Burgundy simplified.


Grand Cru Chablis from the Moutonne climat of the Grand Cru

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.

Old Vine (Vieilles Vigne) Chardonnay regional wine.

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

Village wine from Volnay.

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.

Village wine from the Village of Saint-Romain

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.




Christophe Buisson 2014 St. Romain Blanc

Christophe Buisson, photo courtesy of Kermit Lynch website

As I sit here in Vermont there is a Nor’easter raging outside. Well, not raging but it’s pretty nasty out there. We got a lot of ice and then snow on top of that and then more ice. As I’m holed up in the house I thought a glass or two of wine was in order. I should be reaching for a big, bold red but instead I found myself in the mood for a white. Chardonnay is what I felt like. White Burgundy to be more specific. I looked in the cellar and found a wine from a very good producer from a lessor-known, to most, appellation. The 2014 Christophe Buisson St. Romain Blanc.

There are a lot of big names in Burgundy. These are the producers that command high-prices for their, often, extraordinary wines. Unfortunately, most of us can’t afford them. But then there are a lot of producers who fly under the radar. Sort of under the radar. It’s hard not to get noticed if you are making great wine in Burgundy, no matter the appellation. And that brings us to Christophe. If you are a fan of Burgundy he should be on your radar.

Christophe is meticulous in both the vineyard and winery. His dedication and passion are evident in his wines. He can coax ripeness from his vineyards virtually every year and does not use chapitalization (the addition of sugar before fermentation to boost the alcohol level of the finished wine). He ferments in cement, ages in medium-aged barrels, racks minimally and does not fine or filter his reds. His wines, both red and white, show a consistent depth of fruit and concentration. There is always a streak of minerality, particularly in the whites. His wines have a great texture and show consistent balance and intensity. They are incredible values.

St. Romain is an under-appreciated appellation tucked behind Auxey-Duresse and the famous village of Meursault. The vineyards here are higher, at 300-400 meters, than the average for the Cote de Beaune. There is also more diversity in terms of aspect compared to the rest of the Cote as vineyards are planted to south-southeast and north-northeast aspects. In cooler years it is more difficult to get proper ripeness which makes Christophe’s wines even more appreciated.

St. Romain is one of the first places where Celts cultivated the vine in Burgundy. The amphitheater like stony slopes with limestone outcroppings overlook a wide stretch of the Cote de Beaune. There are no Grand or Premier Cru in St. Romain but there are 16 climat or superior vineyard plots that may appear on labels. Christophe owns land in some of the best of these.

2014 was a very good but challenging vintage in Burgundy. In late June a hailstorm tore through the Cote de Beaune. Particularly hard hit were the towns of Volnay, Beaune and Meursault where huge amounts of damage were reported. St. Romain was spared.

The St. Romain Blanc is Christophes entry-level bottling made from 18 year-old vines from a tiny plot in the village. The wine is fermented in cement. 70% is aged in used French oak barrels and the remaining 30% in stainless steel. The nose has lemon and ripe apple, just a touch of oak with some yeasty notes. The palate is rich and generous with ripe fruits, lemon curd, and that fresh lees that’s on the nose. A streak of minerality that manifests itself as an exciting energy in the mouth brings it all together. The finish is clean and long. This is a very good value village Burgundy at $39.

What’s your favorite wine?

Being in the wine business I get asked this question a lot. And it’s really hard to answer. You may as well ask me what my favorite song is. Or how about my favorite movie? How can one possibly pick their favorite? One day it may be The Godfather Part II and the next it’s Raising Arizona. Two great movies that I can watch over and over again but completely different from one another.

And so it’s the same for wine. It really depends on a number of factors. What is the weather like? What season is it? What am I really excited about right now? These change all the time and so do my favorite wines. I think a better question to ask someone is this: If you could only drink wines from one region for the rest of your life, what would it be? Now that’s a great question that requires a bit of thought.

There are some expected answers such as Burgundy, Bordeaux, Napa and others. But not me. There is a bit too much sameness in Burgundy. (I know that Burghounds are getting ready to stone me right now!). Sure, there is a difference between the spicy, structured wines from Nuits-Saint-Georges and the more fleshy, softer wines of Beaune or Pommard but at the end of the day it’s still Pinot Noir. The same goes for the whites. Yes a Macon is not nearly as concentrated, complex and powerful as a Meursault but they are both Chardonnay (don’t throw the stones just yet). And Burgundy does not offer the range of styles (white, red, rose, sparkling, sweet, fortified) that other regions can. Oh, and did I mention price?

Bordeaux would seem a good bet but there is some sameness there as well. The reds, for the most part, are Cabernet and Merlot based and the whites are Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon based. Yes, I know the different soil types – gravelly on the Left Bank and clay on the Right Bank – yield different wines in terms of structure, power and elegance. But there is not enough of a difference for me. And the price thing again. Yes, there are inexpensive wines but the best are really expensive. And, once again, we run into the lack of style diversity issue again.

I could go on and on detailing why this or that region would not suffice but I won’t. Let’s start to look at some regions that might do the trick. For me, it would have to be a region that offers up a wide range of styles using a wide range of grapes at reasonable prices for even the icon wines.

The Loire Valley you ask? There is a wide range of styles. You can drink sparkling, white, red, rose and sweet wines. Not so fast. The Loire does offer an array of styles to choose from but the grapes are limited to Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc and Melon Blanc (Muscadet). Not enough variety for me.

What about Spain? We haven’t visited there yet. There must be a region or two that offers all I want. Well….close but no cigar. Although I love the wines of Spain and love the cuisine and everything about the country it just would not cut it for me. Basically the whole country, not just regions, are tied to a handful of grapes. Tempranillo, Garnacha (Grenache), Monastrell (Mouvedre) are the main red grapes. Viura, Verdejo and Albarino are the main white grapes. Not enough diversity. And, I can’t think of one region that covers all the styles I want.

Shifting our focus back to the USA brings us to California, Oregon and Washington, the major players. Let’s get rid of Oregon right away for obvious reasons. Washington does not last long on observation for lack of styles. That lands us in Cali. Can you think of a region that gives you red, white, rose, sparkling, sweet and fortified at a reasonable price point? I can’t either.

So, what region would I pick? It’s obvious. The Languedoc-Roussillon.

Vineyard, Minervois La Liviniere. Wine Scholar Guild

Languedoc-Roussillon is the only single region, not country, that I can think of that offers all the styles of wine. The region is the birthplace of sparkling wine in Limoux in 1531. Mutage, adding alcohol to wine to fortify it, was first practiced here 400 years before it was adopted in Portugal. White, red, rose, sparkling, sweet and fortified are all made here. And made well I might add. And the price to quality ratio is off the charts. Even the icon wines are reasonably priced and offer some of the best bargains in the world.

Not only are all the styles represented but within those categories the styles are endless. The number of grapes allowed is, almost, endless. Think of a grape and there is an extremely good chance that someone is making wine with it here.

The region is vast at over 600,000 acres which makes for numerous macro and micro-climates. There are different soils and elevations strewn throughout the area as well.  This all gives rise to the plethora of appellations in the region. And within each appellation there are different styles of wine. It makes the drinking fun, exciting and never boring.

There are too many wines and producers to list. Here are some of my favorite appellation to try:

Pays d’Oc. This is a Vin de Pays or IGP category of wines that opened up the region to countless wine drinkers. There are less stringent rules here and the wines often have the grape(s) on the label. These are inexpensive wines made from local and international grapes that offer great value. The whites are clean and crisp and the reds juicy and easy.

Cremant de Limoux. Excellent, traditionally made sparkling wines based on the Mauzac grape with some Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. These are not as complex as Champagne but they are not meant to be. These, original, sparklers are fruity with ripe, crushed red apple and bright acidity.

Corbieres. This is the regions largest AOC both in terms of production and acreage. The area is old and vast with many micro-climates so there is no one style of Corbieres. That being said the wines tend to be on the rustic side with plenty of the hallmark garrigue (aromas and flavors of thyme, rosemary, lavender, pine) the region offers.

Minervois. Another large AOC size wise. This is probably my favorite of all but it’s hard to say as it depends on what I am looking for (see first paragraph). The wines are powerful blends based on Syrah, Grenache and Carignan. The AOC lies at the foothills of the Black Mountains on limestone soils, perfect for quality wine production. There is an elegance to the wines to go along with great texture. Try to find wines labeled – Minervois La Liviniere. This is a better sub-region considered a Cru of the Languedoc.

Rivesaltes. Fortified wines made in Roussillon from either Muscat (fresh, fruit forward) or Grenache (red, slightly oxidised or fresh and fruity).

So there you have it, the one region I would drink for the rest of my life. Let me know what region you would pick.