Julie Harrison - The Wines of Burgundy

Publish Date
Friday, 3 February 2017, 11:39AM
By Julie Harrison

The Wines of Burgundy – Part One History

On the surface the wines of Burgundy seem to be quite simple to understand.  If you are drinking a white wine chances are it is Chardonnay and if it is red then it will probably be Pinot Noir.  If you include Beaujolais as part of the region then red wines from this area are made from the less well regarded Gamay grape.   This narrow area extending from Chablis in the north down to Beaujolais in the South is made complicated by the fact that it consists of many small producers making small quantities of wine, some of which are very average and others that are famous for being the best in the world.   

Wine making here goes back to Roman times but it was the church that really developed the area during the middle ages.   The Cistercian monks were amongst the first to appreciate the principle of Terroir, which is arguably more important in this region than any other in France.   Terroir  is how the environment in which the grapes are grown expresses itself in the final wine.  It encompasses the soil type, aspect, climate and geology of the vineyard.  The monks realised this and were responsible for the beginning of the mapping out of where the optimal parcels of land were. Small parcels of delineated plots of vines with unique characteristics became known as Climats.

After the French revolution the land previously owned by the church was sold off to the local and Parisienne Bourgeoisie.  In 1790 Code-Napoleon came into law which decreed that land would be distributed evenly amongst the children of the deceased parents as opposed to the first son getting it all.  This meant that over time vineyards became increasingly divided up to the extent that a family might only own a couple of rows of vines within a vineyard.   The different wine growers would make small parcels of wine from their own portion of the vineyard, confusingly often under the same name but often with variation in quality as one part of the vineyard may be better than another or one winegrower might be better at his job than his relatives.  This fragmentation of vineyards resulted in the advent of wine merchants/negociants  who bought grapes or wine from many winegrowers and blended them into single wines.  Negociants dominated the industry until the early 1980’s but there are now increasing numbers of small producers making and bottling their own wine with attention on quality and good wine growing practices.

With this confusing system it is helpful to have some idea how wines from Burgundy are classified.  Ignoring the area of Chablis, which does things a little differently there are 4 levels of classification for Burgundy wines.  Regional wines are made from grapes that are grown anywhere in Burgundy and are labelled Appellation Bourgogne Controlee/Protegee or Bourgogne Blanc/Bourgogne Rouge. These are obviously the least expensive option and in good years may be of reasonable quality but in poor years might give you a bad impression of what Burgundy wines are all about.  The Regional wine classification also encompass the few wines made from grapes other than Chardonnay and Pinot Noir such as the white Aligote and the sparkling wines of Burgundy the Cremant de Bourgogne.  Next up are Village wines which are made from grapes that come from different vineyards in one of the 42 Burgundy villages.  An example would be a wine with a label that reads Appellation Meursault Controlee. The grapes for this wine come from a variety of vineyards in  the village of Meursault.    Next up the ladder are Premier Cru wines which are labelled with their village and come from a prime vineyard or vineyards within that village.  Often the vineyard of origin is on the label for example; Meursault Premier Cru  “Les Gouttes d’Or”.   Less than 1% of Burgundy are classified Grand Cru. Here you find famous names like Romanee-Conti and Batard-Montrachet and it is these wines that will set you back a couple of thousand dollars a bottle!   Next week when I take a closer look at what to expect from the wines of the 5 growing regions of Burgundy.

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