Unsung Burgundy grapes

Burgundy is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay territory (one third and two thirds respectively) and almost all the appellations produce wines that are 100% Chardonnay or Pinot. There are however two less know varieties cultivated in the region.

The first is Aligoté, a white grape used to make dry white wines. Those wines have their own AOC, Bourgogne Aligoté and are usually made from less valued tracts of land in the Cote d’Or, the Mâconnais or the Cote Chalonnaise. The Bourgogne Aligoté AOC actually allows for up to 15% of Chardonnay. There is also a more restricted appellation near the village of Bouzeron, this Bouzeron AOC allows for smaller yields than the regional AOC.


Wines made from Aligoté have high acidity with green apple and lemon flavors and some floral elements. They are made to be drunk young, and they are often used to make the traditional Burgundian aperitif kir by mixing it with Crème de Cassis. I have a weird affinity with Aligoté since it was often the wine of choice for my family’s Sunday evening gatherings. It’s a minor grape that produces unremarkable wines but it makes for good aperitif fare.


Even though it was banned by Philip the Bold in 1395, Gamay is grown in Burgundy today, especially in the southernmost region, the Cote Chalonnaise, close to Beaujolais where Gamay is actually the main variety. The main Burgundy appellation that allows the use of Gamay grapes; it’s Bourgogne-Passetoutgrains AOC (sometimes written Passe-Tout-Grains). It’s basically a blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay grapes; the name actually translates as “allows all grapes”.


Bourgogne Passetoutgrains must contain more than 30% Pinot Noir, more than 15% Gamay and less than 15% combined of other grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris). It’s another wine released and meant to be drunk young. It can be red or rose and is usually light and fruity. To me, this is a great picnic wine for instance.

So, two minor varieties used to make minor wines but both can be enjoyed in the right setting,

Gangsta, Burgundy style

Burgundy is old-school. I’m not only talking about the wine styles, it’s an old-school region of France, very rural and quite attached to its traditions and its way of life. And obviously, as wine is a huge part of the Burgundian culture, there are old-school wine traditions.


Take the Confrerie du Tastevin for example (roughly translates as Brotherhood of the Knights of the Wine-Tasting Cup), it’s a knightly order which dates back to the 1700s and was rejuvenated in 1943. Yes, a knightly order, like the Templars, I’ll let that sink for a second. They have ranks and everything, my grandfather was a Commander for instance. Of course they focus on tasting and promoting burgundy wine, not on smiting the infidel which makes them somewhat more suited to modern life (and infinitely better dinner guests). They organize tasting and rankings every year at the Chateau de Vougeot. They also dress up as extras in a Harry Potter movie but let’s not dwell too much on the details.


The Tastevin hosts dinner events and these are the perfect setting for singing Burgundian drinking songs, of which there are many. In the interest of full disclosure, we sing these songs at dinner whenever we have a family event. Among favorites you will find “ Joyeux Enfants de la Bourgogne” (Happy children of Burgundy) with this immortal line “ when my face flushes red from drinking, I am proud to be Burgundian”. Another common song is Fanchon, about a peasant girl who likes to drink, laugh and sing (just like us), and it’s all good fun.

And finally, the most Burgundian thing I can think of, the “Ban Bourguignon” (Burgundian cheer). It’s well,… to be honest, I’m not sure what this is. Basically it’s a song with accompanying hand gestures that is meant to cheer, celebrate or loudly manifest some kind of approbation. My family does it at weddings or birthdays, or baptisms, or just when we get together. Apparently, they do it after concerts, sporting and shows in Burgundy too. To tell you the truth, I actually can’t wait to visit my family over Christmas and let out a ban bourguignon or two. Please don’t judge me. It’s just like a Burgundian Harlem Shake.

You stay classified Burgundy

One of the first things you learn when taking a wine class is how to read. Really, that’s the first thing you learn, how to read a label. You’d think it would be easy enough, I mean, you’ve been reading for years, right? The problem is, as it always is, the French. Like many aspects of French life, wine production is heavily regulated in France and the information on a label must obey specific rules. The confusing part is that these rules vary from region to region based on the way their wine production works. For instance, for terroir-focused Burgundy, wine labeling is structured by a system of territorial appellations.

Basically, every vineyard in Burgundy has an appellation based on its location. The acronym you’ll see on the bottles is AOC which stands for Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (controlled designation of origin). There are around 150 AOCs used in Burgundy, some are very wide, some cover very small areas but luckily, they are organized in levels to make a little more sense.

There are four levels of appellations, the smaller the covered area, the higher the quality (and the higher the price…). To be able to put the name of an appellation on the label, all the grapes used to make the wine must come from within the same appellation, if not you will have to use a wider (and thus supposedly not as good) appellation level on your label.

At the bottom you have the regional appellations that cover wide areas. The basic appellation is Bourgogne Rouge (Red Burgundy) for which the grapes can come from all over Burgundy, and there are sub-regional appellations like Hautes-Cotes de Beaune or Hautes-Cotes de Nuits.

Bourgogne Rouge

The second level is Village appellation. Grapes for a Village appellation wine must come from a variety of vineyards within the village territory, or a single unclassified vineyard from this village. The label will carry the name of the village (Pommard, Ladoix…) and sometimes the name of the individual parcel the wine came from. Village wines account for 36% of the production withing Burgundy.

bourgogne village

Above Village is the Premier Cru appelation (1st growth), they are produced from specified vineyards within a village that are supposed to be of greater quality than those used for the Village appellation. The label will show the name of the village, the Premier Cru status and, if applicable, the name of the individual vineyard: Ladoix, Premier Cru, Les Joyeuses. Premier Cru wines account for 12% of the production in Burgundy.

bourgogne 1er cru

Finally, the top-most level for Burgundy wines, the Grand Cru appellation (Great Growth). To label a wine a Grand Cru, all the grapes must come from a single Grand Cru vineyard. These vineyards are recognized as the best in Burgundy and there are only 43 Grand Crus accounting for 2% of the surface of Burgundy and 1.3% of its production. The label will show the name of the vineyard and the Grand Cru status, not the Village name: La Romanée Grand Cru (from the Vosne-Romanée Village).


Basically, the higher the appellation level, the rarer the wine, and the more expensive too. Aging potential also usually goes up for Premier Crus and especially Grand Crus. It can make for incredibly pricey bottles but I managed to sneak in a Grand Cru tasting once and it was life changing. I think I briefly saw God. If God was a wine, he’d be a Grand Cru.

Pinot in Burgundy : Legends of the Fall

When you mention Burgundy today, I think most Americans will think Chardonnay first. Pinot Noir is actually by far the most common grape variety in Burgundy, the ratio is around 3 to 1 in favor of that temperamental, demanding and sometimes frustrating black grape. In the Cotes de Nuits sub-region, it actually accounts for 90% of the planted vines. As I mentioned in a previous post, Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, imposed the exclusive use of the grape in the 14th century, and well, it shows.

Most of the Pinot Noir production in Burgundy is concentrated in the Cote d’Or part, with the Cote de Nuits being the premium region. The Cote Chalonnaise and Maconnais regions also produce some but nothing comparable in volume, quality and especially reputation. Pinot Noir wines from the best vineyards of the Cote d’Or are among the most revered sought after and expensive wines in the world

Pinot Noir grapes

Pinot Noir grapes

Pinot Noir is a temperamental grape, I think fickle would be a good word, you could even call it a diva. It’s a hard grape to grow, especially compared to survivors like Cabernet or Merlot. It’s low yield, thin skinned, very sensitive to frost and diseases, labor intensive and requires a lot of attention, sounds like a dream right?

However, there is a silver lining there, that fickleness and extreme sensitivity to its surroundings makes it well suited to Burgundy and its terroir-based wine industry. Due to the characteristics of the grape, wine made from Pinot Noir reflects different terrors like no other grape varieties. Tasting Cote d’Or reds is fascinating because all the wines are made from the exact same grape, they are all 100% Pinot Noir and yet they are all different. Pinot Noir is able to extract something from each terroir and turn it into something unique.

Even so, there are some general characteristics of wines made from Pinot Noir. As I said, the grapes are thin-skinned which in turn makes wine made from them a lighter shade of red, usually described as garnet. When young, the wines usually have aromas of small red and black berry fruits, what makes Pinot Noir from Burgundy interesting is that when they age they evolve towards more complex flavors. Aged Burgundy reds often evoke game or mushroom flavors for instance. To me, older Pinot Noirs always smell and taste like fall. If I close my eyes while drinking a Gevrey-Chambertin, I can see myself walking through a forest with fallen leaves after a rain shower.

My vision of a Burgundy Pinot Noir

My vision of a Burgundy Pinot Noir

This being said, Burgundy is not the only Pinot Noir producing region in the world and I’m currently trying to get better acquainted with New-Zealand or Oregon Pinots. Hopefully I can post some of my discoveries soon.

Burgundy : it’s the terroir, stupid !

I’ve written a bit about Burgundy history and how it relates to wine production in the region. Let’s move on to the lay of the land. Burgundy is located in north-eastern France, the map below shows the administrative Burgundy region within France.

Modern region of Burgundy

Modern region of Burgundy

Actual wine country within Burgundy is obviously smaller than that and can be divided in five separate regions:

– Chablis, northernmost and to the west

– The Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune form a narrow strip of land, 40km long and between half a km and 2km wide, that runs north to south on east-facing slopes. Together those two regions form the Cote d’Or (Golden slope or Golden Hill). This is the heart of the Burgundy wine country.

– The Côte Chalonnaise is further south

– The Mâconnais is south of the Côte Chalonnaise, at the border with the Beaujolais region.


As I mentioned when writing about the big monasteries and the classification work their monks did of the various vineyards of the region, one of Burgundy’s main characteristic is the high number of terroirs. Around 1300 different terroirs are actually cataloged and recognized in Burgundy. A terroir is a specific tract of land whose characteristics makes it, and the wine produced from it, distinct from any other. Those characteristics are a combination of soil composition, climate, drainage, elevation, sun exposure,…

Logically if Burgundy can have more than a thousand terroirs it must mean that all those factors can significantly vary on their own. Well, for once logic is respected; there are around 400 types of soils in Burgundy, depending on the relative amounts of limestone, clay, sand and gravel for each parcel. The fact that vines grow on slopes also adds to the diversity because drainage and sun exposure will vary depending with the elevation.

Burgundian wine-makers are extremely attached to this notion of terroir, a good illustration can be found in the way wine is sold. In Bordeaux, the wine will be named after the producer with the “Chateau” as a brand name whereas in Burgundy, wines are named after the location of the vines used to make the wine. Burgundy wines thus carry the name of the village, the region, or sometimes the individual tract of land from where they come from. The producer’s name is usually on the back of the bottle, not on the front label.

Bouvier Marsannay Le Clos

The climate in Burgundy is continental with a healthy dose of unpredictable: cold winters, hot summers, rain, hail, frost and high variance from a year to another. I would personally go as far as calling the weather miserable since Burgundy created the concept of frozen mud that makes winter there such a delight. More importantly from a wine production perspective, it’s the unpredictability and high variance potential of the weather that’s important because it means that wines from the region can vary considerably from vintage to vintage.

Once again, I’m long winded, I get carried away and I write too much, here’s what’s important

–          Burgundy wines are rooted in their specific and varied terroirs

–          Irregular weather make them vintage dependent


Burgundian History X

Burgundy is clearly the region I have the more ties to. Half of my family is from Ladoix, in the Cote de Beaune and even though I never lived there and didn’t visit too often, it’s still by far the region whose wines I have tasted the most. Today I want to start with a little Burgundian history because, well I love history, and also because it has a significant impact on how Burgundy wines work.

Burgundy in France

First of all, Burgundy is named after the Burgundians, a German barbaric tribe that settled there in the late days of the Roman Empire before being assimilated into the Frankish (another German tribe) Kingdom. I always found it funny that the French are described as a Latin people when we have at least as much Celtic (the Gauls) or Germanic (Franks, Burgundians…) stock. But anyway, into the Frankish Kingdom goes Burgundy, the Frankish King Clovis converts to Catholicism and so do all his subjects. This is relevant because with Burgundy becoming catholic, two of the most important early Middle Ages monasteries are built in Cluny (in 910) and Citeaux (1098), right in Burgundy wine country.

Those two monasteries own and manage huge tracts of prime wine-growing country. Monks, being meticulous, started to notice that different parcels of land gave significantly different wines and so they decided to catalog those parcels, thus creating the notion of terroir which remains so important to Burgundy wines. Today there is roughly 1300 listed terroirs for Burgundy wines and it all started when those monks got bored and looked for a task to keep them occupied.


The next big break happens in 1363 when the King of France gives the Duchy of Burgundy to his youngest son, Philip the Bold. For all intents and purposes, the duchy then became a separate entity from France and one of its biggest rivals. The Burgundian court was one of the leading centers for culture and arts and became a major European power as the Dukes end up owning territories in what are today Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. It also created lots of trouble for the French Kingdom. And I mean real trouble : political assassinations, wars by proxy, kidnapping, extortion,… Oh and of course, the Dukes of Burgundy and the Kings of France were cousins, awkward…

In retrospect, those troubled times actually helped the wine industry. Why? Because Philip the Bold didn’t fuck around, that’s why. I mean he actually pulled the whole “The Bold” nickname, that’s pretty badass. In 1395, he published an edict banning the growing of the Gamay grape which he called “vile and disloyal” in order to protect the Pinot Noir grape and the higher quality wines it produced. The edict also banned the use of manure, in order to keep yields low, another move to improve wine quality. Philip the Bold was awesome. I wish I could just publish edicts like that, especially if I get to call other people vile and disloyal.

Philippe II de bourgogne dit le hardi

The problem is Philip’s great-grandson, Charles the Bold goes and gets himself killed while losing the Burgundian Wars to France and its allies in 1477, thus proving that there is such a thing as too bold. From this date on Burgundy has been part of France. So when the French Revolution seized and sold the estates belonging to religious orders, this decision applied to the wine growing lands of Citeaux and Cluny. They were bought by a multitude of middle-class producers, breaking down the big estates. A decade later, Napoleon imposed that all inheritance must be divided equally between children. That meant the already divided estates were divided further and further into smaller and smaller parcels. Even nowadays it’s not unusual for people to own just a row or two of vines. With people only owning small parcels it became necessary to gather grapes from different producers in order to have enough grapes to make wine.  That need led to the appearance of negociants, wine producers who buy grapes from different owners in order to make their wines. Today’s negociants (many of whom are also owners) are the major players on the Burgundy wine scene.

So to sum up because I know I’m long winded when I talk about history, these are three significant history facts for Burgundy:

–            Monasteries and the terroirs

–          The independent Duchy of Burgundy and Pinot Noir protection

–          The French Revolution, inheritance laws and the rise of the negociant