Switzerland lies at a wine-making crossroads in Europe. Not only is it home to a diversity of wonderful wines and stunning vineyards, but it also borders some of the richest and most varied wine regions in the world. In this second of a series of articles to learn more about our wine-producing neighbours we head to the world-famous Burgundy region of France.
Few wine regions in the world can conjure up such a reputation for great taste in so many different ways. Think classic cuisine such as Coq au Vin, Boeuf Bourguignon, Poulet de Bresse and Escargots de Bourgogne, fabulous cheeses like Epoisses and Cîteaux, tasty ingredients like Moutarde de Dijon and Crème de Cassis liqueur, not to mention the refreshing Kir aperitif.
Then there are the wines themselves. This is the spiritual home of Chardonnay white wines and Pinot Noir red wines. Burgundy wine producers pride themselves on producing pure expressions of each of these great grape varieties. The marginal climate in this region can create significant variations in quality from vintage to vintage so blending with other varieties would make their lives easier. But they see themselves as the guardians of a winemaking tradition that dates back several generations. The fact that many of the almost 4,000 wine estates bear the family name is the best evidence of this. However, most are relatively small in scale and quite the opposite of the much larger and more anonymous châteaux in the Bordeaux region.
The entire Burgundy wine region is much larger than many realise. It actually encompasses Chablis to the north and Beaujolais to the south (though this is often considered a quite separate area). In between you find the Mâconnais, home to Pouilly-Fuissé, and the Côte Chalonnaise. This helps to explain why almost two-thirds of the wines produced in Burgundy are white. However, it is the remarkable vineyards of the Côte d’Or that are the true source of Burgundy’s reputation for fine wine. Indeed, the villages that mark the route heading south from Dijon read like a wish list of some of the world’s best wines: Gevrey-Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny, Vosne-Romanée, Aloxe-Corton, Pommard, Meursault and Chassagne-Montrachet.
The wine growers also take credit for the singular concept of ‘terroir’, which is now spreading far and wide throughout the world of wine. ‘Terroir’ is best translated as the interaction of soil, climate and topography that defines the unique characteristics of a wine from a particular place. For this we have to thank the Benedictine and especially the Cistercian monks who owned and cultivated the Burgundy vineyards in the Middle Ages. They kept detailed records of how the ‘terroir’ affected the taste of the different wines they made. Now centuries later this intimate knowledge of the vineyards and its wines lies at the heart of the system of ‘appellation d’origine contrôlée’. As a result Burgundy has 100 different appellations, which account for a sizeable 20 percent of all the wine appellations in France. It is hardly surprising that this degree of complexity can be rather daunting for many wine drinkers, as it requires a considerable level of understanding.
The simplest way to make sense of the Burgundy appellations is to imagine a pyramid divided into four levels with increasing quality but ever decreasing quantity of wine the higher you go.
At the bottom are the so-called regional wines, which feature the word Bourgogne in the name of the appellation, for example Bourgogne Rouge. The grapes for these basic wines can be grown anywhere in the defined Burgundy region. At the next level are the village or communal wines, which are made from grapes grown specifically within the defined limits of the village named on the label, for example Nuits-Saint-Georges or Pommard. In all, there are 44 village appellations.
The top two levels of the pyramid are reserved for the better terroirs, namely Premier Cru and Grand Cru, which as the names suggest make the finer wines.
More information at www.bourgogne-wines.com and www.climats-bourgogne.com
Simon Hardy holds a Diploma in Wines & Spirits. He is the founder of Fitting Wines, which provides a range of personalised wine services in Switzerland. For more information please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.