Burgundy is both the easiest wine region to understand and the hardest and its wines are both the world’s most sublime and the most disappointing.
Burgundy is a northerly province of eastern France the locals know as Bourgogne and, as is usual in France, its wines take the name of the region. But the better wines carry the names of the commune within the region where the grapes are grown. Names such as Gevrey-Chambertin, Vougeot, Vosnee-Romanee, Aloxe-Corton, and Chassagne-Montrachet are world famous with wine lovers who are prepared to pay serious money for bottles bearing these names.
What makes Burgundy easy to understand is the very limited range of grape varieties grown there. Unlike Napa Valley or Bordeaux when you see a Burgundy wine you can be certain that if it is red the wine is made from 100% Pinot Noir and if it is white then it is 100% Chardonnay. These two related grape varieties, the red Pinot Noir and the white Chardonnay are the only varieties of note, grown in overwhelming majority. On a geeky point there are two minor varieties – the white Aligote and the red Gamay which are rarely exported.
What makes Burgundy so difficult to get a handle on though are the huge differences between the quality of Burgundy wine. You can buy two very expensive Gevery-Chambertin wines and while one is excellent the other is not. Even wines made from the same vineyard can greatly vary. The most important factor in understanding Burgundy is knowing the producer, and they are legion. You can spend years getting to grip with Burgundy and learning which producers are to be followed and which are to be ignored. The producer is more important than the vineyard.
The reason is rooted in history. The Napoleonic laws of succession, which required that property be divided equally between dependents, led to a fragmenting of land to such a state in Burgundy that vines in the famous walled small vineyard of Clos Vougeot are individually owned. This row by the wall may be owned by one person, the next row by someone else, half this row by one person the other half by someone else, a pattern repeated throughout Burgundy. Each owner cares for their vines, harvests their grapes and either makes wine from them or sells to someone else. Some owners are meticulous and make great wine, others don’t do well relying on the famous name of their grapes.
This accounts for the high and lows of similar wines, before you even consider difficulties of growing grapes in a northerly location and making wine from Pinot Noir, a difficult variety known as ‘the heartbreak grape’.
And what of the wines? White Chardonnay wines are crisp and dry and are usually made without any wood treatment. Red Pinot Noirs are traditionally quite light bodied and pale red but with better wine making and warmer temperatures alcohol levels are rising and colours deepening.
More than any other region in the world, a trusted guide or critic is of great use in recommending producers of note.
Do you have a favourite Burgundy wine? Tell us in the forum.
Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.
The Great Domaines of Burgundy
Subtitled A Guide to the Finest Wine Producers of the Cote d'Or this is the Third Edition of Remington Norman's classic book and will be the latest most up-to-date book on a historic region that is changing fast.
Robert M Parker is the worlds most famous wine critic and his judgment affects wine prices. His book Burgundy: A Comprehensive Guide to the Producers, Appellations, and Wines might be a little dated but it has lots of valid information and is a must when considering aged wines