What is Burgundy? Probably the most complicated wine region in the world, and surely one of the most famous and highly regarded. Oh, and did I mention one of the most expensive, even at the low end?
All true. So how can anyone get the gist in just a few minutes?
Three words: “Pinot Noir” and “Chardonnay”
These are the ancestral grapes of Burgundy. Where is it? In the eastern/central part of France—near Dijon, famous for its mustard, down toward Lyon famous for its gastronomy.
Pinot Noir is a red grape known for being super expressive of where it is grown, medium bodied and also for being difficult to grow consistently. Chardonnay, is a white grape, full-bodied, queen of California whites, and one of the most popular white varieties in the world.
Both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Burgundy tend to be more restrained, acidic and inconsistent than in warmer, riper regions like California or other warmer New World areas. But when Burgundy is good: Ohhhh is it good!
The Categories and Terms
This is where it starts to get complicated. The recorded winemaking history is so old here—back to medieval times—that wine quality is classified down to the vineyard.
From the basic level to the highest it goes pretty much like this: Burgundy (Bourgogne) > narrower regional levels like Bourgogne Côte Chalonnaise or Hautes-Côtes de Nuits > Village level (named after the village or commune where the vineyards are) > Premiere Cru (the 2nd highest quality level, usually named for a vineyard; aka 1er Cru) > Grand Cru (the highest quality level, named for a vineyard).
Complicated right? Well, throw in that there are hundreds of Premiere Cru and dozens of Grand Cru vineyards, each with a different name— that’s complicated. Then throw in that there are hundreds of producers, and that sometimes they have their own separate section of the same vineyard—then it’s really complicated.
Terroir and the Magic of Burgundy
Why is quality classified down to the vineyard? One word: Terroir. It’s a controversial and difficult idea to pin down but basically means: that special character and quality of a wine that reflects the specific geography, soil, micro-climate, and vines of the grapes that go into the wine. Some even consider winemaking tradition part of the terroir.
However you define it, terroir character shows itself in the structure and specific mineral, earth and fruit scents and flavors that you tend to encounter when enjoying a particular terroir. The vineyards with the most potential for showing terroir character are the 1er and Grand Crus.
It’s difficult to find a decent basic Burgundy (Bourgogne) for under $15 today, and mind you it will be pretty generic stuff, showing little of that prized terroir character. A Bourgogne from a top producer can easily set you back $30-$60–for their worst wine! Although these can be very good wines.
Prices more or less depend on the reputation of the producer, the village or vineyard and the vintage of the wine. Current releases of red Village wines typically range from $20-$80 and Premier Crus typically from $50-$300. And its hard to find a Grand Cru for under $100; typically ranging from 120-500, or higher! And then there is Domaine de la Romanée Conti (DRC), probably the most highly sought after winery in the world, whose current releases will set you back as much as $14,000 a bottle for their top wine–if you can find it!
Why So Expensive & Challenging to Explore?
Supply and demand. The production of the best wines is typically very small, much smaller than Bordeaux’s top wines, and the demand for that special terroir magic is very high. Even so, not every wine lives up to the potential of its quality level or what you might expect for the price. Limited availability, high prices and inconsistencies in quality (among producers and vintages) make it difficult for most of us to explore. So unless you have a robust budget and are willing to suffer some misses on your search for those magical hits, it will not come easily.
Hope for Burgundy Beginners
So how can you get into Burgundy without a big budget? Simple: Beaujolais, which is usually considered the southern end of Burgundy. Although most Beaujolais is made from the red grape Gamay, rather than Pinot Noir, and somewhat lighter in body, Beaujolais offers an entry point into the world of terroir and Burgundy without breaking the bank.
Skip the Beaujolais Nouveau, except from top producers, and start with generic Beaujolais or even better Beaujolais Supérior ($10-$20); work your way up to Village Beaujolais ($12-$30, with one of 30 Villages in the name); and then to Cru Beaujolais ($20-$50, with one of eight Crus in the name). Or skip around as you see fit and you will have entered the world of terroir, and primed yourself for the more difficult Burgundy terrain to the north.