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The huge diversity of Burgundy’s wines may be baffling,
but therein lies their unique fascination. Vive la différence, says Richard Woodard
Beguiling and frustrating in equal measure, there is no winemaking region on earth quite like Burgundy. At first glance it is deceptively simple, yet on closer inspection maddeningly complex. You could spend a lifetime studying its patchwork of vineyards and appellations. And at the end of that lifetime, you might well conclude that Burgundy is a bit like quantum mechanics: if you’re not confused by it, then you almost certainly haven’t understood it.
The good news first: grape varieties. Leaving aside Gamay in Beaujolais and the Mâconnais, the odd splash of Aligoté and local speciality Sauvignon de Saint-Bris, it’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay all the way. At their best, these wines are the finest expressions of those two grape varieties in the world – but finding the best isn’t always easy in this region of contradiction and almost infinite variation.
Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that Burgundy lies at a
geographical and climatic crossroads in eastern France; there’s often a whiff of northern cold or damp in the
air, even in May, but hot summer days bring an unmistakable breath of the south. Somewhere between the chill of Champagne and the châleur of the Rhône.
Or maybe it’s the vineyards. They look pretty straightforward on the face of it. Study a map and they appear to be arranged with happy regularity. Leaving out
the enclaves of Beaujolais and Chablis, most grapes grow on the leeward slopes of a ridge shadowing the A6
autoroute south-west from Dijon: the fabled ‘Golden Slope’ or Côte d’Or.
We might even venture
a few thoughts on the prevalent styles, which are described easily enough. From Dijon to Corgoloin, we’re in
the Côte de Nuits, famed for powerful, complex, age-worthy reds from legendary villages like Gevrey-Chambertin, Morey-Saint-Denis, Vougeot and Vosne-Romanée. Skip south-west and it’s the Côte de
Beaune, home to often more supple and feminine reds, plus white wines of weight, complexity and finesse: names like Montrachet, Corton, Pommard and Volnay.
Meanwhile, the higher hinterland to the north-west makes up the Hautes-Côtes de Nuits and the Hautes-Côtes de Beaune. These are generally cooler vineyards which
lack the breeding of the true Côte d’Or but can offer more affordable expressions of the region. And to the south, you find the Côte Chalonnaise – lighter and certainly cheaper reds and whites
under banners like Montagny, Rully and Mercurey – and the Mâconnais, home to often underrated Chardonnays and the sometimes over-priced Pouilly-Fuissé.
Now it gets complicated. Zoom in on one of the many villages and you’ll find vineyards of varying degrees of slope, tucked around corners and facing every which
way; soils that are chalky-white in colour, or rich red-brown, and filled (or not, as the case may be) with stones and rocks.
Stand a good Pommard and a good Volnay alongside each other and you’ll see what I mean: these wines are from neighbouring villages on the Côte de Beaune, but
while Pommard typically shows muscular, dark-edged fruit with a musky, gamey character, Volnays are expressive and elegant, with bags of feminine finesse.
But seasoned Burgundophiles would consider that analysis to be a bit broad-brush. What you should really do, they’d say, is take a Pommard Premier Cru Les Rugiens from a reliable name like Albert Bichot and note how all that rampant masculinity is beginning to soften and get in touch with its feminine side. Because, of course, it’s from the south-western side of the village, closer to Volnay.
That’s one of the reasons why vineyard classification is so complicated in Burgundy – the way one plot of land can produce a wine so utterly different to its neighbour. The other reason is historical: large land holdings
were broken up following the French Revolution, and the equal division of inherited land among family members did the rest. The end result is a multiplicity of vineyards, land owners and
The system of vineyard classification reflects this. Of France’s 450-plus
appellations, 110-plus lie in greater Burgundy. Remove Chablis and Beaujolais from the equation, and you’ve still got nearly 100 to reckon with: regional, village, Premier Cru and – for the top 2% or so of the
region’s production – Grand Cru.
Those appellations offer some hint of what to expect in terms of quality and style, but this is Burgundy, after all. So it’s far more important to fix on particular growers or producers, find a few whose quality, consistency and style fit the
bill – and take it from there.
True, you may never feel that you’ve mastered a complete understanding of Burgundy but – unlike studying quantum mechanics – you’ll have a lot of fun trying.
You may never feel that you’ve mastered a complete understanding of Burgundy but you’ll have a lot of fun trying
Albert Bichot: Tremendously consistent and underrated, with domaines on the Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune, Côte
Chalonnaise and Chablis. Benchmark stuff.
Louis Latour: Family-owned producer famed particularly for its whites. The finest, such as Corton-Charlemagne,
are weighty, rich and complex.
Maison Joseph Drouhin: Oozing perfumed elegance and finesse, the finest wines are not cheap, but worth it. Clos
des Mouches is rightly legendary.
Maison Louis Jadot: A fine all-rounder and as good a place as any to start a tour of the region’s great names. Fine and accessible regional wines too.