Burgundy 101 : A Quick Guide to Bourgogne Wine in France
Tonight I wanted to touch on a subject that really had an effect on my appreciation for wine. In fact, the first wine that ever really knocked my taste buds out of the park was a Pinot Noir from Burgundy (Bourgogne), France. So, fittingly, I gravitated to drinking a lot of Red Burgundy during my early wine drinking days. Needless to say, it’s typically pretty good. We’ll go into why that is throughout this quick Burgundy wine and wine making guide.
There are two main types of Burgundy wines…
What’s Red Burgundy?
“Red Burgundy” is just another way of saying Pinot Noir. It’s another way of saying ‘a Pinot Noir‘ that was crafted in Eastern France by wine making families who have been doing it for hundreds of years.
The flavor profile in these wines can vary greatly, though they are predominantly lighter-bodied with mellow tannins and medium acidity. These wines are typically complex and red fruit forward, but less so than most American pinots. Specific flavoric nuances are heavily influenced by the terroir in which they’re grown.
Fun Fact: Pinor Noir has a more diverse genomic code than human beings – over 30,000 genes, according to a recent scientific study…
Editors Note: Gamay is occasionally used instead of Pinot Noir or blended with Pinor Noir in the most Southern region of Burgundy where it does better in flint and clay like soil. Some Northern Burgundy appellations have been known to incorporate higher concentrations of Gamay (Red and rosé wines – Pinot Noir (min. 1/3) and Gamay (max. 2/3), but this pales in the quantity of true Red Burgundy production throughout Northern Burgundy.
Now that you know what Red Burgundy is, let’s not forget about its white counterpart. While Pinot Noir is the main grape used in Red Burgundy wines, Chardonnay is the grape variety of choice when making a White Burgundy.
Both Red and White Burgundy wines are almost always made using Pinot Noir or Chardonnay grapes, respectively (there are some exceptions, but will discuss these in a more specific Burgundy article).
What Makes Burgundy Wine So Damn Good?
There are a number of factors that make wine making in this region unique.
First – 99% of French winemakers here focus all of their energy into growing and vinifying only one of two grape varieties. Over centuries, they’ve mastered it. Crucially, many of these same winemakers also use biodynamic and organic viticultural methods – which brings an incredible amount of personality to their wines.
Other factors affecting quality include the traditions and winemaking experience passed down through generations, to the soil composition and the weather.
The truth is, all of these factors come together to produce unique, personality packed wines – but it doesn’t stop there. There are numerous grades and classifications of Burgundy wine, dependent upon where the grapes are sourced and the terroir the wine comes from.
There are 5 major wine growing areas throughout Burgundy, including Chablis (think Chardonnay), Côte de Nuits (think Grand Cru reds), Côte de Beaune (think Grand Cru whites), Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais. Wine Folly has created a great infographic to help us get the visual (click to enlarge).
Each region has its own relatively unique climate and terroir which subsequently influences the flavor and aromatic profiles of Burgundy wine. However, the most expensive wines in Burgundy come from Grand Cru vineyards – whose real estate occupies the hilly portions of either Côte de Nuits or Côte de Beaune. It’s in these vineyards where vines have access to consistent sunlight with rain water simultaneously draining more efficiently.
Climate and Terroir in Burgundy, France
For the most part, much of Burgundy maintains a calcareous, chalky, limestone soil composition. That’s because, like much of the ground I’m standing on in Texas right now, it used to be a shallow inland sea – many, many, many years ago. When sea life dies (especially coral) and decomposes over millenia, it eventually becomes limestone. This gives way to some rich mineralistic tones that are typically present in most Burgundy wines.
While Burgundy endures a typical hot summer, cold winter continental climate — similar to other areas of France and Spain — weather here is a bit more dramatic. Frequent rains have been known to hamper planned harvests, along with unpredictable frost and hail storms. Hence why some vintages end up being more prized than others throughout the region.
Finally, the 4 Burgundy Wine Classifications
- Grand Cru Burgundy Wine
- Considered to produce some of the highest quality and most expensive wines in the world, vins carrying the Grand Cru designation are the only classification permitted to use the name of the specific vineyard from which the grapes were sourced.
- Premier Cru Burgundy Wine
- Wines carrying the Premier Cru designation are from a specific vineyard within a village in Burgundy. Premier Cru vineyards aren’t as highly regarded as Grand Cru vineyards, but are usually of exceptional quality regardless.
- Commune or ‘Village’ Burgundy Wine
- Commune wines in Burgundy are more specific than regional wines. They are named after whichever village is closest to where the grapes are culled, and grapes can be sourced from multiple vineyard areas as long as they’re near that village.
- Regional Burgundy Wine
- Regional wines account for the majority of wine produced in Burgundy. A regional wine here can be made from grapes throughout the entirety of the region, and do not need to be tied to any vineyard or appellation. These wines carry very general designations. “Bourgogne Rouge” or “Bourgogne Blanc” is used to describe red and white.