During the Middle Ages, Benedictine and Cistercian monks, whose responsibility it was to produce wine for the Church, began to recognize subtle variations in the wines from different areas. They began to map the vineyards in terms of quality and as a result, Burgundy’s famous, complex cru system began to emerge.
Burgundy (aka “Bourgogne”) is small in size but its influence is huge in the world of wine. It is home to some of the most expensive wines but there are tasty and affordable ones as well.
Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the two primary grapes of Bourgogne (Burgundy) white and red wines. However, Aligoté, Pinot Gris, Gamay, and Sauvignon Blanc are grown as well.
Burgundy has 5 primary wine growing areas:
- Côte de Nuits
- Côte de Beaune
- Côte Chalonnaise
Chablis is the growing region located furthest north and is geographically set apart from the rest of Burgundy. The river Serein (Serene) flows through the area, moderating the climate, and the grapes have been grown here since the Cistercian monks first started the vineyards in the 12th century.
All the wines are white and made with Chardonnay grapes.
Côte de Nuits
The Côte de Nuits is home to 24 Grand Cru vineyards and some of the world’s most expensive vineyard real estate. The area begins just south of Dijon and ends at the village of Corgoloin. 80% of the wines produced here are Pinot Noir and the remaining 20% are either Chardonnay or Rosé.
Côte de Beaune
The Côte de Beaune is named after the medieval village that is the heart of wine commerce in Burgundy. The wine from this region is quite different from that of its neighbor to the north. Chardonnay plays a more important role with 7 of the 8 Grand Cru vineyards producing white wine, but there are many amazing red wines produced in this region as well.
Côte Chalonnaise is situated between the towns of Chagny and Saint-Vallerin. Here there are no Grand Cru vineyards.
The first village in the northern part of the region is Bouzeron, the only appellation devoted to the white grape, Aligoté. This is a perfect summer sipper or choice for fish and shellfish. Aligoté is floral, with notes of citrus and flint, and perhaps a touch of honey.
Another village that does something a bit different is Rully, a vibrant center of Cremant de Bourgogne production since the 19th century. These white and rosé sparklers are made in the traditional method, just as in Champagne.
The wines from this area are good value. They range from smooth Chardonnays with subtle oak influences and ripe tree fruits to more rustic Pinot Noirs.
Mâconnais is the most southerly region, and Burgundy’s largest. Located between the town of Tournus and St. Veran, it lies at the crossroads between Northern and Southern France. The warmer climate is evident in the well-structured Chardonnays, with notes of ripe stone fruits, honeysuckle, citrus peel, and wild herbs.
Burgundy Wine Classifications
There are four levels of quality for Burgundy wines:
- 1% Grand Cru – Wines from Burgundy’s top plots (called climats). There are 33 Grand Crus in the Côte d’Or and about 60% of the production is dedicated to Pinot Noir.
- 10% Premier Cru – Wines from exceptional climats in Burgundy. There are 640 Premier Cru plots in Burgundy.
- 37% Village Wines – Wines from a village or commune of Burgundy. There are 44 villages including Chablis, Nuits-St-Georges, and Mâcon-Villages.
- 52% Regional Wines – Wines from overarching Bourgogne appellations.
Regional Wines can be made from grapes grown anywhere in Burgundy and tend to be fresh, light, and lively. You will find them labeled “Bourgogne Rouge” (red) or “Bourgogne Blanc (white).
The next step-up is the “Village” wines, named after the towns near to where the grapes are sourced. These wines are still fresh and fruity, with little to no oak.
Premier Cru Burgundy
“Premier Cru” wines are from special vineyard areas within a village. They produce wines that are slightly more intense than the regular old Village wines. Premier Crus are affordable and make marvelous food wines. The label will say “Premier Cru” or “1er Cru.”
Grand Cru Burgundy
The “Grand Cru” wines account for just over 1% of Burgundy’s annual production. Bold, powerful, complex and made for cellaring, they are the epitome of both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. There are a total of 33 Grand Cru vineyards in Burgundy.
Chablis Classification System
There is a separate ranking system for Chardonnay:
- Petit Chablis
Petit Chablis is produced from grapes grown surrounding the village, which are higher in acidity and have lots of light citrus character.
The majority of the wines found on wine store shelves are in this category. These wines are a bit rounder and more minerally with grapes sourced from the limestone slopes near the village of Chablis.
- Premier Cru Chablis
Premier Cru Chablis make up about 15% of annual production. These wines are more elegant coming from vineyards filled with Kimmeridgian limestone marl, giving them a distinctive character.
- Grand Cru Chablis:
These vineyards are located north of the town of Chablis, where the steep slopes face south-southwest. There is technically only one Grand Cru, but there are 7 “climats” inside that Grand Cru, and their names will be on the label: Blanchot, Bougros, Les Clos, Grenouilles, Presuses, Valmur, and Vaudésir. Many of the Grand Cru wines in Chablis are aged in oak.
Whatever your pleasure, make a point of trying some of the wines of the Burgundy region. You can’t go wrong and you don’t need to spend a fortune to find a nice one.