Burgundy Wines: To Understand them is to Love them
Burgundy or Bourgogne is one of the most intriguing wine regions in France, shrouded in a colourful medieval past of powerful dukes and rebellious monks unsuccessfully tamed by worried popes. Its past continues to influence its present still melded with the medieval: walled towns, monasteries, high-walled estates and an aristocratic heritage that has bequeathed a legacy of confusion, complication and complicity. Yet, at its best, Burgundy wines are some of the most memorable and evocative red and white dry in the world.
The large estates of vineyards were owned for a millennium by the titled elite and the Church’s monasteries. Following the French Revolution the estates were sold off in smaller parcels to the citizens of the new Republique de France. Later, Napoleon’s Inheritance Law would compound the fragmentation of vineyard ownership where every child was entitled to an equal share of their late parent’s estate, unlike in Ireland’s eldest son entitlement. Today, the result is a range of parcels of vines within a single vineyard, each owned by a different winemaker making wines in their individual styles, similar to having several chefs in the same kitchen. Having multiple vineyard owners for the same vineyard can affect the consistency of quality of wines each bearing the same name of that single vineyard.
For the casual consumer, price alone is not always a reliable guide to quality. The small print on the bottle’s label of the winemaker’s name is more reliable. But that requires a serious depth of knowledge. One simple solution is the role of the Wine Merchant/ Négociant who buys in bulk from several winemakers and blends to give a more even quality and a keener price: Joseph Drouhin, Louis Jadot, William Faiveley and Louis Latour are amongt the many.
Most vineyards lie between the twin capitals of French gastronomy, Dijon and Lyons.
A thousand years of cultivation breeds familiarity. This is so true on Burgundy’s wine label that rarely mentions its native grapes Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or Gamay opting instead for the district (e.g. Mâçon), commune/ village (Pouilly-Fuissé, Saint-Véran and Lugny etc.) or vineyard plot/climat name (Les Charmes, Les Coères and Clos de Chaigne etc.). This assent in quality and with a more concentrated local accent is often accompanied by an increasing price.
Districts to Keep in Mind
The district of Chablis is more of a satellite of Burgundy and is nearer to Paris than the region’s gastronomic capital, Dijon. The soil is this district’s defining character. The added dimension of the prehistoric marine fossils in the soil are reincarnated in the Premier Cru and Grand Cru best vineyards as a salty, briny or minerally characteristic.
Mâçon and Montagny represent some of the best value Chardonnays from Burgundy. Located in the region’s warmer south, the wines have a fuller body, softer acidity and red apple fruit character than it most northerly satellite of Chablis. Village wines in the Mâçon district such as Lugny are popular, while those from the village at Montagny often have a mineral note from the vineyard.
The almost gold dust status of the planet’s most expensive vineyards, appropriately named Côte d’Or or ‘golden slopes’ running 45km south of Dijon. This is the heartland of Burgundy’s best. However, in true French fashion, the gold referred to has a more romantic inspiration than financial. The hillsides’ swathe of vine leaves in Autumn change to colours of burnished gold, russet and copper hues shimmering in the sun that accounts for the golden description.
The Côte d’Or is subdivided into two districts. The Côte de Nuits (slope of the night) is south of Dijon with dark marl, a calcium-rich clay soil producing the more masculine and intense long-lived red wines (Nuits St. George, Vosne-Romanée, Vougeot and Gevry-Chambertin etc.).
By contrast, the district of the Côte de Beaune is around the medieval fortress walled town of Beaune. Here the soil is visibly paler with limestone and its reds are in the softer and more feminine style (e.g. Pommard and Volnay). But more importantly, Beaune produces what many consider to be the finest dry white wines in the world (e.g. Aloxe-Corton, Meursault and Chassagne-Montrachet etc.).
Understanding the label of a Burgundy Bottle
In the pecking order of quality, the very best vineyards are classified as Grand Cru or “great vineyard/ growth”. Wines from these vineyards produce just one hundredth of Burgundy’s wines and the vineyard’s name is dominant on the label.
Next are the vineyards classified as Premier Cru or “first vineyards/ growths” and their vineyard name is highlighted on the label e.g. Clos St. Jean. Followed by some high achieving villages/ communes e.g. Pommard and Volnay. Some villages bask in the reflected glory of a nearby top vineyard by attaching its name to follow the village name. e.g. the village of Gevrey with the nearby Grand Cru vineyard Le Chambertin thus, the village’s wines are named Gevrey-Chambertin; similarly with the village Chassagne and the Montrachet Grand Cru vineyard: Chassagne-Montrachet. Wines blended from a number of quality villages in either district are classified as Côtes de Nuits Villages or Côtes de Beaune Villages. Whereas, the generic regional classification is Bourgogne, the French for Burgundy.
Burgundy is famed as a gastronomic wine region, renowned for its Boeuf Bourguignon, garlicky escargots and piquant Dijon mustard. Gifted to the world one of the most challenging black grape varietals, Pinot Noir and the most famous and food-friendly white grape variety, Chardonnay, named after a local village in its Mâçon district.
The Original Chardonnay
The styles of Chardonnay were pioneered by Burgundy’s winemakers and adopted all over the world wherever Chardonnay is planted. Chardonnay is the artist’s brush and the various soils, the palette. The chameleon-like grape assumes the character of its environment, soil, climate and it loves the company of oak casks. While always dry, its styles vary from appley, nutty and buttery to lean, lemony and crisp, depending on whether they were matured in oak barrels or steel vats or had a malolactic fermentation. The unoaked wines (e.g. Chablis and Mâçon-Villages) best suit shellfish and freshwater fish and salads or pasta with pesto or garlic butter. While the oaked Chardonnays (e.g. Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet) work well with denser fish, salmon and monkfish with light creamy sauces or white meat and poultry.
The Dark Side
If Bordeaux’s Cabernet Sauvignon appeals to the stomach, then Burgundy’s Pinot Noir nurtures the soul, capable of producing an almost spiritual wine experience. Because Pinot Noir ripens early on the vine, its wines mature relatively quickly in the bottle making it perfect for the impatient because it expresses itself openly when young.
Favouring cooler climates result in light to medium alcohol and body. Pinot Noir’s black skins are thin, containing less pigment and tannins. The resulting pale red wines with low tannins can be served fridge cool with rich white meats and dark pink fleshed fish, tuna and salmon.
Beaujolais, dancing to its own beat
Burgundy’s most southerly region, Beaujolais is different in every way. The Gamay Noir grape rules here. Banished in 1395 by the Dukes of Burgundy from their best vineyards to the southernmost outcrop now known as the Beaujolais District. Gamay was not regarded as good enough to rub shoulders with its more noble neighbour, Pinot Noir. Yet, technically, Beaujolais is within the Burgundy administrative region. Gamay thrives in the sandy and granite soils producing nearly half of the entire Burgundy’s region’s wines.
Stylistically, Gamay is a strawberries-and-cream kind of wine. Red strawberry fruit flavours and sometimes too crisp an acidity make it a popular lunch companion and a refreshing summer red wine. Its gentle tannins mean it can be served cool, especially the simpler Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages wines.
The type of soil in the vineyards determines the wines’ quality. While the sandier soil in the northern half of Beaujolais make simple easy drinking Beaujolais and better Beaujolais-Villages wines for early consumption. However, the granite hillsides in the southern half of the district produce wines with greater depth of flavour, most notably in the ten named villages or Cru wines. These wines improve if aged for three to six or more years including some of the better known Cru wines Fleurie, Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent and Saint-Amour.
Burgundy can command some of the highest prices for French wines. However, this tasting sought to prove that quality wines can be found at good value prices, while maintaining their regional accent and delivering a food-friendly satisfying experience.
Crémant de Bourgogne, Blanc de Blancs, Cave de Lugny
€18.95 down from €20.95 for the month of April at O’Brien’s Wine
Made with 100% Chardonnay as described by the “Blanc de Blancs”. Crémant means a sparkling wine in France made in the Traditional Method as performed in the Champagne region. Concentrated aromas of freshly zested lemons that are mirrored on the taste buds. Crisp and dry with a long pithy grapefruit refreshing finish. Food friend: smoked salmon canapés.
Chablis Premier Cru 2014, André Vannier
€17.99 at Aldi nationwide
Muted slate mineral bouquet. Delicious tangy lemon and green apple with a lemon curd fruitiness. Zesty finish. Very long with integrated acidity and no austerity. Twelve months on the fine lees adds a silky texture. Delicate and delightful. Made from a blend of Premier Cru vineyards around the village of Chablis. Food friend: serve with a shell fish platter and oysters in particular.
Macon-Villages Uchizy 2015, Raphael Sallet
€16.50 at Marks & Spencer nationwide
Muted melon and red apple aromas. Soft white fruity flavours and white nectarine. Smooth texture and balanced acidity with a star fruit finish.
Tasty and balanced. Food friend: roast chicken and herby stuffing.
Domaine Olivier Santenay Bievaux
€36.95 at O’Brien’s Wine
Golden colour from oak barrel aging. Classic oaked Chardonnay hay and hazelnutty bouquet. Rich flavours of nuts with a lemony streak to contrast the richness.
Food friend: partner with paella, laden with saffron chicken and fish.
Fleurie 2015, André Goichet, Beaujolais
€19.99 at SuperValu nationwide
The Gamay grape’s classic sappy and strawberry leafy aromas. Dry with tart crisp acidity and a vegetal tang to the semi-ripe red berry fruits and a white peppery finish. Food friend: plenty of refreshing acidity to cut through any richness of charcuterie and salami.
Domaine Olivier Santenay Premier Cru Beaurepaire 2013
€36.95 at O’Brien’s Wine
Suitable for vegetarians. Pinot Noir’s palest red with a hint of bronze on the rim showing maturity. Classic savoury bouquet and hazelnut skins. Intensely flavoured with a slightly vegetal and savoury palate, highlighted by red berry fruits, gentle tannins and crisp acidity. Lingering raspberry fruity and woody finish. Food friend: because naturally light in tannin, remarkably versatile with roast lamb, beef and game birds.
Liam Campbell is one of Ireland’s most experienced wine writers. His work has been featured in the pages of numerous publications, most recently as the Wine & Drinks Editor for The Irish Independent, as well as in Irish Homes, Easy Food and The Dubliner magazines.
Besides writing, his involvement in the world of wine goes deeper: he’s an approved WSET educator and holder of a WSET Diploma, Diploma in Craft Beer & Cider, and he has worked as judge in international wine competitions and as a wine consultant.