All Wine Roads Lead To Burgundy
Burgundy is likely the most prestigious wine growing region in the world. It is home to the most expensive bottle of wine (Domaine Romanee-Conti sells for $15,000/bottle) and has vineyard management and vinification traditions that are thousands of years in the making. Unlike any other region in the world, Burgundy focuses on one thing: terroir.
While there are five sub-regions to the Burgundy area, only the Cote d'Or and Chablis are of interest to the US wine drinkers, because the cost to import the lower priced wines from the other sub-regions make them less attractive in our market. The majority of Burgundy's reputation, and the focus of this article, is based on the Cote d'Or. You can learn more about the other Burgundy regions in my other articles.
Planted to only two grape varieties, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Burgundy's Cote d'Or draws it breadth of wine expression from the range of soils that exist in the area. Millions of years ago this area was completely under the ocean, leaving behind lots of oyster shell rock clusters and silica. And as the Alps began to rise up just east of Burgundy, this hilly area shifted its terrain such that the most rocky, limestone was positioned at the top of the hill and the clay settled to the bottom of the valley. What is left on the hill sides is a magical formula of limestone, clay, and marine elements that are woven in intricate patterns of varying proportions such that fruit from one row of vines can taste completely different from another row 5-feet away.
It wasn't discovered overnight that this region held the perfect terroir for growing grapes. Rather, it took thousands of years of trial and error before kings and dukes began demanding wine from the special hillsides of Burgundy. Celts were growing grapes there since at least the first century BC, but it was the Roman Catholic monks that massively expanded the number of vineyard-acres in the 10th century AD and, through rigorous documentation and trials, identified where (exactly) the best grapes were grown. The history of the Burgundy wine region is one of the best documented in the world, and you can read more about it in my other article.
And it wasn't just WHERE to grow the grapes, but also HOW. The vines are severely pruned and low to the ground to fit the climate of the area, with harsh winters and short, hot summers. Through a long history of farming grapes, Burgundians also learned the lesson of the importance of organic or biodynamic farming practices. In the 1300's farmers began using manure to fertilize, which increased yields at the expense of quality. Thankfully, the duke in the area recognized this fact and outlawed it. Then, after WW2 chemical fertilizers became available and they did amazing things for the grapes (hence a famous series of vintages in the 1950s), but by the 1970's the levels of potassium and fatigue of the soil yielded a low point for Burgundy wines. Since (about)1985, nearly all vineyards are organic or biodynamic.
There are many ways in which Burgundy demonstrates that terroir is king, but the most prominent is the way in which a bottle of Burgundy wine is classified. The (seemingly) complicated vocabulary all stems from their multi-millennia history of trying to describe the terroir from which the wine is grown. Any bottle that omits a specific vineyard plot designation or village from the hillside is generally from the valley floor or the top of the hills (also called haut-cotes). Anything labeled Premier Cru or Grand Cru is from the hillsides. You will almost always see the specific vineyard plot (called a climat) as the biggest print on the bottle label, and sometimes you will have a hard time finding the name of the winery (because winemaking is second class here). There is a well-know triangle hierarchy that wine educators use to teach people about these levels, and it looks something like this:
And there are many interesting aspects to Burgundy that make it both special and daunting for an emerging wine enthusiast to understand. Wine quality from year-to-year, for example, can be frustrating for people not familiar with Burgundy. Since winemakers are at the mercy of a single grape varietal and strict rules about the terroir labeling, when the weather is poor you can taste it in the wine. Other years, the weather produces wines that need lots of aging before they offer the maximum pleasure. To know Burgundy wine also means you need to recall the vintage weather reports.
Winemakers of Burgundy are equally as complicated. Because these vineyard owners were nearly all farmers, and not businesspeople, they had poor marketing and distribution until the 1960s and 70s. Much of the wine was sold in bulk to negotiants, who would often blend multiple producers together. Companies like Louis Jadot received significant export market investment and Burgundy was finally on the map. Nepoleon Bonapart, just after the French Revolution, created a law on property inheritance, which caused most vineyard parcels to be successively broken up through the generations. Now you have people, usually with the same last name, who own only a few rows with a climat. This is why Anne Gros and Michel Gros sound very similar, but are fundamentally different.
As the saying goes, "all roads on the path to wine understanding lead to Burgundy." During my own "pilgrimage" to Burgundy, after reading about it and tasting its wines for 10 years, I found it so much easier to comprehend and absorb. There is just something about standing in the actually vineyard from which you are tasting that helps the brain absorb information. Hopefully, the information in this article can help tide you over until you can make a pilgrimage of your own. At the very least, I hope this inspires you to explore Burgundy wine. If you need assistance finding wines from each of the top Grand Cru and Premier Cru climats, so you can taste through each until you identify your favorites, I am happy to help!