The two main regions that provide the backbone of ‘Wine France’ are undoubtedly Burgundy and Bordeaux and it is widely believed that you can be a lover of one, but not both. Such is the rivalry for the claim to fine wine dominance that there is a definite resistance by the Bordelais to the Bourgognes, and vice versa. Burgundy is said to be a wine for ‘contemplation’ while Bordeaux has a more of a ‘hedonistic’ image.
About Burgundy Wine
However we must leave that competitive opposition behind and journey through both lands, as they represent such a significant influence to the fortunes of this great wine country. The wines from both these locations are so different in style and grape variety, that comparisons should only be created within each separate region, IE Burgundy against Burgundy and Bordeaux against Bordeaux. This way we will learn to know, understand and appreciate them equally.
Where the history of Bordeaux lies in its Chateaux, Burgundy’s wine history is firmly entrenched in land ownership. One important factor that must always be considered is that the wine production of this region is small compared to the much larger quantities made in Bordeaux, as the area of Burgundy extends to only 186 miles from the department of Yonne [Chablis] in the north to south of the department Saone-et-Loire [Pouilly Fuisse].
"The word Pinot means ‘Pine Cone’, this takes its name from the shape of the grape bunch clusters as they form, grow and hang from the vine!"
The premium wines of Burgundy fall into two main categories, Grand and Premier Cru [being the equivalent of the Bordeaux Grand Cru classification] come almost entirely from the narrow limestone ridge known as the Cote d’Or, which is less than 30 miles in length and 5 miles across at its widest point. This is why so many of the greater wines from here are expensive and often in short supply, because as a result of the small volumes produced and their high quality, they are quickly snapped up by restaurateurs and merchants alike, the world over.
Beaune is the undisputed capital of Burgundy and is home to the Hospice de Beaune or Hotel Dieu as it is known, a former charitable Almshouse and a medieval treasure. It was founded in 1443 and still holds its traditional wine tasting each year in November to raise money for local charities. Also ‘Le Conferie de Chevaliers du Tastevin’ – ‘The Knights of the Wine Tasting Cup’ originally called ‘Ordre de la Boisson’ (Order of the Drink), dedicated since its foundation in 1703 “To hold in high regard and encourage the use of the products of Burgundy”.
There are 6 main delimited wine producing areas within Burgundy and we shall feature them all in more depth future presentations. They all have very individual characteristics and starting from North above Dijon to South around Lyon are as follows:
Chablis | Cotes de Nuits | Cote de Beaune | Cote de Chalonnais | Maconnais | Beaujolais
Although Beaujolais ‘stands alone it is still regarded as a part of Burgundy [We will present Beaujolais as an individual feature]
The land in Burgundy has been relentlessly sub-divided over generations and it is now quite common for a grower to own only a small area of land no greater than that of an average sized garden.
Before the French Revolution most of the land was owned by the nobility and the church, dating back to the times when this region was an autonomous ducal state in the 14th and 15th centuries.
"Equally divided between his offspring"
However this radically altered when as a result of the Napoleonic code, land was sold to newly formed franchisees with a legislation in place that in the event of the death of the land owner, it must then be equally divided between his offspring. Two hundred years later whereas a modest size Chateau in Bordeaux could produce around 3,000 cases per year, a Burgundy grower may create as little as 24 in total.
‘The golden slope’ as the name translates is the relatively narrow region, running from Dijon in the north, to Chagny in the south, within which nestle Burgundy’s stars and crown jewels. It is here that the Burgundy wine nobility is housed, and this small area produces some of the most expensive, revered and famous white and red wines in the world.
The Cote d’Or divides neatly into 2, geographically north to south, with the Cote de Nuits stretching down from Dijon, and the Cote de Beaune taking over from just north of Beaune.
- Cote De Nuits
Marsannay, Fixin, Gevrey-Chambertin, Morey St-Denis, Chambolle-Musigny, Vougeot, Vosne-Romanee, Nuits St Georges
- Cote De Beaune
Ladoix-Serrigny, Corton, Pernand-Vergelesses, Savigny-Les-Beaune, Chorey-Les-Beaune, Beaune, Pommard, Volnay, Monthelie, Auxey-Duresses, St-Romain, Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet, St Aubin, Santenay
The Cote Chalonnaise continues south from the end of the illustrious Cote d’Or. It is here that some of the best bargains and most consistent wines in Burgundy are to be found. The region does not rest on famous names, or Grand and Premier Cru laurels. The producers here strive hard to get recognition, and there is an intent and a real focus on quality.
In many cases, it is far better to buy a top quality Cote Chalonnaise, from a good producer, than a Cote d’Or ‘name’, from a poor producer. The region has no Grand cru, and a scattering of Premier cru wines, and produces both red and white wines. The best of these are great value.
The area begins at the end of the Cote D’Or, near Santenay, and ends just before the start of the Maconnais; it is made up of 5 communes, running north to south – Bouzeron, Rully, Mercurey, Givry, Montagny.
The area is wider than in the Cote d’Or, with numerous hills and hummocks, rather than a relatively straight escarpment. The vineyards are dotted around the area, largely on limestone soils, in locations that are often quite high, and with varying degrees of sunshine, depending on aspect. The high locations can impact on the ripeness of the grapes, as does the degree of sunshine, which again leads back to the need to focus on the buying from the best producers.
This is unusual, in that it is the only appellation controlee area in France for the Aligote grape, which is grown, but often disregarded in Burgundy. Bouzeron produces almost uniquely Aligote – fresh, lively and crisp, yet with a nod to the ripe, creamy styles of its northern Cote d’Or neighbours, since it lies only 5km south of Chassagne-Montrachet.
A small commune, with some unremarkable whites, but some interesting reds, with ripe, forward fruit. Historically Givry’s claim to fame was that these were the favourite wines of Henri IV, in the 16th century. Today, under the right guidance, they are producing some interesting, fresh, and fruit driven Pinot Noirs, off sandstone and limestone soils. The best reds come from the more sheltered slopes, and these wines develop an attractive, ripe red berry fruit character.
This is the most southerly of the main Burgundy regions, but the one which produces the greatest volume. It is a very beautiful and tranquil area, with an almost bucolic splendour, with rolling hills and verdant pastures, full of vineyards, orchards… and pastureland for the famed Charollais cows. The land here is flatter, the vineyards, more scattered. The sun is much warmer, and one can sense the call of the south, as the area enjoys a sunnier, and more generous climate than the more northern regions of Burgundy.
The area stretches about 50km from the end of the Cote Chalonnaise to the start of the Beaujolais vineyards, and surprisingly to some, produces almost 75% of Burgundy’s total production. Two thirds of the Maconnais production is white wine, from the Chardonnay (with a little bit of Aligote), and the rest is red. Unlike the rest of the Burgundy region, the main red grape here is Gamay, with some Pinot Noir also grown, although none of these wines are memorable.
The star for Burgundy Red Wine is Pinot Noir, [apart from the reds of Beaujolais which are made from Gamay] and for the Burgundy White Wine, it is Chardonnay. To many in the Wine World, the finest example of the now much travelled Chardonnay, is here in its natural state and original home of Burgundy. One of the best must surely be in the great wines of Chablis. The Chardonnay grape here is known locally as ‘Beaunois’.
"There is also a separate appellation in Burgundy for a blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay grapes. This mix of which 1/3 at least must be Pinot Noir, are not blended as separate wines but maturated together and are called ‘Bourgogne [Burgundy] Passetoutgrain’!"
Other grape varieties are few in number but there is one used for white wine - Bourgogne Aligote, which has its own appellation and produces wines to be drunk young.
The vineyards that lie within lands of premium quality suited to these two grape varieties and are classified for the finer wines as Grand Crus [such as Romanee Conti, Le Chambertin and Corton] and Premier Crus [such as Aloxe-Corton, Gevrey-Chambertin and Nuits St Georges] . Other general classifications are Bourgogne AOC which may include the locality or ‘climat’ of origin. We will feature these in more depth in future presentations.
As in all regions, wines made by individual producers will vary considerably even when they are made from the same single grape variety, as history, soil, location and personal style of production ensure the uniqueness of each growers creation. So we have offered a general overview of the characteristics of our two main Burgundy varieties below:
The most famous white grape of all displays its versatility of style here in Burgundy:
On the Eye - From the pale straw colour and green tinge of Chablis to the radiant amber coloured gold of Meursault, occasionally showing grey highlights.
On the Nose - From the flint, minerals and lemon of Chablis in the north, to the hazelnuts, lemon and grapefruit of Pouilly Fuisse in the south. Showing sometimes hints of vanilla from new oak maturation.
On the Palate - From the crisp, bone dry buttery flavours of Chablis to the concentrated honeyed and hazel nut notes of Puligny-Montrachet.
On the Eye - Young wines are crimson, maturing to a deeper ruby colour that in time turns to a rich cherry black, to even a deep purple. All Burgundy pinots are bright, shimmering and vivid with a moderately deep colour. The Roses are an intense candy pink.
On the Nose: Baskets of red and black fruits – Blackberries, blueberries, red currants, strawberries and cherries with subtle hints of violets and underwood.
On the Palate – Good acidity and relatively low in tannin gives a silky finish with strawberry and undergrowth notes, sometimes hints of vegetable and game.
Matching Burgundy Wines with Food
It is said that the French ‘live to eat’ where others ‘eat to live’ and there is nowhere that this expression is more apparent than here in Burgundy.
The ‘Bourgognes’ are equally passionate about both their local wines and food , creating through history such dishes as Coq au Vin, Boeuf Bourguignon and Escargots. Also the distinctive white Charollais Beef cattle that graze on the rich pasture lands of this region are much sought after the world over. Cheeses are plentiful too, all having very different styles of character within each area.
Red wines favour the beef of Burgundy, a thick steak of Charollais beef, grilled or pan fried in parsley butter and of course, generously accompanied with Dijon Mustard
Another is the andouilette sausage of this region [tripe, pork and chittlings] with also duck, game and cheeses such as Chaource, Epoisses and the Abbaye de la Pierre-qui-Vire being the most famous.
"The Celts were growing vines in the Burgundy region already when the Romans conquered Gaul in 51 BC! "
We can substitute all the above and more, with our own local produce, sausages casseroled with caramelised onions in red wine, local cheeses and fresh grilled fish with Chablis, so simple to arrange and delicious savoured with the Burgundy wine of your choice, selected from our list.
I have created a recipe based upon the traditional ‘Boeuf Bourguignon’ – the famous ‘ Red Wine Beef Casserole’, ideal for when the evenings begin to chill as Autumn turns to Winter or for a great alternative to Sunday lunch. See our recipe – ‘Beef Bourguignon’
As we are focussing on the wine treasures of Burgundy, what better than to sample the most traditional of dishes from this region, ‘Boeuf Bourguignon – Beef in Burgundy Red Wine ’
This dish is a perfect example of an early ‘peasant style’ meal becoming elevated to one of ‘haute cuisine’. As with many recipes of this time cheaper cuts of meat were originally used, so this particular method of slowly simmering the beef in wine was a means of tenderizing the meat.
Read full recipe>