Burgundy conjures almost a magical, spiritual response within the world of wine. It is a place where viticulture was established as far back as 52 BC when the Romans, during their invasion of Gaul, established vineyards in the conquered lands to provide wine for their force of soldiers. The vines thrived and the commerce that viticulture generated indicated the direction of the region’s future development.
The middle ages saw the establishment of monastic caretaking in many of Burgundy’s vineyards, and serious study went into the idea of terroir, or everything that made a unique plot of land special: the soil, the aspect, the exposure to the sun, and more. Many of the best vineyards were walled off with stone to protect the vines from animals, and many of these walls are still standing today, with their vineyards still thriving. Pinot Noir became paramount in the 15th century after Philip the Bold forbade Gamay because he found Pinot Noir to be more complex and interesting, causing Burgundy to emerge as a top-quality wine region. That reputation, built upon the vines of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, has continued to present day, as Burgundy remains a pinnacle of the wine experience.
Geographically, Burgundy is divided into five regions, each producing styles of wine that are very different from one another, despite the small size of the region overall. Chablis is the most northern region within Burgundy and is made exclusively from Chardonnay in a steely, crisp, and minerally style.
The Côte d’Or (the Golden Slope) is the heart of Burgundy and is home to its most prized vineyards. The Côte de Nuits is the northern half of the Côte d’Or and is centered around the village of Nuits-St-Georges, and mainly produces Pinot Noir that is revered as some of the finest in the world. Key villages include Nuits-St-Georges, Vosne-Romanée, Gevrey-Chambertin, Morey-St-Denis, and Chambolle-Musigny.
The Côte de Beaune is the southern half of the Côte d’Or and, centered around Beaune, is known for its Chardonnay made in a style that harmonizes terroir, ripeness and oak, to produce some of the most elegant expressions of white wine in the world. Key red wine villages include Pommard, Volnay and Beaune, while white wine focused villages include Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet, Beaune and St-Aubin.
Further south are the regions of the Côte Chalonnaise, which is home to both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and being a bit warmer than the Côte d’Or, produces wines with more generous fruit and weight. The Mâconnais is further south and while Chardonnay remains the dominant white grape, this was the beyond the southern limit of the 15th century prohibition of Gamay so both Gamay and Pinot Noir grown here are used for the softer, juicier red wines of the region. Beaujolais lies to the south of the Macon, and remains one of the major producers of Gamay in the world, some of it light, fruity and simple, as Philip the Bold feared, but some Gamay from excellent vineyard sites, produces structured, powerful wines that can certainly stand among the high-quality wines from the Côte d’Or.
Burgundy, due to its two thousand-year history with the vine, has established a classification system for its vineyards, which further elevates its status, as well as the prices.
Regional level wines are generally the less expensive options, as fruit can be grown anywhere within the region on the label.
Village level wines are more exclusive and labeled with the village where the grapes were grown, giving more precision and expectation to the experience of the bottle.
Premier Cru wines are those that come from vineyard sites that have been singled out for having superior quality fruit, year after year. These are wines that give an even clearer picture of terroir in the bottle and command higher prices.
Grand Cru wines are those from the best vineyard sites in Burgundy, those that have been recognized for hundreds of years in many cases, for exceptional production and expression of terroir. These wines are considered regarded as benchmark examples of Pinot Noir, and their prices are often as extraordinary as the wines.