Burgundy: Four wine classifications, two regions

In order to dispel some of the mystery and naivety about Burgundian wines, a short overview and discussion should help clarify and dispel misinformation from the Côte d’Or, including two of Burgundy’s regions: Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits.

While this post will discuss the four wine classifications or appellations in the Côte d’Or (Grand Cu, Premier Cru, AOC Communales (Village) and the AOC Regionales (Regional)–see below, a brief background of the region is needed. You also might view maps of both regions via the Beaune-Tourism.com web site:

Côte de Beaune and its appellations
and Côte de Nuits and its appellations

Since the Romans arrived in France 2,000 years ago, the Burgundy region has produced wine. Today, over 3,000 producers produce mostly bottles of chardonnay and pinot noir, selling wine to locals and around the world.

Evidence of winemaking in the Burgundian landscape dates back to 312 A.D. when a group of people living in Autun sent a letter to Emperor Constantine, asking to lower taxes on low-producing vineyards. When the Romans left France in 401 A.D., the monasteries and abbeys took over the vineyards and developed techniques on how to grow, cultivate, harvest and store grapes. They actually developed the winemaking process that still continues today. Later, a religious order called Cistercians began to document their knowledge and to associate ‘terroir’ with the process. They came to understand that different parcels of land produced varying quality of wine. In fact, they even laid the foundation of the five different wine categories or vintages which characterize Burgundian wine classifications.

Throughout the centuries, monks and the religious institutions became more and more powerful, growing their land holdings in the process. As a result, they became wealthy land owners and Burgundy wines were much sought after. In fact, the best of the region was covered in vines and it was not until the French Revolution when these holdings were broken up and redistributed to area residents. Then, in the 1870s and ’80s, the phylloxera crisis, a grape blight that nearly destroyed the vineyards, forever altering the way Burgundy wine is categorized. By 1886, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were replanted onto disease resistant, American root stock into much reduced and recategorized Burgundy regions, or appellations; new vineyards and grape stock were only allowed in designated areas based on the terroir. While these two grape varietals became the most prestigious, eight lesser known varieties are grown in smaller quantities and designated parcels (aligoté, gamay, pinot beurot, melon, sauvignon blanc, and césar).

The terroir-diverse soils, rock strata and elevation all contribute to the placement of grape varietals and character of Burgundian wines. Each climat has a distinct flavor, subtleties, aromas and appearance that is unique to its region or appellation.

‘Climats,’ or delineation of classified wine vintages and parcels of land, began during the late 1820s and were altered numerous times over the decades. By 1935, the climat classified, identified and designated the territory where grapes varieties be planted. The terroir-diverse soils, rock strata and elevation all contribute to the placement of grape varietals and character of Burgundian wines. Each climat has a distinct flavor, subtleties, aromas and appearance that is unique to its region or appellation. Burgundy Wines web site is an excellent overview of the importance of Burgundian climats and its 2,000 year history.

Lynne Hammond, of Bringing Burgundy to You, also does a great job explaining the history and background of Burgundy. For our purposes here, she defines terroir as:

“An impossible word to translate into English, ‘terroir’ encompasses all the ingredients found in each vineyard: the soil type, top soil and sub soil, rock strata beneath, its angle facing the sun, its elevation on the slope and its micro climate. It is due to the forces of nature over the millennia – the early sea bed, ancient volcanic activity, effects of the ice age and erosion – that have contributed to a multitude of soil types that create their own identity. You can often see the ‘terroir’ change within metres, thus adding to the complexity of Burgundy wines. It is the diversity of Burgundy’s ‘terroirs’ or soil types that create the exceptional different aromas and tastes that you will find in the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines.”

–Lynne Hammond

So Burgundy wines owe much of their development to thousands of years of geological and weather forces but also to human tinkering with varieties and the winemaking processes. It became evident that some regions and geology were better at creating higher quality pinot noir and chardonnay’s than others. The Côte de Beaune vineyards, which cover 20 kilometers in mostly chalky, marly limestone soil, produces mostly white wine (chardonnay). The appellation, Ladoix north of Beaune to just south of Santenay, produces white wine which out-paces red wine in ferruginous soils (pinot noir) by a three to one margin. On the other hand, in the Côte de Nuits, in well drained, Mid-Jurassic limestone soil with a chalky base, world-reknowm red wine (pinot noir) is mostly produced in a 20-kilometer area just south of Dijon to Corgoloin.

On the Grand Cru label, the name of the vineyard is dominant while the words “Grand Cru” is next prominent, beneath the name of the vineyard. In this case, the name of the winemaker, Fabien Coche, is the least noticeable.

Burgundy wines are divided into four main classifications or appellations: Grand Cu, Premier Cru, AOC Communales (Village) and the AOC Regionales (Regional), each requiring a different label.

Grand Cru: The best of the best

The Grand Cru vineyards and appellation make up about 2 percent of the total wine production in Burgundy with the majority found in the Côte de Nuits. Most often they are planted about mid-slopes (250-300m) of the Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits regions. The combination of soil, drainage, sun exposure, and vintner skill create the top Burgundy labels.

Burgundy has 33 Grand Crus: 32 Grand Crus in the Côte d’Or (Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits) and one in Chablis (in seven different vineyards). On the Grand Cru label, the name of the vineyard is dominant and the words “Grand Cru” is next prominent, beneath the name of the vineyard. The name of the winemaker is the least noticeable. All of the wine from a Grand Cru bottle is from that vineyard–no exceptions. Many of these wines are the most expensive bottles in the world and about 2/3 of them are red pinot noir.

Premier Cru (1er Cru) account for about 10 percent of all Burgundy wines. In this case, this producer owns the whole vineyard and offers a special release “Monopole” bottle (right) of a Premier Cru, promoting its unique qualities.

Premier Cru (1er Cru): The top of the next

Just below Grand Cru and making up about 10 percent of the wine production is Burgundy Premier Cru or 1er Cru. Premier Cru vineyards may be just below, just above or to the side of a Grand Cru vineyard on the slopes and were classified as such in either 1935 or 1936. Each Premier Cru wine is highly regarded and all the grapes are traditionally from a single village vineyard indicated on the label. The winemaker will determine what part of the village appellation the wine will come from. Ola Bergman on the web site Bergman’s Bourgogne says it better than I when discussing Premier Cru:

“For each step up yields are getting lower and the plots of land smaller. The premier crus are labelled in a similar way to the village wines; the name of the village with the addition of the words premier cru or the name of the lieu-dit (vineyard). There are a total of 562 premier crus in Burgundy. Technically the premier crus are part of the village appellations, not appellations in their own right. Inside every village appellation there are a large number of plots. Some of these have consistently produced wines of higher quality and have therefore been singled out as premier crus.”

–Ola Bergman

In order to make it easier to read a Burgundy Premier Cru label, I’ve included another blogger’s post on “How To Read A French Wine Label – Burgundy,” by Radames Millan at EatingVine.com: The Tasteful Palate.

Now all that being said, I did some additional reading through some of the nationally recognized wine magazines and came across a Wine Enthusiast, July 13, 2010, article by Roger Voss entitled “Unearthing Burgundy’s Magic.” Voss wonders aloud whether there might be any movement to improve the classification on these wines and sets out to determine that for himself. I too have wondered this and read with fascination as he described seven vineyards he believed should be moved up. I am now on a hunt for those wine labels to find out for myself.

With Burgundy prices often reaching over $100 per bottle, a Village wine is often a wonderful, aromatic alternative. This chardonnay bottle, produced by Domaine Marcillet, actually comes from Savigny les Beaune, a village in the Hautes-Côtes de Beaune appellation.

AOC Communales (Village): The affordable Burgundy

The communal or village wine is arguably the “best bang for your buck” Burgundy. These wines represent about 35 percent of Burgundy production and will list the name of the village or community prominently on the label. In fact, often a single vineyard will be listed as well. Many of the name-brand producers make these wines, and with some simple research, these bottles often become regulars on the lunch or dinner table.

Karen Ulrich who blogged for Imbibe New York wrote “Village Appellations; Climats in Burgundy” in January 7, 2011. She had attended a seminar on the Village appellations and Climats in Burgundy. Her post explains that the village wines are an option for those on a limited budget for French wines. In fact, one purpose of Talesofthecork.com, is to present Burgundy wines and their producers to North American tables. My goal is to reach those who are willing to educate and expand their wine knowledge and tastes. French wines are a wonderful addition to any new world cellar’s reds and whites.

AOC Regionales (Régional): Bourgogne is Burgundy’s base wine
A Régional Bourgogne wine will be produced from anywhere across the Burgundy growing area. The word Bourgogne will be prominent on the label and then the grape variety. These wines are not village or vineyard specific but use grapes combined and blended from all over Burgundy. Régional wines make up 53 percent of all Burgundy wines and are commonly found in markets and wine shops across the world. This classification will include chardonnay and pinot noir but may also be one of Burgundy’s lesser-known wines, including gamay, aligoté, and melon.

As with the wines in the previous categories, soil, growing conditions, and vintner all play an important role in the quality of the Régional wine. In fact, in each category, the buyer cannot just assume a village or vineyard name will assure a top-rate Burgundy wine. The vintner’s role is immensely important. So, try these wines and begin to develop your preferred tastes and palate and then gravitate to a winemaker who creates wines you favor.

After a brief background of Burgundy and two of its regions within the Côte d’Or, including the four classifications of Burgundian wine, I am ready to share tales of those I have met. Next up is the first of many winemaker’s stories: Domaine Dujardin and Ulrich Dujardin of Monthelie. Look for Outsider impacts Burgundy winemaking tradition, Part I, on July 18 or 19.


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