Burgundy Appellations Explained
With the 2022 Burgundy En Primeur campaign just round the corner, we’re spoilt for choice by the breadth of winemaking styles and the sheer quantities of wines from one of the world’s most distinguished regions. There’s a mysticism and romanticism to Burgundy that could be put down to the elevated status of its infamous tiny producers, many who often only work on tiny plots, but whom have been leading in biodynamic practices and artisanal winemaking since their inception.
However, as with many regions in France, understanding Burgundy – as well as its appellations, classification system, and more – is a complicated feat. Custodians of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, there’s a delicate simplicity to the region which is met with tapestries of climats (vineyards), winding familial histories, and producers who often cross geographical boundaries.
Read on as we try and unpack one of the most complex, yet fascinating regions in the wine world.
A firm favourite within pubs across the UK, Chablis represents some of the richest and most sublime expressions of Chardonnay in the world. Located high in the North and separated from its appellation neighbours by the Morvan hills, Chablis benefits from a cooler climate than most of Burgundy, and its winemakers usually have to consider the challenges of frost alongside the other side effects of a cooler environment. Employing equipment such as smudge pots in the vineyards, as well as clever vine training to ensure that crop grows closer to the warm ground, vignerons in Chablis are masters in climate adaptation.
The appellation is stylised by a terroir that is rich in chalky and limestone soils, and peppered with fossilised oyster shells, known as “Kimmeridgian”. Both its climate and Kimmeridigan soils share similarities with Champagne, and in turn Chablis wines are usually identified by potent acidity, notes of “gunflint” and washes of minerality.
Home to a whopping 24 Grand Cru vineyards, the Côte de Nuits is a name that commands great levels of respect throughout the wine world. 80% of the wines produced here are Pinot Noir, with the remainder battling between Chardonnay or Marsannay Rosé. As with the rest of Burgundy, the Côte-de-Nuits is formed of multiple family vineyards that have been passed down through generations. This in turns explains its odd tapestry of borders, seeing climats exist in thin strips that make their way across the region.
Existing on a large limestone ridge that sits at the heart of Burgundy, the Côte de Nuits benefits from an incredibly varied terroir – seeing intricacies within even the vineyards themselves. This appellation is particular significant as it exemplifies Burgundy’s small-house mentality, displaying a vast difference between this region and Bordeaux. For instance, in Burgundy it is predominantly normal for vineyards to be owned by multiple different producers. As an example, the Grand Crus vineyard Clos Vougeot is home to over 75+ different producers, all of whom work in many different styles. Unlike Bordeaux, the wines of Burgundy are far more expressive of the winemaker themselves, meaning there are numerous variations in quality up and down the region.
Named after the medieval village that lies within its core, this appellation offers a vastly different landscape, producing a mixture of white and red wines that benefit from the area’s rugged, rolling valleys. Seven of its eight Grand Cru vineyards produce white wines, with famous plots including Montrachet (Chassigny-Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet) and Corton.
Whilst predominantly famed for its white wines, the reds produced in the Côte de Beaune are characterised by crisp flavours of ripe plum and glossy red fruits, complete with the elegance that is so often associated with Burgundian Pinot Noirs.
Perhaps the most famous winery in the world, the Domaine de la Romanee Conti’s 25 hectares of vineyards can be found nestled within both the Côte-de-Nuits and the Côte-de-Beaune (combined these two appellations are known as the Côte d’Or). Occupying exclusively Grand Cru plots (something that no other Burgundian producer can claim), their divine fruit can be found within Richebourg, Romanee-St-Vivant, Grands Echezaux and more, with the monopoles La Romanée Conti and La Tache under their stewardship.
With incredibly low yields resulting in a painfully limited production, DRC craft some of the most sought after (and expensive!) wines globally. The true poster boys of Burgundy, their wines are distinguished by an intensity and richness that plays on the distinct characteristics of each vineyard and monopole.
With no Grand Crus vineyards within the Côte Chalonnaise, it may be easy for many to overlook this small slice of Burgundy. With Grand Cru status ascribed to multiple climats throughout Burgundy in 1936 we may sometimes wonder if the system could be accused of being outdated. However, whilst it does help us identify what vineyards (and therefore wines) hold the most prestige, it often causes us to ignore many hidden gems who haven’t quite made the cut.
For instance, in Bouzeron, the northern part of this region, the only other white grape variety of Burgundy – Aligoté – shines. Alongside this, the village of Rully has been producing vibrant and striking Crémant since the 19th century, making the Côte Chalonnaise a go-to region for Burgundy fans looking to try something a little different.
The largest appellation within the region, the Maconnais’ history is one that is rapidly different to that of the rest of Burgundy. After the Great Depression of the 1920s and the onslaught of war, many growers sold their grapes to co-operatives, which saw a huge decline in standards. Fast forward a few decades and the young growers from the region who inherited these vineyards began producing their own wines once more, in accordance with new appellation standards. The Maconnais begun to flourish under a new cohort of winemakers dedicated to the cultivation of Pinot Noir, Gamay and Chardonnay.
Experiencing a warmer climate than its Northern counterparts, harvest typically begins two weeks earlier than Chablis. The Chardonnays here differ from the North, contrasting Chablis’ steely minerality with a Maconnais buttery richness.
The most famous vineyard takes the name of Pouilly-Fuissé, home to many Cru Wine producers, including the renowned Jules Desjourneys who has continued to put Macon on the map as an area for excellence. Adopting biodynamic farming methods and extremely low yields, winemaker Fabien Duperray (of Jules Desjourneys) has amassed a cult-following; creating breathtaking, rounded and sumptuous white wines from Macon-Verze, St-Veran, Pouilly-Loche, Pouilly-Vinzelles and Pouilly-Fuissé as well as reds in the neighbouring region of Beaujolais.
When putting this article together there was a small to-and-fro as to whether Beaujolais would make the cut. Existing south of Burgundy but slightly overlapping with Northern Rhône, the geography of Beaujolais is as ground-breaking as its winemaking.
In this region, Gamay flourishes. Leading in methods of carbonic maceration, Beaujolais is often famed for creating lighter-bodied reds packed with crunchy and ripe red fruits that can be consumed early. A good example is that of the Beaujolais-Nouveau style, which is a light-bodied, juicy tipple that is typically bottled only 6-8 weeks after harvest. As chilled reds continue to take modern drinking by storm, look out for a bottle of Beaujolais on your next hipster wine list.