Burgundy often compete with Bordeaux for the title of the most prestigious wine region in France. Geographically, it’s a large region which from the north includes the white Chablis wines. Further south, in the south of Dijon, we find then the exclusive and world-famous Côtes-de-Nuits district where Domaine Romanée-Conti has become known as the world's most exclusive and above all expensive wine. We continue further south to the Côtes de Beaune and then Côtes Chalonnaise. Far to the south, on the border of Beaujolais, we find Macon, which primarily has made its reputation from its gorgeous white Chardonnay wines. Very generally, we can say that in the northern part of the district, from the city of Dijon the production has been specialized on red wine. Then, the further south you go, the more the part of white wines becomes important, especially when you have passed the Côtes de Beaune and reached down to the Côtes Chalonnaise and Mâcon. One could also say that the more fullbodied red wines in the north become lighter and fruitier the more south you go. In total, the Burgundy wine district covers 38,000 ha of vineyards.
It is thus a major wine region to the surface, but what is especially characteristic of Burgundy is that the vineyards are divided into very small parcels. This division can sometimes seem like pure mosaic when land, which has passed down to new heirs over the years, has led to that a seemingly complete viticulture has become divided into several different winegrowers.
The taste variation is considerable between the wines from Burgundy and this despite the fact that most of the production only uses four different grape varieties. Pinot Noir and Gamay for the reds and then Chardonnay and Aligoté to the whites. Actually you can limit these 4 varieties to only 2 since Gamay is used primarily in the light and fruity wines of Beaujolais. Aligoté is also back on the march since the grape itself, has a high acidity and is not nearly as aromatic as Chardonnay. The Aligoté wines are primarily used to make Kir. Kir was mayor of Dijon and the aperitif mixing black currant liqueur with white Aligoté wine has been named after him. If you want to make a real Kir, you should therefore use Aligoté wine. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, both grape varieties which have had great success around the world have both their origins in Burgundy where these varietals have been cultivated since more than 2000 years. If plantings of grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes around the world has made it possible to replicate the taste of Bordeaux wines with a relatively good result, the Pinot noir wines however, have never been totally the same outside Burgundy. The reason is certainly the particular soil (“terroir”), which plays an important role in the flavour of the grapes. Moreover, Burgundy wines are usually made of one, or at the most two grape varieties which makes it harder to "experiment" with the flavor after the harvest. “In Burgundy they drink wine made from fermented grape juice, nothing else” as someone said.
Burgundy aficionados therefore appreciate the finesse and subtlety, not least in the red wines. Compared with Bordeaux, the fermentation process takes only half the time (10 days), which means that the grape peel and seed secrete smaller amounts of tannins. The Pinot Noir grapes is additionally a lighter and fruitier varietal than the Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux.
Now, how to understand the classification of Burgundy wines? At first glance, it may seem as complex as understanding Bordeaux. For example, Burgundy produces 10 times less wine than Bordeaux, but has twice as many appellations. In fact, the classification in Burgundy is fairly simple to understand, especially if you know the names of the villages in the district. There are six categories for Burgundy wines. These 6 are then divided into 4 levels. We start with the 6 different categories :
- Bourgogne: This is the appellation for all the wines produced in Burgundy from Pinot noir grapes for red wine (except from l'Yonne where Cesar and Tressot is used) and Chardonnay grapes for white wine.
- Bourgogne Aligoté: This is wine made from the aligoté grape. Up to 12% can be mixed with the Chardonnay.
- Bourgogne Passetoutgrains: these are red or rosé wine made by blending the Pinot noir and Gamay grapes. The wine must contain at least 1/3 of Pinot Noir. This is often light and fruity wines.
- Bourgogne ordinaire and Bourgogne grand ordinaire: red, white or rosé wines produced with Pinot Noir and Gamay for the red wines and Chardonnay or Aligoté for the white (Pinot blanc and Melon de Bourgogne is also used, but to a lesser extent). In the wines from L'Yonne it is slightly different since Tressot and César are used for the red wines and Sacy for the white wines.
- Bourgogne mousseux: any type of sparkling wine, red, white or rosé.
- Crémant de Bourgogne: this is Burgundy’s equivalent to Champagne. It is usually chardonnay wine that have been made sparkling by allowing the wine to ferment a second round. It is what is called the classical or natural method. One can say that the use of Chardonnay grapes and the geographical proximity to Champagne, implies that the Crémant de Bourgogne is the type of sparkling wine which is the most similar to real champagne.
After having described the categories, it is important to understand the 4 different levels in the classification.
- Regional level: this is the most generic level, which accounts for 55% of total production of wine. We find here the above mentioned Bourgogne, Bourgogne grand ordinaire, Bourgogne Passe-tout-grains, Bourgogne Aligoté, Bourgogne Mousseux and Cremant de Bourgogne.
- Municipal level: at this level, we find all the wines that have the name of the village they come from. (Ex. Gevrey-Chambertin, Volnay, Pommard, etc ...). This level corresponds to 34% of the production in Burgundy.
- Premier cru: we have now reached a level that only represents 10% of the production. The difference from the more generic municipal level is that a «Premier Cru» not just comes from a particular village, but from a special field in the village which is called the «climate». These are lots of the vineyard which are better exposed to the sun and therefore have better preconditions for creating a good wine. These different climates are given specific names in addition to the name of the village and they are often mentioned on the bottle label.
- Grand Cru: this is the top level. The village names no longer matters since the climate name itself is so well known that it becomes the name of the wine. Some examples are Montrachet, Corton, Chambertin and Clos de Vougeot. Only 1.5% of the entire production in Burgundy falls into this category, and it must be divided into thirsty customers around the world. This is what makes the prices of these wines often exceed all logic.