Burgundy

Burgundy is a place that you arrive fist as a tourist but leave feeling like you are leaving home. There is something about the sincerity of it all - the wines, the people, the cuisine and the land - that keeps many of us going back. Here, things are of "human scale". Poulet de Bresse (free range chicken), Époisses (strong, runny cheese), Jambon Persillé (ham in parsley jelly), escargots (smails), Cuisses de Grenouille (frogs legs) and of course the wines.

It is no secret that Burgundy produces some of the most sought after, indeed expensive, wines on this Planet. Wine lovers and winemakers from all over the world make "pilgrimages" to Burgundy as often as they can, to experience Burgundy. If you like what is in the glass, you will love Burgundy even more.

Nature’s Masterpiece 

About 250 million years ago, Burgundy was a shallow sea teaming with shellfish, corals, starfish, algae and other forms of life. Over millions of years, their carcasses accumulated and were compressed into limestone. Thirty million years ago, a massive fracture in the Earth’s crust raised the seabed up to become the Burgundy vineyards of today. Testament to its origins, the fossils of marine creatures can be found all over Burgundy’s vineyards even today.

In these vineyards, the soils are typically composed of clay, marls and very old limestone. This makes the vineyards ideal for cultivating Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to produce wines with intense perfume and minerality. The different sub-regions of Burgundy have varying soil composition at different depths resulting in wines of different characters. Chablis, in the north, has 150 million-year-old Kimmeridgian limestone composed of small shells. The limestone in the Côte de Nuits is about 175 million years old and closer to the surface, while the limestone in Côte de Beaune is slightly younger but buried deeper underground. Mâconnais in the south has the oldest limestone in Burgundy.

Of Monks and Nobles

Burgundy was cultivated to vines by the Cistercian monks who, with their lay followers, spent decades mapping the vineyards into numerous named climats. A climat is a designated vineyard area which produces wines of a specific character. 

The Nobles were not accustomed to sharing and subsequently had walls erected around their vineyards. Many of these walls are still intact today forming walled-up vineyards. The names of these vineyards are prefixed with "clos", meaning wall in French. For example, Clos des Lambrays is a walled-up Grand Cru climat in Morey-Saint-Denis.

Location, Location, Location

The classification of Burgundy wines is based on demarcated wine growing areas known as Appellations. Four levels are defined under the Appellation Origin Contrôlée (AOC) system for Burgundy:
  1. Regional AOC covering a large area under a regional name, for example, Bourgogne and Bourgogne Haut-Cote-de-Nuits;
  2. Village (or Communal) AOC covering a smaller area around a single village or commune, for example, Gevrey-Chambertin and Chambolle-Musigny;
  3. Premier Cru AOC covering choice climats within a village AOC. The premier cru climat can be named on the label (e.g. Clos-Saint-Jacques) after the village name or omitted, for example, Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Clos-Saint-Jacques and Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru;
  4. Grand Cru AOC covering the top climats, often on mid-slopes, within a village AOC. These vineyards bear their own name and represent the top 1.5 percent of wines produced in Burgundy. Examples are Charmes-Chambertin Grand Cru and Montrachet Grand Cru.
Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards are some of the most sought after real estate in the world. These vineyards are rarely for sale, and when they are, prices are staggering. However, vineyards do change hands through inheritance and the occasional sale so it is common for several producers to own vines within the same appellation. It is also common for a producer to make several wines from several appellations.

Because the Burgundy classification applies to the real estate, a producer can only make an appellation wine if he has grapes from that piece of land. This means that a producer cannot make a Musigny Grand Cru unless he has grapes grown within the 10.32 hectares of Musigny Grand Cru AOC.

In comparison, the 1855 Classification of Medoc (left bank Bordeaux), applies to producers rather than land. Chateau Latour, a Classified First Growth, can make wines from any of the 1,212 hectares in Pauillac and label it ‘Premier Grand Cru Classé’. Chateau Latour can also sell off all their vineyards and buy new ones within Pauillac and still make a ‘Premier Grand Cru Classé’. Bordeaux’s classifications are starkly different from Burgundy’s.

Respect and Hard Work

When it comes to winemaking, the dominant philosophy in Burgundy is “To respect each individual vineyard plot and coax out the best of what nature provides in any particular year”. The concept of terroir and respect for the land is stronger here than anywhere else in the world. For Burgundians, the climat represents the potential – a Grand Cru climat is capable of producing a great wine - but it takes a talented grower and winemaker to realise it.

In the vineyards, diligent growers tend to their vines with minimal use of pesticides and chemical treatments. Increasingly, growers are adopting organic and biodynamic farming methods. The vines are planted closely and trained relatively low near to the ground. Pruning and harvesting are back-breaking manual work. In recent years, some producers have gone back to using work horses to plough the vineyard, instead of tractors, so as to avoid compacting the soil and killing off flora and fauna in them. Growers also have to adjust to the often finicky weather that Mother Nature throws at them. This can mean >30 degree Celsius sunshine one day and hail the next. Such is Burgundy.

In the winery, great winemakers ironically don't see their job as ‘making’ wine, but rather guiding the grapes to become the best wine they can be. Especially with the great Grand Cru and Premier Cru climats, they believe the wines are made in the vineyard and their job is not to mess up what nature has given them. This philosophy doesn’t mean that the winemakers are arcane or outdated – many employ modern equipment such as peristaltic pumps, gentle pneumatic presses and temperature controlled stainless steel tanks. The overriding philosophy though is not to ‘overwork’ the wine or mask out its origins. 

Because there are hundreds of decisions to make, there are different schools of thoughts on winemaking in Burgundy. There is no commonly adopted “Burgundy Formula” and winemakers work more like chefs than engineers – adapting and adjusting to the different ingredients each vineyard and each vintage gives them.

Domaines and Négociant

There two types of wineries in Burgundy: a domaine is one which owns (or rents) vineyards and produces wines from it themselves - from vineyard to bottle. A négociant, on the other hand, is one who buys grapes, juice or unfinished wines in barrels, completes the winemaking and bottles it.

Generally, the best-of-the-best domaines do produce more remarkable than négociants. However, don’t assume domaines are always better than négociants. Some quality-driven négociant are very hands-on from vineyard to bottling and produce wines that rival the best. On the flip side, a domaine with lazy or incompetent owners has as much chance of making good wines as Tony Blair becoming the French president.

Elegant, Perfumed and Intense

The wines of Burgundy are predominantly made from Pinot Noir (red) and Chardonnay (white) but each wine is as different to the next as children are. This difference is attributed to the land (climat), weather during the growing season and the human factor (farming & winemaking).

In very general terms, good Burgundy wines are perfumed with flower, fruit and mineral, intense but never overly heavy, structured but not so much that your gums rebel, hint of earth yet always neat and clean in the finish. Mostly it is a paradox pulling both ways that leave one bedazzled in the middle. And in that middle, that sweet spot, is what I would call vinous bliss.