Burgundy: An Introduction
Though this fabled wineland southeast of Paris is comparatively small (its planted vineyard area is about a fourth the size of Bordeaux's), it contains the largest number of appellations found in any French wine region — about a hundred. These are divided, in descending order of perceived quality, into designations of grand cru (about 2 percent of the total Burgundy production, for instance Montrachet or Romanée Conti), premier cru, and various village and regional appellations. Unlike Bordeaux, Burgundy boasts no grand estates, but is a patchwork of tiny vineyards, many of them of less than an acre, each with its distinctive terroir. The overwhelming majority of the white wines are made from chardonnay, the reds from pinot noir (though pinot gris and aligoté for whites and gamay for reds appear in some areas, and sauvignon blanc is permitted in Saint Bris). The region called the Côte d'Or (literally the Golden Coast, or Rib, named for the yellowish sandstone bluffs that run along the Saône Valley south of Dijon) encompasses the two most prominent sub-regions, the Côte de Beaune and the Côte de Nuits. The best Burgundian whites are elegant, complex wines with good acidity, vivid varietal character, and judicious use of new oak; the reds can be even more elegant and complex, with earthy, sometimes smoky flavors and often with what is politely termed a "barnyard" aroma (which is considered typical and desirable). Some red burgundies, even those with famous names, can be thin and sour, but when they're good, they're some of the most extraordinary wines in the world.
The northernmost portion of Burgundy, only about 100 miles from Paris, Chablis produces elegant, crisp white wines exclusively from chardonnay (a number of other grape varieties, both white and red, are grown in the region, but must be bottled under the generic Bourgogne appellation). At their best, the wines are considered a particularly eloquent expression of chardonnay character' the most representative examples also have a pronounced mineral flavor that the French call goût de pierre à fusil, or gunflint flavor. The use of small oak casks for aging is not traditional in the area, though some modern producers have adopted the practice. Seven Chablis vineyards are designated as grand crus and about 40 as premier crus — though the names of only about half of these appear on labels because appellation laws permit smaller plots to adopt the name of better known premier crus nearby.
Côte de Beaune
The southern portion of the Côte d'Or, extending outwards from the historic town of Beaune, this part of Burgundy is known for elegant, beautifully perfumed reds, generally lighter in body than those produced farther north and showing the more delicate side of pinot noir (Beaune, Savigny-lès-Beaune, Volnay, and Pommard are examples), but the whites are the region's glory. These include such famous bottlings as Meursault, Montrachet, and the Montrachet hyphenates, most famously Chassagne and Puligny. The finest examples are rich and complex, with intense chardonnay character enhanced by the flavors of oak. The wines of Corton bear the only grand cru designations in the region for red wines (and for the whites of Charlemagne and Corton-Charlemagne); the various Montrachets, whites, are also grand cru. There are also numerous premier crus and wines with individual village designations, as well as wines labeled simply Côte de Beaune or Côte de Beaune Villages.
This region, south of the Côte d'Or, contains no grand cru vineyards, but wines labeled Rully, Mercurey, and Givry (both red and white) and Montagny (white only) can be very good values, with true Burgundian character. The lesser known appellation of Bouzeron, produces pleasant white wines from the aligoté grape, rather than chardonnay. There is also gamay grown in the Côte Chalonnaise, often blended with pinot noir for a wine called passe-tout-grains.
Côte de Nuits
In the northern reaches of the Côte d'Or, this region is famous above all for its red wines, including those of Chambertin and its hyphenates, Musigny and Bonnes Mares, Clos de Vougeout, and the six wines of the Domaine de la Romanée Conti in Vosne-Romanée. These wines are known for their structure and intensity of flavor, though the wines around Chambolle, in the north, are sometimes more delicate. There are 25 grand crus in the region, all red wines (except for a small quantity of white Musigny), and about 135 premier crus. Marsannay has no grand or premier cru vineyards, but is notable as the only Burgundy appellation that produces white, rosé, and red wines. Some sparkling wine, called crémant de Bourgogne, is also produced in the Côte de Nuits.
Extending north from the city of Mâcon and wrapping around it to the west and south, this region is known primarily for its reasonably priced chardonnay-based whites, including those bottled as Mâcon-Villages, Pouilly-Fuissé, Saint-Veran, and Viré-Clessé, and as Mâcon with specific village names attached, notably Mâcon-Milly-Lamartine and Mâcon-Prissé. (Another village here, whose name may be used, is Chardonnay — where, locals claim, the grape of the same name was first developed.) A small quantity of rosé and red Mâcon is made, largely based on gamay (and exclusively so if a village name is used).
Though it is usually considered a separate region, Beaujolais, south of the Mâcconais, has a Burgundian connection: Its ten cru villages, including Fleurie, Morgon, and Moulin-à-Vent, may label their wines as Burgundy.