France's Burgundy Wine Region: A Primer on the History, Wines, Vineyards & Terroir

There is a saying among wine aficionados that on the journey to wine understanding, all roads eventually lead to Burgundy.  I am not sure I agree with that as my heart seems to be in Italy, but there is no denying the impact that Burgundy has had on the wine world and that some of the most ethereal wine experiences one can have come from Burgundy wines.  Many tomes have been written on the subject but the purpose of this article is to give a basic primer on the subject and eventually delve deeper into the Burgundy experience in subsequent articles. 

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The region of Burgundy is in the central part of eastern France and winds from the town of Auxerre at the northern end to the city of Lyon in the south.  The region is usually broken down into sub-regions.  The region of Chablis is the northernmost of these.  This is home to some of the crispest Chardonnay wines in the world.  For more information on this region please read my article Chablis: History & Recommendations for the Great Burgundy White Wine.  Further south is the Côte d'Or which means “golden slope”.  It is a thin strip of vineyards along a series of sloping hillsides running more or less north-south.  Most of the great vineyards in Burgundy are here.  The Côte d’Or is divided into two parts.  The northern half is called the Cotes de Nuits which starts just south of the city of Dijon and runs a few kilometers past the village of Nuits-Saint-Georges.  The best red wines are made in the Cotes de Nuits, in fact, 90% of the grapes grown here are Pinot Noir.  Twenty-four of the twenty-five red Grand Cru sites are located here. 

The southern half of the Cotes d’Or is called the Cotes du Beaune.  This is home to the best white wines (with the exception of Chablis).  Continuing south is the Cotes du Chalonaise which produces some very good wines and some of the best bargains in Burgundy.  Even further south is the Maconnais which is known for easy to drink wines and good prices.  At the very southern end of Burgundy is Beaujolais.  Beaujolais is technically part of Burgundy but the wines are different and in fact are based on the Gamay grape.  Beaujolais deserves an entire article on its own and will not be discussed here. 

Burgundy has one of the most documented histories of any wine producing region in the world.  Early evidence suggests the Celts were growing grapes in the first century B.C, but what sets Burgundy apart from many areas is that the early Roman Catholic Church and the monks in particular took an aggressive role in planting and maintaining vineyards.  As early as 910, the Benedictines owned large holdings of vineyards.  Two hundred years later, the Cistercians were dedicating their monasteries to creating and understanding wine and winemaking.  In 1336, Cistercians created a walled vineyard (called a Clos) named Clos de Vougeot that is still producing great wines today.  It was the Cistercian’s patience and ethic of paying close attention to detail which first documented that different vineyards, even different parts of the same vineyards, seemed to consistently provide the best grapes and make the best wines.  That discovery was to have profound effects in Burgundy and around the world. 

During the 14th and 15th centuries, the area was ruled by the Dukes of Burgundy.  In 1395, Duke Philip the Bold issued a decree that the only red grape allowed to be planted was Pinot Noir.  The use of the Gamay grape (used today in Beaujolais) was declared unfit for human consumption.  In addition, he forbade the use of manure as a fertilizer as it lessened the quality of the grape.  This was most likely due to increased yields which diluted the quality of the wine made.  Interestingly, at that time white wines were most likely made from a precursor of Pinot Gris called Fromenteau instead of the Chardonnay that is used today.

Over the next few centuries, the political structure in Burgundy changed as did the ownership of the vineyards.  First, Burgundy was annexed into the Kingdom of France.  As the power of the Church lessened, many of the vineyards were sold.  Finally, after the French Revolution, any vineyards remaining in the hands of the Church were taken, often broken up, and sold.  At the same time, the Napoleonic code changed inheritance so that all family members shared equally.  Thus, when a person died with four children for example, each child received ¼ of the holdings.  Vineyard holdings became quite small for some and occasionally a person could find themselves owning just a single row or two of vines in a vineyard.  Even more confusing was that many of the owners had the same or similar last names.

Up until the 18th century most Burgundy wines were consumed locally, although a good amount made it south to the Rhone, especially when the Pope was seated in Avignon.  As roads improved travel, Nègociant houses sprung up.  Nègociants bought grapes or sometimes finished or unfinished wine and sold it under the name of the Nègociant.  Often the Nègociants would blend batches from different growers and different vineyards to make a finished product.  Growers had very little wine to sell, due to their small holdings, and did not have the clout to demand high pricing for their wine.  Often they were at the mercy of these Nègociants who became quite powerful and successful.  The target market for their wines became the cafés of Paris.  Many of the names that are well known today got their start including Louis Jadot, Louis Latour, Joseph Drouhin, Domaine Faively and Bouchard Peres et Fils.  A Negociant bottling indicates that it was bottled by the Negociant whereas grower-producers indicate the wine was bottled “a la propriete” or “au domaine”.  Even today, individual growers control 67% of the vineyards, but produce and market only around 25% of the wine.

Burgundy’s reputation grew during the next one hundred years.  Although there appears little doubt that the wines were adulterated with wines from the Rhone in weaker years to add color and body, the best vineyards and best bottlings of the Nègociants remained highly sought after.  In 1855 Dr. Jules Lavalle published a book on Burgundy rating the vineyards.  In 1861, this classification was adopted by the Beaune Committee of Agriculture who created a three tier system for rating the vineyards.  In 1936, when the French AOC system was adopted most of the top tier vineyards from the 1861 classification were awarded Grand Cru status. 

After World War II, the farmers turned to chemicals to improve the soils that had been devastated by war and neglect.  Fertilizers seemed like a gift from science to restore the earth’s natural balance.  In fact, the 1950’s were a very successful decade for Burgundy.  Alas, it proved to be too much of a good thing.  As the farmers continued to rely on chemicals, the soil became lifeless.  Moreover, much of the fertilizer was based on potassium.  The net effect of too much potassium in the soil was reduced acidity levels in the ground and so to, the grapes.  Yields increased thanks to the fertilizer.  While this was good for cash strapped farmers, whether from manure in the 1300’s or chemical fertilizers in the 1900’s, the result was the wines becoming thin and less concentrated.  For many, the wines of the 1970’s and the 1980’s were the low point of Burgundy wines.  Fortunately, in the mid-1980’s more growers turned to more natural ways of growing grapes with many adopting organic or bio-dynamic methods. 

Burgundy has a continental climate.  The winters get cold and the summers can be very hot.  There is always the possibility of hail and rain.  There are more than 70,000 acres under vine.  The sub region of the Cote du Nuits has about 4,200 acres while the Cotes du Beaune has about 8,900 acres.  Almost all of the red grapes are Pinot Noir although there is some Gamay grown in Beaujolais and other places.  Pinot Noir is a fickle grape that can excel in Burgundy’s cool climate, but only in those vintages where nature provides enough heat over an extended period to fully ripen the grapes while it is dry enough, or windy enough, to keep rot away.  As for white wines, those are made predominantly from the Chardonnay grape.  There is a wine called Bouzeron which is made from Aligote and some Sauvignon Blanc is also grown in St. Bris.  It is, however, the reds from Pinot Noir and the whites from Chardonnay that have given Burgundy its exalted status. 

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.