The Quality Pyramid
Whereas Bordeaux has it’s infamous 1855 classification dividing various Chateaux into five levels of growths, Burgundy has a pyramid system that serves a similar purpose.
- Grand Cru: “Great Growth”, the top of the pyramid, with the smallest production and highest prices. Typically single-vineyard wines.
- Premier Cru: “First Growth”, one step below Grand Cru. Typically single-vineyard wines, but may be blends of vineyards at the same classification level.
- Commune/Village: The next level down, all the wine will be sourced from within a single named commune or village.
- Regional: A blend of multiple communes, but within a single region.
The primary red grape of Burgundy is Pinot Noir (34% plantings), with Gamay (10%) playing a smaller role.
Chardonnay (48%) is the key white grape, with Aligoté (6%) trailing far behind.
(Figures from BIVB 2015, excludes Gamay grown in Beaujolais)
Key Point: Compared to Bordeaux, the situation in Burgundy is much simpler, with only one primary grape each for red and white wines. The usual concerns of blending different varieties with varying ripeness levels doe not apply as much here.
Regions and Communes
Burgundy should not be thought of as one homogeneous region, but a collection of discrete regions each with their own characteristics.
Similar to the Loire Valley, where climate and soil varies from east to west, the zones of Burgundy differ from north to south:
Chablis: The northernmost area of Burgundy, therefore much cooler due to it’s latitude. In fact, frosts are such an issue that various expensive measures have been installed in top vineyards to protect vines from damage.
Chardonnay is the key grape here, making wines in a cleaner and leaner style than it’s more southerly counterparts, though Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines may show more ripeness and richness.
Côte d’Or: Likely the most famous (and complicated) area of Burgundy for it’s wines from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
The Côte d’Or is itself divided into the Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune:
Côte de Nuits: The more northerly area, mainly growing Pinot Noir. Further sub-divided into communes, with the main ones as follows:
Côte de Beaune: Just south of the Côte de Nuits, mainly growing Chardonnay, with some of it’s major communes as follows:
- Beaune (+Côtes de Beaune)
- Saint Aubin
Côte Chalonnaise: Really a continuation of the Côte d’Or, but often overshadowed by the illustrious reputation of it’s northerly neighbour.
However, this means that the Côte Chalonnaise is a possible source of good value for money wines, both from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Some of the major communes here are:
The Mâconnais: The most southerly region of Burgundy, mainly known for Chardonnay but with a little Pinot Noir also (at around a 10:1 ratio).
Due to latitude, the climate here is noticeably warmer, with much less risk of frost and warmer summers than the Cote d’Or.
Again, due to the greater reputation of the Cote d’Or, the Mâconnais can be a great source of value for money.
Some of the major communes here are:
- Mâcon-Villages (really a blend of communes/villages, hence the plural name)
Communes and Plots
This is only the beginning of Burgundy’s complexity. Due to archaic inheritance laws, plots of land must be split evenly between recipients, with the result that over the centuries plots of land within these communes have been significantly fragmented.
To take ONE example, Clos de Vougeot is a Grand Cru vineyard, technically the top of the quality pyramid:
- Within the commune of Vougeot
- itself within the area of the Côte de Nuits
- itself within the region of the Cote d’Or
It is a 50-hectare walled vineyard with around 80 owners!
Human nature will play a role here – while there are producers who will spare no expense to create the best wine possible, other owners may be content to rest on the Grand Cru label and sell mediocre wines at high prices.
Multiply this by the totality of Burgundy, and you begin to get an idea of how hopelessly complicated this state of affairs can be.
Enter the Négociants
With such highly fractionated holdings of land, how do individual owners grow, make, bottle and sell their wines to continue to make a living?
Here the négociant plays an important role. They step in to buy grapes and/or wine, blend them together and sells the resulting bottlings under their own label.
These are not low-quality wines. Négociants will often impose special conditions upon the growers they by from, such as maximum yields and viticultural practices in order to guarantee a certain level of quality.
Due to the large number of growers in Burgundy, they may also hire a number of courtiers, people who specialise in certain areas with deeper knowledge of the growers and their styles. The négociant will commission the courtier to source a certain amount of wine, whereby the courtier will source samples amongst the growers they deal with and, with the négociant’s approval, draw up and finalise the deal.
Some names you might come across are:
- Bouchard Père et Fils
- Joseph Drouhin
- Louis Jadot
- Louis Latour
In more recent news, Laurent Ponsot of Domaine Ponsot, a producer of many Grand Cru wines, announced last year that he was leaving the estate to become a négociant (NYTimes, April 2018):
Mr. Ponsot also came to be known for his role in exposing a multimillion-dollar counterfeit wine scheme, in which he brought fraudulent bottles to the attention of the authorities and testified against Rudy Kurniawan, a well-known wine dealer who was sentenced in 2014 to 10 years in prison.
His aim at Laurent Ponsot, he said, is to make “haute couture” wines.
“I want to work on each element, from planting the vine to presentation of the wine on the table,” he said. “If I don’t grow the grapes, the grapes I buy must be perfect, in my opinion. Every detail is important.”
There is a lot more I could write about Burgundy, but to do so would blow out my self-imposed limit of 1,000 words.
Vinification techniques are particularly interesting – while other regions around the world are mimicking Burgundian winemaking techniques in an attempt to match their quality (and price), Burgundian winemakers are also adapting New World practices to raise their wines to new heights.
For some statistics, check out Bourgogne-Wines.com here.
If there is one lesson to take from here, it’s that the classification pyramid is not the be-all and end-all. As always, if you know where to look, you can find fantastic value for money.
Read more: Pinot Noir Goes With (Almost) Everything