Wines of the Burgundy Region
Burgundy claims, like Bordeaux, to produce the greatest red wines in the world, but they are much more elusive.
The Pinot Noir grape from which all good Burgundy is made is notoriously fickle. In stark contrast to the Cabernet Sauvignon of Bordeaux, it has so far refused to travel gracefully and only a handful of bottles made from Pinot Noir grown outside Burgundy can even hint at the delicacy-with-richness that is the hallmark of great red Burgundy.
The heartland of the Burgundy region is a surprisingly thin strip of vineyards, sloping sunwards down from Dijon to Chagny, called the Cote d’Or, or ‘golden hillside’. The northern half, centred on the town of Nuits-St-Georges, is known as the Cote de Nuits and produces predominantly red wines that are firmer and in general longer-lived than the elegant wines made on the southern Cote, named after the wine centre of Beaune.
The quality and style of reds in Burgundy somehow varies even more than in the much larger Bordeaux region. This is partly because there is no clearly defined classification system as there is for the wines of Bordeaux.
Most Burgundy vineyards are owned by many different growers who may cultivate only a row or two of vines. Some of these growers will sell their grapes to the wine shippers, or negotiants, of Nuits and Beaune. These negotiants will make wine from them and probably blend it with other growers’ wines from the same vineyard. Some of the growers will make the wine themselves and then sell it to negotiants, and some of them will make and eventually bottle the wines themselves to be sold under their own, ‘domaine-bottled’ label. The negotiants themselves vary from ultra quality-conscious down to, occasionally, downright unscrupulous, while some of the growers can make wonderful wine and others are simply not equipped to make the best of their grapes.
It is not difficult to see, therefore, that there are few yardsticks on the Cote d’Or. The negotiants usually try to stick to a house style, which means that one house’s Volnay can be much more like their Pommard than like a Volnay from another source. A good red Burgundy will have a cherry-red colour, usually paler than a claret, and a certain sweetness. The bouquet of a young wine usually conjures up thoughts of fruits and flowers such as raspberries and violets, while there are tasters who find mature Burgundy distinctly animal in flavour!
The appellation system is as complicated as one would expect of this region but, in general, the (potentially) finest wines of the Cote d’Or are labelled Grand Cru with Premier Cru representing the rank just below.
If the Cote de Nuits is most famous for great red wines such as Chambertin and the grandiosely priced output of the Domaine de la Romance Conti, the Cote de Beaune is particularly famous for great white Burgundy, of which Montrachet is the best known. Chardonnay is the grape from which all great white Burgundy is made. Although it has been transplanted to places such as California and Australia much more successfully than Pinot Noir, it is still at its most majestically steely and long-lived on the Cote d’Or. Meursault is slightly more buttery than Montrachet, while the Cote de Nuits’ best white is Gorton Charlemagne.
White wines are given almost red wine treatment by top producers on the Cote d’Or and great wines will usually have been matured, and sometimes fermented, in small oak barrels. The Chardonnay grape is much more dependable from vintage to vintage than the Pinot Noir, though the poor quality of some clones of Pinot planted in recent years may account for some of the vagaries of red Burgundy.
Chablis is the Chardonnay’s other great home, though the wines of this northern outpost of Burgundy are usually notably higher in acidity and less opulent, as one would expect of the harsher climate. Oak is now rarely seen in the tiny village of Chablis.
Good-value red and white wines are now made on the Cote Chalonnaise, as the vineyards round Chalon are called. Montagny is particularly good for whites, while Mercurey reds can be deliciously supple even when young. Rully reds and whites can offer interest at a reasonable price.
Beaujolais and the Maconnais at the southern end of Burgundy tend to be grouped together for here the Camay supplants Pinot as the red grape variety. Because of this, Macon Rouge is rarely very exciting, though Macon Blanc, made of Chardonnay, can often be very good, if not designed for as long a life as Cote d’Or whites. Anything with Macon or Pouilly on the label (other than the Loire wine of Pouilly-Fume) is made here, as is St Veran and the similar, but more elusive, Beaujolais Blanc.
Beaujolais is red-wine country however, where the Camay grape is at its most exciting. Ordinary Beaujolais and the slightly superior Beaujolais-Villages is a juicy, intensely fruity wine with marked acidity that is designed to be drunk young. Beaujolais Nouveau or Primeur, the wine of the most recent vintage, released just a few weeks afterwards on 15 November, is designed to be drunk even younger. Beaujolais is one of the few red wines that can take this treatment, because it is usually low in harsh tannins and light in body. This means that it can almost be treated as a white wine, and is delicious served slightly chilled.
The most ‘serious’ Beaujolais comes from nine communes called the ‘crus’, marked on the map below. Each has its own character, with Moulin-a-Vent being the longest-lived, but any of these can be kept for two or three years to develop more interest than is usual in a Beaujolais. Curiously, the word Beaujolais is rarely to be found on the labels of cru Beaujolais – presumably because the locals are so proud of their commune, they imagine everyone else should be familiar with the name too.