A Road Map to the Best of Burgundy

Pickers harvest grapes near Beaune, in Burgundy. The region produces some of the world's most prized pinot noir and chardonnay.
Pickers harvest grapes near Beaune, in Burgundy. The region produces some of the world's most prized pinot noir and chardonnay. (By Patrick Gardin -- Associated Press)
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By Joseph Ward
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 24, 2008; Page F05

No wine region seems more bewildering than Burgundy. Enthusiasts at home with Bordeaux, Napa Valley or the Rhone throw up their hands when given a Burgundy list. But unlocking the secrets of Burgundy comes with a grand payoff: some of the world's best pinot noir and chardonnay.

There are separate but linked reasons for the confusion. The classification within the AOC, the French system of geographically based quality certification, causes problems, and not just with nomenclature. Is Premier Cru higher than Grand Cru? Non.

Unlike Bordeaux, which is classified by estate or chateau, Burgundy is classified by village and/or vineyard. There is only one Chateau Lafite-Rothschild or Chateau Petrus, while an equivalent great vineyard in Burgundy -- say, Chambertin -- has dozens of owners, each entitled to the name. It is not enough to know Chambertin; it is also necessary to know the best producers in the vineyard. Granted, that is a problem, but not an insurmountable one. Let's begin with the easy bits.

Burgundy consists of five distinct regions, stretching from Chablis in the north to Beaujolais in the south. The great wines come mainly from the Cote d'Or and Chablis, and those are the regions we'll consider. The Chalonnais and Maconnais produce a number of very good wines, but they are not what people think of as great Burgundy. Beaujolais is part of Burgundy in name only. Its light, fruity reds, made with the gamay grape, are nothing like the great pinot noirs of the Cote d'Or.

As the home of pinot noir and chardonnay, Burgundy is where both grapes find their greatest expression. All red wines of the Cote d'Or are made from 100 percent pinot noir, and the white wines of Chablis and the Cote d'Or are made from 100 percent chardonnay. There are a couple of minor exceptions, but don't let those confuse the rule.

The Cote d'Or is divided into two parts: the Cote de Nuits, which produces almost exclusively red wine, and the Cote de Beaune, which produces white and red. Chablis is exclusively a white-wine region. So there are three major divisions to remember and only two grape varieties. Burgundy is beginning to sound simpler already.

There are several ways to look at Burgundy classification. I've seen it done as an archery target, with Grands Crus as the bull's-eye, and as stair steps, but I prefer the pyramid. It is the easiest way to understand how the Burgundians view their wines.

· At the bottom is simple Bourgogne or Burgundy, red or white. These wines can come from anywhere in the region, and with precious few exceptions they are entry-level chardonnay and pinot noir. They usually come from the larger negociants, although some top domaines bottle a Bourgogne. Negociants are merchants who buy grapes or young wine from small growers, then age, blend and bottle the wines under their own label. Domaines produce only wines from their own vineyards. The big negociants have substantial vineyard holdings, making them large domaines as well.

· Regional wines are a category created to give more elevated appellations to areas that formerly sold as Bourgogne. I include Petit Chablis, even though it is not a regional appellation, because it accomplishes the same thing.

· Village wines begin the great wines of Burgundy, and to learn the various names does take time and effort. The good news is that if you learn one village or commune, you've cracked the code, because all of them are organized on the same lines. Each village also gives a clue to its finest vineyard. Years ago, Gevrey appended Chambertin to its name; Chambolle did the same with Musigny. Because Le Montrachet straddles the border of Puligny and Chassagne, both towns adopted the suffix. The towns without hyphens, such as Beaune and Volnay, simply did not have a Grand Cru to claim.

Cote d'Or refers to the region's southeast-facing slope, where the greatest vineyards are. Most of the village wines come from the flatter terrain at the bottom of the hill.

A village wine must be made entirely from grapes grown within the village, and although the quality is not as consistent as it should be, the best can be very good. Some top producers who want to keep only the highest quality in their Premiers and Grands Crus declassify grapes that could be in Premiers Crus into the village wine, which leads to the first rule in choosing Burgundy. The most important information on a label is not the vineyard, not the village and not the vintage. It is the producer.

The average standard in Burgundy is much higher now than it was 20 years ago, but there are still underachievers working alongside dedicated vignerons. There is a market for Vosne-Romanee, Gevrey-Chambertin and Puligny-Montrachet, even the poorest examples. There is so little great Burgundy and so much demand that slackers can succeed.

· The next level is Premiers Crus. In addition to the village, labels list the vineyard and the Premier Cru designation: Gevrey-Chambertin Clos St. Jacques; Meursault Perrieres; Beaune Greves. Premiers Crus and Grands Crus are on the hillside sites prized for poor soil quality (which makes the vines struggle), better drainage and optimal exposure to the sun. The best Premiers Crus have become very expensive, but it is still possible to buy good red Premiers Crus from Beaune and Santenay without breaking the bank.

· At the top of the pyramid are Grands Crus, which should be sublime. No need for a village; the wines are identified by vineyard alone -- Le Musigny, La Tache, Chevalier-Montrachet -- and the Grand Cru designation. The exception is Chablis, where the wines are labeled Chablis Grand Cru with the name of the vineyard. These are the greatest vineyards of the region, each with its own specific characteristics. Bonnes Mares and Richebourg, both Grands Crus, both planted with pinot noir and separated by just a few miles, produce markedly different wines.

Burgundians celebrate terroir, which refers mainly to soil but also the vine's total environment. The greatest terroirs are Grands Crus, and next best are Premiers Crus. It might be smart marketing to reduce the number of classified vineyards, particularly Premiers Crus, but that would go against the soul of the region. Great Burgundy surely is worth some effort.

Joseph Ward is senior wine correspondent for Conde Nast Traveler.

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