Friday, April 27, 2012

The Burgundy wine region (sans Beaujolais): An overview

I attended two Burgundy wine tastings (The Wine Room and Stacole Fine Wines) during the course of the past week and will be posting notes on one or both in the near future.  I will use this post to provide additional background on the Burgundy wine region, a process which was initiated with my earlier posts on the Beaujolais sub-region and Beaujolais AOCs.

The Burgundy wine region runs in a north-south direction for 360 kilometers (225 miles) from 100 kilometers south of Paris to the city of Lyon.  The major included sub-regions are illustrated in the map below.


The scope of this particular post is Burgundy to the exclusion of Beaujolais; thus, Chablis to Maconnais.

The climate in Burgundy has been described as "oceanic with some continental tendencies." Oceanic due to frequent rains (rainiest in the autumn and less so in the summer) and semi-continental in that (i) its monthly thermal amplitude (difference between mean temperature of the hottest and coldest months of the year) is among the highest in France; (ii) the winters are cold (average 1.6ºC) with frequent snowfalls; and (iii) warm summers (average 19.6ºC) with occasional violent thunderstorms. The short summers make berry ripening a challenge and, coupled with the possibility of rain, frost, or hail around harvest, provide lots of opportunity for vintage variation.

There is a "certain unity of geology and soil" within Burgundy but the geological origin and physical and chemical composition of that soil can vary between and even within vineyards.  Overall, the top layers are sedimentary soils (clay, marl, limestone) laid down during the Jurassic age (150 million years ago) overlaying bedrock (granite, lava, gneiss, schist) which dates to 250 million years ago.

The essence of Burgundy, and the rationale for the primacy of its wines, is terroir and, within that overarching framework, "climats," which are strictly defined vineyard plots with centuries-old names and quality attributions.  According to the official Burgundy website, "The basis of terroir is above all the sub-soil and soil from which the vine draws its nutrients and which create a secret alchemy of colors, aromas and flavors."

Writing in on June 10, 2010, Benjamin Lewin MW reminded us that in the same year (1855) that the Medoc Classification was introduced, Jules Lavalle published a topographic map of the Côte d'Or which placed each vineyard into one of four classes.  The key difference between the two classification schemes at the time that they were introduced? Bordeaux was classified by price while Burgundy was classified by terroir.

And it was the Lavalle classification scheme that was the basis for mapping the Côte d'Or into 400 appellations when the appellation system was introduced in 1938.  The climat classification scheme used in Burgundy today is shown in the table below with the Regional appellations at the lowest end of the quality pyramid and Grand Crus at the top .  Regional wines can be made from grapes grown anywhere within the region; local (Village) wines must be made from grapes grown in the named village; Premier Cru wines must be made from grapes grown in so-designated vineyards; and Grand Cru wines must be made from grapes grown in Grand Cru vineyards.

Mr. Lewin points out that given the difficulty with berry ripening in Burgundy, higher quality ratings would be assigned to plots where the vines ripened reliably even in poor vintages.  And, in his view, the ripening advantage would accrue to the vineyards in the middle of slope.  As shown in the figure below, all of the Grand Cru vineyards are located center-slope in Burgundy.


The distribution of the vineyards by Burgundy sub-region is shown in the following table, as is the distribution of wine production.

Non-Beaujolais Burgundy is largely a two-style, two-grape region.  As shown in the table below, 60% of the region's wine production is white and 32% red.

White wine in the region is made primarily from the Chardonnay grape and the red from Pinot Noir.  The Chardonnay vines flourish on clayey marl-limestone soils and there is a strong correlation between clay content and wine aroma levels.  Chardonnay wines from Burgundy are considered the best representation of the grape and are noted for complexity of aroma and flavor, fruit depth, structure, minerality, and crisp acidity.  The sub-regions that gain the most acclaim for their Chardonnay include: Côte de Beaune, Côte Chalonnaise, Macconnais, and Chablis.  Whites from Chardonnay can be produced in each of the previously described AOCs.

The Pinot Noir grape thrives in well-drained marl and limestone soils with the style being light and elegant or powerful depending on the limestone content and climat location.  The clays at the bottom of the slope produce powerful but less elegant wines.  Grand Crus from Pinot Noir are concentrated in the Côte de Nuit and are characterized as "profound and subtle" with great harmony existing between body, bouquet, and color.  Burgundy reds are structured on acidity and are lighter-bodied and tangy in youth but develop a huge bouquet of aromas and flavors, as well as minerality, with age.  Reds from Pinot Noir can be produced in each of the previously described AOCs.

There are some Burgundy wines which do not conform to the two-grape, two-style rule.  First, Gamay, which is the mainstay off the Beaujolais sub-region, is also prominent in Macconnais.  Aligoté is a grape that is used primarily to make a regional white wine called Bourgogne Aligoté as well as being one of the potential ingredients of Burgundy sparkling wine (Crémant).  In Auxerrois, 109 hectares of Sauvignon and Grey Sauvignon are planted to produce a light, fruity wine for the Saint-Bris AOC and César is combined with Pinot Noir to produce a wine called Irancy.  Finally, Tressot and César are grown in small quantities and used in production of White Burgundy ordinaire AOC in the Yonne district.

Passetoutgrains is a blended red wine made from 1/3 Pinot Pinot Noir, < 2/3 Gamay, and a mix of Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris not in excess of 15% of the blend.  The constituent grapes are generally co-fermented and the wines are intended for early drinking.

A sparkling wine -- Crémant -- is produced in the Burgundy region using the Methodé Champenoise.  This wine style was granted an appellation in 1975 and is produced under the following requirements:
  • Le crémant de Bourgogne blanc -- minimum 30% Pinot Noir and/or Chardonnay
  • Le crémant de Bourgogne blanc -- Chardonnay and Aligoté
  • Le crémant de Bourgogne blanc de noirs -- Pinot Noir
  • Le crémant de Bourgogne rosé -- Pinot Noir or Pinot Noir and minimal amounts of Gamay.
Thanks to Napolean's inheritance laws, Burgundy growers number in the thousands and own, on average, 5 hectares (12.5 acres) spread over nine different appellations.  Given this lack of economy of scale many growers are unable to make their own wine.  They instead sell either grapes or juice to négociants who then make, store, and distribute the wine to the broader market place.  Given the combination of the AOC complexity, a history of vintage variability, the number of producers, and the existence of négociants, selecting wines from this region can be a daunting task.  Know your producers.

© Wine -- Mise en abyme

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