Because these two noble grapes have a prodigious ability to assimilate the characteristics of the land, or terroir, where they’re cultivated, Burgundians have created a sophisticated system of appellations to precisely indicate the geological, climatic, and cultural significance of their many different Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. The styles of these wines can shift dramatically between different villages, and even among wines made with grapes from the same vineyard, or climat, as they’re called in Burgundy.
The area under vines—nearly 30,000 hectares—is relatively small compared to many of the world’s premier regions. Yet vineyards in Burgundy are often controlled by multiple smallholders. It’s not uncommon for a single climat to be divided among numerous individuals or families. In some cases, an owner may possess only a tiny parcel, such as a few rows of vines, in a well-known vineyard. For example, the famed Clos de Vougeot, a 120-acre walled plot on the Côte de Nuits, has more than 80 owners.
There are 100 controlled appellations in Burgundy. Most are based on designated geographical areas, though some, such as the Premier Cru and Grand Cru, identify levels of quality. Burgundy’s top vineyards are located on the Côte d’Or, or golden slope, which is an eastern-facing hill divided into two viticultural sections: Côte de Nuits (famous for its red Grand Crus) and Côte de Beaune (known primarily for its white Grand Crus).
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Located in the east central part of France, Burgundy’s soils and topography give way to a wide array of distinctive wines, most notably from the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir varieties. There are 28,841 hectares under vine in the region (not including Beaujolais, which contributes more than 15,000 additional hectares of Gamay vines).
The main wine growing areas of Burgundy include:
- Chablis and Grand Auxerrois
- Côte de Nuits
- Côte de Beaune
- Côte Chalonnaise
The soils range from lime-rich, calcareous clay in areas like Côte de Beaune and Chablis—where Chardonnay thrives—to limestone marl, which is prevalent in the Côte de Nuits—and ideal soil for Pinot Noir. Gamay prospers in the sandy clay and granite soils that appear farther south in Beaujolais.
Burgundy has a continental climate that typically yields cool, crisp weather in autumn; cool temperatures and rainfall in spring; cold, and sometimes severe, winters; and hot summers. The climate is favorable for early-ripening varieties like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. However, certain areas like Chablis are particularly susceptible to spring frosts. Hailstorms and summer rainfall, which can lead to grey rot, can also threaten vines.
Overall, the landscape is hilly. The grapes, particularly the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir varieties, benefit from the eastern (and southeastern) aspects of the region’s gentle slopes. The topography becomes more mountainous in the south around Beaujolais.
Burgundy has a rich and storied history with evidence of vineyards dating back to the first century AD. During the medieval era, Burgundian wines were heavily influenced by monastic culture. Several generations of Valois dukes took up the charge from 1363 through 1477, making wine a key export. Until the French revolution, most of the region’s vineyards continued to be cultivated either by French nobility or the church. With the exception of a catastrophic period between the 1850s and 1890s, when the region was gravely affected by disease (powdery mildew) and then pests (phylloxera aphids), Burgundy has continued to prosper and strengthen its reputation as a producer of some of the world’s finest wines.
In 2015, the Côte d’Or area of Burgundy was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Like most of the Burgundian wine terroir, this famed narrow strip of vineyards is divided into many small parcels. There are 1,247 climats along the 30-mile stretch that runs from Dijon to Santenay. Each one is precisely delineated according to the microclimates and geological conditions that influence the wines produced there.
Burgundy’s appellation system is divided into four tiers. The lowest tier makes up about 50 percent of total production, while the highest tier recognizes the best quality wines and represents less than 2 percent. There are 100 Appellations d’Origine Côntrolée (AOCs) in the region.
“Bourgogne” always appears in the title of any wine from the 23 regional AOCs.
These wines are named after the village where their grapes were grown. There are 44 village AOCs.
Appellations Premier Cru
The additional distinction identifies these wines as being cultivated in specific climats within a village AOC. On the wine label, the name of the climat will appear after the name of the village to indicate superior quality.
Appellations Grand Cru
Wines classified as Grand Cru express the distinctive characteristics of Burgundy’s most favorable climats and they represent the pinnacle of quality in the region. The label will identify a Grand Cru wine by its climat (the name of the village will not appear). There are 33 Grand Cru AOCs.
Key Grape Varieties
Burgundy wines are almost exclusively varietal wines. In addition to their world-renowned white and red wines, Burgundy produces some rosé and sparkling wines. On average, the region produces 1.4 million hectoliters of wine.
The most widely planted variety in Burgundy, Chardonnay accounts for 51 percent of the grapes grown in the region. It’s an ancient grape, descended from Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc. Depending on where in the region the grapes are grown, Chardonnay yields three three distinct styles of wine in Burgundy.
- North: In Chablis, Chardonnay yields wines that are pale greenish-gold in color when young and deeper gold with age. The Chablis style is known for its delicate nose, mouthwatering acidity, and steely minerality. These wines tend to be lean and lively with notes of citrus, green apple, and acacia flower. They can take on nutty and honeyed notes as they mature. Some may be partially aged in oak, though most only see stainless steel.
- Central: Chardonnay wines from Côte de Beaune are usually deeper in color than wines from Chablis. They tend to be opulent, full-bodied, and complex with intense flavors of white peach, ripe pear, apple, citrus, and honeysuckle. Aging in new French oak adds body, tannin, and nutty flavors. Expect a long, decadent finish.
- South: In Côte Chalonnaise and the Mâconnais, Chardonnays are pale yellow in color. They’re known for being fruity, medium- to full-bodied, easy-drinking wines. Their dominant notes are citrus and apple. If aged in oak, they take on nut, honey, and vanilla notes.
The second most widely grown grape in this region is Pinot Noir. It comprises 39.5 percent of Burgundy’s plantings. Pinot Noir is native to Burgundy. Many other varieties, including Chardonnay, Aligoté, and Gamay, descend from this ancient grape. There are also many clonal Pinot Noir variations.
Pinot Noir is admired for its natural ability to reflect the characteristics of its terroir, so styles vary greatly from the most elegant expressions in Burgundy to others around the world. In Burgundy, Pinot Noir gives medium- to full-bodied wines that are typically ruby in color, though they can take on garnet or brick hues with age. Tannins are characteristically soft, round, and delicate. Dominant flavors include fresh berries, cherry, cinnamon, and pepper. As they mature, Pinot Noir wines also develop vegetal and gamey notes.
While Pinot Noir yields some of the world’s finest and most age-worthy wines, it also comes with some challenges. It prefers a cool climate and can be difficult to cultivate. It’s highly susceptible to vine disease and other threats like frost, mildew, and rot. The vinification process also calls for careful monitoring and continual fine tuning.
Approximately 6 percent of the vines planted in Burgundy are Aligoté. This white wine variety came onto the Burgundy viticulture scene back in the 17th century. Like Chardonnay and Gamay, it’s a cross between Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc. Pale yellow in color, Aligoté produces light wines with juicy acidity and white peach, lemon, green apple, and saline notes. Typically, Aligoté is drunk young, but some can develop further with a few years in the bottle.
It makes up only 2.5 percent of the grapes grown in Burgundy, but it is the main variety used in the wines of Beaujolais, where the grape flourishes in the area’s granite soils. Gamay wines tend to be ruby or garnet in color, lively and fruity with light tannins and red berry and cherry notes. Beaujolais Gamay is often vinified with carbonic (or semi-carbonic) maceration, which can add a banana or bubblegum flavor.
Just about 1 percent of Burgundy is planted with other varieties. These include well-known grapes like Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Beurot (Pinot Gris), as well as rarer ones like César, Sacy, Melon (Muscadet), and Tressot.
What’s Happening in Burgundy Today?
Burgundy continues to move toward organic and biodynamic viticulture and vinification practices. Several top Burgundy growers have been embracing natural ways of producing their wines for some time, and others are following suit. With biodynamic wine certifications increasing throughout France, the growing interest in applying the principles of biodynamics to winemaking may not be a trend as much as a sensible shift toward sustainable best practices.
Despite many recent challenges from Mother Nature, Burgundy winemakers continue to create outstanding wines. After a particularly difficult spring with a late frost and two major hailstorms, the 2016 vintage is exhibiting a superior level of quality. But 2016 wasn’t a fluke. The past seven vintages have been threatened by frost, mildew, and severe hailstorms. Scores of old vines have also contributed to low yields.
An innovative strategy is being implemented to protect Burgundy’s vineyards from future hailstorms: generators that will act as a high-tech shield are being installed throughout the region. They’re expected to safeguard 42,000 hectares by launching tiny, silver iodide particles into the clouds when the risk of a hailstorm is imminent.
In the meantime, while the quality of Burgundy wines remains high-caliber, lower yields resulting in less stock are leading to higher prices. This is triggering a shift on the business side. Négociants, for example, are looking for ways to adapt their business models to this new normal.