The Wines of Burgundy


What is a “White Burgundy”?  For that matter, what exactly is a red Burgundy wine?  We visited Cote de Beaune recently, in the heart of Burgundy (aka “Bourgogne”) and I learned something new: While true, its a bit over-simplistic to state that a Burgundy wine is simply a wine from Burgundy.  In fact, it sort of misses the point.

Certainly the entire region of Burgundy is a special place for wine-growing.   It is classified by the French government under a system that regulates the very finest wines (the Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC)).   But unlike other regions in France (Bordeaux for example) the classifications used in Burgundy are based on a centuries old idea put forth by monks, who were the earliest wine-makers in the region.  The monks maintained that certain parcels of land created better wines than others.  So today, every hectare of land in the vineyards of Burgundy is ranked based on the quality of the terroir (“terroir” is the environmental conditions, such as soil, climate and terrain, in which grapes are grown).

What this means is that the origin of the grapes used to make a bottle of Burgundian wine can be pinpointed on a map — in the case of the top class of wines, Grand Cru or Premier Cru, right down to the exact plot of land within the vineyard.

So what?  Why does this matter?

Think about it for a minute.  Pull out a bottle of your favorite wine.  Unless it was made with estate grapes only (i.e., it was made with only grapes grown on the land included in a single estate) there is really no way for the buyer to know where the grapes used in this wine were grown.  In fact, many lower priced wines are made with grapes that come from multiple vineyards in different regions.

Ok.  And?

When the grapes used to make a wine come from unspecified locations, the entire concept of tasting a wine’s terroir (the essence of the land, which gives a wine its unique flavor and characteristics) is completely lost.  In this sense, big wine producers are like processed food manufacturers or purveyors of fast food:  Their goal is to make a consistent product that tastes the same every time.  They don’t actually want a product that can be differentiated based on terroir.

But Burgundy is different.  It is home to some of the best microclimates for wine-growing in the world and each one is meticulously identified.   The wines that comes from these special plots of land reflect their distinct terroir.  In short, Burgundy is terroir on steroids.  And this is what makes the wine so special (and worth the price tag).

Here are three important basics about Burgundian wines:

1.)  Two grapes: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  In Burgundy’s 5 core regions, Pinot Noir is the only red grape.  A Burgundy red therefore is almost always a Pinot Noir (the only other option is Gamay, which is grown in a 6th region, Beaujolais).  The vast majority of white wines in the core region are made from the Chardonnay grape. Hence, a “White Burgundy” is a Chardonnay.

2.) Four classes: Regional, Village, Premier Cru, and Grand Cru.  Regional wines are made from grapes grown somewhere in the official Burgundy region; thus, the price tag on regional Burgundian wine will be the lowest of the four.  The next level up is the Village; wines in a Village are made from grapes in a particular village, but not from land in that village specified as Premier Cru or Grand Cru (remember that each village is painstakingly mapped according to the quality of the terroir).  Premier Cru and Grand Cru grapes are grown within specified plots of land in each village; these grapes are a small percentage of the total and the price reflects the limited supply.

3.) The label is encoded with important information:  Labels are complicated and if you really want to understand Burgundy wines you’ll need far more information than what I’m including here.  But here are the basics:

— Remember that the label will not tell you that this wine is a Chardonnay or a Pinot Noir.  That would be stating the obvious (and taking up valuable space on the label).  Instead, the label will tell you where the wine came from and its classification (among other things).

–The name of the village where the grapes were grown will appear in the largest type font on the label.

— The really critical piece of information on the label is the classification (i.e., am I buying a regional wine, a Village, a Premier Cru or a Grand Cru?).  Here is how to distinguish the classes:

  • If the label says “Borgougne” it is a regional wine.  No village name will appear on the label.
  • If the label does not designate “1st Cru” or “Grand Cru”  beneath the village name, it is a Village class wine.
  • If the wine is a Premier Cru (“1st Cru”) or Grand Cru, this will be stated on the label just underneath the name of the village (usually in very small type).

Here is a nice explanation of Burgundy wine labels with helpful visuals.

People who know me well will attest to the fact that I am not a wine snob.  I buy wines that I like and I don’t really care about pedigree.  So, from the perspective of a non-wine-snob, how*special* are Burgundy wines – really?  Let’s put it this way:  I wouldn’t say this about every wine I tasted in Burgundy (I’m still a big fan of a Willamette Valley Pinot), but for Chardonnay in particular, I am ruined.  My new-found taste for a White Burgundy is simply not consistent with my budget. (Hey! Maybe I can get a job at a vineyard and trade wine for labor?)

Quite apart from the wine, Burgundy is an intriguing place.  My brief impression (we were only there for a few days) is that it is a bit stuck in time and very slow to adopt change.  But hey, when you live in a place dotted with castles, lush hillsides, sloping vineyards that line the roads for miles, and picture-postcard medieval towns, maybe that’s a good thing?  In any event, Burgundy has not seen the last of me.





  1. Susan Kilday says

    Love Bourgogne! Wish I had known you were going to be through Beaune—I could have made some recommendations for spots to eat. Or put you in touch with Florent, the bike shop owner, who could have provided some wonderful bike routes. Clearly the terroir of this region sets its Pinot apart from any other. Much bigger and more acidic than what we tend to think of as a good Pinot Noir here in the US. I have fond memories of the several trips cycling the roads from Nuits-Saint-Georges to Chalon-sur-Saône. Hope to get back some day. Some of the best cycling—and wine—e.v.e.r.

    • Nan Dawkins says

      You know, I didn’t realize that we were going to be in the heart of Burgundy. Originally, we were just going to stay the night on our mad dash through France, but then we screwed up and actually left on that leg of the trip a day early (I really have got to find a better way to keep up with where we are supposed to be on any given night — I’m using an excel sheet and it is NOT working for me). When we arrived at this adorable little B&B (Les Tilleuls, in Epernay-sous-gevray) the inn keeper looked at me like I was mad, but welcomed us in with open arms anyway. When we realized where we were, we asked to stay on and changed our travel plans around. I will absolutely go back there and spend more time – I would love, love, love to do some serious biking there. (my bike gets ransomed from the shop today — YAY!)

  2. Frankie says

    I am going out to look for a bottle of wine from Burgundy! And how wonderful to know there is some place in the world that is not speeding towards change.

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