Burgundy is a veritable patchwork of the good, great and legendary. There are more Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines produced here than anywhere else in the world, by some of the most iconic names in the wine world. Whilst many very good and some genuinely great Pinot Noirs are made elsewhere in the world, none have yet scaled the heights of the finest Burgundy. At its best it is a wine that has layers of complexity and nuance, a haunting, almost ethereal bouquet, hedonistic dark summer berry fruit flavours, the sweet earthiness of beetroot and textural silky tannins. A wine that is at once rich and light on its feet, powerful and yet elegant and refreshing and a superb accompaniment to food. Unlike its red sibling, white burgundy has more genuine equals in the world of wine, with Chardonnay a more malleable variety to different terroirs than Pinot Noir is. This does not stop the wines from the region, at least from its more famous villages, selling for high prices. At its pinnacle, it still produces the most compelling examples of the grape and in Chablis, has a style that is almost unique in the world, managing the tightrope of being just ripe yet with a certain sumptuous weight at the core. Around 60% of Burgundy’s output is white wine, strongly influenced by the relatively large quantities made in the Maconnais.
The greater Burgundy region comprises 100 different appellations, with more than 3,000 producers owning anywhere from whole appellation to single rows of vines in some of the most high prized and expensive land in the world. Burgundy is typically sub-divided into five regions: Chablis, 100km north of Beaune in the Yonne department; Cote de Nuits and Cote de Beaune in the Cote d’Or; then Challonnais and Maconnais in the south.
The basic layout of the Côte d’Or is simple enough, a long limestone outcrop that has weathered over the years, with the limestone being mixed down the gentle slopes in different proportions. High on the slope, the soil is thin, the climate cooler and grapes ripen late. At the bottom of the slope, frost is more of a risk, the soils are deeper, younger and richer and wines from here can be good but are never great. It is towards the centre of the slope, where there is a perfect mix of limestone and marl that the greatest wines are made. The finest vineyards face east or slightly to the south of east, warming them early in the day. The Côte d’Or is a marginal climate for ripening Pinot Noir and in many years it is a struggle to attain full ripeness before autumn rains arrive in all but the best sites. Chardonnay, however, ripens quite reliably in all but the coldest years, although generous acidity is a hallmark of the grapes from here and spring frosts can occasionally reduce the crop.
The Cote de Beaune is the heartland for white wines, centring on the brilliant villages of Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet. Without doubt the finest wines are found on the mid- to upper- slopes, where all the Premier and Grand Cru vineyards are located. By comparison, the wines on the flatter vineyards lack the subtlety of expression and depth of character of those further up the slopes, and are typically bottled as generic Bourgogne Blanc. Further north, Chablis is quite literally the limit point for growing Chardonnay with the intent of producing still wines. The very best Grand Crus combine steely power with chalky depth and fruit richness, while a number of Premier Cru make saline, vibrant and flat out delicious wines. Compared to the ripe fruit and richness of Chardonnay produced in the Maconnais and Chalonnais, it is quite literally night and day.
For reds, the best wines are made in the Cote de Nuits, although the Pommard and Volnay in the Cote de Beaune produce beautiful, beguiling wines. Some of the most legendary wines come from domaines within Gevrey-Chambertin, Morey-St. Denis, Chambolle-Musigny, Vougeot, Vosen-Romanee and Nuits-St-Georges. The sheer diversity of expression, from village to village and even within the vineyards themselves, is stunning. From the power of Gevrey, to the elegance of Chambolle, and perfume of Vosne, there is no wonder why the world can be captivated by these wines for centuries.