Introduction to Burgundy (October 2008)

Posted on: October 11th, 2008 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Today we will only scratch the surface of Burgundy, looking at the classifications, labeling and production of wines in the Cote D’Or. Officially Burgundy has six constituent parts – Chablis, The Cote de Beaune, The Cote de Nuits, The Cote Chalonnaise, The Maconnais and Beaujolais.

A rich labyrinth of wine beginning a one and a half hour drive south east of Paris and ending some 300 miles south near Lyon.

The official EU definition of wine is ‘the product obtained from the total or partial fermentation of fresh grapes, whether or not crushed, or from grape must’

Fermentation refers to the natural process whereby yeast reacts with sugar to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. In Champagne for example, there is a contrived second fermentation inside the bottle, which locks in the naturally produced carbon dioxide, resulting in the bubbles in the finished product.

The ‘whether or not crushed’ aspect of the definition is relevant to Burgundy as this implicitly refers to the Beaujolais Method or Carbonic Maceration technique of production.

Grape must is the combination of juice and pomace, the pomace is the pulp of skins, seeds and stems resulting from crushing the harvested grapes. The mixture will, for example, rest as a must in the early stages of the production of fine red wines.

France has always been very particular about controlling, managing and protecting quality amongst her agricultural produce. The first instance of government intervention was the demarcation of Roquefort Cheese as being from a particular area, made in a particular way using only ewe’s milk.

Over the last two hundred years, France has focused this attention on her wine, making official demarcations of quality – principally through the ministry of agriculture. This includes the appellation d’origine controlee award (which will be referred to as AC) that marks out wines of a certain quality. The idea is to also protect and guide the consumer. With wine this can be complicated – all other things being equal, the quality of a wine produced from one terroir can vary significantly from that of an immediate neighbour.

In this case terroir refers not just to the earth – meaning soils – but the incline of the vineyard, the facing direction, the wind, the climate and so on. Compared to Burgundy, nowhere else on earth is the terroir so studied and so complicated. The AC awards also dictate the maximum yield – generally speaking the higher the yield the lower quality of the resulting wine. The sum of these matters has lead to the creation of nearly 100 ACs in Burgundy.

Further, wines are classified in three main levels of general quality – Grand Cru (the best), Premier Cru (next best) and then Village wine.

To try and clarify by example, in the very heart of Burgundy there are two small villages – the AC Puligny Montrachet refers to the level of quality expected of the village wine, likewise the neighbouring small village AC of Chassagne Montrachet. Both very good white (Chardonnay) Burgundies starting at around £20 and £15 a bottle respectively.

Both can be identified from seeing the name of the village as the headline on the label and the AC of the village written underneath.

However there is a Grand Cru vineyard called Chevalier Montrachet that lies within and spanning the two villages. This has Chevalier Montrachet headlined on the label and the AC Chevalier Montrachet underneath. This wine is one of the best white wines in the world and starts at around £200 a bottle, steeply moving upwards depending upon producer and vintage. So two new variables – producer and vintage.

The vintage refers to the year the wine was made, every year is a vintage (as opposed to Champagne where a vintage is declared only for those years meeting quality criteria) with some years being recognised by experts as being better than others.

Vintage charts for burgundy that mark the quality out of ten can be found on various websites, finediningguide recommend

Unfortunately because the Cote de Beaune and Cote de Nuits (collectively the Cote D’Dor) of Burgundy are so delicate plus the fact that two grapes – pinot noir for reds and chardonnay for whites – are packed into such a small (30 miles) North to South running area a general vintage qualification can be difficult and occasionally less than helpful to the consumer.

And what of producers? These are the names written on the bottles as Domaine or Negociant Eleveur. These are very important in selecting a wine and there are over 3000 producers in Burgundy. After all “it is the man who makes the wine” – should Gordon Ramsay be given Michelin Three Star raw ingredients he is likely to prepare, conceive and execute a Michelin Three Star dish, not just once but for every customer consistently.

Give the same raw ingredients to a chef down the road and you won’t get the same results. Likewise the wine you drink from burgundy varies in character and quality by producer. Remember in restaurant terminology, Burgundy wine is the other way around, it is the ingredients that are given the Michelin Stars not the chefs.

Most of those exported are largely reliable familiar names – such as Louis Latour, Leflaive or Joseph Drouhin. The Gordon Ramsay of burgundy producers is Domaine de la Romanee Conti. Naturally this is reflected in the price where the price per case can vary by as much as a factor of ten depending upon the producer, regardless of the AC of the wine.

So to go back to one of our two neighbouring AC villages. A village wine with Puligny Montrachet written on the label with the AC Puligny Montrachet written underneath will have, in varying sizes of print, Negociant Eleveur or Domaine written on front or back. There may be twenty different producers of this village wine making something slightly different from each other.

To understand how this has come about, one has to examine some history and comparisons to other regions may help. After the fall of the Roman Empire Burgundy wine was in the hands of Catholic Monks. Come the French Revolution, the early nineteenth century Napoleonic Inheritance Laws confiscated the wine from the Roman Catholic Church and put it in the hands of those who were tending the vineyards.

Through generations plots of land have been handed down in tiny parcels – parcels not big enough to produce wine independently. So in come independent producers who buy the output from a number of plots each year to make, bottle and export the wine.

For contrast, should you look at the medoc for example, Chateau Latour is a first growth Grand Cru. A wonderful wine. The Chateau own all the grapes and produce all the wine and so have a consistent understood standard. You are just looking for the vintage for guidance. In this case, the classification is with the chef and not the ingredients, however the “chefs” were classified in 1855 and have not been amended since.

This is for another discussion but things are never easy with wine. Were Bordeaux easy to understand then Robert M Parker wouldn’t have been in a job for the last thirty years.

Without doubt the search for great wine at a great price in Burgundy is a challenging and complicated one but one well worth pursuing. Spectacular wines, both red and white, can be found. However forewarned is forearmed!