This thumbnail guide to the wines of Burgundy is presented in two parts. In this first part I discuss the wines of the Côte d'Or, perhaps the most important region in terms of quality fine wine. In the second part I discuss Chablis, another appellation producing some very fine wines, as well as the lesser regions - the Côte Chalonnaise, Mâconnais and Beaujolais.
Burgundy can be very confusing. The Burgundy appellation system, for the regions of Chablis and the Côte d'Or at least, centres around a hierarchy at the top of which are the Grands Crus. The vast array of different appellations across Burgundy, compounded by the Grands and Premiers Crus, mean that an individual producer can market dozens of different wines, all with similar labels, but with remarkably different wine in the bottle. French inheritance law also contributes to the potential confusion. On the death of the owner, by law an estate must be divided between the beneficiaries, rather than passing intact to one individual. The result is often a number of different estates, producing wine of different quality, but where the producer's name is very similar, if not exactly the same. Confound the issue with a large number of underperforming domains in recent times (although many are now beginning to make good wines again), and generally high prices before the wines become interesting, and you have a region which is full of pitfalls for the wine buyer. Clearly some knowledge of the region is helpful in choosing the right wine.
For Burgundy as a whole, the Grands and Premiers Crus account for about 12% of all the wine produced. Village wines account for 23%, and less prestigious appellations account for the bulk of the produce, approximately 65%. These figures are often represented as a pyramid, as shown here.
The Grands Crus vineyards, capable of producing the finest wines in Burgundy, number approximately forty, and are situated only in Chablis and the Côte d'Or. The Premier Cru designation may apply to wines from these regions, and also the Côte Chalonnaise. Premier Cru wines are theoretically superior to the standard village wines. Village and sub-village appellations are widely spread throughout Burgundy. The sub-village appellations are the least prestigious of all the wines from Burgundy, but careful selection may yield some good value drinking.
One of the few facts about Burgundy that is easy to grasp is the grapes used - wines are generally made from Pinot Noir (red) or Chardonnay (white). Exceptions are Bouzeron (made from Aligoté) and St-Bris (made from Sauvignon Blanc), but these wines are rarely seen in the UK. One wine that is commonly seen is Beaujolais (made from Gamay).
The Côte d'Or is divided into two main viticultural regions, the Côte de Nuits being the more northerly of the two. The northernmost tip lies just south of Dijon, and the region extends down to the Côte de Beaune, onto which it abuts. Named after the town of Nuits-St-Georges, it is most widely reknowned for it's red wines, although there are a few worthy white wines made here also. Geologically, the region sits on a combination of Bajocian, Bathonian, Callovian and Argovian limestones, with some Liassic marlstone. The climate is continental, with a wide annual temperature difference. Spring rains and frost can be a problem, as can Autumn rain, which may interfere with the harvest. This is true for the whole Côte d'Or. The vineyards lie on the slope between the plain to the east, and the hills to the west. Soils on the plain, to the east of the N74 (not illustrated), are too fertile for quality wine, and on the hills it is too sparse. The easterly aspect also aids exposure to the sun.
The most northerly village of note is Marsannay, an up and coming wine region for the production of value Burgundy. Next is Fixin, a village which can produce some good value wines, although they never achieve greatness.
Further south come the villages of the Côte de Nuits that produce some of the great wines of Burgundy. Firstly, Gevrey-Chambertin, which impresses with the combination of its muscular, weighty attitude and paradoxical perfumed edge. Morey-St-Denis is a meaty, intense wine which can be superb, but like many of these famous names overcropping and poor vinification techniques can result in some very weak wines. Chambolle-Musigny may be marked by a wonderful, floral, fragrant bouquet, whereas at Vougeot we have an unusual situation. Much of the wine is classified as Grand Cru as it lies within the walled vineyard of the Clos de Vougeot, but only a small part of this wine is truly of Grand Cru quality. At best it can be a tasty, full-bodied, richly fruited wine, although it is not one of the great Grands Crus.
Flagey-Echézeaux is unusual as it lies to the east of all the other vineyards. The wines can be quite fine. Next is Vosne-Romaneé, a fine set of vineyards which can produce some superb wines. Vosne-Romaneé can have a rich, creamy, sensuous texture, even in the village wines from a good producer. Other than Nuits-St-Georges, there are no other villages of huge significance.
The appellations of the Côte de Nuits are as follows:
Grands Crus: Such wines are not required to bear the village name. Thus wines produced, for example, from the Grand Cru Chambertin Clos de Bèze would not include the village name of Gevrey-Chambertin, where it is situated. These are as follows:
Gevrey-Chambertin: Chambertin, Chambertin Clos de Bèze, Charmes-Chambertin, Chapelle-Chambertin, Griotte- Chambertin, Latricières-Chambertin, Mazis-Chambertin, Ruchottes-Chambertin.
Morey-St-Denis: Bonnes Mares, Clos Saint-Denis, Clos de Tart, Clos de la Roche, Clos des Lambrays.
Chambolle-Musigny: Musigny, Bonnes Mares.
Vougeot: Clos de Vougeot.
Vosne-Romanée: La Romanée, La Tâche, Richebourg, Romanée-Conti, Romanée-St-Vivant, La Grande Rue.
Flagey-Echézeaux: Grands-Echézeaux, Echézeaux.
The Grand Cru Bonnes Mares straddles the villages of Morey-St-Denis and Chambole-Musigny. Nuits-St-Georges has no Grands Crus.
Premiers Crus: These are too numerous to name here. As with Chablis, a wine blended from several such sites will be labelled as Premier Cru, whereas a wine from an individual vineyard will bear the vineyard name, eg. Gevrey-Chambertin Premier Cru Clos Saint-Jacques.
Village Wines: The villages of the Côte de Nuits are Marsannay (La-Côte), Fixin, Gevrey-Chambertin, Morey-St-Denis, Chambolle Musigny, Vougeot (although anything other than Grand Cru Clos de Vougeot is rare), Vosne-Romanée and Nuits-St-Georges. Village wines from Flagey-Echézeaux are sold under the Vosne-Romanée appellation.
Sub-Village Appellations: These include Côte de Nuits Villages (may be applied to wine from Corgoloin, Comblanchien, Prémeaux, Brochon, and declassified wine from Fixin), Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Nuits (applies to a large number of communes to the west of the Côte d'Or), and basic Bourgogne.
The Côte de Beaune is the more southerly part of the Côte d'Or. The northernmost tip abuts onto the Côte de Nuits, and the region extends south to the Côte Chalonnaise. The geology is more variable than that of the Côte de Nuits. The region sits on a combination of Callovian, Argovian and Rauracian limestones, with much intervening marlstone. Obviously, the climate is the same as for the Côte de Nuits - continental, with a wide annual temperature difference. Spring rains and frost, and Autumn rains, which may interfere with the harvest, can also be a problem here. The vineyards face south-east on the slope between the plain to the south-east, and the hills to the north-west, the easterly aspect aiding exposure to the sun.
Pernand-Vergelesses can be a source of some good value Burgundy, but no great wines. Nearby, however, we start to see some of the more serious wines of the Côte de Beaune at Aloxe-Corton. The wines of this village, as well as a number of other villages nearby, are red as well as white. Red Corton should be a muscular, savoury wine, whereas the white is a rich, intense, buttery drink. Beaune, Savigny-les-Beaune and Chorey-les-Beaune are all best known for their red wines. The wines produced here are well fruited, tasty, sometimes quite elegant affairs, although they are somewhat lighter (and less expensive) when from the latter two villages.
Pommard can make wonderful red Burgundy, well structured and meaty, whereas Volnay is better known for it's heady, perfumed and delicately textured wines.
Towards the southern end of the Côte de Beaune, however, are the Côte d'Or's most famous white wine villages. Meursault produces rich, complex, intense yet elegant wines, but it is Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet that lead the pack. The former bears a wonderful combination of richness with mineral complexities, the latter are sometimes broader and more open, although both are lovely, and words cannot really do them justice. Nearby are the villages of St-Romain, St-Aubin, Santenay and Auxey-Duresses. All are responsible for some value Burgundy.
The appellations of the Côte de Beaune are as follows:
Grands Crus: As with the Côte de Nuits, such wines are not required to bear the village name. The Grands Crus are as follows:
Aloxe-Corton: Corton (the largest Grand Cru in Burgundy, with a number of subdivisions, eg Corton-Bressandes), Corton-Charlemagne.
Puligny-Montrachet: Montrachet, Bâtard-Montrachet, Chevalier-Montrachet, Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet.
Chassagne-Montrachet: Montrachet, Bâtard-Montrachet, Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet.
As with the Côtes de Nuits, some vineyards lie in more than one village. Here, the Grands Crus Montrachet and Bâtard-Montrachet lie in both Puligny and Chassagne-Montrachet. Most villages of the Côte de Beaune have no Grands Crus.
Premiers Crus: As with the Côtes de Nuits, these are too numerous to name. As with Chablis and the Côtes de Nuits, a wine blended from several such sites will be labelled as Premier Cru, whereas a wine from an individual vineyard will bear the vineyard name, eg Pommard Premier Cru Les Petits Epenots.
Village Wines: The villages of the Côte de Beaune are Ladoix, Pernand-Vergelesses, Aloxe-Corton, Savigny-lès-Beaune, Chorey-lès-Beaune, Beaune, Pommard, Volnay, Monthelie, St-Romain, Auxey-Duresses, Meursault, Blagny, Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet, St-Aubin and Santenay. Blagny is a small hamlet close to the Premier Cru vineyards of Meursault.
Sub-Village Appellations: These include Côte de Beaune Villages (may be applied to declassified wine from fourteen villages of the Côte de Beaune not including Aloxe-Corton, Beaune, Volnay or Pommard), Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Nuits (applies to a large number of communes to the west of the Côte d'Or), and basic Bourgogne. There is also the confusing appellation Côte de Beaune, which refers to wines from the commune of Beaune not deemed worthy of the appellation Beaune.
The Côte d'Or - My top wines. As many producers have vineyards in so many different sites, I have grouped together the good names in Burgundy here. This is a personal list (in alphabetical order), so it doesn't include great but hardly affordable domaines such as Romanée-Conti. My list of top estates and producers includes Domaine d'Arlot, Simon Bize, Robert Chevillon, Bruno Clair, Michel Colin-Deléger, Drouhin, René Engel, Faiveley, Jacques Gagnard-Delagrange, Jean-Marc Blain-Gagnard, Richard Fontaine-Gagnard, Jean Grivot, Hudelot-Noëllat, Jadot, Jaffelin, Henri Jayer, Leroy, Méo-Camuzet, Albert Morot, Daniel Rion, Domaine des Perdrix, and Etienne Sauzet. There are, obviously, many, many more producers of interest, but there are simply too many to include here.