Understanding Burgundy: A Primer

Posted on Nov 23, 2022

Burgundy France

At Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

Burgundy is among the most highly revered wine producing regions in the world. But a lot of Burgundy fans will admit their knowledge about the wine they love pretty much stops there. Burgundy is generally thought of as too big and too complex to ever get your head around it. We felt that way too, until our recent trip to the region. Being there and seeing it and experiencing it sorted out a lot of things for us. It gave us a better overall understanding and showed how the little snippets of information we had picked up over the years fit into the whole Burgundy picture. In fact, it allowed us to simplify understanding Burgundy into 5 straightforward and easy to remember concepts.

This brief article should allow you to come away with a good general understanding of Burgundy and its wines. It will give you the lay of the land so that you won’t just grasp the basics of Burgundy, you will also have a simple structure that will allow you to remember these concepts when you next need them; like when choosing which Burgundy to have next!

The 5 Basics of Burgundy

Wine Folly

Map of Burgundy [Wine Folly]

Basic 5 – 5 Main Growing Regions

Burgundy has 5 main growing regions, and these regions are important to know because they will provide very different styles of wine at very different price points. To our surprise, not all Burgundy is wildly expensive! In fact, we discovered some terrific bargains from the region. Before we describe the 5 main growing regions and their attributes, looking at them on a map provides a valuable context. For us, the best maps of various wine regions, throughout the world come from Wine Folly.

Those 5 growing regions are Chablis, Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune, Mâconnais and Côte Chalonnaise.

Burgundy France

Fall vineyard views in Burgundy.

Chablis is known for steely and bright Chardonnay, the Côte de Nuits for age-worthy and often expensive Pinot Noir, the Côte de Beaune for minerally and richer whites along with some very good reds, the Mâconnais for great value whites and the Côte Chalonnaise for producing Aligoté (the “other” Burgundian grape) and for sparkling wines known as Crémant de Bourgogne. More primers will be published that take a closer look at these growing regions of Burgundy.

Basic 4 – 4 Quality Levels

Wines of Burgundy

The 4 classifications of wines.

Like other French wine growing regions, Burgundy has a hierarchy of classifications that designate quality levels to various sub-regions. This quality pyramid relates very closely to Basics 3 and 1 below. The Burgundian classifications differ from Bordeaux and even Champagne in that the size of the area Burgundy classifies is much smaller, as described in Basic 3. This is because a smaller area represents a more uniform and consistent set of growing conditions than a larger one does, and therefore expresses a unique “terroir” as discussed in Basic 1.

domaine de la romanee conti

The most famous vineyard of them all.

Grand Cru is the top of the quality pyramid. There are 33 Grand Cru sites representing just 1% of the area of Burgundy. Premier Cru is the next highest in the ranking and covers 640 sites and 10% of the planted area. Both designations represent very high quality and cover areas as small as a single vineyard.

Below Premier Cru the lens zooms out to cover an entire Village. Village wines represent 37% of the planted area and 44 different villages. The final ranking is Regional Wine which covers 52% of the area of Burgundy and represents those areas not otherwise covered with a ranking.

Basic 3 – 3 Concepts of Place

Bourgogne France

A strong sense of place.

The Burgundians are very aware that different places have different abilities to grow good grapes for wine production. It is important to them that one growing area remain distinct from another, so that those different inherent qualities can be uniquely expressed.

The 3 concepts of place you will hear spoken about in Burgundy are “Clos”, “Climat” and “Lieu-Dit”. Clos is the simplest of the 3 to understand.

Bourgogne France

Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru vineyard.

A Clos is simply a walled-in vineyard. Hundreds of years ago, vignerons in Burgundy wanted to preserve their own grapes for their use alone, and so they would build a stone wall to separate their vineyard from their neighbours. Very often a Clos will designate a very high-quality vineyard.

Building a wall made of stones several hundred years ago was no small feat and generally the effort was expended to protect only the finest vineyards. Some of Burgundy’s top vineyards will have “Clos” in their name: Clos de la Roche, Clos des Mouches and Clos de Beze to name some famous examples.

Climat refers to an area of similar and consistent growing conditions. A climat is not separated by a stone wall, nor is it lined off on an aerial map and designated at a land registry.

Bourgogne France

Vineyard views in Burgundy.

But it’s a concept that is well known among the growers, winemakers and serious consumers of Burgundy. In Burgundy, you might overhear climat used in conversations like these: “We only picked half the vineyard today. The other half is a different climat and needs another day or two to be ready for harvest.” “I love the wines from this climat – they all have a great savouriness that pairs so well with food”.

A Lieu-Dit is similar to a Climat except that it has recognized specific boundaries and is registered at the land registry.

Basic 2 – 2 Grape Varieties

Bourgogne France

Grapes in Burgundy.

Burgundy grows only 2 different grape varieties that you need to remember: Chardonnay for white and Pinot Noir for red. Burgundy, being Burgundy, loves to break rules! So, there are very small amounts of other grape varieties grown there such as Aligoté, Gamay, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc, but they are insignificant in quantity grown, and even less significant to the quality of the region.

Basic 1 – 1 Mission

Bourgogne France

A keen sense of place.

This last basic is perhaps the most important as it goes to the very foundation of what it means to make Burgundian wine: to make wine with a sense of place, that uniquely reflects the individual growing site the wine originated from. The French word for this concept is terroir. Terroir is the sum total of the consistent features of a growing area. It includes the sites soil composition, its aspect or direction it faces, the degree of slope of the land, its elevation, and its latitude. We published an article to provide greater depth on this subject here.

Bourgogne France

Which way to go…

The Burgundians are extremely proud of their own terroir. The Burgundians want that terroir to show through when they make a wine from it. As a result, they want to intervene as little as possible in the winemaking process and not have winemaking technique provide a noticeable overlay on what the land has given them.

This concept has spread to most of the rest of the premium winemaking regions of the world. But the concept still has its deepest roots in Burgundy, where it is not just a marketing catchphrase nor a winemaking technique, but a fundamental concept that connects the winemaker to the property they work from.

Bourgogne France

Visiting Burgundy is a must for any wine lover.

Burgundy has a wonderfully complex tapestry of different concepts interwoven together that make Burgundy a fascinating study, for those who really want to take a deep dive into it. But that complexity can seem quite daunting to the wine lover who just wants a general understanding about how the region works. Keeping these 5 simple concepts in mind helps the average consumer to navigate their way through most of this region (and hopefully helps you to enjoy your Burgundian journey even more). Cheers!




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