This blog post is the first in a series written after the author, Cathy Curtis, enjoyed a Commonwealth Club Travel food and wine tour of the Burgundy region of France. The tour company, Martin Keegan Tours invited Colette Barbier, a native of Dijon, professional tour guide and wine expert, to accompany the group and share her prodigious knowledge of the food, wine and history of northern Burgundy.
I’ve imbibed my share of French wine from Burgundy but I’d never learned how to choose one properly. Instead, I relied on wine shop salespeople or sommeliers to choose for me. This seemed like cheating, but it was a whole lot easier than figuring out the French system for labeling wines.
When learning a foreign language, it’s smart to immerse one’s self completely, and the same goes for learning about wine. For five fun-filled days, a small group of Commonwealth Club travelers sniffed, swirled, sipped and spit as the irrepressible Colette taught us the finer points of wine tasting and schooled us in the appellation system of Burgundy.
Colette says, “There is nothing in Burgundy without the terroir.” She enunciates the word terroir with relish and with much rolling of “r’s” as only the French can. As we drove down the narrow roads through the vineyards of Burgundy, we learned that every parcel of land has unique qualities depending on the type of soil, the climate and the topography. These qualities are perfect for growing the chardonnay and pinot noir grapes which make up the majority of the production in the region. The best vignerons (wine-growers or winemakers) in Burgundy know how to care for the grapes and make the wine to capture their land’s specific terroir in the bottle.
This concept of terroir is the basis for the French wine AOC, or appellation d’origine controlée (controlled designation of origin), system. Wine labels emphasize the region, vineyard or appellation more prominently than the grape varietal or the producer. Currently, there are 100 AOCs in Burgundy, which are classified as Grand Cru (1.4% of total production in Burgundy), Premier Cru (10.1%), Village Appellations (36.8%) or Regional Appellations (51.7%). This practice of delineating vineyards by terroir goes back to medieval times when Cistercian and Benedictine monks developed the wine industry in Burgundy, but it wasn’t until modern times (in the 1920s and ’30s) that it was made into law.
Classification and labeling:
Grand Cru: Grand Cru is wine produced from the best vineyards in Burgundy. These wines are usually meant for cellaring and are expensive. The labels only list the name of the vineyard as the appellation such as Corton or Chambertin or Clos de Vougeot, but not the village name.
Premier Cru: Premier Cru is wine produced from high quality vineyards, but not as well-regarded as Grand Cru. These wines are labeled with the name of the village of origin and usually the vineyard name. Examples include: Savigny-Les-Beaune or Volnay. Some Premier Cru’s are produced from several Premier Cru vineyards in the same village and don’t carry the name of an individual vineyard.
Village Appellation: These are wines produced from a blend of wines from lesser vineyard sites within the boundaries of one of the 44 villages, or from one non-classified vineyard. Village wines will show the village name on the wine label, such as Pommard, Beaune or Meursault.
Regional Appellation: These are wines that are produced over the entire region or over an area significantly larger than an individual village. These appellations can be divided into three groups. First is AOC Bourgogne, the standard appellation for red or white wines made anywhere throughout the region, followed by subregional, or appellations that cover a part of Burgundy larger than a village, such as Bourgogne Hautes-Cotes de Beaune or Macon-Villages. Lastly, these are the wines made from other grape varieties such as Bourgogne Aligoté or sparkling wines.
Colette made sure we stopped to pay homage to two of the most famous vineyards in Burgundy: Romanée Conti is an AOC (created in 1936) and Grand Cru vineyard for red wine in the Cote de Nuits subregion of Burgundy, with pinot noir as the only grape variety. Single bottles of pinot noir from this vineyard have sold for over $10,000! We also visited the Montrachet AOC, a Grand Cru vineyard for white wine from chardonnay grapes in the Cote de Beaune subregion. Many wine connoisseurs consider the wines from this region to be the greatest dry white wines in the world.
Most of us won’t be stocking our cellars with the Grand Crus of Burgundy. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t drink wines from Burgundy that are delicious and affordable. The village or regional status does not mean that they are bad wines; a talented vigneron can make good wines in every category. In a region where, as winemaker David Clark said, “behind every second door there is winery” and where there are thousands of producers but only about 100 of them are well-known, hidden gems can be found.