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Burgundy produces some of the most famous, esteemed, not to mention most expensive wines in the world. Despite this, visiting the region reveals (unexpectedly) no large Chateaux, no imposing wrought iron gates, and very little ego. What the wine community cares most about, as they have since the Middle Ages, is terroir. When one is there, it feels as if you could be a Cisterian monk and the year might still be 1098; the Burgundy has a mythical sensibility that makes it seem like you’ve stepped back in time. Lucky for us, it is very much a part of the modern world and our palates reap the benefits.
This is also a bit geographically misleading. The winemaking region of Burgundy encompasses Chablis, the Côte D’Or, Côte Chalonnaise, Maconnais and Beaujolais, stretching almost 250km from north to south.
Burgundy, known as Bourgogne in French, describes the geographical region, the general name given to the wines, and also the AOC name for the entry level wines. The name originated with the Burgundians, a group of Scandinavians who established a kingdom in the Rhone and expanded north to Lyon and Dijon in 456.
While wine has been made here since the Roman empire, it wasn’t until the Monks took over that Burgundy’s reputation as a region for great wine was established. Two separate groups, the Cisterians and Benedictines of Cluny, owned the majority of the vineyards in the Côte D’Or. In the 11th and 12th centuries, they accumulated, largely through gifts, the modern vineyards of Clos de Vougeot, La Tâche, Richebourg, La Romanée, Romanée-Conti, Romanée St-Vivant, among others. Not a bad place to start.
The Monks were not only educated, but they had lots of spare time. They took it upon themselves to study the vines, the earth, record the weather and details of each vintage and winemaking practices. As the years went by, they discovered the propensity of some areas to produce different and sometimes superior wines than others. And thus, terroir was born.
It wasn’t all the Monks doing, however. Burgundy (with the exception of Beaujolais) has the revered limestone soil with healthy amounts lying close to the surface. It is one small escarpment, or ridge, of this limestone that runs the length of the Côte D’Or, and is where the most distinctive wines are made. Burgundy’s climate is also perfectly suited to growing varieties like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (the modern versions of these grapes didn’t exist in the Middle Ages but documentation shows that the monks were working with ancestors of these). Burgundy also has cold winters, and summers that are warm, but not hot. The grapes ripen slowly, retaining their acidity as their phenolics develop. Other varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, would never ripen here.
That is not to say that winemaking is easy in Burgundy. Winters are downright cold and the rains come just at the wrong time – May or June, during the critical time of bud break and fruit set, and October, which may or may not fall during harvest. It is a very thin line that separates perfection and disaster every year. Most of the time the result is somewhere in between, so vintages very greatly from year to year and village to village.
Burgundy’s reputation for great wine continued to grow throughout the Middle Ages and afterwards. At one point, Louis XIV’s physician prescribed it for him as best for his health –significant, considering his previous choice had been old Champagne. This trend continued until the end of French Revolution when all nobility and Church-owned land passed to the people. The vineyards were divided up and then, in the early 1800’s when the Napoleonic Code of Inheritance took effect, they were subsequently divided into smaller and smaller parcels with each passing generation. This leads to where we are today: with the most minutely divided vineyard area in the world. Often, growers may cultivate just a row or two of vines within a climat, or vineyard. While this is fascinating from a wine geek perspective, it leads to some confusion for the consumer, who has to familiarize themselves not only with the villages and Crus, but also the multiple producers that may exist within each one.
This was not always the case, however- even though vineyard holdings were small, most growers did not have their own winemaking equipment. They usually sold their grapes to a large producer, called a “négociant”. Négociants buy grapes from several growers, make the wine, and bottle it under their own label. It was only in after World War II that this trend reversed itself. Being able to include the words “Mis en bouteille au domaine” on the label became important for commercial reasons as consumers realized grower-produced wines were better quality. The négociants began buying vines, so they too could use this phrase, but it is generally accurate to say that their wines still represent a larger production, and/or are a blend from several disparate areas and hence, not as true a reflection of time and place.
There is more to Burgundy, however, than Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Most people don’t know that Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Aligoté have an equally long history in Burgundy. (And Gamay, in Beaujolais, of course.) Aligoté was traditionally given the lesser vineyards, and before recent warming trends and improved winemaking technology, it was usually just blended with crème de cassis to make kir. Now it can be quite a serious wine in the right hands, with low yields and precise timing at harvest. Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris were historically blended with Chardonnay, and this is still permitted in many appellations.
Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are still the two main varieties in Burgundy – showing that there is at least one easy thing to remember about this region. In support of this, Burgundians do believe the grape variety is most important – it its ability to be an adequate vehicle for terroir. Both of these allow the expression of a particular vintage to be the star, while their individual characteristics rest just behind, waiting to be discovered.
If you visit Burgundy, you will also eat well. Not surprisingly, the Burgundians often use wine in preparation of food, including well-known dishes like boeuf bourguignon, coq au vin and lapin à la moutarde. Dijon, at the far north of the Côte D’Or is the center of production for other products as well: Dijon mustard, blackcurrants and crème de cassis. Creamy AOC cheeses Chaource, Epoisses and other dishes like escargots are more familiar as they often make their way abroad.