Burgundy is to poetry what Bordeaux is to prose. The region – known as Bourgogne in French – is teeny tiny compared to behouth Bordeaux but my goodness does it pack a punch! It’s influence is huge in the wine world. Understanding Burgundy is like climbing Mount Everest for wine professionals. It’s complexity is legendary, not to mention its home to some of the most expensive wines in the world. So, how do you go about understanding the Burgundy wine region without becoming bewildered? Like many things, it’s easy when you know how.
Where Exactly Is Burgundy?
Burgundy is located in the central east part of France, and stretches from Dijon in the north to Macon in the south. For those of you who are good at geography you’re right, this isn’t very big. And yet, small is beautiful – this is the region that brought us Romanée-Conti, Aloxe-Corton, Nuits-Saint-Georges, Gevrey-Chambertin, Pommard, Meursault, and many others. The region hosts five growing areas (Chablis, Côte de Baune, Côte de Nuits, Côte Chalonnaise and Maconnais) with producers often having plots in some or all regions. This is one of the main reasons why Burgundy wines are so intricate – grapes are grown in so many different soils then mixed during maceration that it would be like blending a St. Julien with a St. Estephe with a Margaux. In Bordeau, that would be wine making suicide. In Burgundy, it’s everyday behaviour.
The diversity of Burgundy’s soil is unique in the wine growing world. It is a confluence of Mediterranean and oceanic influences, and these local variations play a key role in the diversity and aromatic subtlety of the region’s appellations. The temperate climate is ideal for wine growing. Lowish summer temperatures (around 20°C in July and August) mean the vines do not suffer from sunburn unlike their west coast cousins. Additionally, the average 7m of annual rainfall is ideal for providing rich, round, juicy fruit. Rainfall is most prevalent in spring, and this along with the clement temperatures all bodes well for the wine.
The topography of the French wine region means that vines are planted on slopes about 200-500 metres above sea level. These plots enjoy the full benefits from the sun, and protect the vines from the nasty westerly wind that is known for bringing frost and humidity. The hillside locations means that the irrigation is au naturel – the water simply drains down the slope. All this creates the perfect storm for wine makers; perfect climate, diverse, complex soil and centuries old savoir faire mean that ideal conditions for wine making give rise to some inimitable wines.
History of the Burgundy Wine Region
No article on Burgundy wine would be complete without a bit of history. If we are to fully understand Burgundy, we must fully understand why its terroir is so sophisticated.
One must first begin by understanding that the region was once covered by sea (about two million years ago), which thus created limestone and marl soils. Fast forward to Celtic times (50 BC) and we begin to see the first historical records of vines in the region. Along came the Romans, who picked up where the Celts left off, and started winemaking in the region in earnest. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Catholic church took the reins of winemaking all over France, including in Burgundy. Cictercian monks cultivated the land and began keeping meticulous records (they also coined the term “terroir”). In 1336, the monks created the first enclosed Burgundian vineyard (Clos Vougeot), which is still producing wine.
Pre-French Revolution, and the Dukes of Burgundy who ruled the region decree that Gamay should no longer be planted and Pinot Noir would be used in its place. The grape thrived in Burgundy’s soil and to this day, Burgundy is the biggest producer of Pinot Noir in the world. Post revolution, the land was confiscated from the church and the great wine estates were auctioned off to private owners. Now comes the interesting bit. Under French law it is required that all your children receive an equal amount of your estate. As the wine making families are a relatively small community, it was and is not uncommon to have estates that have a few rows of vines in several different chateaux.
Burgundy Wine Classifications
Burgundy’s wine classification is not the same as the 1855 Bordeaux system. Rather, the classification structures in Burgundy are fundamentally different and follow just four classifications. There are over 100 “appellations” or approved wine growing areas. Note that we tend to talk about an estate (domaine) rather than a chateau here. These are:
Grand Crus wines amount to less than 5% of all Burgundy wine. These wines are identifiable as they carry only the vineyard name on the label e.g. Chevalier-Montrachet, Corton Charlemagne (white); Richebourg, Le Musigny (red). There are 32 Grand Cru vineyards in the Côte d’Or. With 60% dedicated to the production of Pinot Noir.
This is when the village name is part of the vineyard (confusingly there are certain Grand Crus where this is the case but rather like your irregular verbs, you just need to learn the differences). There are 585 premier cru vineyards in the Côte d’Or and Côte Chalonnaise, which represent 18% of Burgundy’s total production.
NB: Both of the above are Single Vineyard Communities.
District appellations never have Bourgogne in their names (e.g. Mâcon). There are 22 regional and district appellations which represent over 41% of total production. Examples of regional appellations include Cremant de Bourgogne, Bourgogne red etc…
These are the most easily identifiable as they are where the village name comes first, followed by the name of an individual vineyard, e,g, Meursault Clos de la Barre, Gevrey Chambertin Les Evocelles. There are 53 communal appellations which represent 36% of total production. Examples include Chablis (see below), Puligny Montrachet, Nuit Saint Georges and Gevrey Chambertin.
Chabils is considered a varietal to the four appellations. No other grape other than Chardonnay is allowed in the four Chablis Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), and no one has seen the need to change that. And well, because it’s France, the chances of change happening soon are slim, at best.
Types of Burgundy
Burgundy wine is red or white, no rose. The region is by far one of the best French wine regions and investors would be foolish to not consider Burgundy in their portfolio (or on their table for that matter). Character distinctions for this type of wine are:
Red Burgundy – Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir is the hallmark of Burgundy. It is by far one of the most prized red varieties in the world and ticks all the boxes whether you are a drinker or an investor. The thin skinned grape is delicate, making it one of the hardest and fussiest grapes to grow. But when the conditions are right … goodness, it is like hearing angels sing in your glass. Good Pinot Noir is easy to find. Great Pinot Noir however is like gold dust. And it has very little to do with the price tag.
- Medium wine body
- Low tannins
- High wine acidity
- 11.5 – 13.5% ABV
Learn more about Pinot Noir in our detailed guide!
White Burgundy – Chardonnay
White Burgundy is the cornerstone of Burgundy wine. As much as 60% of the region is dedicated to white grapes, a figure which rises to 67% if you include the grapes used for Cremant (Cote d’Or’s answer to Champagne).
Most of the region’s white wines are made with Chardonnay grapes. However, a very small percentage of white Burgundy wines are made with other grape varieties like Aligoté, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc.
- Yellow apple
- Medium wine body
- No tannins
- Medium wine acidity
- 13.5 – 15% ABV
Serving & Storing Burgundy Wine
The Burgundy Wine Glass
While industry people may know their way around a glass cabinet blindfolded, not every amateur is as well-versed in the importance of having the right glass.
Red wines generally need to breathe, so a fuller, rounder bowl with a wide opening suits them best. Additionally, Burgundy’s complex character means that it needs to be decanted and drunk in a proper Burgundy glass. This has a bigger bowl to pick up on aromas of more delicate red wines such as Pinot Noir. This style of glass directs wine to the tip of the tongue and allows the wine to breathe at the glass’ widest point. This is vital for the aeration process.
Burgundy Serving Temperature
Many of us have misconceptions regarding the right temperature to serve Burgundy. Should it be about room temperature? How cold should we refrigerate the white? How long do we need to decant for before enjoying the perfect glass of Bourgogne.
Ideally, Pinot Noir should be served between 12-15°C. This might surprise some of you as it is well below most of our room temperatures. Red wine can become too soupy if served too warm. A too warm room will upset your wine’s natural balance, particularly for a light or medium bodied Burgundy like Pinot Noir. The takeaway? Don’t be afraid to ask for the ice bucket.
What about Chardonnay and Chablis? We all know that white wines need to be served chilled, but what if you’re killing the natural aromas with the cold? Ideally, Chardonnay should be served at 7-12°C but the style of wine is very important here. Is the wine oaked? Is it light or medium bodied? White wines favour cooler temperatures as it sharpens their taste profile.
For a Petit Chablis, the ideal temperature is around 8°C to serve as an aperitif and 9-10°C with food. Chablis and Chablis Premier Cru should be served at 10-11°C, and Chablis Grand Cru at 12-14°C.
To decant or not to decant, that is the question. There is much discussion in the wine world on this topic. Decanting serves to separate the wine from its sediment, so if you do not want sediment in your glass, decanting is a must. Visually, it’s also pretty appealing too! However, if a bottle has no deposit – as in younger wines, or very often white wines – then you can decant for pleasure but it will be ready to serve right away. For maximum aeration, Burgundy red wines such as Pinot Noir under 10 years old benefit from 1-2 hours of decanting prior to serving; however, you can decant shortly before serving for older wines.
Burgundy Food Pairings
Even though we encourage investment on this site, we are not immune to the fact that wine is made for drinking, and even the world’s most expensive wine is worthless if no one wants to drink it. And an excellent wine needs an excellent meal to go with it.
Pinot’s perfect pairing centre around lighter foods, such as non-fatty meats such as chicken or rabbit. Mild cheeses that are creamy but not overwhelming (think young goat, not mature brie). Surprisingly, this is a red wine that pairs very well with fish, especially if adding a touch of spice as in Asian cooking. Pinot Noir’s higher acidity and lower tannin makes it particularly versatile so our advice is if you don’t know what to order when the sommelier is hovering, you can never go wrong with Pinot.
The perfect food pairing with non-oaked white Burgundy wine such as Chardonnay would be in the fish or white meat family. My Italian roots will always make me suggest seafood pasta or risotto – linguini vongole is by far my favourite, but oysters, sushi, moules frites are all good too. Vegetarians should consider something mushroomy. For Chablis the list is much the same although I can suggest trying cheeses from the region such as Epoisses, Soumaintrain, Goat cheese (Vézelay, Charolais) Comté or a even a mature Cheddar. Red wine with fish, white wine with cheese, whatever next!
Now that you know everything about the Burgundy region, check out our guide on the world’s best wine regions!
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