Wine · Wine Regions

Beginners Guide To: Burgundy

I’ve decided to develop on the inspiration for one of my previous posts. I’m delving a bit deeper into a region that still confuses many; Burgundy. Situated inland and one of the northernmost wine regions in the world, it can be a myriad of crus, vineyards, villages and departments to understand, even for the most seasoned of wine professionals. But for anyone who takes the time to search out and try to understand this region, the rewards can be phenomenal. So to help those who might be looking to learn a bit more about this region I have tried to break it down into bite sized chunks for easier consumption.


Burgundy, also know in French as Bourgogne, is a wine region situated between Dijon to the north and Lyon to the south, with the exception of Chablis, which is further north and set apart form the main area of Burgundy. It is split into sub-regions:

  • Chablis – This is the most northerly part of Burgundy and actually closer to Champagne. Being so far north gives these wines a steeliness and a style, due to the cooler climate, that is much fresher than other wines from Burgundy and is expressive of the famous Kimmeridgian clay marl that the grapes are grown on. Only white wines are made in Chablis.
  • Côte d’Or which is made up of the Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits – This is where all the best vineyards, the grand crus which are discussed below, are situated, with the exception of one in Chablis. Wines from here will have power and elegance and will be able to age for decades. They will also be the absolute best examples of the terroir they have come from.
  • Côte Chalonnaise – This is an area where value can be sought out. With excellent village level wines, this area has a patchwork of soil types that produce a variety of styles.
  • Mâconnaise – Further south the fruit becomes more ripe and this is reflected in the wines. This is the area the well known Pouilly Fuisse comes from and is a good indicator of the style from here.

Most of the region’s wines are made from 2 grape varieties, Chardonnay for white wine and Pinot Noir for red wine. The best wines will only be made from these grapes, although all of the following can be found in Burgundy:

  • Chardonnay (white)
  • Aligoté (white)
  • Pinot Blanc (white)
  • Sauvignon Blanc (white)
  • Pinot Noir (red)
  • Gamay (red)

The most famous of the Burgundian wines can fetch some princely sums of money and these will come from the department mentioned before, the Côte d’Or. Translated as The Golden Slopes, it is believed to have this name because of how the vineyards look when the autumn turns the leaves golden brown. I have discovered recently though, that Cote d’Or may actually be a shortening or Côte d’Orient in reference to the fact that the vineyards face east to soak up the early morning sun. The sub-regions with the Côte d’Or are the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune and are where the grand crus of Burgundy can be found.

The quality classification system in Burgundy is where a lot of confusion can be caused. Vineyard boundaries began to be delineated hundreds of years ago by Cistercian monks trying to work out why some wines tasted better than others. They found that the best wines came from areas in the Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits on the middle of the slopes, where the frost didn’t settle and the air wasn’t too cold. For this reason Burgundy wines are considered to be some of the most expressive wines of their terroir, in the world. In 1861 an informal quaity classification system was drawn up and this was then legally solidified when the appellation system came into being in the 1930’s.  The system has 4 main quality levels:

  • Bourgogne rouge and blanc – These are wines made from grapes grown anywhere in the region and made in a more simple way that the more prestigious wines. This level accounts for roughly 52% of the regions production. They are generally entry level, although there can be some fantastic value to be found here.
  • Village wines – This is where quality will take a step up. The grapes used to make these wines will have come exclusively from the village named on the label and will therefore be more terroir expressive. These wines will also have the name of the village on the label, i.e. Beaune, Volnay, Meursault etc. This level accounts for roughly 36% of production in Burgundy. A lot of villages have combined the name of the their most famous vineyard to that of the village to benefit from the notoriety. For this reason if a wine has a hyphenated place name, Gevrey-Chambertin for example, you can be sure it is a village level wine, although not all village names are hyphenated.
  • Premier Cru – These are vineyards, which can have many different owners, that are considered to produce excellent wine.  The label will display the village name, followed by 1er cru and the name of the vineyard, for example Chablis 1er cru “Les Fourchaumes”. Premier Cru accounts for roughly 10% of Burgundian production and there are 629 of these vineyards.
  • Grand Cru – These are the very best vineyards in Burgundy and highly revered. They carry price tags that could see you spend a couple of months salary on a bottle in a restaurant in some cases, and are some of the most expensive wines in the world. There are 33 grand cru vineyards in Burgundy, 1 in Chablis and the other 32 in the Côte d’Or (the Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits). As a generalisation, the reds are in the Côte de Nuits and the whites are in the Côte de Beaune. So famous, are these vineyards, that only the name of the vineyard appears on the bottle label with the designation ‘grand cru’ underneath. The grand crus make up around 2% of total production.

This is the basic outline of the Burgundy quality system, known as the cru system. As mentioned before, it takes another confusing twist as most vineyards (plots of land or lieu dits) are split into multiple ownership (climats). This is, in part, due to the French law stating that all children must equally share any inheritance. This has caused vineyards to become fragmented over time with some owners selling land to pay the inheritance tax or cover other costs. A famous example of this is Clos de Vougeot, a grand cru vineyard. There are roughly 80 owners of land in this vineyard and they can all make a wine called Clos de Vougeot, all of which are grand cru status.

Confused yet?  Well, Chablis actually has it’s own classification system as well:

  • Petit Chablis – Produced from grapes that come from around the village of Chablis, but not from the original AOC of Chablis. These wines will be best drunk young, and some very good value can be found here.
  • Chablis – Made from grapes that come from the limestone slopes of the village of Chablis, these wines will be more expressive of the famous terroir that can be found in this part of Burgundy.
  • Chablis Premier Cru – These are top vineyards that produce excellent fruit and will be more elegant, having been grown on the famous kimmeridgian limestone marl. They will usually have the name of the climat on the label as well as stating ‘Chablis 1er Cru’
  • Chablis Grand Cru – There is only 1 grand cru vineyard in Chablis, but this is split into 7 climats. These will be named on the label and will be aged in oak, giving them a different style to most other zesty Chablis wines. These wines will age gracefully and are some of the best expressions of Chardonnay in the world.

I think that is a good start for anyone wanting to begin their Burgundy exploration. This is, by no means, an exhaustive guide and getting to know the good producers, premier and grand crus and villages will stand you in good stead in your journey. Happy drinking!


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