Burgundy is one of the most famous wine regions in the world and one that confuses a lot of folks. There are many reasons for this: the number of appellations (100 but over 600 if you count all of the Premier Cru Vineyards separately); vineyard names on labels; village names on labels that look very similar to vineyard names; and the classification of the vineyards and the appellations. But it doesn’t have to be so confusing. After all, there are really only 2 grapes used for wine. If you are drinking white, then it’s Chardonnay (most of the time). If you are drinking red, then it’s Pinot Noir (most of the time). That’s the easy part. Once you understand a few simple facts about the region it all makes sense. Burgundy is not confusing, just complex.
The biggest reason for the confusion is the number of different appellations the region has. An appellation is a place-name and is how European wines are named. It tells you where the wine is from. Bordeaux, Bourgogne (Burgundy) and Vouvray are all places in France that make wine. They are also appellations.
Appellation laws must be followed by the winemaker in order for him or her to use the appellation name. These rules include the grape(s) one can use, where they can grow them, how much they can grow, how much wine can be made, how long the wine needs to be aged and in what vessel and many other things. This is all done to preserve typicity and promote terroir.
An example of an appellation in Burgundy would be a wine labeled Domaine Cleary Gevrey-Chambertin. This is a red wine made by me, from the village of Gevrey-Chambertin in the Cote de Nuits sub-region of Burgundy. I must source all of the grapes from the village boundaries and follow the rules of winemaking and aging in order to put Gevrey-Chambertin on the label. Simple enough, yes? But here is where Burgundy gets complex.
Burgundy has 100 of these appellations and they are based on the vineyards. This was started in monastic times when the monks were in charge of viticulture. They noticed that wine made from the same grape but from different plots, some only yards apart, were different. Some were better than others and some were drastically better than others. They named the plots and often put up stone walls around them (clos). Over time all of the vineyard plots were named. The wines from certain vineyards such as Montrachet, Corton, Musigny, Chambertin and several others were highly sought after and commanded higher prices than other vineyards. This led to a ranking of the vineyards from best to not so best.
The best vineyards are called Grand Cru. There are only 33 of these scattered throughout Burgundy. The name of the vineyard stands alone on the label. Chambertin, Musigny and Montrachet are examples of Grand Cru vineyards/wines. The word Grand Cru may or may not appear on the label. The next best are the Premier Cru. There are over 600 of these vineyards in Burgundy. The name of the vineyard will appear on the label after the name of the village that it belongs to. You will also see 1er Cru or Premier Cru on the label. Below the Premier Cru are the village wines. There are 44 villages that will appear on labels. Examples are Nuits-St-George, Saint-Romain, Beaune and Volnay. And then there are the regional vineyards and wines. There are 23 regional and sub-regional wines. These come from the least favorable vineyards. Although least in this case is still either good or really good in most cases. Examples are Bourgogne, Macon and Bourgogne Hautes Cotes de Beaune.
Notice that as you go down the quality ladder the area the wines are from gets larger. Regional and sub-regional wines are made from grapes sourced from large areas within Burgundy. A Bourgogne can be made from grapes grown anywhere within the Burgundy region. Grand Cru wines must come from a single vineyard, some of which are very small.
Here are some examples of these different appellations:
Domaine Cleary Bourgogne Pinot Noir – I source the grapes from all over the region. This is a Regional Appellation. At this level the grape name is allowed on the label. $19
Domaine Cleary Gevrey-Chambertin – All of my grapes must come from the village of Gevrey-Chambertin. This is a Village Appellation. $35
Domaine Cleary Gevrey-Chambertin ‘Les Crais’ – These grapes must come from the single-vineyard Les Crais. This is not a Premier Cru wine. This is a Village Appellation with a named vineyard on the label. The vineyard is not a Premier Cru vineyard but good enough I want you to know that all the grapes came from it. $45
Domaine Cleary Gevrey-Chambertin ‘Premier Cru Champonnet’ – The grapes must come from the single-vineyard ‘Champonnet’, a Premier Cru Vineyard. This is a Premier Cru Appellation. $80
Domaine Cleary Chambertin – All of the grapes must come from the single-vineyard Chambertin, a Grand Cru Vineyard. This is a Grand Cru Appellation. $195
The above wines are all red and made from Pinot Noir. Did you notice the prices went up as the quality went up? These wines are all very good (of course!). The regional wine is a fruit driven wine with some tannic grip but simple. It’s a wine for lighter dishes or to be enjoyed among friends. As we progress to the village wine and then the single-vineyard, premier cru and on to grand cru the wines will gain more intensity, power, structure and depth. They will show more typicity of where the grapes are from and the terroir will shine through. The only wines for long-term cellaring would be the premier cru and grand cru. That being said, they can all be enjoyed in their youth.
What’s up with Chambertin being in a lot of the wines names? Until the mid-1800’s the town was known as Gevrey-en-Montagne. But a royal decree by King Louis-Philippe let towns in Burgundy add the name of the most prestigious vineyard to their name to help sell the village wines. So, the village of Gevrey-en-Montagne became Gevrey-Chambertin as this was the best vineyard in the town at the time. Some other examples are Puligny-Montrachet and Aloxe-Corton. This is why it’s confusing to some. It would be easy to confuse a village wine, Gevrey-Chambertin, with a Grand Cru wine, Chambertin. Except for the price. Chambertin is one of only 33 Grand Cru vineyards (There are 8 other Grand Cru Vineyards in Gevrey-Chambertin, all with Chambertin as part of their name!). It’s small and not a lot of it is made and demand is extremely high so the price is high. Even at the regional level the prices tend to be on the high side as it’s all about supply and demand.
So, Burgundy does not have to be all that confusing as long as you know a little about the appellation system. Remember that as you go up the hierarchy of appellations the wines will get more complex, age-worthy and expensive. They should also be better quality and more of an ‘experience’ than just a bottle of wine. There is more to Burgundy than the appellations. There are the negociants, the brokers, winemaking traditions and some other issues but I think this is a good introduction. If you want to learn more you can visit http://www.bourgogne-wines.com/ it’s a great resource that also has an educational aspect to it.