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Burgundy is the most northerly of France's fine red wine producing regions and also its most complex. Situated between Champagne and the northern Rhône its traditions date back many hundreds of years. Burgundy produces some of the greatest red and white wines anywhere in the world. Historically many Burgundian vineyards were owned by monasteries, their walled boundaries reflecting this fact, but the French Revolution together with Napoleonic inheritance laws led to vineyards becoming increasingly divided into ever smaller parcels of land. Although the charitable foundation the Hospices de Beaune and some of the larger negociants have fairly large vineyard holdings much of wine-producing Burgundy comprises small-scale growers with scattered plots in a range of appellations.

vineyard slope in burgundyAs is the case in the rest of France the more precise the origin of a Burgundy wine the higher its classification; hence grand-cru wines made exclusively from either Pinot Noir or Chardonnay are potentially the very best wines and Coteaux Bourguignons, until 2011 designated Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire, can be made from a range of grapes grown anywhere in the region. In between, in descending order, are premier cru wines, village wines and so on, all governed by France's strict wine regulations.

Another factor in Burgundy's seemingly unfathomable complexity to the non-expert is its diversity of sub-regions. There are five main ones all producing wines that are clearly differentiated but the best of which are made from just two grape varieties, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In the northern department of the Yonne lies the outpost of Chablis, closer to Champagne than to Dijon. Chablis is well-known for its crisp, mineral-edged white wines the best of which are made from grapes grown on the grand-cru hill to the north-east of the the town. South of Dijon lies the Côte-d'Or (literally the golden slope) with its twin centres of Nuits-St.-Georges in the Côte de Nuits and Beaune in the Côte de Beaune.

The Côte de Nuits is famous for its red wines and the villages of Gevrey-Chambertin, Morey-St.-Denis, Chambolle-Musigny, Nuits-St.-Georges and Vosne-Romanée among others are world-renowned. Out of the total of fourteen communes six have one or more vineyards with grand-cru status, the highest accolade in Burgundy. These grand-cru plots are some of the smallest in the whole of France and are typically divided up between many growers. The most famous of all, La Romanée has an area of less than one hectare. So closely do these communes identify with their top grand-cru vineyards that they append their name to that of the village, hence the many hyphenated commune names in these parts. The majority of vineyards here have easterly and south-easterly aspects over the plain of Beaune stretching eastwards to the River Saône. Frost can be a big problem in the spring as can hail storms in early summer and yields can suffer greatly as a result. In addition the Pinot Noir is a notoriously capricious grape variety yet it is in Burgundy, more so than anywhere else in the world, that it achieves true greatness. In a good year a red Burgundy from a conscientious grower can be a heavenly experience – a light, silky texture, fine fruit definition with good acidity and tannins and, with a degree of maturity, a perfume that is both seductive and captivating. The best exude aromas of red fruits, pipe tobacco, leather, a fungal richness and flowers such as violets all overlain by a hint of the farmyard. These wines are able to stimulate the intellect as well as the palate but, sadly, the very best, made in tiny quantities, are sold for stratospheric prices.

A bit further south lies the Côte de Beaune, an area that, although producing many very good red wines, is most famous for its white Burgundies. In the northern part the names of Aloxe-Corton, Beaune, Pommard and Volnay are the best known and it is here that this sub-region's best red wines are produced although the grand-cru Corton-Charlemagne is a white wine of great pedigree. Further to the south are the “holy grail” of white Burgundies made in the communes of Meursault, Puligny and Chassagne, the last two appending the name of (Le) Montrachet, the most famous white wine vineyard in the whole of Burgundy if not the world, to the name of the commune. One fact about Burgundy that is constantly surprising is the ability to wander into some of the most famous vineyards in the whole world.....and dream.

Continuing south beyond the red wine village of Santenay is the Côte Chalonnaise. Here the communes of Rully and Montagny produce white wines with Mercurey and Givry the centres of red wine production. There are no grand-cru wines made in the Côte Chalonnaise but premier-cru vineyards abound. The “lesser” grapes Gamay (red) and Aligoté (white) are also grown in some volume. The sparkling Crémant de Bourgogne is made in this sub-region, principally in Rully. The best of both the red and white wines enable the average wine drinker to enjoy a good bottle of Burgundy which doesn't require either an extended period of cellaring or a large bank balance.

Further south still is the sub-region of the Mâconnais, a source of predominantly white wine production. The weather is warmer here in the summer than further to the north, with the grape harvest beginning at least a week earlier than in either the Chalonnaise or the Côte-d'Or, but late spring frosts can still wreak havoc amongst the tender young vine shoots. Two thirds of plantings in the Mâconnais are Chardonnay and the white wines display the best quality. In fact in the north of this sub-region lies the village of Chardonnay itself which is thought to have given its name to the grape variety. Most famous are the wines of Pouilly-Fuissé the best of which are compared with some wines from the Côte de Beaune but more reasonably priced. Pinot Noir and Gamay are also grown although the former makes wine here that in no way compares to those made further north and, likewise, the Gamay wines often lack the softness and charm of those made in Beaujolais to the south.


Videos: The Red and White Wines of Burgundy

  1. Charles Thomas, Gevrey-Chambertin Champfranc, 2006

    Charles Thomas, Gevrey-Chambertin Champfranc, 2006

    The 2006 vintage was less heralded than the more famous 2005 but nevertheless produced good reds in the Côte de Nuits. This is drinking nicely now.

    Colour Red Wine
    Grape Variety Pinot Noir
    Country France

    Out of stock

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