famous names. Given the very small quantity produced in Grand Cru and Premier Cru categories and given the world demand, prices for some of these wines can reach extremely high levels (although not as high as Premier Cru Bordeaux).

What can be misleading for an inexperienced buyer of Burgundy wines is that the 3rd category, which represents twice the volume of the first two, also uses the village names. There can be however, a big difference between a Beaune (3rd category) and a Beaune 1er Cru (2nd category). The latter is more concentrated and made in a smaller volume by an individual grower who has his own style. This difference, and the subsequent difference in quality explains why prices for seemingly similar wines can be incredibly different.

To summarize: Each Burgundy village has its own terroir, giving a specific character to the wines. Each village's wines are categorized by the French appellation system into 4 classes based on the quality of wine that each vineyard produces. Then, to make things even more complicated, each village has negociants and individual growers making wine. Negociant wines represent safety, often made in a neutral style, whereas the grower wines can vary from mediocre to stupendous. Some star growes like Jayter, Lalou-Bize, Ramonet, Amiot or Bachelet make small quantities of super-concentrated wines, which are limited to a few cases for the whole U.S. market.

Sub regions in Burgundy

  • Aloxe-Corton
  • Auxerre
  • Batard-Montrachet
  • Beaune
  • Chablis
  • Chambolle-Musigny
  • Chassagne-Montrachet
  • Corton
  • Cote-Chalonnaise
  • Cotes-de-Beaune
  • Cotes-de-Nuits
  • Gevrey-Chambertin
  • Maconnais
  • Macon-Villages
  • Mercurey
  • Meursault
  • Montagny
  • Musigny
  • Pernand-Vergelesses
  • Pommard
  • Puligny-Montrachet
  • Rully
  • Saint-Aubin
  • Saint-Veran
  • Santenay
  • Savigny-les-Beaune
  • Volnay
  • Vosne-Romanée
  • Vougeot

View wines from Burgundy