June 20, 2012

Translating Burgundy

- As published in the Fall/Winter 2012 edition of Footprints magazine 

It is no secret that my desert island wine comes affixed with a label from Burgundy.  In fact, I’d likely make a few trips back to the sinking ship to nab the remaining bottles; that, and a shovel to begin construction of a cellar in the sand.  Come to think of it, wild game on the island and fresh scallops in the sea… don’t bother sending a search party. That said, I also appreciate that the thought of complex labels, classified vineyards, and high price tags is enough to steer many people away from Burgundy.

The best explanation (that I have) for the continued attraction to this exceedingly complex network of vineyards is that once you sample a superb bottle of Burgundy, nothing else seems to shine quite as bright.  The challenge, however, is that these bottles are few and far between, and thus it becomes a quest to repeat something that arguably may never be duplicated.

I do not intend to present anything pioneering in the way of ideas here, but rather I'd like to simplify the technicalities that intimidate newcomers when confronted by a bottle of Burgundy on the store shelf.

Burgundy is any one of the following: Chablis, the Côte d'Or, Beaujolais, Mâconnais, and the Côte Chalonnaise.   As a comparison, Ontario has Niagara, the Beamsville Bench, Pelee Island, and Prince Edward County.   Each region has its own flare and sense of place and you can draw a similar parallel almost anywhere grapes grow for the production of wine.  The French call it terrior, as does anyone who has chosen to make a life of the vine. 

The taste of Burgundy is one that varies dramatically in terms of style.  To understand this, we must first define the geographical region.  The landscape is literally a patchwork of vineyards spread over a vertical axis along a twisted line of rolling hills.  The vines begin only 150 km southeast of Paris and extend well south to encroach on the vineyards of Rhône.  To the north is the satellite of Chablis and the home of mineral driven, unoaked Chardonnay.  In nearby Irancy, a small amount of Pinot is grown, and only a few kilometres southwest the village of Saint-Bris crafts respectable Sauvignon Blanc.  

Further to the south again, the focus becomes rather intense, and as you enter the famous Côte d’Or or ‘golden slope’ where richly complex Pinot Noir dominates the vineyards of the Côte de Nuits.  These unassuming vines are without question the benchmark by which all Pinot is compared.  As a rule, the red wine begins to lighten in body as you travel south through the Côte d’Or into Beaune where Pinot then takes a backseat to the delicately oaked and ever changing wine of Chardonnay.  

The Chalonnaise and Mâconnais follow and are home to more reasonably priced wine of the same varieties, in addition to a hearty supply of lighter bodied wines and crémant (sparkling) sourced from the Aligoté grape.  

On the third Thursday of each November, the Beaujolais releases their fruity Nouveau to a world of enthusiastic partygoers, but Burgundy’s most southern sub-region may also be its most misunderstood.  Those in search of age worthy Gamay should explore the wines of the 10 Beaujolais Crus for a deeper expression of flavour and intensity.   

Historically, each vineyard in the region was awarded a classification based upon its position on the hillside and resultant potential for ripening fruit.  Typically, there are three tiers of vineyards: an upper exposure, the mid-slope, and lower flat associated with each village.  The favourable plots are generally those found on the mid-slope with a southeastern exposure in any given village. 

With some exceptions in Chablis and Beaujolais, the classification of these vineyards and  composition as a percent of the total production is as follows:  

 •  Regional (basic wine blended from anywhere in the region)  51%
 •  Village (better quality from a specific village or commune)  37.5%
 •  Premier Cru (better still)  10%
 •  Grand Cru (exceptional)  1.5% 

Chablis has a similar hierarchy with the addition of Petit Chablis below the Village level.  Beaujolais is a bit different with its Nouveau, Regional, Village, and Cru classes.

It goes without saying that as you ascend through the hierarchy, the price increases (rather aggressively, I might add).  Considering the rarity and auction hammer prices at Burgundy's top-end, it's not all that surprising to learn that the Côte d‘Or is also home to the world's most expensive farmland - but let's steer clear of that topic. 

The complication of Burgundy only becomes obvious when we introduce the issue of ownership.  In BordeauxCalifornia, or most other wine regions, the vineyards on a given property are controlled by a single body, be it a person or corporation.  All fruit is accounted for, and the resultant wines are crafted through a reasonably consistent technique and/or style.  In Burgundy, consistency takes a turn for the worst, but not without reason:  A bizarre Napoleonic law stipulates that with each passing generation, the ownership of property is split between siblings.   And while the concept is not unreasonable, a percentage of the new ownership (of say, a premier cru vineyard) may lack the experience, interest, or resources to make quality wine.  Regulations permit ‘anyone’ producing wine from these vineyards to label his or her bottles accordingly.  That means that while you may think you are purchasing a finer bottle from one of Burgundy’s better plots, the product can vary dramatically in terms of quality.   

Enter the négociant:  Within the body of Burgundy, there are individuals who purchase bulk grapes and/or juice from small owners to craft wine under their own name.  While the négociant may or may not own vines in the vineyard, he or she is free to label and sell the bottles under the name of the village or vineyard of origin.

To put the subject in perspective, the majority of Burgundy is produced by approximately 120 négociants who in total, own less than 10% of the land in the region. 

A few big name négociants to look for are: Louis Latour, Louis Jadot, Bouchard Père et Fils, Domaine Faiveley, Vincent Giradin, Domaine Roux Père et Fils, and Joseph Drouhin to list only a few. 

That certainly does not imply that you should avoid the small and more focussed production from individual ‘Domains’. Indeed, the very best Burgundy is that of single ownership and which originated from the soil and was nurtured to perfection with minimal influence.  You just need to know what to look for before purchasing these wines. 

For additional information on the classification and ranking of Burgundy, I strongly recommend that you consult Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine.


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    1. Thx for the compliments, they are much appreciated! I've inserted another picture for your visual pleasure - Enjoy :)

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Tyler is a member of the Wine Writers' Circle of Canada and the Guild of Sommeliers. He writes about and reviews wine both online and via a variety of circulating publications. In 2009 Tyler founded North of 9 Fine Wine, a free public wine education resource where he publishes his Thoughts, Theory, and Recommendations. For additional vinous related information and learning, follow on Twitter @TylerOnWine