Introduction to the Wines of Burgundy | Cote d'Or Wine History - Cellaraiders

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Introduction to the Wines of Burgundy- the Cote d'Or

August 04, 2015

Introduction to the Wines of Burgundy- the Cote d'Or

The region of Burgundy lies about 200 miles southeast of Paris. The main part, called the Cote d'Or appears to be an area of rolling hills, but it is really mostly a part of the eastern edge of the Massif Central [the flattish high elevation land area of south-central France].  It has a 'continental' climate (warm summers, cold winters).  Grape varieties grown there must ripen in this relatively cool region, and so are different from those grown in the more southerly regions of France.  There is a short list of allowed varietals, but clearly the most important and widely-planted are Chardonnay (for whites) and Pinot Noir (for reds).

The Cote d'Or occupies the eastern edge of a calcareous upland plateau.  The soils come from a marl band approximately mid-slope which is enriched with 'scree' (rock fragments and soil particles) washing down the slope from a higher layer of limestone.  Chardonnay tends to be planted in areas where there is a lot of this limestone, Pinot Noir where there's not too much.  Over time, vignerons have found that high-limestone content soils produce thin red wines, but flavorful Chardonnays.  [The lower part of the slopes are not favored because there is just a thin veneer of the limey marl there, overlaid on heavier, more water-retentive subsoil which becomes soggy in wet weather.]  The vineyards face east or southeast.  The name of the area (cote = 'slope', or = 'golden') is thought to have come from the golden color of the vines in autumn OR from the fact that most of the "Cote" faces east (Orient).  Nowadays, it's more often felt that the allusion to gold relates to the price of acreage!

Aside from wine, several beverages are considered specialties of the area; these include the liqueurs Framboise & Cassis and the brandy known as Marc. Some of the classical foods of the area include Dijon mustard, special cheeses (Epoisses a good example), escargot, mushrooms (especially morels), and Charollais beef.  It's an area with rich foods and a somewhat rustic culinary tradition, and the cuisine suits the wines very well.

Fragmented vineyards characterize the region, with many famous vineyards owned by multiple growers.  The Napoleonic code is responsible for this situation; it requires that estates, upon the death of the owner, to be equally divided among all surviving children, .  There is also a tremendous variation in soils/terroir, and this has led the French government to bestow vineyard classifications very strictly, so that (in most cases) the type of soil that typifies the best parts of a vineyard defines where that vineyard will end.  Many families involved in Burgundy wine production own parcels in more than one vineyard and often in more than one village.  The termterroir refers not just to the soil but also the microclimate of a vineyard (orientation/exposure to the sun, slope, drainage, etc)

Pinot Noir wines vary tremendously with soil, terroir, weather (vintage) and winemaking.  There are quite a few Burgundy experts who can identify wines from specific villages, sometimes just by aroma alone.  There are also MANY mutations of Pinot Noir which have very different characteristics (46 clones are officially recognized in France).  Much of the improvement in red Burgundy in the last 3-4 decades has been due to planting with lower-producing, but better Pinot Noir clones.  Some historians feel that the grape's name derives from the French term for pine cone; Pinot Noir has a pine-cone shaped grape cluster. The original spelling is thought to have been Pineau.  There is some evidence that indicates that Pinot Noir may have existed here as long ago as 300AD.

Better Cote d'Or Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs have considerable longevity.  Much of this is due to the acid levels [that result from the use of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in this relatively cool-climate area], fruit extract, and other inherent qualities of the grapes.  Excellent 30 year old examples of red are not rare; similarly 20 year-old whites.  With climatic conditions on the edge for viticulture, choosing a good vintage is essential; however, with careful viticulture and winemaking, top producers make excellent wine even in difficult vintages. Excellent years for red Pinot Noirs for cellaring- 2006, 2005, 2004, 2002, 2001, 1999, 1996, 1995, 1993, 1991, 1990.  Also, top wines from producers with a 'light touch' from 1998 vintage. Good Pinot Noir vintages for current drinking/short-term cellaring: 2003, 2000, 1997 Good Pinot Noir vintages for current drinking: 1988, 1985, 1983, 1979, 1978

Labeling Conventions

The vineyards of the Cote d'Or were mostly included in the classification system called AOC or AC (Appellation d'Origine Controlee) in the 1930's.  There are different levels of AOC Burgundy produced.  The most broad is called a regional appellation, such as Bourgogne (which can come from anywhere in the Burgundy region, even from outside the Cote d'Or) or Haute Cote de Nuits, etc.  A 'village' appellation is next.  Wines that are entitled to this type of appellation will be labeled 'Volnay' or 'Vosne-Romanee', for example; these can be made from grapes grown anywhere within the boundaries of the appellation of the village named on the label.  Above this are the Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines; these are named for the specific vineyard (French name climat) from which the grapes were obtained.  These are generally priced according to their scarcity.  Most of these vineyards are very small, covering areas as tiny as just a few acres.  Premier Cru wines also name the village in which the vineyard lies, but Grand Cru vineyards are considered to be so well-known that they are simply labeled with the vineyard name (eg Clos de la Roche  from the commune of Morey-St-Denis).  If a label states 'premier cru' but no vineyard is named, you can assume that the wine is a blend of grapes from more than one 'premier cru' vineyard.

The Cote d'Or is Only 31 miles long!  (and very narrow)  It is divided into two sub-regions: the Cote de Nuits (north) and the Cote de Beaune (south).

Cote de Nuits

This part, approximately 15 miles long, has its northern end just south of the city of Dijon. The southern end is just north of the city of Beaune.  It is best known for red wines made exclusively from Pinot Noir.  It has fairly steep slopes, so the most convenient part for viticulture is a strip averaging about 750 feet wide, near the bottom, where the slopes are more gentle and the soils contain more marl, a soil type that favors Pinot Noir and results in fuller, richer wines.  The slopes mostly face east.  Over 90% of the wine produced here is red Pinot Noir, and the vineyards cover only about 9,000 acres.

Cote de Beaune

This sub-region is known mostly for white wines (although only 40% of the production is white wine) made from Chardonnay, but many exceptions exist, notably Pinot Noirs from the villages or 'communes' of Beaune, Volnay and Pommard (the last two are red-wine-only communes).  The Cote de Beaune extends from the city of Beaune southward through the village of Santenay.  Its slopes are more gentle than those of the Cote de Nuits and consequently they can be planted with vines closer to the top of the slope, where the soils are more concentrated in limestone.  Hundreds of years of experience in turning grapes into wine in Burgundy has led growers to the conclusion that this type of soil can produce great Chardonnay, with well-defined fruit flavors and subtle mineral overtones.  The Cote de Beaune is about the same length as the Cote de Nuits (roughly 15 miles long), but has more vineyard acreage: about 15,000 acres.

Profiles of important Cote d'Or Communes (from north to south)


Gevrey-Chambertin is a famous village of Burgundy's Cote d'Or, lying towards the northern end of the Cote de Nuits.  Part of the reason for its fame is the second part of its name, Chambertin, which is a Grand Cru vineyard.  On the other hand, the appellation also contains more Grand Cru vineyards than any other Cote d'Or AOC.  The appellation produces only Pinot Noir.  It has a wide range of soils within its approximately 1100 acres of vines, but one thing that most of the vineyards have in common is very shallow topsoils, and lots of stone mixed in with the limestone and marl.  The microclimates are likewise quite varied.  The best vineyards, 9 Grand Crus covering about 220 acres, are located at high mid-slope parts of the appellation, on gentle slopes and protected from winds and hail by woods at the tops of the hills.  There are also 26 Premier Cru climats that only cover 215 acres!   The wines have the ability to combine finesse with power and long life.  Their aromatic qualities of Pinot Noir from this area lean towards the licorice, leather, and meaty descriptors, and they are usually paired with game, grilled and smoked meats, and strong, hard cheeses.  The total production of Pinot Noir wine from the appellation is about 180,000 cases per year.  The rules governing the Grand Crus are interesting: Clos de Beze can be labeled as Chambertin (both are Grand Crus, combined area about 70 acres) and Mazoyeres-Chambertin can be labeled as Charmes-Chambertin (combined area about 77 acres). The remaining 5 Grand Crus are: Chapelle-ChambertinGriotte-ChambertinLatricieres-Chambertin,Mazis-Chambertin, and Ruchottes-Chambertin.

In addition, there are some excellent Premier Cru vineyards: Lavaux St-JacquesLes ChampeauxLe Clos St-Jacques (also called Village St-Jacques), Petite-Chappelle (also called Champitonnois), Combe Aux MoinesLes CazatiersAux CombottesLes CorbeauxClos PrieurLe Fonteny, and Les Goulot.


Chambolle-Musigny is one of the so-called 'hyphenated villages' of Burgundy's Cote d'Or, lying about halfway along the Cote de Nuits.  Hyphenated villages are those which have attached the name of a famous vineyard to the original name of the village.  Its appellation covers only about 370 acres and it makes only about 63,000 cases of wine per year.  Chambolle-Musigny wine is almost exclusively red (all Pinot Noir).  Here Pinot Noir produces wines of elegance and finesse, characterized by their perfumed scent and soft, non-acidic style.  There are 2 Grand Cru climats in Chambolle-Musigny: Le Musigny and Bonne-Mares.  Le Musigny produces a tiny amount of white wine each year, but the majority is red.  This vineyard, widely considered one of the best (if not the best) in all of the Cote d'Or for its Pinot Noir, is located at the southern end of the appellation adjacent to Clos Vougeot.  It covers only about 26 acres, most of it planted with Pinot Noir- Le Musigny red wine production is only about 3,000 cases per year.  Nearby are 2 superb Premier Cru vineyards, Les Amoureusesand Les Charmes, making wines of nearly the same quality as le Musigny.  The second Grand Cru climat of Chambolle-Musigny, Bonnes-Mares, has a bit of vineyard which extends into the next northern neighboring appellation, Morey-St-Denis.  The greatest part, however, (about 33 acres) is within Chambolle-Musigny, and is all planted with Pinot Noir.  Its wines are more powerful, fuller, and lean away from the floral overtones of Le Musigny, towards rich, ripe fruit nuanced by underbrush and sometimes earthy-mushroom notes. Typical production is somewhat under 6,000 cases per year.  Other notable vineyards include Premier Crus La Combe d'OrveauLes Cras, and Les Sentiers.


Nuits-St-Georges is an important wine 'business-town' besides being an exceptional producer of great Pinot Noir.  It is situated in Burgundy's Cote d'Or, near the southern end of the Cote de Nuits.  Its appellation is also used by its southern neighbor, Premeaux.  The two have many Premier Cru vineyards: Premeaux (7) and Nuits-St-Georges (26).  Many Burgundy negociants have offices in Nuits St Georges, and it is also the center of Cassis (blackcurrant liqueur) production in Burgundy.  Nuits' northern neighbor is the famous Vosne-Romanee.  In this more southerly part of the Cote de Nuits, the hills are a bit less steep and the best vineyards are at about mid-slope.  A significant number of experts feel that many of the Nuits-St-Georges Premier Cru climats make superb Pinot Noir, and that they should be elevated to Grand Cru status.  The vineyards extend over about 750 acres and the annual production of Pinot Noir wines is about 130,000 cases; they also make about 3,500 cases per year of white wine from Chardonnay.  The part of the appellation north of town has soils that contain mostly limestone and pebbles, with just a bit of marl and some alluvial deposits mixed in.  These soils produce Pinot Noir wines that are similar to those of Vosne-Romanee, their northern neighbor; they lean towards polished elegance but have a core of structure that enables them to age gracefully.  The wines from sites south of town are very structured and need time to open.  They tend towards rusticity with flavors of the wild (herbs, minerals, meats).  This is felt to be due to the composition of the soils- here they contain more marl and less limestone. Some of the most important and consistent vineyards include Premier Crus Les CaillesLes VaucrainsLes St GeorgesRue de ChauxLa RonciereLes Perrieres (all to the south of town); and Premier Crus Aux ArgillatsAux Boudots, as well as the unclassified vineyard Aux Lavieres, all north of town.


The village/commune of Pommard is situated in the Cote d'Or's Cote de Beaune.  The 800-acre vineyard appellation stretches from Beaune to Volnay.  Pommard wine is exclusively red (all Pinot Noir).  The wines of Pommard are generally among the fullest, richest, darkest-colored, and age-worthy of the Cote de Beaune Pinot Noirs.  The soils are well-drained clay-limestone with rock fragments; there is enough iron in the soils to give them reddish color.  Pommard was one of the first villages to be classified with the AOC system, in 1936.  Total production is about 130,000 cases/year.  These are the 27 Premier Cru 'climats' in the appellation (290 acres combined): Les ArveletsLes BertinsLes BoucherottesLa ChaniereLes Chanlins BasLes ChaponnieresLes CharmotsClos BlancClos de la CommaraineClos MicotClos de VergerLes Combes DessusLes Croix NoiresDerriere St-JeanLes FremiersLes Grands EpenotsLes Jarolieres,En LargilliereLes Petits EpenotsLes PezerollesLa PlatiereLes PouturesLa RefeneLes Rugiens Bas,Les Rugiens HautsLes SaussillesLe Village.





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