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Burgundy — History, Soils, Grape Varieties & Winemaking

To condense what is perhaps the world’s most celebrated wine region into one feature is no mean feat. The region of Burgundy (in French, Bourgogne) is not only home to some of the most complex and ageworthy wines in the world, but it is also home to a patchwork of villages and vineyards so complex it’s synonymously entrancing and overwhelming. 

Geography & Geology

Geographically speaking, although Chablis and the Grand Auxerrois fall under the designation of Burgundy, they are far away—150km northwest—from what is considered the heartland of the region, the Côte d’Or. As such, they’re often considered to be separate entities, but they share the same key varieties, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, similar soil types and similar climate (cool to moderate continental). Throughout Burgundy, the soils are predominantly composed of clay and limestone in varying degrees. The word marl (marne in French) applies to soils that are a varying combination of both.

Chablis has a prevalence of Kimmeridgian limestone from the Upper Jurassic period (150 million years ago). The particularity here is that the soils often contain tiny fossilised oysters called exogyra virgula. This is a match made in heaven for Chardonnay, and hence this northerly segment of Burgundy is almost solely planted to this variety. 

The Auxerrois may be less famous than its neighbour, but it is home to some fascinating wines; the appellation of Irancy produces pretty, light-bodied Pinot Noirs, as well as being home to five hectares of the ancient César grape. The appellation of Saint-Bris is one of the few ‘exceptions to the Chardonnay/Aligoté rule’ of Burgundy, as this is home to white wines made from Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris; the latter being a pink-skinned mutation of the variety. There is also the Vézelay appellation found here (home to Chardonnay) and the Chitry and Côtes d’Auxerre regional appellations (home to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir). 

The Chablis wine region, with the town of Courgis to the right

Down the (aforementioned 150km) road, you reach the Côte d’Or, which starts at Dijon in the north, stretching down to Maranges in the south. This section of Burgundy is split into two: the Côte de Nuits, between Dijon and Nuits-St-Georges, and the Côte de Beaune, between Aloxe-Corton and Maranges. 

The Côte de Nuits largely features older soils from the Mid-Jurassic period (175 million years ago). It is home to all of the red Grands Crus, save for Aloxe-Corton, which is in the Côte de Beaune. The Côte de Beaune features younger soils from the Upper Jurassic period (150 million years ago) and is home to all of the white Grands Crus [for more details on the Cru system check the appellation system section below]. However, this doesn’t mean that the Côte de Nuits is ‘Pinot country’ and the Côte de Beaune is ‘Chardonnay country;’ there are excellent white vineyards in the Côte de Nuits, and famed red vineyards in the Côte de Beaune. In particular, Volnay and Pommard in the Côte de Beaune are anomalies of the southerly Côte d’Or; these are red-only villages and produce some of the most perfumed red wines of Burgundy.

Once you reach the southern tip of Maranges, you enter the Côte Chalonnaise, which is largely home to Chardonnay, but also to Aligoté. The appellation of Bouzeron has gained particular notoriety in recent years for its excellent Aligoté wines.

Further south of the Côte Chalonnaise you enter the Mâconnais, which is renowned for its picturesque rolling slopes. This is largely home to Chardonnay, as well as some Pinot Noir and a notable amount of Gamay, as it lies next to Beaujolais.  

Harvest at Domaine Dujac, Morey-St-Denis

A Brief History

The origins of viticulture in Burgundy date back to the time of the Celts; it is considered likely that by the time the Romans conquered Gaul there were already vineyards to be found in what is now known as Burgundy. Fast forward a few centuries, and we are already able to trace the parcels of vineyards by name; in French these are known as lieux dits or climats. The legends of vineyards such as the Grand Cru of Corton-Charlemagne date back to the eighth century. 

The link between the Church and the wines of Burgundy is very significant. The monks of the Abbaye de Cîteaux once tended the most famous vineyards in the Côte d’Or, where Pinot Noir is cultivated today. The first vineyards were given to them by the Duke of Burgundy in the eleventh century, and throughout the centuries that followed, mansi – plots of land – were gifted to the Burgundian monasteries from wealthy landowners who wished to redeem their souls. By the twelfth century, the monks were given land in Vougeot, which eventually culminated in the iconic vineyard of Clos de Vougeot being founded in 1336. The growing wine trade meant that the vineyards provided the monasteries with a means of making money. Therefore, the monasteries of Burgundy had enviable vineyard holdings and wine production had become their focus. Although very little information survives on the precise winemaking methods used by the monks, we can gain knowledge about the culture of vines from various sources such as iconography and medieval writings. In Patrick McGovern’s book on wine, Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages, he says,

Initiale “E”, Vendageurs in Voix Enluminées de Cîteaux (Dijon: Editions de l’Armançon, 1998)

“The monks explored, selected, and nurtured the plant life of this world... In Burgundy, the Cistercian monks literally tasted the soils of the Côte d’Or and determined by a centuries-long process of trial and error, beginning in the twelfth century, which cultivars were best suited to grow on specific plots of land (terroir).”

It is this notion of terroir that encapsulates what Burgundy is known and celebrated for. Through years of tending vines and making wine from these various climats, they were found to have their own unique characteristics. While the variations of soil type are usually placed centre stage, there are many factors that play a role here; differences in elevation, aspect, wind exposure, and plant selection are all significant. 

It was these unique characteristics in the wine produced from neighbouring villages that began to earn Burgundy the reputation it has today. Already in the 1700s, the individual villages of Burgundy were documented according to their unique flavour profiles and appearances. In addition, the works of Dom Denise, a Cistercian monk of the eighteenth century, outlined what would later be shown (to some degree) via the appellation system. He said, 

“The vines which produce the best wines of Burgundy are those planted where the slopes begin, but the vines at the very top of the hills don’t produce quite as high a quality.”

When transport drastically improved in the 18th century, the wines of Burgundy, which until then had enjoyed a reputation locally and amongst the nobility, grew an international reputation. After the French Revolution in 1789, the vineyards that had previously belonged to the Church or nobility were split up and sold. When the Napoleonic Code was introduced, it stated that when somebody passed away, their land must be divided up equally amongst sons (and later daughters). This is why the ownership of vineyards in the region has become so patchwork-like and confusing; in just one climat there can be dozens of owners. 

As with all French wine regions, the arrival of phylloxera caused huge damage, and some segments of the region are still recovering their vineyard plantings today; aided by growers such as Marc Soyard in Dijon, and Raphaëlle Guyot in the Auxerrois.

The Appellation System and the Formation of Premiers and Grands Crus 

Although the climats and villages of Burgundy were well established, it wasn’t until 1855 that the notion of classification was first introduced by Dr Jules Lavalle (confusingly the same year that Bordeaux’s iconic classification system was also introduced). He outlined the ‘best’ vineyards, and they were subsequently put into ‘classes’ by the Beaune Committee of Agriculture. 

In the 1930s, the AOC system was laid out, pioneered by a group of growers, in particular Sem d’Angerville of Domaine Marquis d’Angerville (Volnay), and Henri Gouges (Nuits-Saint-Georges), who were frustrated at the practices carried out by some négociants. Négociants are companies that purchase fruit or wine to make their own cuvées, as opposed to making wine from their own land. The négociants represented a particularly powerful corporation at the time as they brought almost all of the wine to market. As a result, they exerted a strong influence on bulk wine pricing and how much money growers would make. There also was tension because of blending practices in the cellars prior to bottling and accusations that some maisons were blending grapes of different areas together; giving them a famous name which might only represent a fraction of the blend.

Due to the involvement of Gouges, there was a conflict of interest of sorts, which is largely why today the village of Nuits-Saint-Georges does not have a Grand Cru. 

Typically, the wines coming from ‘regional’ appellations, such as a wine with simply Bourgogne on the label, come from what are considered flatter lands or plains. Then, the ‘villages’ wines, such as Volnay, Meursault or Mâcon, come from the vineyards surrounding those towns, often also on gentle slopes. When you reach the ‘mid’ slopes, this is typically where you find the heralded Grands Crus, considered the best sites (with price tags to match). The Premiers Crus often surround these Grands Crus.

The Route des Grands Crus

Bonnes Mares Grand Cru

Jeremy Seysses & Diana Snowden Seysses of Domaine Dujac, & OhMy their Hungarian Vizsla

While the region is heating up due to global warming, and drought is unfortunately becoming more common, the quality of the wines according to appellation structure remains largely unaffected. Jeremy Seysses of Domaine Dujac, in Morey-Saint-Denis, explains, 

“The Grands Crus are an ideal compromise of exposure, drainage, vigour, and still do very well. Where I am seeing a quality drop is in places that suffer easily from drought and heat waves. Those are not the Grands Crus which are on cracked limestone—where vines almost always find water somehow—but rather in places with a lot of clay and few rocks, so the soils close completely in case of drought. There are some regional Bourgogne and village vineyards where this is happening, for example Champs Chenys in Gevrey Chambertin really struggled in 2019 and 2020. There are also areas where the limestone isn’t cracked, like in Chorey-Lès-Beaune, where I’d expect things to have gotten tough. Some areas on the Montagne de Beaune get yellow and defoliate at every drought.” 

Farming 

After phylloxera wiped out the majority of vines in the late 1800s, like so many other French regions, Burgundy found itself in a financial crisis. Then, when chemical farming was introduced in the 1900s under the guise of ‘The Green Revolution,’ most winemakers of Burgundy adopted artificial fertilisers, pesticides, and systemic herbicides and fungicides. Like so many other farmers around the world, they believed this was the answer to their problems and would help to save their harvests. This boomed in the 70s and 80s in particular—but synonymously—slowly but surely a counter movement had begun.

Jean-Claude Rateau, Emmanuel Giboulot, Lalou Bize-Leroy, Dominique Derain and Anne-Claude Leflaive were among the region’s first adopters of biodynamics. Dominique and his colleagues formed their own group together with Alain and Julien Guillot to encourage discussions on biodynamic techniques for Burgundy. They meet twice a year, and welcome wine growers from all over to join, for no cost; just for open discussion and a casse croûte. Among these growers are Isabelle and Jean-Yves Vantey of Domaine des Rouges Queues. Isabelle says, 

“Jean-Yves was working in a conventional winery, and so he did a lot of work by tractor. We have two really young children, and when he would come back home in the evening after having spent the day in the vineyard, the chemical smell of the sprays would linger everywhere in the house. What’s more, we were afraid that the smell was just the tip of the iceberg. There was no way it could continue; so we began looking for something that would seem clean and logical instead."

It was this search that led them to Dominique, and to biodynamics. 

Dominique Derain

Isabelle Vantey

Thanks to the G.E.S.T. Association (Le Groupement d’Etude et de Suivi des Terroirs), who collected over 100 deep soil samples between 1999 and 2004, growers gained a comprehensive understanding of their soils; namely with regards to the importance of compost to increase organic matter content. This, combined with soil microbiologist Claude Bourguignon’s statement declaring Burgundy’s vineyard soils to be microbially dead, effected change in the region, and saw many more growers turn to organic and biodynamic farming. G.E.S.T. still exists today, and has expanded their research to include vine material, rootstock choices, gentler pruning methods and biodiversity initiatives. 

Massal Selection 

One of the most important movements in recent years has been a return to massal selection (séléction massale in French). This is the process whereby a vineyard is planted via propagating the plant material of several mother plants, as opposed to a single clone (which was the most popular choice in the 80s), thereby preserving genetic heritage. In addition, many growers note that the wines produced from massal selection vineyards are more complex; interesting and layered; which makes sense given that the mother plants all possess slightly different characteristics. In addition, the saying, ‘there’s strength in numbers’ also applies here. For example, if a new disease were to appear, a genetically diverse vineyard should be able to protect itself better than a clonally propagated vineyard. 

Winemaking Decisions

Although the region is most famed for its varietal wines (single expressions of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Aligoté), there are the occasional blends, such as the historical Passetoutgrain red wines (which literally means ‘pass all the grapes); red wines composed of Pinot Noir and Gamay. 

The key differentiators regarding the style of Pinot Noir produced in the region largely comes down to a few key decisions: picking date (earlier resulting in fresher styles with lower alcohol, and later resulting in riper styles with higher alcohol), whole bunch (or lack thereof), maceration techniques and new oak percentage. Check out our Red Wine 101 Guide for more information on how these choices impact the wine.

For white wine, namely Chardonnay, the key differences in flavour are also usually down to new oak percentage, vessel type and bâtonnage (the French word for lees stirring). The latter decides how creamy/rich the mouthfeel of the wine will be. Check out our White Wine 101 Guide for more information on how these choices impact the wine.

Regarding vessels, the most common format for all wines made in Burgundy are 228L barrels, and often a percentage of new oak will be used to add a certain toasty or spicy element to the wine. There are also an increasing number of winemakers experimenting with amphorae, concrete (tanks and eggs), as well as several who use stainless steel and/or fibreglass.  

Whole bunch fermentation at Domaine Dujac

Jean-Yves Bizot

There has also been a growing number of winemakers reducing their sulfite additions in recent years. Jean-Yves Bizot of Vosne Romanée explains, 

“Sulfite solution only became industrially commercialised in the mid 1960s here… I was drinking the wines of the 70s and the 80s and I didn’t like them. There was a strange meatiness about them — like pâté — something I didn’t find pleasant. In the wines from before this era, you didn’t get those aromas or tastes. I started to ask myself - why weren’t they like that before? Was it chemicals, technology or the generational shift that occurred in the 70s?”

It’s not, however, quite as simple as just being a case of sulfites' prominent arrival on the scene. Jean-Yves tells us that the 70s and 80s also saw the arrival of agricultural machines - both in the vineyards and in the cellars. Mechanisation was further facilitated by sulfites: intense machine pumping of the wine was made possible as the wine was protected by the sulfites. It had become a vicious circle. In the meantime, the 80s represented a climatic nightmare for the region due to rot, which sulfites were also used to cover up. He believes that a combination of these factors resulted in the overall wine quality suffering throughout the region. 

Varieties

Pinot Noir

One of the oldest varieties of France, and considered one of the greatest, the best examples of Pinot Noir are perfumed, elegant and age-worthy, and tend to be wines that sit on the lighter side of the spectrum. To delve further into the variety, check out our feature piece here.

Chardonnay

Intriguingly, Chardonnay is the child of Pinot Noir; the other parent is an obscure variety called Gouais Blanc. Together, these two parent grapes have produced multiple offspring that are celebrated today, such as Chardonnay, Aligoté, Romorantin and Gamay. The first mention of Chardonnay as a variety (according to the tome Wine Grapes) was in 1685-90, when ‘chardonnet’ was said to make the most interesting wines. 

The variety is famous world-wide. Without very predominant fruity aromatics of its own, this means it’s very ‘malleable;’ hence many of the decisions that influence the taste of a bottle of Chardonnay come from decisions in the cellar and ageing.

The Chardonnays of Burgundy suffered a problematic reputation in the 2000s, when many of them developed unwanted oxidised aromas after just a few years of ageing. This phenomenon is known as ‘premox,’ which stands for premature oxidation. It’s hard to know why this occurred (and continues to occur), and it’s likely that there are many factors at play. Unsustainable farming, sulfite choices and modern technological winemaking are all considered likely candidates. With the arrival of fancy new press machines, it became possible to be much gentler with the juice. Contrary to what you might think, this might have caused the wine to in fact be more fragile, not less. Since several growers have begun ‘browning’ their juice—allowing their juice to take in as much oxygen as possible before fermentation commences (which would have been what happened in the old days when press machines were less advanced)—the phenols in the juice absorb the oxygen, which means there are less unoxidized phenols remaining. In turn, the wine is less exposed to oxygen as it ages, as it’s already saturated, protecting the wine for a much longer period of time. And don’t fear; the wine doesn’t stay brown! All of those brown compounds bind together with other molecules in the wine, falling to the bottom of the barrel. So, the final wine is actually a glimmering pale golden colour. Science is cool, we know…

Aligoté, Domaine des Rouges Queues

Aligoté

For many years Aligoté has somewhat unfairly been considered the ‘lesser’ version of its sibling, Chardonnay, in a similar way to how Gamay has been considered less ‘fine’ than Pinot Noir. At LITTLEWINE, we don’t feel this way, but rather celebrate each variety for its own characteristics. 

The best examples of Aligoté are very mineral and fresh, with a moreish salinity. Thanks to Aubert de Villaine and Pierre de Benoist of Domaine de Villaine and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and growers such as Dominique Derain, a conservatory of Aligoté (ofted dubbed Aligoté Doré due to the golden berries of the older selections) has been created via the propagation of cuttings from exemplary old vineyards. Examples of excellent old-vine Aligoté—by the likes of de Villaine, Lafarge, Domaine des Rouges Queues, de Moor, Derain and Le Grappin, to name just a few—have helped to kickstart a resurgence for the variety; indeed, so much so that there is now a group known as Les Aligoteurs which holds events and tastings to promote the variety.

Although particularly well known in the aforementioned Bouzeron AOC, there are special old-vine vineyards dotted around all over the region. The de Moors, for example, tend a vineyard of Aligoté in Chitry, which was planted in 1902. It’s become one of the most cult natural wines; but not because it’s made in any particular way. Rather, the opposite is the case; Alice and Olivier de Moor have never seen any variety as superior to the other. Alice explains,

“We’ve always treated Aligoté in the same way that we treat our Chardonnay. We weren’t purposefully trying to highlight Aligoté, but rather it simply made sense for us to treat all of our vineyards in the same way, and to approach the wines with the same thinking.” 

Sauvignon & Pinot Beurot

As always, there are some exceptions to the rule, and in the northerly segment of Burgundy, you also find Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris in the Saint-Bris appellation. 

Throughout the Côte d’Or, there is also the occasional plot of Pinot Beurot (the Burgundian version of Pinot Gris; a mutation of Pinot Noir), particularly in old, massal selection plots. Several of Dominique Derain’s plots are planted to very old vines; in some places the vines are over 100 years old; and his Mercurey "La Plante Chassey" plot, planted in 1936, still has some Pinot Beurot. Once upon a time this was common in the region, but it is now a rarity to find in a world that is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay obsessed. He says,

“Pinot Beurot is such a pretty Burgundian variety and it’s really special. The name might come from the old French word, bure, which was the name of the clothes the monks wore. The monks did a lot for wine.”

They did indeed, and we can’t wait to see what the future holds for the region; particularly now that there is a growing movement towards organic and biodynamic farming and massal selection vines, thereby preserving the region’s heritage.

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