We were overwhelmed with Burgandy’s complexity. The soil, the climate, the changes in altitudes… It was overwhelming. vineyards separated by a stone wall or a path can possess very different flavors and levels of quality. I felt like we would never learn it all. On our tour, Jean-Michel (from Authentica Tours) explained how the wines are classified and it really helped make sense of them. The vineyards of Burgundy have four levels:
- Regional and district appellations that tell it’s from the area or even a specific part of it. The label will read something like (AOC Bourgogne, Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes de Beaune, Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes de Nuits, or Mâcon-Villages).
- Premier Cru (1ere Cru)
- Grand Cru
The reason the labeling system is so specific is the terroir is so diverse. Different soils and geology produce different tastes. Two of the wines below were produced just feet from each other. We were astonished by how different they tasted. Incredible.
Regional wines are produced over the entire region (Bourgogne = Burgundy). If you want to try one, the label will say “Bourgogne”. They may sometimes combine different types of grapes in these wines.
Village/commune wines are produced from vineyard sites (that aren’t Grand or Premier Cru) within the boundaries of one village. Each village’s wines have their own specific qualities and characteristics The village’s name will appear on the label.
Premier Cru (1ere Cru) wines are produced from very high quality vineyards (smaller, more specific areas than the village designation). The label will have:
- the name of the village,
- the Premier Cru status (how else can they get you to pay more for it), and
- the vineyard name (usually).
Grand Cru is the highest level and produced from the very best plots. They are very, very expensive. How do people know they’ll be good? They’ve grown wine on them for thousands of years; they’ve seen their consistent quality and distinctive character over the years. In these wines, everything is been done to ensure the maximum expression of the grape and the terroir. The label will contain:
- the words Grand Cru (probably in larger print than the price)
- the name of the exact part of the Grand Cru area the wine is from
According to Jean-Michel, “wine tasting is an intellectual experience.” It’s pretty fun too.
Jean-Michel (a tour guide par excellence) said that to understand Burgundy, we must understand its geology. Burgundy doesn’t produce tons of wine, but it produces very good wines and some outstanding (ridiculously expensive) ones. Why? Geology.
Millions of years ago, Burgundy was the seaside. Over time, as pressure from the African and European plates, caused the layers of soil to bend and fracture. Glaciers further shattered them. The vineyards still follow this fault line. There is a narrow strip with great soil (for growing wine) whose diversity is due to the breakup of these layers.
The shakeup of the seaside yielded the perfect mix for growing wine in certain really specific areas (the dispersed bits and pieces combined with microclimates are the main reasons for Burgandy’s notorious complexity).
Burgundy is in France. As a result, it didn’t take long for people to realize and exploit its wine growing potential. Jean-Michel explained that the monastic orders became the first major vineyard owners. With land, time to study and a dedication to physical labor, they quickly learned how different vineyard plots consistently gave different wines. When popes took a liking to their wines, the monks had a powerful bargaining chip that they used and keenly protected (keeping the quality high).
Making a valuable commodity like good wine made the monks rich and powerful. This is just one of their several wine presses. they meant business. The monk’s summer residence. Clearly, they weren’t hurting.
After Burgundy became part of the France, the power of the church decreased and many vineyards were sold. During the French Revolution, the church’s remaining vineyards were seized and sold. Napoleonic inheritance laws caused the continual subdivision of the most precious vineyard land. As a result, many modern day growers only hold a row or two of vines! The different colors, stakes and markers at the end of the rows below differentiate the rows of different owners!
*Except for maybe Boone’s Farm.