A Burgundy vineyard. Photo by Philip Larson. License: Creative Commons SA 2.0 Generic.
The Pinot Noir grape, although thriving in areas such as New Zealand, Oregon, and more recently California, traces its roots to and has its greatest expression in the historic French wine region of Burgundy (called Bourgogne in the French language), particularly the world-famous Côte de Nuits. In addition, Chardonnay, while grown all over the world and made excellently from other places, reaches its peaks in Burgundy's Côte de Beaune regions and Chablis.
Unlike Bordeaux blends, which use a significant amount of other grapes, the Burgundy wine is given purity and generalized by the use of only these two grapes for red and white wines: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, respectively. Quality standards are also kept high by arguably the most rigorous appellation system in the world, which includes over 600 ways to label a wine! The result of this most stringent of labeling systems has led to Burgundy's establishment as one of the most qualitatively oriented areas in the world, but this has the side effect of confusing the consumer beyond belief. In fact, Burgundy's classification system is often considered the most complicated in the world.
Qualitative standards have included keeping yields, and therefore overall production, very low. As a result, the expense of the wines is, in general, greater than that of any other wine region in the world. Tiny vineyards such as Romanée-Conti produce red wines that can cost over $10,000 new. The white Burgundy is less expensive, but only a few exclusive producers in California approach it in price. For Burgundy's numerous wealthy fans, no price is too much to pay for this most elegant of wines. In fact, Burgundy's wines are often favored because of their rarity and expense, thus making wealthy people the prominent consumers of Burgundy wine. This has led to an impression among the general wine world that Burgundy is "snob wine." Only jealousy, though, is the root of this nickname, and jealousy is reasonable when you consider the unique quality of these wines.
Wine in Burgundy is likely to have gotten its start in the B.C.s, but wine itself was then in its infancy then and the area did not establish itself until much later. Since it was an inland region, shipping by boat was impossible, and until the 1300s Burgundy wine remained obscure. During this 14th century, in the time of the Avignon Papacy, wealthy figures in the church and monarchy found Burgundy amazingly elegant and nicknamed it "the wine of kings." The kings made sure to institute rules guaranteeing the quality for themselves and their descendants, many of which are still in place today.
During the 1800s French wine in general became more popular in other places, but only slowly did Burgundy begin shipping its wine to rich consumers all across the world. The outrageously complicated classification system of Burgundy was gradually built, only further confused by the institution of numerous AOCs in the 1930s. Nowadays, there are 105 Burgundy AOCs, not counting the hundreds of Premiers Crus. This appellation system has defeated its purpose by becoming too confusing and convoluted, meaning many great Burgundy villages have become unreliable.
A major turning point for Burgundy was the Judgement of Paris in 1976, the famous contest in which California Chardonnay made by Chateau Montelena triumphed over luxurious white Burgundies. This dealt a heavy blow to Burgundy wine, which up until then had been considered unrivaled. But the more volatile free-market system of California caused a "bubble" in American wines, after which a return to the classic Burgundies has been initiated. Nonetheless, it has been proven that simply having a sprawling appellation system isn't enough to keep quality high, and the old-fashioned wines of Burgundy may be left behind as the wine world trends toward cheaper, simpler wine.
Climate and Viticulture
One of the things that makes Burgundy wine so distinctive and legendary is the amazing number of diverse microclimates within it. Both the soil of Burgundy and the other minutiae of the particular appellation make a huge difference in the quality—and price—of the wine. This is why the government has taken such care to protect the appellation system from misuse. The general term for these varying factors is terroir, a word that in fact originated in Burgundy and is more important there than anywhere else.
As a result, we will describe the climate and viticulture in detail, such as the soil types, wind areas, and other important factors. Please go to a more detailed page to see our climate descriptions for those pages.
As mentioned earlier, the two main grapes for red and white wines in Burgundy are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, respectively. The finicky Pinot Noir, when made correctly, can produce a wine of outstanding depth and subtlety, but yet without the weakness of either being overpowering or unapproachable. Chardonnay can lead to buttery, outrageously rich wines of outstanding depth and character.
The grape of Beaujolais, Gamay, is rare in Burgundy but is seen there occasionally. Aligoté is the main white grape in the supporting cast; its light, rounder character is most often found in Bourgogne Aligoté AOC.
Burgundy wine is classified by subregion, not by producer. In fact, to take a look at an example label, one sees that the producer is almost an afterthought. The reason for this is that the wine produced is so strictly controlled that Grand Cru wine is—at least supposedly—given a guarantee of quality by the French government that supersedes any claims made by producers.
Therefore, producers in Burgundy are much less important than they are anywhere else in the world. Another distinguishing factor of Burgundy is that many producers do not even grow or bottle the wine that they sell. Instead, they gather a selection of wines from the growers and take on the responsibility of marketing and selling these wines. The large houses are called négociants, and often have "holdings" all over Burgundy. Several prime examples include:
- Bouchard Pere et Fils
- Domaine Faiveley
- Louis Latour
- Nicolas Potel
You will be seeing the names of these producers many times on Burgundy's subpages.
Of course, there are a number of smaller producers that are considered "status symbols". The most famous of these is the legendary Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, which still stands head and shoulders above the rest with its prices and quality. Although the producer has holdings scattered all over Burgundy, all but one in the Côte de Nuits, the majority of those are concentrated around the village of Vosne-Romanée. The flagship offering is the Romanée-Conti, which is in a stratosphere of luxury and commands five-figure prices...new!
More producers are covered in-depth on more specific pages.
Regions in Burgundy play a more important part than they do in probably anywhere else in the world. If you intend to knowledgeably purchase Bordeaux wine, or wine from California, or wine from the great majority of the world's areas, one can judge based on what producers are reputable and let the region be second. Not so Burgundy. Burgundy's appellation system is so strictly controlled that the wine producer is virtually an afterthought, as evidenced by looking on nearly any label from a famous Burgundy village. Usually, the region's name takes up most of the label, while the producer's name is printed in small letters.
Burgundy has five important levels of classification, listed from most important to least:
- Grand Cru: The purportedly highest-quality Burgundies are made only from the vineyards judged to be of top quality by French regulatory authorities. There are 41 of these at last count. These are universally the most expensive Burgundies. Since a number of Grands Crus are very small, some of them are entirely owned by one producer (but not as many as you might expect!) These will sometimes come with the easily translated term Monopole on the label. These are AOCs, unlike Premiers Crus.
- Premier Cru: A Premier Cru vineyard name will appear on the label along with the name of the village. There are hundreds of Premiers Crus; none of them are AOCs. Within villages, wines from Premier Cru vineyards can be mixed together and labeled Premier Cru.
- Lieux-dits: These are the names of classified villages that will sometimes appear on the label after the village AOC. They are simply vineyards designated to be good, but not worthy of Premier Cru or Grand Cru status.
- Village AOCs: Every Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyard is in a village; there are several dozen winemaking villages in Burgundy. Wines labeled only under the village are not guaranteed to be good quality, but can be among the cheapest Burgundies you will find.
- Groups of Villages: There are only a few of these but they provide good values.
- Generic AOCs: Good old Bourgogne AOC fits into this distinction. Inexpensive and usually undistinguished, it is entry-level Burgundy at its most raw. More specific variants exist, such as Crémant de Bourgogne for Burgundy sparklies.
The regions of Burgundy are extremely complex, and yet they are understandable if simply listed out in a straightforward format. Let us construct a logical list of the AOCs of Burgundy, and how the consumer may come to understand them. Click on any of the underlined links to go to the specific pages.
- Bourgogne: The French word for Burgundy, the name Bourgogne will be featured prominently on the labels of all "basic" entry-level Burgundy wine. This wine is generally the least expensive of all Burgundy, but can provide some excellent simple reds from Pinot Noir and whites from Chardonnay. The usual major producers such as Jadot make many of the examples, but so do small producers bent on offering Burgundy for less exclusive prices. The more round, less sharp and acidic, but to some tastes dull variety Aligoté is used in Bourgogne Aligoté AOC. Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire and Bourgogne Ordinaire are actually table wine-quality despite AOC status. Bourgogne Passe-Tout-Grains is an interesting experimental AOC making wine from Gamay. Are the wines good? Perhaps, but certainly not as much as Pinot Noir's Burgundy. Bourgogne Rosé is one to remember, with interesting rosé made from Pinot Noir. Perhaps most important is Crémant de Bourgogne, which can often produce great bubblies from the two main grapes of Champagne. A number of obscure AOCs exist that are of little realistic importance: Bourgogne Clairet, Bourgogne Clairet Côte Chalonnaise, Bourgogne Coulanges-la-Vineuse, Bourgogne Côtes d'Auxerre, Bourgogne Côtes du Couchois, Bourgogne Epineuil, Bourgogne La Chapelle Notre Dame, Bourgogne Le Chapitre, Bourgogne Montrecul, and Bourgogne Vezelay.
- Côte de Beaune: The southern part of the ponderous Côte d'Or, the Côte de Beaune contains the best dry white wines in Burgundy and some of the best in the world. Côte de Beaune is itself an AOC but, confusingly, the area only refers to a tiny area above the village that produces affordable wine. Other more reliable, and also reasonably priced, wine can be found in Bourgogne Hautes-Côte de Beaune AOC, which refers to the hills behind the actual Côte de Beaune. Côte de Beaune-Villages is another place to find values.
- Aloxe-Corton: This area, encompassing the communes of Aloxe-Corton and Ladoix-Serrigny, is most known for its Grand Cru vineyards Corton, Corton-Charlemagne, and to a lesser extent Charlemagne. However, these Grand Crus span into other areas, so they are covered under "Corton areas"—the Corton and Corton-Charlemagne vineyards, as well as the lesser-known Charlemagne. Aloxe-Corton village wine, white and red, is also remarkable, and the area has 13 Premiers Crus.
- Auxey-Duresses: Auxey-Duresses is very close to Meursault, and as a result is mostly known for its less famous Meursault-style wines. It has nine Premiers Crus.
- Beaune: Beaune is a large town, which should not be confused with the Côte de Beaune itself. There are no Grand Crus, but a whopping 42 Premiers Crus in the village. Mostly red wine.
- Blagny: Blagny's wine is not very well-known. The actual AOC wine is produced in Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet, but has its own name since the wine produced is entirely red. Although a number of factors work against good red wine production in these areas, there are still seven Premiers Crus.
- Chorey-les-Beaune: Produced entirely in the two-square-mile commune of the same name, Chorey-les-Beaune's wine is mostly red; there are no Premiers Crus.
- Corton areas: Visit this page for an explanation of Corton, Corton-Charlemagne, and Charlemagne, which are three very complicated Grand Crus for red and white wine shared between Aloxe-Corton and Pernand-Vergelesses, and to a lesser extent some of Ladoix-Serrigny. Like Montrachet's areas, we group the Corton areas into a single category to make it more understandable.
- Charlemagne: An uncommon Grand Cru.
- Corton: Fruity but very complex red wines; this is the only Côte de Beaune Grand Cru vineyard producing red wine.
- Corton-Charlemagne: Although it isn't far from Corton itself, Corton-Charlemagne produces almost only rich, filling white wines.
- Ladoix: Less expensive, less well known AOC makes wine produced solely in the village of Ladoix-Serrigny. There are 11 Premiers Crus.
- Maranges: Maranges, which is produced in three communes, is a good affordable area for both red and white wine. Premiers Crus total seven.
- Meursault: Famous for its rich, layered Chardonnays, Meursault has built a great high-quality reputation for itself without any Grand Cru vineyards. The 19 Premiers Crus produce mainly buttery, very oak-influenced whites that have had a tremendous influence on Chardonnay in California and elsewhere.
- Monthelie: Monthelie is near Meursault; it has about 15 Premiers Crus making mostly red wines.
- Montrachet areas: Wine from these areas is often considered the best dry white wine in the world. The rich, complex Chardonnay comes from vineyards in either Chassagne-Montrachet or Puligny-Montrachet; if a Grand Cru, it will be labeled Bâtard-Montrachet, Chevalier-Montrachet, or Montrachet itself.
- Bâtard-Montrachet: Bâtard-Montrachet is a vineyard producing only white wine from 100% Chardonnay. Its vineyard straddles Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet, the two actual communes of the Montrachet areas. Intense, well-fruited and well-balanced, the wines can also be labeled as Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet and Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet.
- Chassagne-Montrachet: Chassagne-Montrachet is an actual commune with "shares" of both Bâtard-Montrachet and Montrachet itself. The village wine produced is also of a high standard, produced in both the communes of Chassagne-Montrachet and Remigny.
- Chevalier-Montrachet: Chevalier-Montrachet has the highest altitude of any of the five Montrachet Grands Crus, making slightly less approachable wine from mostly the same production techniques and styles as its neighbors.
- Montrachet: Montrachet itself makes some of the most famous white Grand Cru Burgundy, often entirely worth the high entitlement it is afforded. Whether it is worth the outrageous prices commanded is a different question, but no one can deny the expert combination of power and elegance these rich, subtle Chardonnays offer.
- Puligny-Montrachet: In addition to containing some of the Grand Cru vineyards Bâtard-Montrachet, Chevalier-Montrachet, and Montrachet itself, Puligny-Montrachet grows its own village wine, much of which is of a high level of quality.
- Pernand-Vergelesses: A village AOC for red wine that comes close to its only partially owned Grand Cru, Corton, in quality despite having only eight Premiers Crus.
- Pommard: Considering the respect afforded Pommard in Pinot Noir circles all around the world, it is surprising that the area has no Grands Crus. Several of the 27 Premiers Crus are close to Grand Cru in quality, and all make wine of notorious power and richness.
- St-Aubin: Close to the Montrachet areas, St-Aubin is a source of affordable Burgundy, both white and red. There are 20 Premiers Crus.
- St-Romain: Affordable wine is made here, though there are no Premiers or Grands Crus.
- Santenay: Santenay wine is produced in the commune of Santenay, but also shares land with Chassagne-Montrachet in the commune of Remigny. Mostly reds from the 12 Premiers Crus.
- Savigny-lès-Beaune: The huge 14-square-mile appellation of Savigny-lès-Beaune produces both red and white styles. There are 22 Premiers Crus, several of which have become notorious for their red wine.
- Volnay: Another red wine village in the Côte de Beaune, Volnay can be on a par with its rivals Pommard and the Grand Cru Corton. These are some of the most elegant, delicate red wines in Burgundy; there are 28 Premiers Crus from which to choose.
- Côte de Nuits: The Côte de Nuits, which unlike the Côte de Beaune is not itself an AOC, produces some of the most famous—and expensive—red wine in the world. Most of the wine from here that doesn't fall under some specific appellation is labeled Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes de Nuits. A number of the most affordable Côte de Nuits wines are labeled under this appellation. A Côte de Nuits-Villages also exists; although obscure it also offers some of the least expensive red Burgundy. Once one gets into more specific appellations, with a few exceptions, prices get much higher, but with good reason; these are often considered the best red wines in the world.
- Bonnes-Mares: The only Côte de Nuits Grand Cru that does not entirely lie in one village, Bonnes-Mares is shared between the villages of Chambolle-Musigny and Morey-St-Denis. It produces some of the most powerful, tannic wines of the region.
- Chambolle-Musigny: The three-square-mile village of Chambolle-Musigny is home to legendary Grand Cru Musigny and in addition houses 25 Premiers Crus of its own. The non-Grand Cru wine is itself fabulous, often aromatic and subtle.
- Musigny: The Musigny Grand Cru produces wine of a stellar character that combines powerful tannins and concentration with great elegance and smoothness—"an iron fist in a velvet glove", as wine writer Oz Clarke put it. The wines are extremely expensive even for the area; a little white wine is also produced.
- Fixin: The Fixin appellation is a good-value location right next to Gevrey-Chambertin, with five Premiers Crus for red wines.
- Flagey-Échezeaux: This village produces no wine of its own, but has two important Grands Crus that share its name.
- Échezeaux: Échezeaux is a Grand Cru famous for its well-balanced, feminine flavors in a similar style to the also well-known Côte de Beaune village of Volnay. There are allegations, however, that there are too many producers here.
- Grands Échezeaux: The Grand Cru vineyard of Échezeaux also contains the Grands Échezeaux vineyard. These wines are more powerful and more expensive than Échezeaux since there are fewer producers and thus higher quality.
- Gevrey-Chambertin: Deep, intensely flavored but always elegant wines are produced in the communes of Brochon and Gevrey-Chambertin. There are 26 Premiers Crus, but the nine Grands Crus (a record for a Burgundy village!) are much better.
- Chambertin: Famously concentrated, deep wines are produced in this Grand Cru, which actually gave the Gevrey village its surname, not the other way around! This is certainly one of the top five Grands Crus in Burgundy.
- Chambertin-Clos de Bèze: With hundreds of great wines, Chambertin-Clos de Bèze is very similar to Chambertin and now almost in equal in status.
- Chapelle-Chambertin: This is a rather obscure Grand Cru, with some rather reasonably priced wine.
- Charmes-Chambertin: This Grand Cru vineyard is nearly as solid a wine source as Chambertin itself.
- Griotte-Chambertin: This very uncommon Grand Cru has few wines, but many of them are underrated and can develop into Chambertin-like Grand Cru wines with age.
- Latricières-Chambertin: This satellite is not so reliable, but a few good producers brighten things up.
- Mazis-Chambertin: Less expensive wines here.
- Mazoyères-Chambertin: This fairly obscure Grand Cru is mostly used by Domaine Perrot Minot, although a few competing producers keep things interesting.
- Ruchottes-Chambertin: Unlike some of the neighboring Grand Crus, there are a number of producers here, but in general they offer good prices and above-average quality.
- Marsannay: Large and with no Premiers Crus or Grands Crus, Marsannay nonetheless provides many good values.
- Morey-St-Denis: There are 20 Premiers Crus here, but far more noted are the four Grands Crus.
- Clos des Lambrays: A miniscule Grand Cru vineyard, Clos des Lambrays is almost entirely owned by Domaine des Lambrays, but they do not have a monopoly due to a few rows of grapes being owned by a competing winery.
- Clos de la Roche: Only slightly bigger than the tiny Clos des Lambrays, Clos de la Roche has a number of producers making exotically scented, unusual wines for high prices.
- Clos St-Denis: Even smaller than Clos des Lambrays, Clos St-Denis surprisingly has quite a number of producers that make their wine there. The wines are feminine, textured, and very well-made.
- Clos de Tart: The only Morey monopole, owned completely by Mommessin. Intense, at first austere wines, they are expensive but of more reliable quality than any of the other Grands Crus.
- Nuits-St-Georges: Almost 12 square miles of vineyard land are covered by this AOC. Reasonably priced and balanced, the wines come from village vineyards and over 40 Premiers Crus!
- Vosne-Romanée: Vosne-Romanée is the home of no less than six Grands Crus, all of which are worthy of their own in-depth descriptions and therefore pages. The six Grands Crus are the primary places in the world for Pinot Noir, along with Chambertin and Musigny. The wines are, of course, very expensive, even the village examples.
- La Grande Rue: Owned as a monopole by Domaine Lamarche, La Grande Rue offers excellent feminine-styled Vosne-Romanée. A tiny, four-acre vineyard, this Grand Cru is overshadowed by its neighbors but still one of the greatest in Burgundy.
- Richebourg: For many Burgundy hounds, Richebourg strikes just the right balance between power and elegance, making wine of a rich, luscious character very different from its neighbors. While small, Richebourg is large enough for there to be several producers that compete with each other to make the most outstanding wine.
- La Romanée: Owned completely by Comte Liger-Belair, La Romanée is the smallest AOC region in the whole of France at around 2.1 acres. La Romanée is usually of a masculine, backward style. Drunk at the right time La Romanée gets Pinot just right.
- Romanée-Conti: Fully owned by the legendary Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, this monopole is so amazingly expensive that only a very few people in the world have ever gotten an opportunity to try it. Only multimillionaires, wine critics, and insiders enjoy these wines regularly. DRC's depth of flavor, complexity, and delightfully simple purity and elegance are its main selling points. With $10,000 a common price for new bottles, this is solidly the world's most expensive wine.
- Romanée-St-Vivant: This Grand Cru vineyard makes less complex, less esteemed wines than its neighbors. Perhaps it simply suffers from stiff competition, since many of these wines are nothing short of great.
- La Tâche: La Tâche is the other monopole of Domaine de la Romanée Conti. Probably costing about 80% less than Romanée-Conti in the average year, it is nonetheless one of the world's most expensive wines! Layered and feminine, it is the opposite of Romanée-Conti in style but rivals it in complexity.
- Vougeot: Vougeot is almost exclusively known for its Grand Cru.
- Clos de Vougeot: Exotic, backward, masculine wines are made in this Grand Cru, which is very large and unfortunately inconsistent due to the high number of producers. Nonetheless, this wine can be world-class.
- Chablis: Chablis's vineyards are among the most northerly of viable growing land, making Chardonnay-based white wine of an intense, metallic character that has been compared to various minerals, gunflint, steel, and numerous other flavors. The joys of white Burgundy are more affordable here, but labeling is still somewhat confusing. There are four AOCs: basic Chablis AOC, less reliable Petit Chablis, and Chablis Premier Cru and Chablis Grand Cru. The seven Chablis Grands Crus make wine of a fatter, more filling, rich and balanced style. While the more modern ones lack the bone-dry, metallic intensity that some favor in basic Chablis, their more Burgundy-like character makes them more appealing for fans of white Côte de Beaune. Nearby AOC St-Bris produces wine of a similar style, but does not fall under the Chablis appellation.
- Côte Chalonnaise: The Côte Chalonnaise, outside of the Côte d'Or entirely, is one of the less expensive places to find both red and white Burgundy. Labeled under Bourgogne-Côte Chalonnaise AOC, the village wine is fairly obscure.
- Givry: Givry's wine is mostly red from Pinot Noir, of a light-bodied, earthy style not often derived from that grape. Chardonnay-based white has also been noted.
- Mercurey: The most famous of Côte Chalonnaise's villages, Mercurey produces mostly Pinot Noir-based red that is approachable but concentrated and ageworthy. Some less prestigious white is also produced here.
- Montagny: There are no red wines in this small village. The Chardonnay-based whites are mostly Premier Cru (!) but the title means less here than in the Côte de Beaune.
- Rully: Rully is a fairly well-known village, making both red and white wine in roughly even proportions. The wines are inexpensive and relatively reliable, a rare combination for Burgundy.
- Mâconnais: Taking its name from the town of Mâcon which is itself an AOC, Mâconnais is another area to find more reasonably priced Burgundy, both red and white. Mâcon AOC itself is overshadowed by the higher-quality Mâcon-Villages; a few other obscure appellations exist.
- Pouilly-Fuissé: Pouilly-Fuissé is a great white wine appellation outside the Côte de Beaune, making wine of a rich, balanced, elegant style. Even as they rival Côte de Beaune Chards, they distinguish themselves quite noticeably. Not to be confused with Pouilly-Fumé in the Loire.
- St-Véran: Since its move from Beaujolais to Burgundy, this appellation's wines have gained in popularity.
- Viré-Clessé: Taken from the names of the communes of Mâcon-Viré and Mâcon-Clessé, this appellation is new and should be watched.
- Irancy: Irancy is a small but distinguished village AOC in Burgundy, the most important of three that fit neither into the Côte d'Or, Côte Chalonnaise, or Mâconnais appellations. In fact, Irancy's wine is made closer to Chablis, but is outside of that appellation as well. Irancy produces feminine but ageable red from Pinot Noir, surprisingly good considering how far north its appellation is. The Colinot wines are good and low-priced.
More vineyards in Burgundy. This photo is in the public domain.