The Burgundy region of France has been producing what are widely considered to be the world’s finest Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays for nearly a thousand years. Burgundy is a relatively small area (only about 13,500 acres of vines in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, as opposed to Bordeaux’s 235,000 acres or California’s 515,000.) Oregon is nearly identical in size to Burgundy with about 13,700 vineyard acres planted.
As in Oregon, most of the winegrowers and producers in Burgundy are small, family operations. The average estate size is about 18 acres — enough to produce about 2,500 cases of wine each year. Those 18 acres are often split into 10 or more tiny parcels of vineyards scattered around several different vineyards and villages — so production of each wine is often only a few hundred cases or less.
While it can seem quite complicated, even perplexing at times, in reality Burgundy is fairly simple to decipher.
Red = Pinot Noir. If it’s a red wine from Burgundy, it is made from the Pinot Noir grape. (Beaujolais, while technically part of the Burgundy region, is truly a different world altogether. Beaujolais reds are made from the Gamay Noir grape.)
White = Chardonnay. If it’s a white wine from Burgundy, it’s a Chardonnay. (Again, there are minor exceptions you’ll rarely see — there’s a white grape known as Aligoté that produces some very inexpensive, lower-level wines — but it will not come into play in anything we’re discussing here.)
Unlike America, France has legal classifications for their wines. In Burgundy, the actual vineyards themselves, rather than the producer or wines, are given a level of classification. There are four levels:
Grand Cru — The best of the best. There are 32 Grand Cru vineyards in Burgundy, accounting for less than 2% of all Burgundy wine production. Grand Cru wines mention on the label only the producer and name of the vineyard — as in “Montrachet” or “Musigny” — the name of the village is not deemed necessary in the case of these great vineyards.
Premier Cru — (Also written as 1er Cru) One notch below the Grand Crus — there are hundreds at this level, and the quality varies widely. The best Premiers rival the Grand Crus, the lesser ones seem barely deserving of the ranking. These makeup about 10% of total production. A Premier Cru wine will mention the name of the village and the individual vineyard on the label, as in “Pommard-Rugiens” or “Vosne-Romanée — Les Suchots”, and will also nearly always bear the mark “Premier Cru” or “1er Cru”. If the wine is a blend of more than one 1er Cru vineyard within a given village, it will simple bear the designation “1er Cru” without any vineyard designation.
Village — Grapes for a village wine come from one or many vineyards surrounding a specific Burgundian village, for example Vosne-Romanée or Puligny-Montrachet. These are classified below the 1er Cru level, but can often be lovely wines and great values. Village wines are about 40% of the total pie. The label will simply state the name of the village (although in some cases the name of a specific vineyard will also be mentioned, even though it is not of Premier Cru status.)
Regional (Bourgogne) — Roughly half of all Burgundy vineyards are classified at the regional level. In the hands of dedicated and talented producers these can be lovely wines. In the hands of others they can be thin, weedy, and rather unpleasant. These wines are labeled as Bourgone Rouge or Bourgogne Blanc, or Bourgogne Pinot Noir or Bourgogne Chardonnay.
Most of the vineyards in Burgundy are owned by multiple owners — as many as 70 or 80 in some cases. (In the rare cases that a single producer owns the entirety of a specific vineyard, this is designated as a “Monopole.”) This means that each winery may own only a few rows of the vineyard, and will make only a few barrels of that specific wine each year (but they are likely to own small pieces of several other vineyards as well.) So, not all wines from the same vineyard are created equal. The quality can vary widely from producer to producer. In Burgundy, the most important consideration is in fact the producer. Get to know the styles of different producers, and zero in on the ones you like best. They will likely give you the most enjoyment year in and year out regardless of the classification level.
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