Burgundy (Bourgogne in French) is an epicurean odyssey for all the senses. Stunning scenery and landscapes interlaced with canals and grand châteaux, glorious architecture, medieval villages and two of France’s greatest passions, food and wine.
Nestled in east-central France, Burgundy has a historical heritage that dates back to the Renaissance and Middle Ages. It stretches 300 kilometres from Joigny in Yonne (north) to Mâcon in Saône et Loire (south). After Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley, Burgundy is the third largest wine region in France. Its ‘capital’ is Dijon.
There are five wine producing regions in Burgundy from north to south: Chablis and Grand Auxerrois, Côte de Nuits, Côtes de Beaune, Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais. Here, Climats (a general term that describes the terroirs) are small specific delimited parcels of vineyard area that have particular geological and climatic conditions. These have played a critical role for centuries and symbolise the special relationship between the wine and the land i.e. the wine characterises the land and the land characterise the wine. In 2015, the Climats of Burgundy were given UNESCO World Heritage status as they emphasise a model of terroir viticulture unique in Burgundy.
Whilst Burgundy does have grand châteaux (e.g. the magnificent Château du Clos de Vougeot) many vineyards don’t and their land is worked by those who own them. As a result of the Napoleonic code whereby inheritance is equally divided amongst landowners’ heirs (initially just male), generation after generation has seen vineyards sub-divided into an ever-increasing number of descendants. Some now only own a very small parcel of land or even just a few rows of vines in the same vineyard! Unsurprisingly, cooperatives are a common feature particularly in Chablis, Mâcon and Beaujolais.
Dijon mustard, coq au vin and beef (boeuf) bourguignon all originate from Burgundy, yet French gastronomy has excelled well beyond those. There are now 38 Michelin restaurants in the region, including the exquisite 3-star Maison Lameloise now owned and run by Eric Pras and Frédéric LAMY, but the region is most famous for its wines. Burgundy offers a range of wines thanks to the diversity in latitude, climats, and grape varieties.
Chablis is in the north and coolest part of the region where the soils are kimmeridgian limestone clay with tiny traces of marine fossils. (Petit Chablis is the extended area where the soils are more Portlandian clay). Here the wines must be white and 100% Chardonnay. They have an austere purity with crisp minerality, and flavours and aromas of green fruit (apple, pear) and lemon. Classically Chablis is unoaked, although some Premier Cru or Grand Cru can be oaked (e.g. the fabulous Joseph Drouhin Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos age their wines for 12 months in old oak French barrels).
Chablis should be served chilled (7–10°C although just lightly chill if it’s got a bit more weight like a Les Clos) and pairs well with seafood and salads.
Leaving Chablis and heading south you come to the Côte d’Or. Translated? Golden slope. If you ever visit here in autumn as we have when the trees on the slopes, which grace the vista over the canals, have turned a stunning shade of auburn, you’ll understand why. This is a particular favourite wine region of ours for its beauty and sublime wines.
Despite only being 65 kms long and less than 2kms wide, this is the jewel in the crown for Burgundy. Drier and warmer than Chablis, Pinot Noir is the king (around 2/3rd of the land under vine is red) and Chardonnay is queen (around 1/3rd is white). In 2017, it was awarded its own regional geographical denomination Bourgogne Côte d’Or AC.
Pinot Noir is an old varietal and pernickety to grow in the vineyard as it’s prone to disease. Its thin skins (i.e. low tannin) and intensely bluish or deep violet hues can create superb quality wine with red fruit (raspberry, cherry and strawberry), spice, pepper cinnamon, coffee or smoky notes. Over time cooked notes of jam or kirsch and wild mushroom develop.
Here Chardonnay differs to that grown in Chablis. As a versatile grape that manages to adapt to its environment and a range of winemaking techniques, Côte d’Or Chardonnays tend to be more complex, medium to full bodied and intense in colour with stone fruit (peach), lemon, floral, creamy, savoury and oak aromas and flavours. Very good examples can age and display hazelnut and mushroom.
Maturation of Côte d’Or wines are typically 12-24 months for red wines and 8-16 months for white wines in pièces (228L capacity oak barrels). As the wine evaporates (the Angels Share) and to avoid oxidation, the wine is topped up regularly (known as ouillage).
Côte d’Or is split into two, the Côte de Nuits in the northern half and the Côte de Beane in the southern half.
Côte de Nuits
Named after its principal town, Nuits-St-George, Pinot Noir is more dominant in the Côte de Nuits. Varying qualities of wine are made (in increasing order of importance): Bourgogne Passetoutgrain (lowest lying slopes), Bourgogne Rouge or Blanc, Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes de Nuits (higher slopes,), Côtes de Nuits-Villages, and then getting on to the best elevations, soil and topography Communes/Villages (key examples: Gevrey-Chambertin, Vougeot, Vosne-Romanée, Flagey-échézeaux, Nuits-St-Georges), Premier Crus (1st Growths – can appear on labels as 1er) and Grand Crus. See Burgundy Classification & Terms for more information.
Côte de Beaune
The Côte de Beane follows the same classifications as above but just switch Côtes de Nuits to Côtes de Beaune and it includes Bourgogne Aligoté (akin to Bourgogne Passetoutgrains). Here the key communes/villages are Corton, Corton-Charlemagne, Beaune, Pommard, Volnay, Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet.
The key red wines are Pinot Noir (100%), which are lighter in style than those from the Côte de Nuits. The key white wines are Chardonnay (100%). Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet produce some of the world’s finest and most expensive white wines that are synonymous with sophistication – we have been and remain avid fans of these super delicious wines!
Light to medium bodied white wines should be served chilled (7–10°C), however, full-bodied whites should only be lightly chilled (10-13°C). A marriage made in heaven with chicken in a creamy mushroom sauce.
Leaving Côte de Beaune and travelling south, you arrive immediately in Côte Challonnaise. A small district that is a mere 25kms long by 7kms wide. Here, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay continue their dominance. The wines are typically more early drinking, inexpensive, fleshy and fruity, and made from either Pinot Noir for the reds or Chardonnay for the whites. Key villages/communes are Givry (mainly red), Mercurey (mainly red too), Montagny (white only) and Rully.
Further south than the Côte Chalonnaise, so getting even warmer, this district that is only 10kms wide and 35kms long and centres around the city of Mâcon. Chardonnay represents around 80% of the plantings. These wines tend to be simple, easy drinking whites.
Here the appellation system in ascending order is: Mâcon AC, Mâcon Supérieur AC (requires higher alcohol level) and Mâcon-Villages AC. The latter wines come from specific smaller areas and typically have a richer palate and are of a higher quality. Of particular importance is Pouilly-Fuissé AC and Saint-Veran AC, which both produce richer full-bodied white wines often in a Côte d’Or style.
Beaujolais is positioned in the southernmost part of Burgundy, around 20 minutes from Lyon and half an hour from Mâcon. Beaujolais is made with Gamay, a red grape that is the off-spring of Pinot Noir, and pretty much grown exclusively here.
Beaujolais, basic and Nouveau, is made using carbonic maceration (see Burgundy Classification and Terms) creating flavours of bubble-gum, kirsch, banana and strawberry. These light and fruity early drinking wines are best served lightly chilled.
Beaujolais Nouveau is released on the 3rd Thursday in November following each harvest
Beaujolais Villages wines are made from grapes grown in the rolling granitic hills and tend to be of higher quality. 10 specific crus from within the area produce the highest quality wines, some Côte d’Or in style, and these are labelled with the name of the cru e.g. (from north to south) St-Amour, Juliénas, Moulin-a-Vent, Chénas, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Regnié, Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly. These more medium to full-bodied versions should served at room temperature (15-18°C).
Sparkling Wines – Crémant de Bourgogne
Burgundy isn’t too far from Champagne. The climate and terroir aren’t too different either plus they grow the same grapes and use the same production method. The price point is generally kinder on the wallet than Champagne and some Crémant can give them a run for their money too!
Whilst a lot of the Chardonnay is grown in the Mâconnais and production mainly in Côte Chalonnaise, grapes destined for Crémant (and it’s been on the increase) are grown in every village in the region. These sparklers start in the vineyard not the winery as vines that are to produce grapes for Crémant need to be declared before the end of March before harvest. It now represents around 10% of production in Burgundy.
Like Champagne, the grapes are hand harvested early in whole bunches to preserve the acidity and the wine made using the Traditional Method i.e. it’s made in the bottle you purchase. There are 4 categories:
- Le Crémant de Bourgogne Blanc
- Using a blend of red and white grapes. Must be a minimum of 30% Chardonnay or Pinot Noir
- Le Crémant de Bourgogne Blanc de Blancs
- Using white grapes e.g. Chardonnay, this is a lighter sparkling wine
- Le Crémant de Bourgogne Blanc de Noirs
- Using red grapes only e.g. Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, this is a more powerful sparkling wine
- Le Crémant de Bourgogne Blanc Rosé
- Typically, from Pinot Noir
Whereas Champagne NV (non-vintage) has a minimum ageing requirement of 15 months (12 months on the lees), Crémant only requires a minimum of 9 months. In 2013, 2 new Crémant classifications were introduced: Eminent and Grand Eminent. Crémant de Bourgogne Eminent premium wines have to be aged on the lees (dead yeast) for at least 24 months and Crémant de Bourgogne Grand Eminent requires 36 months (the same as Vintage Champagne) plus other regulations including grape varieties, dosage (sweetness) levels etc.
Sparkling wines should be served well chilled (6–10°C).
Places to visit
Hospices de Beaune Wine Auction
A world famous annual charity wine auction where industry professionals, connoisseurs and wine lovers gather on the weekend of the third Sunday in November. Festivities include street performances, folklore parade, gourmet village and half-marathon through the streets and vineyards of Beaune. Winemakers offer tastings of their new and old vintages, even rare ones.
The weekend culminates on the Sunday afternoon where lots of Grand and Premier Crus are offered for sale and the proceeds are used for heritage conservation and hospitals. The weekend comes to a close with a candle lit dinner.
Château du Clos de Vougeot
Originally a wine farm built in the 12th century by Cistercian monks, it’s located on the vineyards that produce the legendary Romanée-Conti. A Renaissance style château was added in the 16th century. Acquired by the Confrèrie des Chevaliers du Tastevin in 1945, it has a medieval vat-house and presses, Cistercian cellar and original kitchens.
Route des Grands Crus
The Route des Grands Crus weaves through prestigious Grand Cru vineyards within 38 villages, as well as 2 large towns, Beaune and Dijon. The easily recognisable brown and white signs help guide you through the home of world famous appellations like Gevrey-Chambertin, Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet.
The route is only around 60 kms in length and less than 2 kms wide. The Clos (enclosed plots) are organised into parcels of land via dry stone walls, a river or hedge. By car you’ll need a couple of days and if walking or cycling considerably longer.
Beaune is a great place to stay and foody heaven with 6 Michelin starred restaurants! It’s a great opportunity to experience the stunning countryside and panoramas plus the obligatory sampling of some sublime wines cellar side of course.
Visiting Burgundy should be on everyone’s bucket list. We maybe in COVID 19 lockdown right now, but it’s Friday and a lightly chilled bottle of Burgundian Meursault is waiting to be enjoyed! Have a great weekend and stay safe.