Burgundy, where size doesn’t really matter
In Part 2 of the French Waterways guide to French wine, we go east to Burgundy, one of the country’s finest wine producing regions. It might be small in size, but Bourgogne as the French call it comes very big on quality and reputation. Producing some of the world’s finest wines and most expensive bottles, Burgundy wines are often top of the table.
In this article, we take a look at the history behind Burgundy wine, the different regions that produce it and offer some tips on how to drink it at its best. Join us on a tour of arguably one of the best places to drink the local wine.
Burgundy wines – a history
As they did in most wine producing regions in France, the Romans were responsible for planting the first vineyards in Burgundy. Fine wine therefore goes back over two thousand years, but it wasn’t until several centuries later that production started in earnest. Monks produced the first proper wine for the Dukes of Burgundy in the Middle Ages and since then the region has never looked back.
Did you know? Burgundy is one of the smaller wine-producing regions in France with just over 70,500 acres under vineyards.
Burgundy lies in the east of central France. Within it, wine is produced in five areas or terroirs. The land is predominantly limestone giving a strong mineral component to all the area’s wines.
Unique to Burgundy, the wine areas are also divided into climats, a plot of land growing vines. Each climat has specific geographical and climatic conditions, all exclusive to a particular plot. A description of a climat may include the plot’s incline, aspect and elevation as well as information about the soil type.
Beaujolais is a region to the south of Burgundy that some would say isn’t Burgundy at all. Climatically different to its well regarded neighbouring regions, the Gamay Noir grape accounts for 99% of the vines grown here, which flourishes to produce light red wines brimming with summer fruits. The secret to this wine’s fruity flavours is the unusual carbonic maceration method.
The nine Cru Beaujolais wines identified for their superior product are a darker and more complex wine. Familiarise yourself with the nine villages producing these as they use labels reflecting their village name *. The most well-known of which are probably Fleurie AOC and Brouilly AOC or Cote de Brouilly AOC.
There are 39 more villages producing Beaujolais-Villages from granite-rich soil. Often these villages share grapes to produce a blended wine. Those labelled AOC Beaujolais-Villages belong to just one village.
And then there is Beaujolais Nouveau. In some quarters probably the most well known product of the Beaujolais wine region because of the traditions*surrounding its production and release. Although overproduction impacted its quality and popularity such that by the 21st century sales had plummeted.
Synonymous with white wine, Chablis barely needs introduction. It lies to the north-west of the rest of Burgundy and isn’t physically joined to the other four terroirs. Chablis is closer to Champagne in both soil type and weather – this is a land of freezing winters and scorching summers, which feed the Chardonnay grapes.
Chablis produces white wine – 61% of all wine produced in Burgundy is white – and it’s known for its unique crisp and zesty taste. The green-gold colour is another defining characteristic. Perfectly paired with a freshly shucked oyster, it’ll also suit your sushi supper.
Côte de Nuits
Côte de Nuits lies at the northern end of Burgundy, just south of the city of Dijon. Vineyards cram into the eastern side of the narrow valley along the river Saône. Together with the Côte de Beaune, it forms the wine-producing area known as the Côte d’Or.
Pinot Noir grapes predominate in Côte de Nuits, which produces mostly reds. Home to no less than 24 Grand Crus, this region boasts some of the best wine in France and the most expensive. Wines tend to have earthy tastes with a touch of spice and strong fruity undercurrents.
Côte de Beaune
South of Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune centres around the historic village of Beaune, itself the centre of Burgundy wine. The area grows Pinot Noir grapes, particularly in vineyards around Beaune, but the predominant grape is chardonnay.
White wines from Côte de Beaune have a bouquet of apples and pears with a taste of dried grasses, reminiscent of the area’s warm summers. The buttery chardonnays of Burgundy are also known, more broadly, as White Burgundy and the Bourgogne Blancs of the Côte de Beaune are said to be the finest.
Sandwiched between Côte de Beaune and Mâconnais, Chalonnaise is the only one of the five Burgundy regions without a Grand Cru. However, titles aside, the wines are often just as good as those produced by its neighbours and have the advantage of being slightly cheaper.
The area around the village of Bouzeron grows Aligoté grapes, whose white wine is less zesty than Chablis and with strong floral tones. Further south is Ruilly, the centre of Crémant de Bourgogne, which is a sparkling whites or rosé produced with a method similar to that of Champagne, although often producing a sweeter finish you’ll find it served with dessert in Burgundy.
The southernmost area of Burgundy, when not factoring in Beaujolais, Mâconnais is quite unlike the others in climate and feel. You can sense the influence of the Mediterranean in both the warmer temperatures and in the architecture. The chardonnay grapes grown here are harvested a full two weeks earlier than those in Chablis.
Pouilly-Fuissé is the most famous wine-producing part of Mâconnais. Its whites are fruity and pale gold in colour. The perhaps more prolific Macon Villages is one of the most recognisable White Burgundy exports.
Did you know? Climats are a unique phenomenon to Burgundy and gained UNESCO World Heritage Status in 2015.
Most Burgundy wines fall under the Burgundy scale of classification with the exception of Chablis whose wine has its own classification table. At the top of the Burgundy wines are the Grand Cru, representing just 1.4% of production and 33 vineyards. Big names here include Charmes-Chambertin, La Tâche, Montrachet and Romanée Conti, and bottles with these labels attract the biggest bids at auction. Premier Cru wines account for just over 10% of all Burgundy wines. Some of the best-known labels are Santenots and Volnay 1er Cru.
Next down the list are so-called vins de villages, almost 40% of production. These wines are often very good and have the advantage of being cheaper than those in the Cru categories. The rest of Burgundy wine falls under the regional wines umbrella and has the generic name of Bourgogne Rouge or Bourgogne Blanc. These are best drunk young and make good table wines.
Chablis wine too has four categories. At the top, there’s just one Grand Cru and the best-known labels include Blanchot, Bougros and Les Clos. Grand Cru Chablis is aged in oak and therefore tastes different. Next down is the Premier Cru category, accounting for 15% of production. Most Chablis wine falls into the next category, simply called Chablis before the last, Petit Chablis, whose wines are best drunk young.
Did you know? In Burgundy an oak barrel is called a pièce and holds 228 litres except in Pouilly-Fuissé where a barrel has capacity for 212 litres.
Best Burgundy vintages
The last few years have been good for Burgundy wine, although to find an exceptional vintage with the highest ranking you have to go back to 1990 (and spend a small fortune). For more recent good years try the following:
Good years for Burgundy reds – Côte de Beaune had two outstanding vintages in 2009 and 2014. Côtes de Nuit highlights include 2010, 2012 and 2014, all with the highest ranking ‘classic’ vintage label. Outstanding years were 2011 and 2013.
Good years for Burgundy whites – 2014 and 2015 were both ‘classic’ vintages for whites. All the years between 2007 and 2013 were outstanding with the exception of 2009.
Did you know? Burgundy runs La Grande Route des Vins, consisting of five wine trails through the region taking in the best of landscape, vineyards and wine tasting. Find out more
Storing and serving Burgundy wines
With the odd exception, Burgundy wines from most years are suitable for drinking or keeping. How long you keep the wine depends on its quality. As a general rule, only Grand and Premier Crus will improve in flavour after five to seven years; others are best drunk within five years of production.
The correct temperature for Burgundy wines depends on their type:
Sparkling Crémants taste best at 6-8 degrees.
Most Burgundy whites are best at 12-14 degrees.
Aligoté whites like a slightly cooler 10-12 degrees.
Reds come into their own at 16-17 degrees; any higher and they lose their bouquet.
Did you know? Both young and old Burgundy wines benefit from transferring to a carafe or decanter. Pour a young Burgundy slowly into a wide-based carafe and leave to ‘relax’ for two hours. Decant an older Burgundy two hours before you plan to drink it.
Taste Burgundy vintages for yourself
Enjoy the very best of Burgundy scenery, cuisine and wine from the comfort of a luxury hotel barge. Visit the area and savour its charm as you glide down the Saône River and the Canal de Bourgogne.
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