Nestled deep in the heartland of Burgundy, the Côte d’Or department is a jewel of French winemaking. Home to the overwhelming majority of Burgundy’s Grand Cru vineyards, it should come as no surprise that many of the most distinctive elements of Burgundy’s wine-making culture can be traced to the historical and present-day influence of this region.
BurgDirect’s region of specialization, most of our wines come from within the 3400 square miles of the Côte D’Or. In honor of the region, we’ll be devoting a few articles to waxing philosophic on our favorite part of Burgundy, home to the best Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines in the world.
In this first article, we’ll go over the geography, history, and significance of the Côte d’Or. In subsequent articles, we’ll shine the spotlight on some of our closest partner domaines in the region, the lovely people who farm and vinify the wines we offer in our bundles.
Let’s get right to it!
What’s in a Name? The Geography of the Côte d’Or
The region’s name is something of a play on words, offering two hints about the Côte d’Ors geography.
Let’s look at the direct translation first. Côte d’Or is French for “golden slope,” and in this instance refers to the brilliant gold hue the hillside takes on in fall. As the weather cools and the sun weakens, leaves on the vine turn a brilliant yellow before falling to the ground as the plant goes dormant for the winter.
But Côte d’Or is also an abbreviation for Côte d’Orient, or “eastern-facing slopes.” True to form, the region is bisected by a long chain of hills that run from the northeast to the southwest. From the bottom of the valleys and up the slopes, it is on the eastern side of the escarpment that most of the vineyards lie.
This clever wordplay comes from the two different origins of the name: one from the French Revolution, when the department was first created, and the second chosen by the region’s winemakers when a new regional appellation was created in 2017.
So, strictly speaking, the gold slopes refer to the department, and the eastern facing slopes to the appellation.
In a temperate climate, the Côte d’Or cycles between cool winters, and hot, dry summers. Facing the east, the vineyards benefit from lots of early morning rays, and with the slight incline are well-placed to absorb sunlight throughout the day.
The composition of the hills is a mix of limestone, clay, and rocky scree. This combination represents an excellent combination of nutrition, moisture retention, drainage, and soil that keeps roots from scorching on even the hottest summer days. The result is a perfect terroir for producing rich and balanced, medium-bodied reds, and particularly bold, vivacious whites.
If you’d like to see the slopes for yourself, take a look at this great video footage of the region on Burgundy’s official Youtube channel.
A Touch of History
Home of the religious orders that stewarded Burgundy’s vineyards through the Middle Ages, the Côte d’Or has always been of great importance to the region. It was the monks who transformed Burgundy from a haphazard collection of vineyards into a well-organized, highly productive region. In delineating different vineyards to isolate their unique characteristics, the monks developed the modern concept of terroir.
Through centuries of attentive cultivation, rigorous experimentation and meticulous note-taking, these monks laid the groundwork for the wine culture we see in Burgundy today. Many of the region’s current vineyards are actually organized along the very same lines the monks drew, though ownership is much more divided than it once was thanks to Napoleon’s inheritance laws.
The Côte d’Or, or more specifically the city of Dijon (yes, the mustard one), was also the seat of power of the Dukes of Burgundy, who ruled the area into the fifteenth century. With wine a symbol of power and prestige, the dukes further improved and refined Burgundy’s wine production, banning the “inferior” Gamay grape in the Côte d’Or and replacing it with Pinot Noir. What this new grape lacked in yield, it more than made up for in extraordinary quality. Today, Pinot Noir is practically synonymous with Burgundy itself.
The Significance of the Côte d’Or
The Côte d’Or department is divided into two parts. The north half of the escarpment is the Côte de Nuits, and the southern half the Côte de Beaune - two of the most highly prestigious departments in the world, which set the quality standard for all of Burgundy.
Named after the principal town of Nuits-St-Georges, the Côte de Nuits contains a remarkable cluster of Burgundy’s most vaunted red wine appellations, including Chambertin, Romanée-Conti, and the famous Clos de Vougeot among others. A jewel of the winemaking world, the Côte de Nuits produces arguably the finest (and most expensive) expressions of Pinot Noir that Burgundy has to offer.
The Côte de Beaune, for its part, is named after the town and wine center of Beaune. The north of this department produces a higher proportion of full-bodied red wines, which grow progressively lighter and more perfumed as they move down towards the white wine vineyards more prevalent in the south. It is here that the Côte de Beaune earns its reputation, for though it produces a solid mix of both red and white wines, it is most well-known for its Chardonnay. A mirror to its northern twin, the department produces some of the finest (and again most expensive) white wines that Burgundy has to offer.
Taken together, these two departments represent the cream of Burgundy’s winemaking tradition of quality and care. It should come as no surprise that the Côte d’Or as a whole is synonymous with the most delicious and delightful expressions of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the world.
In many ways, the Côte d’Or is a distillation of everything that makes Burgundy Burgundy. A terroir that allows Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to reach the gorgeous complexity of their highest heights, a winemaking tradition that ensures the vignerons can get them there, and a culture that values quality above all else. Truly, a Côte d’Or Cru is something that every wine lover should taste over and over again…
Going forward, keep an eye out for articles where we’ll shine the spotlight on some of our favorite partners in the Côte d’Or region!