Burgundy | An Overview
We love Burgundy for its individuality and its quirky patchwork quilt of vineyards, dating back beyond the French Revolution to the time of the great monastic ownership of these prized vineyards. It is this diversity which makes it one of the most complex wine regions in the world. 2020 gives us the perfect opportunity to take a road trip through Burgundy, from Chablis in the North to the Côte d’Or and beyond.
REGION BY REGION
Chablis lies at the northern limits of Burgundy, close to the historic city of Auxerre. Its soils consist of grey marl and limestone which, together with the cooler climate, make a Chardonnay with intense minerality, salinity and terroir identity.
The River Serein flows through the town and the appellation’s 5,500 hectares of vineyards. On the eastern bank are the seven Grands Crus vineyards, the most respected climats which produce the most structured and longest-lived wines. The seventeen principal 1ers Crus are grouped on excellent slopes either side of the town. However, growers also have the right to market these wines under twenty-four individual lieux-dits labels. Surrounding these vineyards are Chablis and Petit Chablis, producing earlier drinking wines with superb freshness and brightness.
The Côte d’Or
For centuries the Côte d’Or has been split into two halves: to the North, the Côte de Nuits, particularly famous for red wines from Pinot Noir, and to the South, the Côte de Beaune, celebrated for making the very finest white wines from Chardonnay, although it too is a source of exceptional red wines.
The Côte de Nuits
Stretching 20 miles from Dijon to just south of Nuits St Georges, the Côte de Nuits is renowned as the home of some of the greatest names in wine, such as Gevrey Chambertin, Chambolle Musigny and Vosne Romanée.
The warm summer and ripe fruit of 2020 has resulted in a vintage of great polish, purity of Pinot Noir flavours and, most importantly, presence. The wines’ power comes from subtle yet deeply layered texture and nuance.
Looking closer, some of the Côte’s fullest fruit character can be found in Gevrey Chambertin and the lesser-known Fixin offers a fine supporting role. Moving south to both Morey St Denis and Chambolle Musigny, the wines are fragrant and generous. We then reach the great commune of Vosne Romanée, home to so many exceptional Grands Crus vineyards such as Richebourg and Romanée St Vivant, where we find precision, intensity, brightness of red fruit and mineral energy.
The Côte de Beaune
Covering the next 20 miles south, from Aloxe Corton through Beaune to Maranges, the Côte de Beaune is instantly associated with the great white wines of Corton Charlemagne, Puligny Montrachet and Chassagne Montrachet. It also produces an abundance of exceptional quality reds in villages such as Savigny lès Beaune, Pommard, Volnay and Beaune.
As winemaking knowledge and science has evolved, so too have the wines. The accepted norm that Meursault is full and creamy, Puligny pure, honeyed and floral, and Chassagne and St Aubin the most structured, is less true today, but each appellation retains its unique essence. The greatest influence comes from the producer and their own preferred style of winemaking.
Unfairly, the Côte de Beaune’s red wines can be overshadowed by those from the Côte de Nuits. The communes of Beaune and Chorey produce some of the most floral and refined red Burgundies, whilst red Savigny is a little fuller with an earthier texture, and Pernand shines mineral and bright. Just south of the town of Beaune, Pommard is a source of some incredibly intense, long-lived wines, and Volnay is often described as a cross between Vosne Romanée and Chambolle Musigny.
CLASSIFICATION | WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
Within Burgundy the vineyards are split into further groups or classifications.
Bourgogne Côte d’Or Rouge and Blanc
Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines from the lower slopes within the communes of the Côte d’Or, but outside the boundaries of a village appellation.
The Hautes Côtes
The vineyard areas in the hills above the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune. Their higher altitude means they are in a naturally cooler location. Historically, this was a disadvantage as it made fruit ripening difficult. However, with temperatures increasing as a result of climate change, they are rightly gaining in reputation.
Vineyards planted within a single village (e.g. Chambolle Musigny) or, in some instances, a group of villages (e.g. Nuits St Georges and its surrounding villages). Villages hold appellational status as their wines have distinguishing characteristics that differentiate them from their neighbours. These wines are often blended from a range of field locations (lieux-dits) representing the appellation’s terroir, such Drouhin Laroze’s Gevrey Chambertin Dix Climats. In recent years, many growers have found that their lieux-dits are so distinctive they merit individual bottling, such as Jean Philippe Fichet’s Meursault Le Tesson.
1ers Crus Appellations
These are specific vineyards sites within a village appellation that not only reflect the commune’s style, but also have additional complexity and are respected for producing superior wines. This is thanks to their ‘terroir’: the sense of place achieved from a combination of factors such as soil, aspect and position on the slope. The labels show the village the wine comes from and the name of the vineyard; for example, Chassagne Montrachet 1er Cru Maltroie Domaine Bruno Colin.
Grands Crus Appellations
The greatest and grandest locations in Burgundy. There are just 33 Grands Crus vineyards labelled under their individual name rather than by village. Some wines show their origin on the label, such as Chapelle Chambertin from the village of Gevrey Chambertin, whereas others are more discreet: Richebourg gives little clue that it comes from Vosne Romanée. In order to achieve this elevated status, these vineyards, situated in the finest locations, must produce wines which show individual character and superb quality, distinguishing them from other wines in the commune.
VITICULTURE & VINIFICATION
The producers are of course a vital piece of the great Burgundian jigsaw. They are responsible for the protection and management of the land, as well as creating such a wealth of vinous delights. Each grower must decide how best to ensure their wines reflect their vision for authenticity of terroir.
The importance of soil management and climate is not news in Burgundy. A Burgundian’s trade is his work in the vineyard. Estates such as Domaine Chandon de Briailles were at the forefront of the movement towards organic and biodynamic farming in the 1980s and 1990s.
All our producers employ meticulous techniques and treatments to protect their land, and, if not certified organic, they will practice Lutte Raisonnée, using minimal treatments only when required. The post-war period of over-treating and over-fertilising is long gone. Burgundy’s reputation now rests on an authentic representation of terroir: it is the hallmark of the region’s wines.
Whole Bunch Vinification
In the winery, a multitude of decisions influence style. An important decision for red wines is whether to destem fruit on arrival at the winery, as at Domaine Grivot, or whether to vinify some or all of the bunches whole, stalks and all, as practiced at Domaine Simon Bize. There is no right or wrong: it is just a question of style.
Advocates for destemming believe it gives total focus to the purity of their fruit flavours, allowing their wines to convey a faithful appellational character. ‘Whole bunchers’ argue that their wines are more aromatic, with delicate colour and balanced acidity, as stalks can absorb excesses of both during vinification.
There are many other factors also at play including, crucially, the choice of oak. Producers must decide the type of oak, proportion of old to new, and the length of time that a wine spends in barrel, all of which will impact the finished style of wine.
The pleasure of Burgundy is not in judging whether one technique is better than another, but in embracing these differences and celebrating the wines’ individuality.
THE IMPACT OF CLIMATE CHANGE
The impact of climate change can be seen throughout the world and Burgundy is no exception. According to Paul Pillot, the average harvest today is at least 3 weeks earlier compared to his first vintage 50 years ago, such is the influence of warming temperatures on fruit ripening. However, Paul emphasised that the extreme warmth of the 2000s is preferable by far to a repeat of the wipe-out vintages of the 1960s and 1970s.
Over the past 10 years the region has also suffered from climatic extremes. Summer storms with golf-ball-sized hailstones capable of destroying entire crops are an increasingly frequent occurrence, as seen in 2013 in Savigny Lès Beaune. Equally devastating are extreme frosts at spring budburst, as seen in 2016 throughout the Côte de Beaune. Some growers take the philosophical view that this is just a natural cycle, whilst others are gravely concerned.
Water is also a hugely contentious issue. Irrigation is not traditionally allowed in the vineyards of France; as a previously abundant resource, this posed no problem to quality growers. This restriction has been to Burgundy’s advantage. It forces the vines’ roots to delve down as deep as possible in search of moisture, bringing out increased mineral characteristics from soil and bedrock to reflect terroir in the finished wines. A vintage such as 2020 highlights the fine line between a vine pushed to its limits to gather much needed moisture and produce quality fruit, and the devastating impact of severe hydric stress that can halt growth in more extreme years.
In recent decades, average yields have declined, initially due to a drive for quality. However, the impact of climatic extremes has been felt more keenly in recent years. Other factors are also in play: most noticeably the choice of rootstock. Rootstock 161-49, selected 30 years ago for its affinity with limestone soils and dry conditions, is now struggling to cope with the current conditions. At best it produces very small yields, and at worst becomes totally unproductive and must be replaced.
LOOKING AHEAD | OPPORTUNITIES
As always, such change presents exciting opportunities, with value and exciting quality now found in a wider range of appellations.
- Fixin and Marsannay, once overlooked in favour of neighbouring Gevrey Chambertin, are now being appreciated for their quality and sophistication. Such is the improvement in Marsannay today that the best quality vineyards, such as Cyril Audoin’s Clos du Roy, are now being submitted for 1er Cru status.
- The same is true in the Côte de Beaune. Thanks to the efforts of Olivier Lamy and Damien Colin amongst others over the past 20 years, St Aubin is no longer considered a poor relation to Puligny, Chassagne and Meursault. It is now firmly accepted in the club of elite white wine villages.
- Other villages are also gaining recognition. Known for including part of the famous Grand Cru Corton Charlemagne, Pernand Vergelesses’ excellent reds and whites are quickly growing in stature. This is exemplified in the superb quality of Vincent Rapet’s wines, just as Auxey Duresses is boosted by the commitment and dedication of the likes of Comte Armand from Volnay.
- A little further south, Santenay is fast consolidating its position as an influential commune. Young growers such as Justin Girardin are flying the flag and the wines, both red and white, are sensational.
- For the first time we have introduced a wine from Santenay’s neighbour Maranges, made by the delightful Elodie Roy who cut her teeth working with Anne Gros in Vosne Romanée. These wines show off the charm of Pinot Noir in an earlier drinking style.
- Equally exciting is the discovery of rising stars. The Hautes Côtes is no longer considered a vineyard area of cold extremes but is being targeted by many growers as a huge opportunity. Talented young wine makers such as Mathias Gros of AF Gros and Sebastien Cathiard are convinced that this area has an exciting future. We will be looking to extend our selection here further.
Importantly, these are the appellations where great value can be found. Burgundy should and can satisfy all pockets. There is such great quality across the board, we would strongly encourage venturing into new territory!