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The Basics of Burgundy

For generations, a small region in east-central France has consistently produced some of the finest, most-renowned wine that the world has to offer: the gold standard for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Given its small size, Burgundy seems to punch above its weight class on the global market, and demand for these wines seems to trend in just one direction: up. 

So why all the interest in Burgundy?

There are lots of factors that work in its favor. A long and illustrious history, an ideal climate for wine growing, a selective focus and mastery of only a few grapes. This article offers a broad overview of the basics of Burgundy, providing everything you need for a general understanding of the region and the remarkable wine it produces. 

If you want to dive deeper, follow the links in each section for a dedicated article on the topic.

If these don’t answer your question, feel free to leave us a comment or get in touch by email at info@burgdirect.com

Burgundy and wine have a long history

Main article : The history of Burgundy as a wine region

Let’s start with a little history.

Burgundy and wine go back a long time. A really long time. More than two thousand years, when the Romans conquered Gaul (more or less modern-day France) and began planting grapevines on its sunlit slopes. There they produced lovely wines for rich Romans until the empire collapsed around the year 500 and winemaking passed to local royalty, the “barbarian kings” of post-Roman Gaul.

The rise of Christianity over the next thousand years saw much land gifted to the church, and care of the vineyards fell mostly to Benedictine, then Cistercian monks. These monks improved and experimented, and began dividing the vineyards based on the taste that each area imparted to the wine - thus inventing the concept of terroir. They maintained scrupulous records, amassing a deep body of knowledge that was periodically improved upon, and passed onto posterity.

By the late middle ages, Burgundy wine was renowned throughout Europe, served at the dinner tables of kings and popes. The vineyards of Burgundy were unrivaled, and the dukes of Burgundy used them as tools of power and prestige, introducing laws to preserve the quality of Burgundy wine. 

The French Revolution saw the transfer of church vineyards to private owners, and Napoleon’s inheritance laws, introduced around the same time, resulted in continued generational subdivision of vineyards, to the splintered family ownership structure typical of Burgundy today.

Over the generations, these families passed down their winemaking knowledge and techniques to their children, improving them at every step to arrive at the intimate and inextricable familiarity between the region, the grape, and producers that we see today. 

From the first vines to the present, the histories of Burgundy and wine have been deeply intertwined.

Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, King and Queen of Burgundy

Read our main articles on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay

Unlike the United States and most of the New World, France’s wine classification system is based on region and vineyard rather than grape variety [link to grape varieties - explained]. This can make it difficult to figure out what you’re drinking based on the label alone. While some producers in France are beginning to include grape information on the label, in general you’re sort of just expected to just know it.

Luckily, Burgundy relies almost exclusively on two grapes; Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Over the centuries, Burgundy’s grape growing and winemaking traditions have progressed largely with these in mind, producing wines that represent the best these two grapes have to offer.

Pinot Noir is nearly synonymous with Burgundy. Native to the region, it's been cultivated there for nearly a thousand years, and regional producers are intimately familiar with all its quirks and qualities. A thin-skinned grape, Pinot Noir generally produces light-to-medium bodied wines with bright acidity, smooth, silky tannins [link to tannins - explained], and a pleasurable finish. 

When the wine is young, aromas are reminiscent of rich red and black fruit like cherry, raspberry, blueberry, blackberry, and plums. As Pinot Noir ages, fruit flavors recede and subtle tertiary notes of rich soil, soft cured leather, and mushroom begin to shine.

Chardonnay, like Pinot Noir, is native to Burgundy, and makes up the great majority of its white wines. Abundant and versatile, Chardonnay has the potential for a remarkable range of flavors and aromas, a blank canvas for winemakers to imbue into the wine the best characteristics of technique and terroir.

There are many good Chardonnays around the world, but the best are found in Burgundy. Wines from the cooler regions in the north of Burgundy are generally crisp, mineral, citrusy, and slightly saline. Chardonnays from the south are another story, rich and rounded with golden fruit flavors and subtle aromas of oak, spice and vanilla. 

In both instances, Burgundy whites are characteristically refreshing, elegant, and always well-balanced.

Classifying Burgundy Wines

Main article: Classifications of Burgundy wine

Like the rest of France, Burgundy has four principal wine classifications:

Grand Cru - Grand Cru wines represent the best a region has to offer, the cream of the crop. The appellation is highly restrictive, and less than 2% of yearly production falls into this category. Because of their remarkable potential, most Grand Crus are pressed and produced with cellaring [link to cellaring - explained] and further aging in mind, and are best appreciated after 5-10 years.

Premier Cru - At around 12% of total production, the Premier Cru appellation is given to vineyard plots considered to be of very high quality which can’t quite make it into Grand Cru, if only to preserve the prestige of that appellation. The best Premier Crus compare favorably with Grand Cru wines with the benefit of a lower price tag. 

Village - At around 35% of total production, the Village appellation is given to wines produced in one of Burgundy’s 42 villages. As these plots can be small, often village wines are produced from a blend of different vineyards, but many of the best come from just a single lieu dit (location). Though lacking the prestige of Grand or Premier Crus, the Village appellation still contains some remarkable gems.

Burgundy Regional Appellation - Covering the last 50% of wines, the ‘Burgundy’ (or ‘Bourgogne’) appellation is a bit of a catch-all, given to wines produced in Burgundy but not associated with any specific village or vineyard. 

There does however exist a sub-regional appellation that’s a bit more focused on a particular area, larger than a village but smaller than, well, Burgundy as a whole, and its given to regions with particular historical or geographical significance, like the Côtes de Nuits or the Côtes de Beaune.

The Burgundy Terroir

Main article: The Burgundy Terroir

Apart from its long and storied history, Burgundy’s renown stems from its climate and geography - or terroir [link to terroir - explained] - ideal for rich, complex and flavorful wines. Terroir is unique, like a fingerprint, and Burgundy is well suited to pressing wines full of clean fruit flavors, vibrant acidity, and subtle savory nuances.

Despite spanning a distance of just 120 miles north to south (with vines covering about 115 square miles), there’s a remarkable variety in the makeup of Burgundy’s terroir. Temperatures are warm enough to produce ripe grapes rich in flavor, but cool enough to preserve elegance and acidity. 

The soil covering most of the region is a mix of limestone, clay, minerals and silt known as ‘marl’, and exhibits excellent drainage, temperature retention and nutrition. The hills and valleys mean a mix of vineyards bathed by sun with others cast in shade for fruit flavors that vary between bold and generous or subtle and refined.

In all instances, producers' intimate familiarity with the landscape allows them to make the most of every square meter, producing wines that perfectly leverage the land in which they’re grown.

The Current Landscape of Burgundy

Main article: The current landscape of Burgundy

Despite its many years of tradition, Burgundy is a living, breathing, ever-evolving region, and the current landscape is a fascinating study in the contrasting forces of adaptation and tradition. The impacts of climate change are making themselves felt in Burgundy, through warmer winters, hotter summers, and more extreme weather events, and winemakers are doing their best to adapt centuries of tradition to the needs of the moment. 

To preserve the characteristic flavors of Burgundy, growers have taken to harvesting much earlier in the season, producing fuller and richer wines while retaining the distinct character of Burgundy. There has also been a broad shift towards more sustainable viticulture in Burgundy, and recent years have seen a dramatic increase in the number of producers using sustainable practices. 

The use of chemical herbicides and pesticides is also being reduced or phased out entirely. There is a strong belief that the vines themselves are better suited to adapt to changing climate conditions when they are not supported by artificial chemical treatments. The end result is wines that are not only healthier and organic, but many producers report an increase in quality as well, with purer and more balanced flavors.

But there are some worrying signs as well. Increases in the price of land have put lots of pressure on the traditional ownership structure of Burgundy. Tied to the value of the land, inheritance taxes have become prodigiously expensive, and it can take up to ten years just to break even. Winemaking is not the most profitable industry, and inheritors are sometimes forced to turn to outside investors or to sell their vineyards outright in order to make ends meet.

The end result is a general increase in foreign and corporate ownership and consolidation. While this trend is still in its infancy,  many in Burgundy are concerned that their cultural tradition and way of life are at risk if something doesn’t change soon.

What’s Next for Burgundy?

To think of Burgundy is to think of a region whose past and present are inextricably tied to wine, and whose future is likely to be as well. Despite challenges, Burgundy continues to grow and evolve, and winemakers are doing their best to adapt to the pressures of globalization and climate change while preserving the distinctive tastes and traditions that make Burgundy what it is. 

These pressures are only likely to increase with time. Changes in climate may prompt a reconsideration of the classifications of Burgundy vineyards, bringing new plots to prominence as temperatures shift in their favor. New grapes and techniques may result in new flavors, traditions. 

But where there’s uncertainty, there’s lots of promise too. The past few years have produced some of the greatest wines in recent memory, and a new generation of producers is emerging, aware and alert to the changes to come. Armed with all the knowledge and tradition of their predecessors, but committed to preparing for what’s to come, we can’t think of a region better-suited to adapting to these challenges.

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