We aim to provide a selection of the iconic wines of the Côte d’Or, and of the wider Burgundy area, Chablis, the Mâconnais, Côte Chalonnaise and Beaujolais. This means that all the whites (except one) are from the chardonnay grape, and all the reds (except Beaujolais) from pinot noir. The whites are therefore dry, but balanced with fruit, butter and hazelnuts; reds can have more power, but big tannic wines are the realm of Bordeaux – here there is more finesse with red fruit, cassis and velvet.
Yet there is enormous variety – the Côte d’Or is a low ridge in eastern France, running 30 miles NNE to SSW with the old town of Beaune half way. The eastern side of this ridge faces southeast so picks up most of the day’s sun, and is based on Jurassic limestone with a topsoil of clay and marl, a perfect combination for both sorts of vine. The variety comes principally from the geology and terrain – the “Terroir”. For instance, over the years the topsoil from the upper slopes is washed down to the valley floor, so that wines from the slopes, rooted more immediately in rock, are leaner and more finessed, whilst those from the bottom in deeper soil are often richer and more immediate if less structured and complex – a row of vines can have a different characteristic at one end to that of the other. And it comes as no surprise that the very best wines all along the ridge come from the sweet spot just at the lower part of the slope where finesse and richness, rock and soil, are perfectly balanced.
Then there are the “combes” – the main slope tends to protect the vineyards from the prevailing westerly winds, but small breaks along the main ridge allow cooler winds to come through at some points, and also mean that a few vineyards may point more northeast or southwest.
Then there is the skill of the winemaker, dealing with problems such as early frosts and late rain, and choosing when to harvest and what process to follow. The effect of French inheritance law and the breaking up of estate land following the French Revolution means that ownership of individual vines is liberally scattered amongst the local winemakers – no vast vineyard estates here and lots of scope for niche producers to make their mark alongside new generations of long-established families.
Much the same can be said of the wider Burgundy regions: Chablis lies to the north, and its cooler climate and unique limestone – derived from prehistoric oyster beds – give its white wines a flinty minerality perfect for accompanying the shellfish from which it derives; at the southern extreme, the warm reds of Beaujolais come from the Gamay grape – warm summer sun captured in a glass. And the Côte Chalonnaise just south of the Côte-d’Or and the Mâconnais between there and Beaujolais produce lovely wines in the burgundy style with long established reputations in their own right – Pouilly-Fuissé, Rully, Montagny, Mercurey.
This list is our indulgence – your indulgence is to try one……
The Côte-d’Or is the iconic central region of Burgundy. The Côte de Nuits is the northern half of the Côte-d’Or around the village of Nuits-St-Georges, mainly producing red wine, and the Côte de Beaune is the southern half south of the town of Beaune, producing some great reds but especially the greatest whites. Most wines (except Grand Crus, which you are deemed to know already) state the village from which they come as different villages are said to have subtly different characteristics.
The main villages and communes of the Côte d’Or, north to south are Gevrey-Chambertin, Morey-St-Denis, Chambolle-Musigny, Vougeot, Echezeaux, Vosne-Romanée, Nuits-St-Georges, Aloxe-Corton, Savigny-Les-Beaune, Beaune, Pommard, Volnay, Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet. Lesser known but deserving villages include Marsannay, Monthelie, Fixin, Pernand-Vergelesses, Auxey-Duresses, St-Aubin, Maranges and Santenay.
The classification of the Côte-d’Or grades not the wines themselves, but the vineyards from which they come, vineyards in which many – sometimes dozens – of different winemakers all own small parcels of vines. So a wine from a top ranked vineyard ought to be good, but is subject to the vagaries of the seasons of each vintage and the winemaker’s individual skill. But it probably is good – it would be difficult to make an appallingly bad Montrachet year on year and not be found out.
A Grand Cru wine is one from a vineyard regarded as the very best – not necessarily always in power, but in complexity, finesse, and ability to develop with age, especially red wines. The names are legendary – Montrachet, Clos de la Roche, Romanée-Conti, Chambertin and so on – there are 33 of these up and down the Côte-d’Or, mostly reds but including the very finest whites.
A Premier Cru is the next level down – still amongst the finest wines with reputations and quality almost matching those of the Grand Crus, sometimes even exceeding – indeed in some cases local tradition has it that certain Premier Cru vineyards only failed to be classified as Grand Cru because of local politics or a desire to avoid the additional tax that would result from the higher grading.
A Village Appellation wine, where the just the name of the village or commune is given, such as “Puligny-Montrachet”, “Gevrey-Chambertin” or “Pommard”, is a wine from the other vineyards within the commune not of Grand or Premier Cru level. Though not of the two very highest ranks, these can still be very fine wines, and indeed as many come from the lower slopes or valley floor where soils are deeper, what the wines lose in finesse, structure and complexity, they can often gain in immediate flavour and richness, and can often be ready to drink much sooner.
Bourgogne Rouge and Blanc are more generic wines of the area, perhaps using grapes from de-classified vineyards, or a blend of spare produce, or sometimes the grapes from relatively newly planted vines from a top vineyard that are not yet ready to join their neighbours. In the hands of a good maker, a Bourgogne Blanc or Rouge can still be a fine introduction to the subject.
As to Hautes Côtes de Nuits and Hautes Côtes de Beaune, Bourgogne Passe-Tout-Grains, and Grand Vin Ordinaire de Bourgogne, or minimum alcohol levels and maximum yields, don’t even ask. It gets complicated. Why spoil a lovely holiday on Skye by worrying? If we have a Hautes Côtes de something on the list it is because it tastes nice. Understanding Hautes Côtes and Vin Ordinaire and the rest is a bit like quantum mechanics and string theory – it leads you to a place from where light cannot escape.
Distinct from the Côte-d’Or is Chablis way to the north, in that cooler climate famous for its flinty whites, and broadly set up in a similar way to the Côte-d’Or in its grand and premier crus; as are the two areas to the south, Mâcon (including Pouilly-Fuissé) and the Côte Chalonnaise including Rully, Mercurey and Montagny).
Beaujolais, to the very south, is a thing apart, in that it specializes in the red Gamay grape and in its own system, to the extent that some do not consider it a burgundy at all. Beaujolais Villages marks the best of the rest, but its finest wines come from 10 villages or areas: Brouilly, Côte de Brouilly, Fleurie, Saint-Amour, Chénas, Juliénas, Régnié, Morgon, Chiroubles, and most substantially, Moulin-à-Vent.