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Burgundy 101

Updated: Jun 6, 2022

I had the pleasure of teaching my Burgundy 101 class at our shop a few weeks ago on Bastille Day! We had guests in full French flair: berets, scarves, even a fake mustache!

I love discussing Burgundy as it is one of the most intriguing but confusing regions when you start off on your wine journey. (It’s also an absolutely magical place to make a journey. More on that in another post.)

There’s such an intense catalog of sites thanks to the monks who worked this land hundreds of years ago. So I thought it could be fun to give a quick overview of the region here for those of y’all who live far away from my classes!

Burgundy is located southeast of Paris and stretches from Chablis in the north to Beaujolais in the south. Many would argue that Beaujolais is really a separate region with a different grape focus (Gamay) and different bedrock (granite). And thus I cover it in a different class and a different blog!

Chablis is also quite distant from the “heart” of Burgundy, but they do share a limestone bedrock and a focus on Chardonnay as the star white grape. They also both have a hierarchy of sites that’s peak is Grand Cru.

The Grand Cru Hill of Chablis
The Grand Cru Hill of Chablis

Chablis is a great discovery for those who love mineral driven white wines as it is still quite well priced compared to more expensive sites further south. We tasted the outstanding 2014 Louis Michel Premier Cru Butteaux, a top producer and site with some age for around $50 retail! Louis Michel does not use oak on any of his wines, and I love showcasing them in class as they truly reveal the terroir of the region. Descriptors that rang out: smoke, green apple, mountain stream. (Note: you can find great entry level Chablis in the $20s.)

Moving south from Chablis we find the aforementioned “heart” of Burgundy, the Côte d’Or, which translates to “Golden Slope.” Here we find Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in their happy place. This area is magical because there is a long stretch of vineyards in a relatively continuous line at the perfect mid-slope location. In the fall the leaves turn gold and red, hence Golden Slope!

The Famed Vineyard: Le Chambertin
The Famed Vineyard: Le Chambertin

The Côte d’Or can be subdivided into the Côte de Nuits (northern half) and the Côte de Beaune (southern half). The most famed Pinot Noir in the world comes from the Côte de Nuits, and the most famed Chardonnay comes from the Côte de Beaune. But there are great examples of both varieties in both regions. We tasted a stupendous village level Côte de Nuits wine, the 2016 Morey-Saint-Denis from Domaine Dujac (around $100 retail). This is one of the most sought after producers, and the wine could age for decades. But it tasted quite wonderful after an hour in the decanter. Descriptors that came to mind: black cherry, licorice, and of course plenty of dark, wet earth.

For the Côte de Beaune we tasted a 2015 village level Chardonnay from Domaine Bachelet-Monnot in Chassagne-Montrachet (around $70 retail). This proved quite the juxtaposition to the Chablis with aromas and flavors of chamomile tea, vanilla, and ripe yellow apple. This wine is aged in some new oak barrels, which imbues it with a certain decadence, but there is also just an inherent richness that comes with this land.

At this point you might be questioning: “village” level for such high prices? In the Côte d’Or the village level wines are often of very high quality -- nearing Premier Cru status. So yes, they have the prices to match. (But look out for the intro tier of Burgundy wines: Bourgogne Blanc and Bourgogne Rouge in the mid-thirties for better value!)

South of the Côte d’Or you will find the regions of the Chalonnaise and Mâconnais. Here the vineyards are a bit more scattered, and we lack that perfect exposition of the mid-slope. Thus there can be more variability in ripening and quality, but there’s also thankfully lower prices. You will find Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and the “other” white grape of Burgundy, Aligoté, which I have written on extensively in another post.

For class we tasted a 2016 Premier Cru Pinot Noir from Domaine Genot-Boulanger, their Mercurey-Sazenay for around $50 retail. Mercurey is a commune in the Chalonnaise that focuses almost entirely on Pinot Noir, and this is a top example. Its fresh, red fruited loveliness really resonated with the class, and it was many folks’ favorite wine of the day!

I had my own Bastille Day celebration at the house with a 2009 Pouilly-Fuisse (a sub-region of the Mâconnais specializing in Chardonnay) that I had hidden away for just such an occasion. It smelled and tasted of warm straw and baked apples. Great Burgundy definitely pays off for those with the patience and space to cellar. But as witnessed in the class it also tastes great in its youth. The bottom line: drink more Burgundy!

(And stay tuned for a more in depth look at region, including more pictures from my trip there in 2014. )

Historic Grape Basket Press Burgundy France
Historic Basket Press

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