After a three-day self-guided wine immersion course in Beaune, Burgundy, I compiled the following list of burgundy wine facts that serves as a crash course—Burgundy 101 if you will—in the basics of France’s oldest wine region. Full disclosure, I was almost certainly inebriated while asking questions and taking notes, so I’ll be the first to admit, that some of this may be a tad bit inaccurate (that’s what Google is for). Intoxication aside, the section on the four quality levels of Burgundy wine is as true as can be, and will bring wine lovers alike up to speed on the most defining characteristics of the region, enough so that you too can sound informed the next time you wave over the sommelier over for a consult. Or at least so you can avoid overpaying for a bottle!
The five wine regions of Burgundy
The Burgundy wine country is made up of five vinicultural regions. They are the Côte de Beaune, Côte de Nuits, Côte de Chalonnaise, Chablis et Grand Auxerrols, Châtillonnais, and Mâconnais.
The Côte d’Or refers to the three côtes: Beaune, Nuits, and Chalonnaise. All Burgundy wine must come from vineyards that are registered in these five regions.
Most French wines are blends of some kind, but Burgundy is the only region that strictly forbids blending varietals. All reds are pinots and all whites are chardonnay (with a few exceptions, see below).
Burgundy wine laws
No new vineyards can be planted in Burgundy. What’s been planted and designated as an official Burgundian wine Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) by the Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité (INAO) is what can be used to grow grapes and that’s it. This ensures the wine is made (processed and aged) according to the rules of the INAO, and meets the quality of the noteworthy wines of historical vineyard blocks or appellations. This is also how the French government limits the geographic footprint of the wine industry; their 7th largest export valued at $16 billion. Though no new vineyards can be planted, the vine within a vineyard can be replaced as needed.
Burgundy wines have 12.5%-14% alcohol.
They can’t use screw tops on Burgundy wines.
The four quality levels or classifications of Burgundy wines
There are four levels of wine quality in Burgundy. Also known as the four AOCs. From lowest to highest they’re regional, village, premiere cru, and grand cru.
Regional: Nearly half of all the wine produced in Burgundy is considered regional. That means it’s made from a blend of grapes from within a single region like Côte de Chalonnaise, Chablis or Mâconnais.
Village or Commune: Represents about a third of the wine produced in Burgundy. Village wines are wines made with grapes sourced from different vineyards within the same village or commune. So a bottle that reads “Chassagne-Montrachet” means it’s a blend of grapes from vineyards around the town of Chassagne-Montrachet. If the vineyards are famous, they may include the names of the vineyards on the bottle, but that’s not always the case.
Premiere cru: Wines produced using grapes from a single vineyard that has been designated by the INAO as a premiere cru AOC vineyard. These are vineyards that supposedly have a premiere “terroir” or superior combination of soil conditions, orientation to the sun, wind, temperatures, and atmospheric pressures that yield grape juice with better acidity and taste. The bottle will reference the village where the vineyard is located, and then the name of the vineyard itself. The words “premiere cru” or “1er cru” will be featured prominently on the label.
Premier crus are always more expensive, because they’re considered “better quality” than any village or regional wines, and there’s a limited supply. They’re also exclusive, premiere crus represent only 10% of all the wine produced in Burgundy.
Grand cru: These are the crème de al crème of Burgundy wines. Representing only 2% of all Burgundy grapes, grand crus are the most expensive wines in the region. Like a premiere cru it’s an AOC designate regulated by the INAO, and they’re specific vineyards that are considered grand cru worthy. The grand cru wines are made from the grapes of the vineyards with supposedly the “best” terroirs in all of Burgundy. The words “grand cru” will be featured prominently on the label alongside the name of the vineyard and that’s it.
There are only 33 grand cru vineyards throughout all of Burgundy: one in Chablis, eight in Beaune, and 24 in the Côte de Nuits. Grand cru vineyards are typically at higher elevations away from the villages on the valley floor. Being higher up is typically a precondition for rockier soil (more limestone) and greater drainage. This causes the vine roots to strain, because they have to stretch deep enough underground to reach water, and since so much energy is being spent on getting the roots irrigated, the grape bunch yields are typically smaller, the grapes themselves are usually not as large, and have a higher concentration of flavor in their juice. This makes the juice from these grand cru vines desirable.
Just because a vineyard is classified as a premiere cru or grand cru doesn’t mean there’s only one winemaker (viniculturalist) with access to its grapes. Clos de Vougeot is the largest grand cru vineyard in the Côte de Nuits and supplies grapes to approximately 80+ winemakers who produce a grand cru wine label under their own domaine name.
Monopole (French for “monopoly”) are any wines made from grapes that come from a single vineyard that only one winemaker has access to. Typically the wine house owns the vineyard and is the only domaine producing wine with those grapes, but in some cases the vineyard is owned by one family and just sells the fruit exclusively to one wine house. The word monopole is featured on the bottle to signal its exclusivity. These are typically reserved for grand cru or premiere cru vineyards that are already sought after.
Growing Burgundy Wines
Classic plantation is 1,000 vines per hectare.
Typically harvest is in September, but with weather conditions changing from year to year harvest can be pushed up or back.
Burgundy wine growers are NOT allowed to manually irrigate their grapes. All Burgundy vines are dry farmed, which means they only get watered when it rains, or if the vines are able to make it deep enough to soil that’s hydrated by the water shelf.
Burgundy wine varietals
All red wine in Burgundy is pinot noir. That’s why they don’t put the varietal on bottles, because if it’s red and it’s from Burgundy, then it’s pinot noir. That being said, there is a little gamay grown today in the southern parts of Burgundy, but gamay is really more known for being from the Beaujolais region.
All the white wine in Burgundy is chardonnay. That’s why they don’t put the varietal on bottles, because if it’s white and it’s from Burgundy, then it’s chardonnay. That being said, there is a little aligoté grown today in the Côte de Chalonnaise and Mâconnais appelations of Burgundy. More of a blending grape than anything else, aligoté is a low-yield varietal (bunches tend to be smaller) producing very acidic white wines intended to be drunk young and without food.
There are a few rosés produced in Burgundy, but most of them are Provence. So don’t pay too much for a Burgundy rosé because that’s not what the region is known for.
Typically the acidity levels in the grapes tend to transition from bolder more tannic reds to softer less complex reds as you travel Burgundy from north to south, with some specific exceptions like Pommard pinots in the Cote de Beaune that have a terroir (soil condition) that causes the vines to produce a more robust and tannic red that can be cellared for decades.
The blocks of vineyard near the forest line along the ridge of the slopes and at the bottom of the hill in the base of the valley typically produce the lower quality fruit. There’s less drainage of the soil at the lower elevation, and almost too much at the top of the hill with more sun and heat. So when you’re looking at a map of vineyard blocks in the various Burgundy villages, you’ll notice the premier cru and grand cru vineyards are elevated between the ridge and the valley floor.
Brief history of Burgundy wines
It wasn’t until the 14th century that men, Cistercian monks to be exact, first planted grape vines in Burgundy. Grapes were growing wild all over the region, but it was the monks who “domesticated” the grapes, and produced wine. Both pinot noir and gamay varietals grew in the region. When the Duke of Burgundy took over, he demanded all the gamay vines be ripped out and prohibited the people from planting anything but pinot noir. This was his way of making wine exclusive, because it was much harder and more expensive to grow and maintain pinot noir vines than gamay, because pinot noir grapes have a thin skin that is susceptible to rot and mildew. This is how wine became a fetish for the elite and ordained.
Storing Burgundy Wines
All of Beaune is built atop caves like this. The Monks who first planted gamay and pinot noir grapes in the 12th century built caves that nearly provide a basement to the entire city center of Beanue, and almost all of them are still used for storing wine today. The caves are dark, damp and cool—the prefect environment for storing wine.
Most of the old bottles you see in the caves of burgundy are empty and just for show. There are some library wines locked up in the cave that are still drinkable and good though.
You’ll notice a lot of the older wine houses in Burgundy have “…& Fils” at the end of their name. This means “and Sons.” So Bouchard Aîné & Fils means Bouchard Aîné and sons.
Been wine tasting in Burgundy? Share some of your highlights or any suggestions of where others should visit!