The Wines of Burgundy: 101

Posted November 07, 2016

Stacy Brody

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You walk into the wine store and wander the aisles. You stop in “Burgundy,” surrounded by bottles of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with high price tags. You scour the labels for something you recognize, but there are so many similar estate names and so many different crus you’re just not quite sure. Nothing looks familiar, and everything looks like it is way out of your budget.

You move on to the next aisle and settle on something else, but you really wanted Burgundy.

 

How do you navigate the Burgund aisle and find a bottle worthy of buying at a price that won’t drain your bank account?

We brought importer Juan Prieto in for a special Saturday seminar, Burgundy 101, to answer just that question and many more. 

Juan has been importing wines from Burgundy since 1999. He visits at least twice a year (so jealous), looking for small producers who also own their vineyards. How does he find the best estates? By asking sommeliers at the restaurants in the region and also by asking winemakers who else is producing great wines.

Juan didn’t start with Burgundy. Like many of us, Juan first tried wines from California. The more he got interested in wine, everything from vine to glass, the more he realized there was this huge fuss about European wines, particularly those of Burgundy. It seemed everyone wanted to make Pinot Noir and Chardonnay like they do there.

But why?

 

Because Burgundy is a wine region like no other.

Juan started from the very beginning of Burgundy. As in 200 million years ago. We go back this far to get a grasp of the region’s geologic history of the and its impact on today’s terroir.

Two hundred million years ago, Burgundy was mountainous and tropical, located near the equator. The continents shifted and Burgundy eventually found its way to its present location at about 45 degrees north latitude. For some time after this tropical period, Burgundy was under sea. All the shelled organisms that swam and crawled in this ancient ocean endowed the land of Burgundy with precious limestone deposits. After the ocean, there was the ice age and glaciers pushing tons of dirt around. Eventually, the glaciers melted.

And we finally get our present-day Burgundy.

 

According to modern classifications, Burgundy is split into several subregions.

1. Chablis is located between Paris and Dijon. Though geographically separated from the rest of Burgundy, it has long been grouped with the rest of the region.

2. Stretching from Dijon south to Santenay, you have the Cote D’Or (“Golden Slope”). This is where your prime Burgundy comes from.

a. The northern half is the Cote du Nuits, known for its Pinot Noir, especially from the villages Vosne Romanee and Gevrey Chambertin, among others.

b. The southern half of the Cote D’Or is the Cote de Beaune, which is known for Pinot Noir from places like Pommard and Volnay, and also for its Chardonnay, especially from Meursault, Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny Montrachet.

3. South of the Cote D’Or, you have the Cote Challonaise.

4. Then, below that but above Beaujolais and the Rhone, there is Maconnais.

For our special seminar, we stayed in the Cote D’Or, exploring the heart of Burgundy. That’s not to say that great values can’t be found elsewhere, i.e. from Chablis and Maconnais.

 

Exploring the Cote D'Or

We started with “basic” Bourgogne, a regional classification. Grapes for “Bourgogne” can be sourced from anywhere within Burgundy. If you find the right producer, you are in for a beautiful and budget-friendly bottle. Ask a Wine Library team member or do some research before shopping. When you walk down that intimidating Burgundy aisle, take a close look at the labels. Juan recommends looking for the phrase “Mis en bouteille a la Propriete.” This indicates that the wine was grown, made and bottled by the domaine. Juan looks for these producers, the ones who grow their own grapes. Great winemaking starts in the vineyard. Terroir is extremely important in Burgundy, where exploration into the impact of village, vineyard and site dates back hundreds of years to when monks were wine’s main producers and consumers.

Back to basics. 

We sampled the Bzikot Bourgogne Blanc first. The label displays that key phrase, “Mis en bouteille a la Propriete.” If you look closely, you’ll note that Bzikot is located in Puligny-Montrachet, a highly-regarded village in the Cote de Beaune. For $25 a bottle, this is one of my favorite wine shopping hacks and a perennial favorite.

On the rouge side, we sampled the Bourgogne from Domaine Gerard Seguin. Seguin’s estate is found in Gevrey Chambertin in the Cote de Nuits. This is another estate-grown, estate-bottled $25 steal of a wine (just in time for gobble gobble day).

Moving up the classification hierarchy, we opened the Domaine Michel Noellat Nuits St Georges. Nuits St. Georges is a village in the Cote de Nuits and the source of Louis XVI’s favorite wine. Noellat’s vineyards are primarily situated near the border with neighboring village Vosne Romanee. Despite such an ideal location, Noellat continues to be an insider buy. With only 5% of the estate’s production making it to the U.S., the winery does not garner the attention of wine writers and reviewers. We love sharing wines like these through events and emails.

Another notch up the classification hierarchy, we sampled the Lamy Pillot Chassagne Montrachet Les Vergers. As a premier cru wine, this bottle bears the name of the village (Chassagne Montrachet) and of the cru (Les Vergers). A Grand Cru wine, the pinnacle of the hierarchy, is labeled only by the cru, omitting the village all together. You just have to know these things (or ask your friendly wine associate). Though no Grand Cru wines were sampled that Saturday,  the Les Vergers showed beautifully, a gorgeous, opulent Chardonnay. Too bad Juan brings only 15 cases of it to the states!

We would love to see Juan back for a Burgundy 102 seminar. He’s sure to bring us more great under-the-radar wines soon!

 

In the end, the best wine may not be Grand Cru, or even Premier Cru. Heck, it might not even be Bourgogne. The best wine, says Juan, is the one you like.

Tell us what the best wine is to you!

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