If you’ve ever thought about Burgundy at all, you may have imagined it as a shade of red, or a pricey French wine designed to make non-French people feel anxious in restaurants. But I have good news: learning about the Burgundy wine region — and its wines — can be a simple, affordable and delicious affair.
The Burgundy wine region of northeastern France was covered by a huge sea about 200 million years ago, and you can still find all sorts of fossilized sea creatures in the limestone soils that make this region’s grapevines struggle so beautifully. (Struggling grapevines = tasty grapes = hooray for Burgundy wine.)
Burgundy produces wines from four different grape varietals: Pinot Noir and Gamay (black grapes), and Chardonnay and Aligoté (white grapes). Chardonnay and Pinot Noir account for most of the region’s production, and Chardonnay is referred to as white Burgundy, while Pinot Noir is called simply…Burgundy.
Still with me? Good.
MAP OF BURGUNDY
I traced this map of the Burgundy wine region from The World Atlas of Wine, an excellent resource by wine writers Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson. I used colored pencils to show you where different sub-regions are, and tried my best to correct my French spelling mistakes. This is how I show you I care.
In American wine shops, you’re likely to find wines from the following Burgundy sub-regions:
- Chablis (green) — 100% Chardonnay
- Côte de Nuits (red and orange) — 80% Pinot Noir, 20% Chardonnay
- Côte de Beaune (turquoise) — Two-thirds Pinot Noir, one-third Chardonnay
- Côte Chalonnaise (light yellow) — About 50-50 Pinot Noir and Chardonnay
- Mâconnais (purple) — 90% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Noir
Beaujolais (teal) is sometimes considered a separate region — but more on that in a minute.
Collectively, the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune are known as the Côte d’Or (“golden slope”), a 30-mile ridge of limestone that runs south from the city of Dijon to just north of Chagny in the Côte Chalonnaise. This sprawling UNESCO Heritage Site includes Burgundy’s most prized climats (vineyard sites) including Vosne-Romanée, Gevrey-Chambertin, Chambolle Musigny, and Pommard, as well as Vougeot, pictured above.
Set within the Côte de Beaune, the town of Beaune is the financial center of Burgundy winemaking, home to hundreds of wine cellars and the elaborately clay-tiled Hospices de Beaune, a Catholic hospital for the poor that dates to 1443. The third weekend of each November, Burgundy’s most prestigious winemakers gather here to raise funds for the Hospices’ work by auctioning off rare bottles, as well as wines made especially for the occasion. If you purchase a wine labeled “Hospices de Beaune,” you’re contributing to these fundraising efforts.
PINOT NOIR & CHARDONNAY
In Burgundy, Pinot Noir that’s been grown and made into wine within Burgundy is called Burgundy. Chardonnay is generally referred to as white Burgundy, and sometimes, Pinot Noir is called red Burgundy. It’s a lot of Burgundy to keep straight.
The finest examples of red and white Burgundy hail from Grand Cru (“great growth,” aka Kind of a Big Deal) vineyards planted on the Côte d’Or. Côte d’Or Grand Cru Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays are intoxicating to inhale, elegant to drink, and can age in bottle for 30+ years. They also tend to be pretty darn expensive —as in, upwards to way, way upwards of $150 US a bottle — and are coveted by serious wine collectors.
If you’d prefer to drink rather than invest, look for bottles of red and white Burgundy labeled Premier Cru or 1er Cru (“first growth”). In the official classification of Burgundy wines, Premier Cru is a step down in quality from Grand Cru, so these wines tend to cost less (more like $60-$125 US), but also have a bit less complexity and aging potential. Whatevs.
Want to merely add some solid, affordable Burgundy and white Burgundy to your wine repertoire? Look for labels with the names of Villages (um, “villages”) such as Marsannay, Fixin, and Saint-Vérán. Expect to pay between $15-$40 US for one of these reliably delicious bottles, designed to drink within five years or less.
If you’re looking for something to drink out of the bottle after a long day at work or a long walk home from the wine shop, go for red or white Bourgogne. Made with grapes sourced from multiple vineyards or less-valued vineyard sites, these bargain beauties may lack the complexity and structure of their classier brethren, but can still look classy on a dining room table. Generally priced at $15 US or less, Bourgogne wines are meant to be enjoyed within a year or a whole lot less.
Three things to keep in mind about red and white Burgundy:
The best recent Burgundy vintages are 2009, 2012, 2014 and 2015, which means that ideal weather in those years resulted in excellent grapes at harvest.
Chablis Chardonnays are unique amongst white Burgundies, as they’re aged in stainless steel tanks rather than oak barrels in order to retain their floral aromatics and bright acidity.
Sotheby’s auction house considers Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s Romanée-Conti Grand Cru, which averages about $16,000 a bottle, the most expensive wine in the world.
ALIGOTÉ & GAMAY
Grown in less valued vineyard sites throughout Burgundy, Aligoté yields a dry, crisp, lemony and generally inexpensive ($10-15 US) white wine that you should try at least once but is unlikely to knock your socks off if you’re into complex flavors and aromas. On a label, it’ll generally be called Bourgogne Aligoté.
Though Beaujolais is technically Burgundy’s southernmost sub-region, it’s often considered a region in its own right because of its commitment to a single varietal, Gamay. The fruity, earthy, red wines made in Beaujolais from Gamay are called (wait for it) Beaujolais. On Beaujolais labels, look for names of quality villages like Fleurie, Morgon, Moulin-a-Vent and Brouilly, because these juicy-yet-structured Gamays are usually very good. Expect to pay about $20-35 US — and please invite me to join you for a glass!
Maybe I identify with grapes that are famously thin-skinned, notoriously finicky to grow, and at their most expressive when given a spotlight. Perhaps I simply find comfort in wines that can require decades’ worth of lying down in order to reach their full potential.