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.
As with all great wines, they demand a certain patience as they improve with age. The appellations of Premier Cru wines feature the village together with the name of a specific vineyard plot known as a ‘climat’, for example Meursault Les Perrières Premier Cru or Gevrey-Chambertin Les Corbeaux Premier Cru. The catch is that these ‘climats’ exceed 600 in number! To make life more complicated still, there are several ‘lieux-dits’ in each village, which can appear alongside the village name on the wine label even though the vineyard is not designated Premier Cru.
The jewels in the Burgundy wine crown sit at the very top of the pyramid. The prized and pricey Grand Cru wines represent just four percent of the entire region’s production but produce some of the most elegant and sensual wines that money can buy. The appellations simply refer to the single vineyard such as Corton or La Romanée and make no reference to the village in which they are located. It is not hard to understand why the villages concerned chose to rename themselves in the 19th century, for instance Aloxe becoming Aloxe-Corton or Vosne becoming Vosne-Romanée.
All the Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards are located in the Côte d’Or, which divides into the Côte de Nuits, renowned for its Pinot Noir red wines, and the Côte de Beaune, whose reputation is built more on Chardonnay white wines as well as some outstanding great Pinot Noir red wines. This reality is reinforced by the quality classifications since all the white Grand Crus are in the Côte de Beaune and all the red Grand Crus are in the Côte de Nuits (with the exception of the various Cortons in the Côte de Beaune).
In case you are beginning to make sense of Burgundy wines, you need to know one other slight complication. A single vineyard does not necessarily mean a single owner or producer. Whenever this does occur you can expect to find the word ‘Monopole’ on the label. But, in most cases, several different producers can make wine from a single vineyard. For instance, the Clos de Vougeot, the largest single vineyard in the Côte d’Or, is divided between more than 80 separate producers. As a result, even though it is a Grand Cru appellation, the quality of wines labeled Clos de Vougeot can vary substantially according to the care, skill and practices of the particular producer. Unfortunately the prices vary much less as they all try to benefit from the vineyard’s Grand Cru status. Therefore, it is not enough to know which are the best wines based simply on the appellation. You also have to know which producers to look for.
It may be hard to believe that Burgundy as a whole accounts for just half of one percent of the world’s wine production as this in no way reflects its influence and importance in the rest of the wine world. The region’s five percent share of all the wine sold in the world each year gives some indication of the demand for the top quality wines that far exceeds the supply. Difficult vintages bring lower yields (though sometimes higher quality), which simply aggravates further this imbalance in supply and demand, and results in correspondingly higher prices.
The bottom line is to sample the delights of Burgundy’s wines (and the rest of the region’s gastronomic traditions) but beware making them too much of a habit or else rapidly revisit your wine budget. While the rest of the world dreams of being in Burgundy, we have the good fortune to find ourselves less than three hours’ drive away from one of the finest fine wine paradises on the planet. The region is applying to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site (and join the Lavaux and nine other Heritage wine-growing areas in Europe) so make sure you visit before it starts to attract even bigger crowds. Anyway, for a region that has so much to offer, one visit will never be enough!
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.