Wine Education

Behind the Label[Vol. 3]: Bourgogne/Burgundy

Written by Simone Popov · 5 min read >

Burgundy [aka Bourgogne] is all the rage these days.

I love the region and am always on the prowl for the next big thing, all the while complaining about some of the remarkably ridiculous prices for bottles coming out of Burgundy. Whichever way you look at it, this region has intrigue and mystery. This patchwork of vineyards on a limestone escarpment in eastern France must grow the raw materials for the elixir of life, right? Otherwise, why else would someone shell out $5,000 for a bottle? I won’t be able to answer this question (here); however, I will do my best to unravel as much of the Burgundy mystery as possible to help you make informed decisions when searching for your next bottle of Burgundy wine.  

Now, to strike the perfect balance between providing detailed, concrete information and keeping it casual and approachable for everyone… It’s more challenging than it seems, but we will attempt it.

Grape/ Cepage

Much like most other wine regions of France, Burgundy does not (mostly) disclose the grapes used in its cuvées (blends). However, here, it’s a bit simpler. 90.5% of Bourgogne is planted to either Pinot Noir or Chardonnay (51% with Chardonnay and 39.5% with Pinot Noir). Therefore, if you are in the Burgundy/Bourgogne section, these two grapes will likely be the majority of your selection, and it’s fair to assume that if it is a red wine, it’s Pinot Noir; if white, Chardonnay (duh).

But, of course, this is France, so there are exceptions.

Outlier Grapes

The white grape Aligote (which accounts for 6% of planting) is the single grape in Bouzeron AOC(Village) and Bourgogne Aligote AOC(Regional).

An example of Aligote-specific AOC. Aligote will not be on the label, but only Aligote based wines can be classified Bouzeron

To read more about my dive into Aligote, click here.

The red Gamay (2.5%) is blended with Pinot Noir in a wine called Bourgogne Passetoutgrain. And if you see a bottle of red wine with the title “Macon” and another name associated with a village (Like Azé, Bray, Burgy, Bussières, or Chaintré), that bottle is 100% Gamay.

This label is Macon Aze Rouge, and is Gamay

The grape Sauvignon Blanc and its gray mutation Sauvignon Gris (less than 1% of plantings) are the dominant grape varieties of the Saint-Bris region. It makes sense because Saint-Bris is as close to Sancerre (a Sauvvy B Stronghold) as the Cote d’Or.

Saint Bris Label. Note: this label does specify Sauvignon Blanc. Some labels will specify “Sauvignon”. This is likely made from 100% Sauvignon Blanc, whereas the “Sauvignon” is made of a blend of Blanc and Gris.

Pinot Gris (also called Pinot Beurot in Burgundy), our favorite “grey grape,” is the Village of Marsannay’s primary variety, contributing to the unique rosé. Some bonus info: Marsannay village is the only village-level AOC in Burgundy allowed to make Rosé. 

The Pinot Noir mutation Pinot Blanc can make its way into various appellations, from the lowly regional ones to Grands Crus. This information is rarely or never, disclosed.

The grapes Sacy and  Melon de Bourgogne, considered inferior, are primarily used for Cremant (aka sparkling, made via the traditional “Champagne” method) and some more generic regional appellations.

These other options provide exciting avenues for exploration in a region that is otherwise pretty locked in regarding varieties/grapes/cepages.

Vintage

No tasting of Burgandy, nay, anything from the “Old World,” is complete without a lengthy discussion of “vintage,” aka the conditions of the year in which the grapes reached maturity. But, while discussing various harvest conditions may prove philosophically stimulating, it doesn’t give you much immediate information (without a Ph.D. level of research accompanying it). Knowing “good vintages” from “bad/so-so vintages” isn’t hard, with plenty of free sources online. With viticultural modernization and rising temperatures in the vineyard, the line between “good” and “bad” is becoming blurrier than your vision late into a night out. So, maybe in a somewhat unsatisfactory manner, I will conclude that it is up to you to invest as much or as little time into Burgundy vintage exploration as your heart desires.

I found this site to be a useful vintage resource.

AOC/ AOP

Technically, all of the Burgundy “regions” belong to the highest tier of the French wine hierarchy (dubbed Appellation d’Origine Controlee[AOC] or Appellation d’Origine Protegee[AOP]). Nonetheless, there are significant tiers amongst these Bourgogne regions, which imply quality and indicate specificity.

The concept, inspired by the studies of the Benedictine/Cistertian Monks, heavily influences the modern-day idea of terroir, so heavily emphasized in vineyards across the globe.

Burgundy quality pyramid
Image Credit: bourgogne-wines.com

Regional AOC

These seven generic AOCs are the largest; most cover the entire Burgundy region. Due to the wide range of vineyards available to be farmed and vinified in these AOCs, you will see more unique grapes used and uncommon styles for Burgundy. For example, both Cremant de Bourgogne and Bourgogne Mousseux focus on sparkling wines, and Bourgogne-Passe-Tout-Grain is for red-only blends of Pinot Noir and Gamay (also Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Gris in smaller proportions)

To explore the AOCs(AOPs) of Burgundy more in-depth, click here

Village AOC

We are now narrowing our scope from the grand, vast 140-mile (220 km) expanse that most Regional AOCs cover to far smaller clusters of vineyards surrounding the villages. Some Villages tend to show more distinct character in wines made there; for instance, Nuits St-Georges tends to be profoundly fruity and robust, while Chambolle-Musigny is far more elegant, perfumed, and aromatic. There are exceptions, as always, but we are getting closer to getting a sense of the wine style from the label.

Important Village Note

Historically, to try to make associations between the Village and its most famous vineyard, many villages appended the name of their most famous vineyard to the name of the Village.

Thus, the humble Village of “Gevrey” became the far more renowned “Gevrey-Chambertin.”, adding the famed Le Chambertin Grand Cru (see Grands Crus) to its name. While this might have been an astute marketing move at the time, now it can confuse. Gevrey-Chambertin is a Village AOC (more extensive, generic), while Le Chambertin is a Grand Cru AOC vineyard (small, super specific). However, each wine’s pricing should give you more than a clue, which is Grand Cru and Village.

To explore the AOCs(AOPs) of Burgundy more in depth, click here

The Premiers Crus (Village AOC + Grand Cru Designation)

Simply put, Premier Crus are selected vineyards (aka climats) that have demonstrated the ability to produce grapes of superior quality. There are 664 Premier Cru vineyards in total, and though they are not all considered the same quality, they represent their unique “terroir,” a.k .a. sense of place.

An example of a Village Wine with a Premier Cru climat.

Sometimes, a producer may source grapes from multiple vineyards in the same Village. Thus, Premier Cru will adorn the label without the designation. More often than not, a specific “climat” (like Les Pucelles, above) name will indicate a more precise location from which the grapes hail.

To explore the AOCs(AOPs) of Burgundy more in-depth, click here

Grands Crus

Much like Premiers Crus, Grands Crus are select vineyards/climats that have historically produced the region’s best wines (with Grands being superior to Premiers). There are 33 total Grands Crus, representing the pinnacle of Bourgogne wine. Therefore, each has its own AOC, the legal wine designation, and all can set their own viticultural rules.

A Grand Cru Vineyard. The Village is Vosne-Romanee/Flagey-Echezaux but this won’t be on the label.

To explore the AOCs(AOPs) of Burgundy more in depth, click here.

A Note on Price

In a lineup of four wines of different tiered AOCs, all other things being equal (vintage year, producer, winemaking approach), wine prices will go in order of vineyard specificity, with Regional AOC being the most affordable and Grand Crus being the most luxuriously expensive. However, with the massive fragmentation of even the smallest vineyards (Richebourg Grand Cru AOC is only 8 hectares but farmed by six different producers), the producer factor can highly influence the price, regardless of specificity or broad scope.

A note on Climat

A climat is a French term for a named parcel of land (of various sizes) with a unique terroir. In Burgundy, it is often used interchangeably with the word Lieu-dit (“said place”). However, Climat is more specific to viticulture (single-vineyard) vs Lieu-dit is more geographic. For instance, Paris has borders (but not many vineyards), thus it is a Lieu-Dit. The vineyard of Perrieres in the village of Meursault is certainly a Climat.

Grands Crus and Premiers Crus are “classified climats” of superior quality. Nonetheless, climats abound, and producers will often add the climat name to the wine label of any level: Regional, Village, Grand Cru, or Premier Cru. In the case of the former two, a climat will point out exactly where the grapes are coming from in the vastness of the AOC. In the case of the latter two, a climat will narrow down the source even more than the Grand Cru or Premier Cru, as some Crus are rather large and have unique terroirs (Clos de Vougeot is nearly 50 hectares).

Conclusion

On the surface, Burgundy may not be the most complicated region. Bourgogne is a classic region of still Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, typically fermented and/or aged in oak. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. I hope this article (and others like it) will motivate you to discover exceptional wines from Burgundy.

“But how do I do that without spending my entire paycheck?” you may ask.

Stay tuned for “Burgundy on a Budget”, continuing this exploration.  

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