Burgundy: a captivating paradox
- Andrea Pritzker,
Master of Wine & Esteemed Critic
Burgundy. Just say the name and wine lovers swoon. But what is it about this special French wine region that is so captivating?
For many, such as Jancis Robinson, MW, it was a bottle of Burgundy that was their ‘lightning-bolt moment’ in wine – an unforgettable wine that made them sit up and take notice. Indeed, the very best wines of the region have the capacity to sneak up on you, enchanting with their haunting fragrance, then slowly teasing you as they reveal layer upon layer of ethereal complexity.
The Bourgogne region (as the French call it) is small from a geographical perspective, covering just 30,052 hectares, but huge for producing the world’s most complex and sought-after wines. Located in the eastern centre of France, this landscape dotted primarily with small family-owned vineyards was once an inland sea. A combination of complex Jurassic-age geology, distinct topographical features, and a long history of wine cultivation has culminated in a complex mosaic of vineyards. And it is this mosaic that is both so bewildering and so captivating, for nowhere else on the planet produces wines that so precisely articulate the minute differences between vineyard sites.
As a region, Bourgogne is a paradox: quite simple to understand on one level, with just two principal grape varieties – Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – and utterly bewildering on another, with 84 separate appellations and a complex hierarchy of quality ranging from regional designations to the top echelon of Grand Cru. Tiny differences in soil, geology, and distance between vineyards (many measuring just a few metres) result in completely different wines – often with different quality designations and prices. It is this complexity that makes Bourgogne not only so uniquely enchanting but also at times so challenging to understand.
There are regions that make up Bourgogne: Chablis (the Grand Auxerrois and Châtillonnais), Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune, Côte Chalonnaise, and the Mâconnais – each comprising multiple communes or appellations.
There is also huge fragmentation in vineyard ownership in the region, with an incredible 3,577 domaines, most of which are small family-owned estates. This diversity adds to both the complexity and the charm of the region.
Spotlight on Chablis
Few white wines are as famous and as revered as those of Chablis. This northerly region of Bourgogne midway between Paris and Beaune is famous for Chardonnay but not as you know it. Here, a combination of a cool, marginal climate and distinctive geology dating back 150 million years produce a wine style that is unique in the world.
Although the whole region is often referred to generically as Chablis, Chablis is not just one wine. There are, in fact, four appellations: Petit Chablis, Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru, and Chablis Grand Cru.
Both Petit Chablis and Chablis are considered equivalent village-level appellations in the French AOC hierarchy. But they are distinctly different wines. Petit Chablis grapes are often grown at the top of hillsides of the region on Portlandian limestone, producing crisp, slightly more fruit-forward and accessible wines that are ideally suited as aperitifs.
Chablis wines are produced from vineyard sites sitting on Kimmeridgian limestone rich in Exogyra virgula fossils of tiny prehistoric oysters that date back to when the region was an inland sea. The wines are restrained and elegant, with lemon, green apple, and floral notes; lively, crisp acidity; and a distinctive thread of wet-stone minerality. They are brilliant matches to fish and seafood such as oysters and sushi. They also pair surprisingly well with charcuterie.
Sitting above Chablis on the quality hierarchy is Chablis Premier Cru. There are 40 designated ‘climats’, or plots of vineyard land, in the appellation, although 17 are the most famous and feature more regularly on bottlings. Premier Cru Chablis has excellent ageing potential ranging from five to 10 years, with great intensity and layered complexity.
The top appellation in Chablis is Chablis Grand Cru. Comprising just seven designated climats situated on the hillsides on the right bank of the Serein river, these are the most powerful, age-worthy wines of the region. Alongside ageing potential of 10 to 15 years, they offer impressive concentration, depth of complexity, and intensity, and you can match them to decadent foods such as lobster.
The combination of small production volumes (often decimated in recent years by severe frosts and hailstorms) and huge global demand has seen prices for the top wines of the region reach stratospheric heights. As extraordinary as those wines are, you don’t have to pay a small fortune for a great bottle of Burgundy. One of the most exciting aspects about Burgundy recently is the rise in quality of the smaller, lesser-known appellations and producers. If you’re willing to explore a bit, you can find some amazing-value wines.
With so many small domaines, different vineyards, quality levels, and variations in vintage, buying Burgundy can sometimes feel intimidating. Buying En Primeur (purchasing in advance of the wines being shipped to market) can be a good strategy to lock in prices and ensure you don’t miss out on the opportunity to buy a certain wine. Reading critics’ reviews and scores can also be very helpful, and finding a handful of producers whose wines you enjoy and following them from vintage to vintage is another smart strategy. Whatever tactics you employ to buy your Burgundy, you will be richly rewarded with some of the most complex, memorable, and beguiling wines being produced in the world today.