The Cote d’Or (golden slope) which runs from the university city of Dijon in the north to the small town of Chagny 30 miles to the south, forms the heart of the Burgundy region. The vineyards lie in a narrow strip along the east-facing escarpment which rises out of the Saone plain to form the eastern edge of the Morvan hills. The Cote d’Or is itself split into two viticultural sub-regions, the Cote de Nuits to the north, and the Cote de Beaune to the south. In practical terms there is little to distinguish the two apart from the fact that the Cote de Beaune carries the region’s famous white wine producing appellations of Meursault, Puligny Montrachet and Chassagne Montrachet, whilst the majority of the rest of the region produces red wines. However, subtle distinctions exist all along the Cote which make the wines of one appellation or even vineyard taste perceptibly different from even its immediate neighbours.
The Cote was formed during the geological upheavals that threw up the Alps and the Massif Central, and comprises a Jurassic limestone seabed some 195 to 135 million years old. Heavily faulted both longitudinally and laterally, it is here that the key to these subtleties lies, for the bedrock which lies beneath one vineyard may be of a quite different antiquity to that of its neighbour. Streams flowing off the plateau have formed small valleys which usually follow fault lines, creating varied aspects to the slope and exposing some vineyards more to the south or the north. The best vineyards lie along the mid-slope, where the topsoil is neither too shallow as at the top of the slope, nor too alluvial as at the foot.
There are four tiers to the appellation – Bourgogne Blanc & Rouge, Village (as in Gevrey-Chambertin), 1er Cru, in which the vineyard name will be appended (e.g. Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Le Clos St.Jacques) and Grand Cru, in which the village name is entirely dropped in favour of the vineyard (e.g. Chambertin Grand Cru). This example also serves to illustrate the fact that during the 19th century the name of the village’s best vineyard was often appended to its name, as in Gevrey-Chambertin or Puligny-Montrachet. It is along the favoured mid-slope strip mentioned above that the 1er and Grands Crus lie, whilst wines produced at the top or the bottom of the slope are limited to village appellation status, and those approaching the plain beyond the north-south running RN74 are generally limited to Bourgogne Rouge or Blanc.
Both red and white Burgundy are monovarietals, rather than blends as in Bordeaux or Champagne. The red wines are made with the pale, often ethereal Pinot Noir variety, whilst the whites are pure Chardonnay. Some minor exceptions to this rule exist – there are still some small plantings of the Gamay of Beaujolais, which is permitted in a blend with Pinot Noir labelled Bourgogne Passetoutgrains Rouge, a little of the lean white Aligote is found (Bourgogne Aligote Blanc) and there are a few Pinot Blanc plants, most notably in a small parcel in Nuits St.Georges owned by Domaine Henri Gouges.
Both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are capable of excelling given the combination of well-drained limestone soils and a marginal climate, and Burgundy represents the apogee of the ability of both varieties to give wines which can achieve extraordinary heights of complexity given bottle age. Burgundian Pinot Noir is characteristically quite pale in colour and light in body, and when young it has aromas typified by descriptions of crushed cherries and raspberry, sometimes plums, which evolves into nuances of autumn undergrowth (sous-bois) and truffles, increasing in complexity as you rise through the appellation heirarchy. Great red Burgundy is savoury, seductive and compelling. In good hands it is also capable of remarkable transparency, in that one can read the minute variations in the Cote’s complex terroirs through the medium of the grape. Often already seductive while still in barrel, in fine vintages it can evolve for many years. Bourgogne Rouge and Village level wines can be drunk from 2 to 10 years, the 1er Crus from 4 to 15 years, and Grand Crus from 8 – 25 or more years. White Burgundy is inclined to be tightly wound when young, often displaying a citrus character combined with the flavours imparted by the oak barrels in which it usually fermented and aged. As it evolves it gains in richness and reveals complex vegetal and floral notes often combined with a certain nuttiness, though these should never overwhelm the essential elegance and harmony of the wines. Village wines should drink from 3 to 5 years, 1er Crus from 5 – 10 years, while Grand Crus require at least a decade of cellaring to show their best.
Vinification and elevage techniques in Burgundy are essentially traditional, and a glimpse into many growers cellars reveals a very different picture from the great Chateaux of Bordeaux. Stainless steel barely exists here, and the red wines are usually fermented in open topped wooden cuves before being decanted into oak barrels of 228 litres, varying proportions of which may be new, and matured for 12-18 months. Each producer will have different policies as regards destemming, maceration times, fermentation temperatures, fining and filtration. The Chardonnays are pressed and fermented, usually in oak barrels, some or all of which may be new – the more modest appellations are less capable of carrying new oak – and barrel aged on the fine lees for 12-24 months, with regular battonage or lees stirring to nourish and give richness to the wines.
Despite a rich history which saw land proprietorship in the region pass under both the great Burgundy dukedoms and the Cistercean monastic orders, the modern structure of Burgundy is deeply informed by the Code Napoleon, with a highly fragmented vineyard ownership, and thousands of growers each often owning a few rows of vines in several, sometimes many, different appellations. This gave rise in the 19th century to the negociant system, whereby a small number of firms usually based in and around the ancient town of Beaune bought and blended the crops of a number of growers in the various individual appellations in order to make marketable quantities of wine. However, during the 1930s, frustrated by fraud and poor standards, a number of growers started to bottle their own production, a movement which has accelerated considerably within the last two or three decades, so that there are now hundreds of proprietor-recoltants, effectively small, artisan scale producers, the demand for the produce of the best of which far outstrips their production. Not all growers, though, are making great wines, and many of the surviving negociants are producing excellent wines – indeed, there are a number of new and excellent boutique scale negociants appearing on the scene. In this region as much as any, it pays to know the good producers from the mediocre, for mistakes, when they are made, will almost certainly be expensive. Caveat emptor!