Reviewing vintages before it was cool

The oldest reference to a specific vintage can be found in a treaty by Pliny the Elder, a Roman historian. He referred to 121 BC as a vintage “of the highest excellence”. Kind of like the Antiquity equivalent of 1982.

Plinyelder

You know what the crazy part is? Pliny wrote his History of the Roman Empire in 70 AD! So, almost 200 years after it passed, 121 BC was still considered an awesome year. It’s nice to know that historians had their priorities straight.

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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.

wine-map-burgundy

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