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A beginner’s guide to Burgundy

Putting a toe in the water
Let’s get one thing straight from the beginning – when it comes to Burgundy all of us  are always learning. It’s a wine region rich with so many layers that immersing yourself in its wines is like sliding into a bath of infinite size and temperature. What you do in it is entirely your choice. You can linger where you enter, paddle into slightly cooler or deeper waters, or strike out for distant unreachable shores revelling in the expanse. Find a place where you’re comfortable. Stay there if it pleases you. Move on if you’re curious. Get out if it’s not for you. Regardless, it is not a place to fear but to enjoy and humbly admire, for it is truly one of humankind’s genius creations (even if you never fully understand it – which none of us probably ever will).
Like anything new and mysterious it can be useful to seek the help of a guide. In some ways we do that for you in our selection of growers. If we have a bias in our range its towards wines with more finesse and perfume than richness and power, but that’s not always the case. We certainly prefer wines that are soundly made even if minimal intervention techniques are used.
But the best way to learn about Burgundy is to find a grower you like and follow their wines. Many producers make wines from multiple villages and vineyards, and they can provide a stable platform through which these differences can be appreciated and enjoyed.
 
Why Burgundy captures
Burgundy is perhaps the wine world’s most magical kingdom, a place where themes like nuance, delicacy, controlled power, perfume, seduction, silky feel right at home – it’s a land of fairy tales for adults. Yet the wines can also be intense, structured, rich, expansive, savoury and mineral. At their greatest they epitomise harmony and they can confound with their ability to exhibit two opposing characters in the glass simultaneously. They are utterly beautiful in their youth, but unlike wines such as those from Bordeaux, they refuse to follow a linear or recognisable maturation path. The same wine can be extraordinary one day and surly the next. They might sing for years then shut down and sulk for unknown periods. They are whimsical, mercurial, frustrating and adorable - wines of emotion as well as intellect. The origins of Burgundy’s spell-casting ability, however, are more religious than arcane, thanks to an impressive history.
 
Like many European regions, vines have been planted here and wine made since the Roman era. During Charlemagne’s reign in the 8th and 9th centuries, Burgundy was already respected for its wines. Another 1,000 years of tinkering and experimentation by monks, with really nothing better to do (they probably went into a plague lockdown in 898 and just forgot to come out of it), is the foundation of Burgundy’s modern reputation which is wholly about the vineyard.
 
But, most of all, growing grapes in Burgundy has been elevated to an art form that has no comparison. In fact in so many ways much of the rest of wine world seeks to emulate Burgundy’s virtues, nuance and mystique. In the hands of skilled vignerons, of which there are hundreds, it is possible to see for yourself the fine but clear differences between plots grown just metres apart. It enables endless philosophical discussions as to why, typically long into the night over more than one bottle. It’s common for Burgundy collectors to recall The One – the wine that first captured their soul, a wine so profound that you can spend the rest of your life seeking to recreate the experience. It can also mean enduring many average bottles on the quest.
 
Quality and Value
Happily the wines of Burgundy have never been better, and thanks to a host of factors it feels like Burgundy is making some of the best wines in its history and is making them far more consistently too. Once Burgundy could claim to enjoy 2-3 good or great vintages per decade, a few sound and quite a few poor or very poor. For at least 30 years bad vintages have been almost non-existent, and even weak vintages are rare, and yet still often blossom in bottle with time and hindsight.
 
The greatest area of improvement has been at the entry-level. Bourgogne rouge and Bourgogne blanc were once mal-nourished, dismal drinks that were Burgundy only in name. Over the past decade in particular these have been become more then serviceable renditions of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that compete admirably with versions from the new world. Many are now delicious, fruit-forward drinks ready to be enjoyed young. Versions from top producers can evolve and age for a decade and more.
 
Increasingly there are new areas that are of genuine interest to the casual drinker too. Look for names like Côteaux Bourgignons blends of Pinot Noir and Gamay (juicier, softer wines), and Hautes Côtes de Nuits and Hautes Côtes de Beaune – these can come from the elevated plateau above the Côte d’Or to the west, a forested area much cooler in climate and definitely making better wines as vintages become warmer and drier.
 
While the most famous villages are making superb wines, there is undeniable interest and value in other less-known names as the top wines price themselves increasingly out of reach. For white wines it’s no longer a secret that Saint-Aubin makes sensational wines that are known for their intense chiselled freshness. Saint Romain is quietly much improved, while my favourite fallback village in warm years must be Pernand-Vergelesses. Meanwhile Pouilly-Fuissé in the Mâconnais has finally had a number of its top sites elevated to Premier Cru status, just recognition for years of great work.
On the reds the very northern and cooler villages of Fixin and Marsannay have risen to prominence, whilst in the Côte Chalonnaise there are terrific plush and serious wines coming out of Rully, Givryand Mercurey. Finally, Beaune itself, with its heavy clay soils, is making some beautifully expressive reds of great elegance and structure.
 
It’s true that the Premier Cru sites are more expensive than ever, but these are as good as many a Grand Cru of last century. Indeed less reliance on new oak and warmer vintages can see a number of Premier Cru sites outperforming the Grand Crus which in some cases are now facing routine challenges with over-ripeness.
 
Burgundian producers are of course thoughtful and adaptive. Despite five consecutive ‘solar’ harvests, the 2019s have an incredible level of freshness that has perhaps been missing in other famously warm and dry years like 2015, 2009 and 2005. While there is nothing as joyous and perfumed as Burgundy in its youth, wines from 2019 have all the inherent qualities to be absolute stunners with time in the cellar.
 
Grape Varieties
Pinot Noir – source of all great red Burgundy. An early-ripening variety that is best-suited to the more northern areas (it tends to ripen before Chardonnay) of Burgundy, except Chablis where it’s too cold. Expresses more dark fruits and spice in cooler areas, more red fruits and perfume in warmer areas. Takes well to different winemaking techniques. When berries are completely detached from the stalks before fermentation the wine is said to be ‘destemmed’ – these make darker, silkier, perfumed and creamy, seductive styles. When the grapes and stalks are used during the fermentation the wine is said to be ‘whole-bunch’ or ‘whole-cluster’ fermented – these make paler, more spicy, savoury and complex wines with more noticeable tannin.
Pinot Noir takes particularly well to oak and is routinely aged in small French oak casks called barriques, which hold 228L of wine. Favoured on Grand Cru and Premier Cru wines more than Village or Regional wines.
 
Chardonnay – source of all great white Burgundy, including Chablis. An-early ripening variety that adapts well to a wide range of climates, and winemaking practices. In the cool region of Chablis it is more elegant, typically citrus style fruit of lemon/lime and sometimes apple. Oak is rarely used so the wines are transparent and show flinty, maritime aromas derived from the famous white chalky soils.
 
On the Côte de Beaune and in Corton, Chardonnay finds its greatest expression with the best wines always fermented in aged in oak casks, with producers using less and less new oak over time. Still oak is essential to capturing and enhancing all of Chardonnay’s greatest virtues. On the Côte de Beaune the climate is warmer than Chablis and the wines can have a range of citrus/orchard fruit flavours, and numerous layers of complexity from oak, winemaking, site and time. Flavours of grilled white nuts (almonds, cashew, hazelnut), and dairy/bakery notes of fresh butter, cream, brioche, toast from malolactic fermentation, a second fermentation in oak cask are common. Aged and vineyard-derived flavours include flint, minerals, hay, rocks, spice and herbs.
 
Gamay – the red grape of Beaujolais is permitted in some wines (Côteaux Bourgignons) or is inter-planted in some vineyards through accident or historical precedent. Only permitted in minor amounts as a blend.
 
Aligote – the other white grape of Burgundy. Can be made into single varietal wines, noted for its austere fruit and high acidity. Great as aperitifs or for making Kir, a blend with crème de cassis. Wines labelled Bouzeron are made from 100% Aligoté.
 
 
Regions of Burgundy
Côte d’Or – ‘the golden slope’. The heart of Burgundy and source of its very best wines. An approximately 50km, gently east-facing slope, where the soils are a harmonious mix of clay and limestone. The Côte d’Or is split into two sections: the Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune.
 
Côte de Nuits – the northern part of the Côte d’Or, north of the town of Beaune and south of Dijon. Nearly exclusively planted with Pinot Noir. The source of Burgundy’s greatest red wines from villages that include Vosne-Romanée, Gevrey-Chambertin, Nuits-St-Georges, Chambolle-Musigny, Clos de Vougeot and Morey-St-Denis.
 
Côte de Beaune – the southern part of the Côte d’Or, south of the town of Beaune. The source of Burgundy’s greatest white wines from villages that include Corton-Charlemagne, Pernand-Vergelesses, Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet, Meursault and Saint Aubin. Mostly planted with Chardonnay, with some Pinot Noir in famous villages like Volnayand Pommard, amongst others, and Beaune itself.
 
Chablis – the northern-most part of Burgundy, not physically connected to the Côte d’Or and some 90 minutes’ drive towards Paris. White wine only, and only Chardonnay. Famous for its chalky soils, and elegant, mineral wines which are much more delicate than wines from the rest of Burgundy.
 
Côte Chalonnaise – south of the Côte de Beaune and north of Mâcon. Home to great value but still serious Burgundy that shines at young and middle ages. Villages include Rully, Mercurey, Givry and Montagny as well as Bouzeron, an appellation dedicated to the white grape Aligoté
 
Côte Mâconnais – the southern-most area of Burgundy, source of excellent value white wines made from Chardonnay. Mostly these are easy-drinking, richer and softer wines with less complexity but in some specific areas, most notably in Mâcon-villages and in Pouilly-Fuissé, you can find some seriously complex and age worthy wines.
 
The Quality Classifications
 
Grand Cru – the top 2% of wines in Burgundy from specific vineyards, often globally famous and highly revered. The most powerful, complex and age-worthy wines. And by far the most expensive. Increasingly difficult to find or afford – prices start at well over £100/bt and they can go for £000s.  Grand Cru wines are nearly always drunk too young and can take multiple decades to reach their best. Sometimes high levels of new oak must be integrated, which takes time, and the wines should go through a series of transformations in bottle to reveal their very best attributes. Best after at least 10 years of ageing, and often much more.
 
Typically sourced from the heart of the middle of the slopes of the Côte d’Or where the balance of clay and limestone is ideal, and includes names like Montrachet, Romanée Conti, Chambertin, Corton-Charlemagne, Musigny, Clos De Vougeot, Clos de Tart, Clos des Lambrays, Bonnes Mares and more. The majority of Grand Cru vineyards are for Pinot Noir; there are just seven for Chardonnay. Wines are labelled with just the name of the Grand Cru in large format. The village name is only required in the small print.
The Grand Cru names are also attached to local villages. In fact the villages appended their own names with the name of the village’s most famous vineyard. So we have
 
Chambolle-Musigny
Vosne-Romanée
Gevrey-Chambertin
Morey-Saint-Denis
Puligny-Montrachet
Chassagne-Montrachet
Flagey-Echézeaux
 
Grand Cru is also the top classification in Chablis with names like Les Clos, Valmur, Blanchot and Grenouilles, where the slopes are steepest and have warmer aspects to the south. Chablis Grand Crus are notably affordable, rarely over £100/bt.
 
Premier Cru or 1er Cru – the 2nd quality level comprising about 10-13% of all wine produced in Burgundy. These tend to be adjacent to the Grand Cru vineyards, often just above, just below or to the north or south. Differences in quality can be down to minor changes in soil composition (too much clay or too little) or aspect (more north or south-facing). Premier Cru wines must have the name of the village first and then the vineyard name. For example, Meursault 1er Cru Perrières or Nuits-St-Georges 1er Cru Les Pruliers. These are exceptional sites, many of which can be as good as the Grand Crus. Some well-known Premier Cru include:
 
Meursault:  Perrières, Charmes
Puligny-Montrachet: Clavoillons, Pucelles, Folatieres
Chassagne-Montrachet: Morgeot
Volnay: Caillerets
Pommard: Rugiens, Pézerolles
Nuits-St-Georges: Les St Georges, Pruliers, Vaucrains
Vosne: Malconsorts, Beaux Monts, Suchots, Cros Parantoux
Chambolle: Les Amoureuses
Gevrey: Clos St-Jacques
 
Sometimes a wine might just be labelled Premier Cru with the name of a village rather than a vineyard. This means it’s a blend of more than one Premier Cru vineyard within that village and might happen in a year when yields are so low producers are forced to put all their parcels together. For example, this was common in 2016 which was severely affected by frost. It’s rarely possible to find Premier Cru wines under about £75/bt now and good examples can be £00s.
 
Village wines – these are the heartland of Burgundy wines and the most popular wines on our shelves. You will most commonly find them simply labelled as Vosne-Romanée or Chassagne-Montrachet, but it is increasingly common for producers to attach a vineyard name or a lieu-dit (place-name) after the village name when it comes from a more specific plot. These are still considered Village wines in terms of quality but well-known lieu-dix can justify a premium, for example Vosne-Romanée Aux Reas.
The village wines typically come from very low on the slope (literally around the villages themselves) where there is more clay, and the vines tend to produce slightly lower ripeness of flavour and sugar in the grapes.  These can be extremely good representations of their specific areas of Burgundy, and the village wines of good producers are both an ideal introduction to the famous places and also age-worthy wines in their own right over the short to medium term. On the other hand they can be really attractive to drink in their youth. Warmer seasons have seen these dramatically improve in quality, while increased greater global demand has sadly seen their prices increase.
 
Regional Wines – Bourgogne Rouge and Bourgogne Blanc. These are the bottom of the pyramid in Burgundy but where they were once genuinely awful they are now routinely pretty delightful, especially from good producers. Most of these vineyards are on the eastern side of the main road that runs north-south right through Burgundy (the N74). These are the richest in clay, cool and damp so produce the lightest wines in the region. Occasionally, however, Bourgogne wines can be delightful surprises with the inclusion of declassified fruit from more illustrious areas. Jean Grivot’s Bourgogne Rouge, for example, is from a parcel of 50-year-old Pinot Noir in Vosne-Romanée (a true gem for insiders!).

 

 

Map of burgundy (click to zoom)

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