The Burgundy Wine Region is one of the most unique and interesting wine regions in the world.
Over centuries, monks divided this great region up into tiny pockets of vineyards. This way of delineating the arae differs notably from other French regions such as Bordeaux, the Loire Valley and Alsace.
Rather, than dividing the land by the Châteaux and having sets vines belonging to an estate, they were influenced by the concept of terroir. Vineyards were divided by their intrinsic qualities. So, many winemakers will share ownership of a single vineyard, and single winemakers will also own pockets of vineyards throughout the Burgundy wine region.
This can make the Burgundy wine region a bit more confusing to understand. But, we’re here to help.
We will take you through the wonderful history of this region, as well as the different key appellations to look out for. By the end, you’ll be a Burgundy wine region savant and feel well equipped to pick out a bottle of something good in your local bottle shop.
The History of The Burgundy Wine Region
The Burgundy wine region is not a new thing, in fact the first records of vineyards go all the way back to the 1st century, in the village of Meursault, (MacNeil 198).
Meursault is still a great source of top quality wine in the Burgundy wine region today. However, it’s worth noting that it would be a very long time before wine-making truly took off in the Burgundy wine region as we know it today.
The Roman empire provided a greater emphasis on wine throughout France and the Burgundy wine region did benefit to a limited degree. However, the Roman legions had more affinity for the areas which would be the modern day Rhône Valley and Languedoc-Roussillon wine regions. Then, Rome fell and the viticultural world of the Burgundy wine region went into stasis again.
The name Burgundy comes from the Germanic Burgondes tribe which settled there in 450 AD. These people would eventually be brought into the Frankisch empire. From here, the French state was formed and it was formed as a Christian state, (MacNeil 198). This final fact was actually a key turning point in the history of the Burgundy wine region.
Monks At Work
The Christian influence of the Frankisch empire led to Burgundy becoming a hub for monasteries during the Medieval times. These monasteries, under the command of Benedictine and Cistercian monks laid the groundwork for the Burgundy wine region that we know today, (MacNeil 199).
The Benedictine Abbey of Cluny was founded in 909 near Mâcon, (a key Burgundy wine-making region today). For many years, it was one of the most affluent monasteries in Europe, as well as the largest Cathedral in Europe until the new St.Peter’s was finished in 1626, (MacNeil 199). Beyond the financial and architectural accomplishments, it was also the site of an extensive library with tens of thousands of records.
All of this is key. This setting allowed a group of measured, systematic, well read and committed monks to thrive. They no doubt did plenty of praying, but they pursued other interests. One was the process of categorising of the vineyards in the Burgundy wine region.
One plot at a time, they took samples, cultivated the lands and compared each vineyard to the next. This task took centuries. Not only was this monumental undertaking crucial for establishing the Burgundian wine region, it can be viewed as one of the first and most important studies into the concept of terroir, (MacNeil 199).
Burgundy vs Bordeaux
While the foundations of the Burgundy wine region were firmly laid by this point, it still needed some further luck to match the success of Bordeaux to the west.
Historically, Bordeaux’s success is linked to the regions proximity to the ocean. Exporting from the Bordeaux region was far easier. To export grapes from Burgundy, you’d have to navigate a dirt road by horse and cart.
Their luck changed when the pope relocated to Avignon. An event which led to the establishment of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Now, Burgundy was up the road, (so to speak), from the pope. The pope and his surrounding clergymen happily guzzled the wines which were fastidiously prepared by the monks from Burgundy. Once they found the quality, demand grew and the reputation of the wines went along with them.
The monks also worked side by side with affluent dukes in the area. They provided finance and territory for the monks to carry out their research. They also served as a means to introduce these wines to popes, kings and nobles. Indeed, the royals would be another key turning point, which had a particularly adverse effect on Bordeaux.
Anyone who knows their French history, probably knows where this is going. The next key event is the French Revolution of 1789. This ended the powerful position of the monks and dukes which were behind Burgundy. The full scale uprising saw a great transfer of power in France. Kings and nobles were either killed or fled to country and property and wealth was seized.
Land was redistributed to farmers, then split up even further under the Napoleonic Code of 1804. Here, parents passed down their land to their children, but all children equally. The end result is that today some Burgundians own just a few rows of vines.
While this may seem slightly inconvenient for Burgundy, the fact that they were church owned was a blessing. Bordeaux, on the other hand, was primarily owned by aristocrats and all four of the most prestigious Bordeaux Châteauxs were confiscated. These were Margaux, Lafite-Rothschild, Latour and Haut-Brion. Rather more shockingly, three of the owners were beheaded, (MacNeil 207)!
This is only a brief history of the Burgundy wine region, which highlights perhaps two of the most defining factors of this region, (beyond the stunning wine itself).
One being the terroir has always been central to the idea of Burgundy wine, perhaps more so than anywhere else in the world. The other is the slightly strange ownership laws. Vineyards aren’t owned by a single person. The vineyards are divided up by terroir and people many only own small percentages of each vineyard.
Different Levels of Burgundian Wine
Unsurprisingly, not all wines from the Burgundy wine region are created equal. There are four key distinctions which occur in terms of quality. Let’s take a look at them.
The first is what you consider ‘entry-level’ Burgundy wine. However, you can still find great examples of this wine. They’re often simpler expressions and a bit fruitier. You’ll see them called ‘Bourgogne Rouge’ and ‘Bourgogne Blanc’ and they account for 52% of the production in the Burgundy wine region, (MacNeil 202).
The next level up are called ‘Village Wines’. This means the grapes which all be sourced from wines in and around a particular village name which will appear on the label. Villages such as Beaune and Meursault are examples of this. They generally represent a jump in quality, but also price. The Burgundy wine region has 44 villages in total and these wines account for 36% of the total production in the area, (MacNeil 202).
Now, we’re moving up in the world. We’re onto the ‘Cru’ wines. This means the grapes will come from a single vineyard, which achieved Premier or Grand Cru classification back in 1861, (MacNeil 202).
Premier Cru is the level below Grand Cru, with 629 different vineyards having the status of Premier Cru. You’ll note the words Premier Cru on the label, as well as the name of the specific vineyard. Excellent quality, but generally with a price tag to reflect that. They represent just 10% of the total output of the Burgundy wine region, (MacNeil 202).
Last, but by absolutely no means least, is the Grand Cru classification. These wines are spectacular, there’s no way around it. Unfortunately, the price tags really do reflect that. There are no bargains to be had here, but they should be a bucket list wine for anyone who loves their vino.
There are just 33 Grand Cru vineyards in the whole of the Burgundy wine region. 1 is in the northern region of Chablis, then all of the remaining 32 can be found in the fabled Côte d’Or. They’re rare and ravishing wines that account for just 2% of the production in the whole of the Burgundy wine region, (MacNeil 202).
Key Appellations of the Burgundy Wine Region
The Burgundy wine region isn’t particularly large. Much of the area is characterised by densely planted pockets of small vineyards, which are enclosed by stone walls. These small areas amount to around 66000 acres, compared to 290000 acres in Bordeaux, (MacNeil 208).
Administratively, Beaujolais is technically part of Burgundy, but many consider it represents a separate entity in terms of style and terroir, so we won’t be diving into it here.
In the Burgundy wine region, there are four key areas that you should familiarise yourself with. Let’s take a look at them now.
This is the northernmost sub-region is the Burgundy wine region. It sits around 100 miles south-east of Paris and is actually closer to Champagne, than the rest of Burgundy, (MacNeil 212).
The climate is cool, to the point of being harsh. This produces a particularly rare style of Chardonnay. The wines of Chablis are crisp and lean with a biting, in your face, acidity.
Chablis was actually one of the first Burgundy wines to gain great acclaim, as it was a favourite in the Parisian cafes of the 1800s, due to its proximity to the City of Light, (MacNeil 212).
However, over time the popularity of Chablis shifted. It encountered issues with phylloxera and the accompanying financial instability. Along with this, transport became easier and cheaper, more accessible wines took their place in the French cafes.
Though, times are changing again. Chablis is unique. It is unlike Chardonnay in the rest of the world. They’re deeply mineral with strong citrus aromas, then an undeniable flint-like quality. This uniqueness means that if people want Chardonnay in this style, nothing but Burgundy will scratch that itch.
Moving to the south in the Burgundy wine region, we reach Côte d’Or. This is the absolute powerhouse of the Burgundy wine region and is responsible for some of the best wine in the world.
It has about 30 miles of limestone slopes, which is split into two further sub-regions. They are Côte de Beaune and Côtes du Nuits.
The former produces both red and white wine, but the Chardonnay wines are the star of the show, with areas of Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet hold especially high regard. Then, the latter is renowned for elegant, earthy Pinot Noir.
Aspect and vine positioning is really important when looking at the natural factors in the vineyard, (MacNeil 215). Côte means slope and it is all about where on the slope the vines sit.
Essentially, the bottom have the dampest and heaviest soil, often producing the lower levels of wine. Then, the top third has far better, limestone rich, soil. However, the sun exposure isn’t ideal. Then, we have the ‘thermal belt’. Here the soil and exposure to the sun is optimal as the vines sit at a 45 degree angle. All Grand Cru vineyards are found here.
The monks who looked into terroir recognised this as well. They referred to these three distinct areas and categorised the wines from each as ‘Wines for Monks’, ‘Wines for Cardinals’ and ‘Wines for Popes’, (MacNeil 203). It’s no great surprise that the popes where being given the Grand Cru wines before they were even Grand Cru wines.
Moving even further south than Côte d’Or, we reach Côte Chalonnaise. This particular area is a great source of good wines, at a far more attainable price tag for many. Admittedly, they’re often less complex and concentrated, but great wine nonetheless.
A lot of simple Bourgogne level wine is found here, but some great Villages level wine can also be found. Villages such as Mercurey, Rully, Givry and Montagny produce good wine.
We keep moving south through the Burgundy wine region. Now, we are at the Mâconnais. This is source of a lot of good and inexpensive Chardonnay often at Bourgogne Blanc level.
However, some great higher level examples of wine can be found. Mâcon-Villages and Pouilly-Fuissé are two great examples. Just be sure you don’t confuse Pouilly-Fuissé, with the Loire Valley appellation of Pouilly-Fumé, which is renowned for a smokey style of Sauvignon Blanc.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our look into the history of the Burgundy wine region, as well as some of the key areas to look for. If you’re looking to pick up something that is excellent value for money, or an annual treat, Burgundy has it all.
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