Burgundy is really complicated. But if you like great expressions of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay it’s worth learning a bit about. There’s also the fact that Burgundy wines get pricey in a hurry, so the more you know, the smarter you can be about your buying choices. So let’s break down Burgundy and try to un-complicate it, at least a little!
At the heart of Burgundy is Chardonnay, but it’s soul is Pinot Noir. Virtually all the quality wines that come from this region are 100% of each of those grapes. There are some minor others permitted such as Aligote and Gamay, but when you think of Burgundy , think Chard and Pinot.
The Chardonnay from the farthest northern sub-region, Chablis, are crisper with what is usually described as a flinty character due to the unique clay soils of that area. Those from the Cote d’Or, which is the long and narrow primary part of the region stretching about 35 miles, are more elegant and there is a high concentration of the best Chardonnay vineyards in the appellation known as the the Cote de Beaune. In the most southern sections of Burgundy, the Cote Chalonnaise and the Maconnais the Chards are quite good, but not as nuanced or age worthy – and certainly not as expensive.
The Cotes de Nuits is the northern half of the Cote d’Or and home to some of the world’s finest , and most expensive, Pinot Noir. Here are the wines that, to me, epitomize this grape. But, that said, it gets very confusing to sort through the innumerable choices of producers and the communes and vineyards named on the label. The best thing to do is get to tastings, rely on recommendations from wine merchants you trust, do some Googling and develop your own short list of favorite producers. But these Pinots are lovely and layered with some characteristic earthiness not usually found in those from other parts of the world.
The way to begin sorting through the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir of Burgundy is by touring the vineyard hierarchy. (My recommendation is to do it live and in-person! When I first visited several years ago it was an amazing learning experience). It’s all about the land. Ownership of vineyards is very fragmented due to long ago inheritance rights, so many owners of some of the best vineyards don’t have enough grapes to be producers. Therefore, Burgundy has a rather unique winemaking and distribution system which relies on firms called negotiants to assemble, make and sell the wine. You may recognize some of the big names – like Drouhin, Jadot and Bouchard. The plots of vineyards are known as climats and now it starts getting tricky.
Here is the Burgundy quality classification hierarchy from best to least:
Grand Cru: 33 named vineyards/2% of wines
Premier Cru or 1er Cru: 600 named vineyards/10% of wines
Village or Commune Wines; 44 named villages/40% of wines
Bourgogne and Regional: 23 named areas/50% of wines
This is the reason there are so many confusing names on the label, and there is even some name overlap between Villages and Grand Crus that is difficult to identify. Here’s a picture of the full hierarchy using real wines that I have on hand. On the left is a Bourgogne, the most widely sourced and basic, priced around $34 (although you can find less expensive ones). On the right is a Clos Vougeot Grand Cru that costs about $115.
Below is a list of the 33 Grand Crus that you will see on labels… these are the best of the best and an amazing way to begin your Burgundy experience – just bring your platinum card to the store with you!
Sipping fine Burgundy is a terrific wine experience, but study up on it. There’s a lot of vinatge variation due to the unpredictability of Burgundy’s weather, and the fragmented nature of the region.
• Chablis Grand Cru
• Chambertin-Clos de Bèze
• Clos de la Roche
• Clos de Tart
• Clos de Vougeot
• Clos des Lambrays
• Clos Saint Denis
• Grands Échezeaux
• La Grande Rue
• La Romanée
• La Tâche
2012 Albert Bichot Bourgogne Vieilles Vignes de Pinot Noir $16
Lovely entry level Burgundy
Domaine Cedric & Patrice Martin Pouilly-Fuisse 2013 $24
A little pricey for everyday but had this with friends recently and loved its easy drinkability – especially with a selection of French cheeses.
2009 Louis Jadot Vosne Romanee $50
Awesome village wine from the heart of the Cotes du Nuits
2012 Chateau de Maligny Chablis Premier Cru Fourchaume $36
Shows what Chablis is about – leaner fruitiness and minerality
2010 Domaine Mugnier Nuits St. George, Clos de la Marechale, Premier Cru $100 (pictured). A highly rated and bold Pinot with lots of oomph. Decant a couple of hours if you plan to drink it with dinner.