France has long been considered the home of fine wine and of all its wine regions, Burgundy is considered one of the most exceptional. Luckily for us, it is also one of the few regions to export more wine than the country at large consumes, shipping out roughly 60% of its produce.
Responsible for many of the most expensive bottles in the world, Burgundy is best known for its dry red Pinot Noirs and Chardonnay whites, many of which are increasingly valued as investment wines.
Whether you’re thinking about planning a trip to the region, or simply thinking about the next fine wine to add to your collection, our guide to Burgundy will give you the knowledge and confidence to make informed decisions best suiting your personal preferences.
The Rich History of Burgundy
Burgundy is one of the oldest European wine-producing regions, dating all the way back to the 1st century AD. Winemaking was established in the region by Catholic monks in the Middle Ages, who started growing grapes to make wine for the Dukes of Burgundy and the church.
The church lost power as special clergy privileges were eliminated following the French Revolution. The people ultimately took control of the vineyards, and still display a proud attachment to the land.
The vineyard holdings were already fragmented as a result of the people’s distribution, but Napoleonic inheritance laws increased this by requiring estates to be split equally between all children in a family. This is why there are over 4000 territories, known as domaines, in Burgundy today and many growers may own nothing more than a single row of vines.
The economic depression of the 1930s followed by the devastation of World War II diminished Burgundy’s soil and vines a great deal. Vintners followed the advice of renowned viticultural experts for the next 30 years, who advised them to begin using chemical fertilisers such as potassium. This significantly increased the vineyards’ yields, but came at the expense of the existing nutrients in the soil, resulting in wines with less flavour and concentration.
Luckily, many vintners applied modern vineyard management techniques from the mid-80s onwards, growing grapes in more natural ways using organic or biodynamic methods. This paved the way for a number of extremely successful vintages throughout the 90s and beyond, and Burgundy continues reaping the rewards of these efforts. This is why, in comparison to other French wine regions, Burgundy vintners are regarded as the most ‘terroir-conscious’, paying close attention to the environmental conditions and which of the 400 soil types the grapes are grown in. The subregion has its own unique take on this, known as the system of ‘climats’, and simply means taking a terroir-led approach to winemaking.
Burgundy’s Five Wine Regions
Burgundy is an especially small wine region, with vineyards making up just 74,000 acres. To put that into perspective, Bordeaux’s vineyards span a huge 296,596 acres. In spite of its small size, Burgundy is hugely varied and is divided into five distinct subregions.
Côte d’Auxerre (Chablis)
Exclusively producing white wines made from the Chardonnay grape, Chablis wines are characterised by its zest and acidity. The district is geographically separate from the rest of Burgundy and actually sits closer to Champagne. Chablis also shares the Champagne region’s cold climate and Kimmeridgian limestone soil and the chalky texture retains the sun’s heat, helping the grapes ripen in cool temperatures.
Standout wine producers in Chablis include Domaine Billaud-Simon, Louis Michel, and Servin.
Côte de Nuits
Wines from this subregion are some of the most exclusive in the world, with 95% of them consisting of just the red Pinot Noir grape and the remaining 5% made up of the white Chardonnay. The most famous and expensive wines derive from the Grand Cru vineyards Vosne-Romanee and Chambolle-Musigny. Côte de Nuits also embodies 24 of Burgundy’s 32 Grand Cru appellations—the highest level in Burgundy’s vineyard classification.
Though all Côte de Nuits appellations produce high-quality wine, Domaine Leroy, Jacques-Frederic Mugnier, and de la Romanée-Conti are some of the most esteemed.
Côte de Beaune
Many incredibly expensive white Chardonnay wines are produced in this region. Together with Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune makes up the Côte d’Or subregion, which is characterised by its limestone escarpment. This is of the greatest importance to Côte de Beaune as it protects the vineyards from westerly winds while the vines benefit from limestone-rich soils and a continental climate, with higher temperatures and rainfall than Côte de Nuits.
Domaine Jean-Francois Coche-Dury, Comte Lafon, and Domaine Leroy typically command the highest praise in the region.
The continental climate of Côte Chalonnaise creates the region’s optimal ripening conditions, with its hilly topography leading to less rainfall. Aside from Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, there are also wines made from the white Aligoté grape as well as some white and rosé Cremants.
Domaine Paul Jacqueson, Jean and Francois Raquillet, and Domaine Francois Lumpp are three of Côte Chalonnaise most famous producers.
Maconnais is the most southerly region of Burgundy and has a warmer climate than the others—so much so that its harvest often begins two weeks earlier than it does in Chablis. The temperature is reflected in its fruity white Chardonnays, while the region also produces a smaller number of red wines made from Pinot Noir and Gamay.
There is very high production in Maconnais compared to other regions, which means quality can vary from town to town. However, domaines such as Château de Beauregard, Daniel et Martine Barraud, and Domaine Guffens-Heynen create consistently fine wines.
Burgundy Wine Classifications
There are plenty of wines to choose from in Burgundy, with the region’s 400 soil types meaning that even two from the same vineyard could be vastly different. Each bottle from over 100 approved wine growing areas—known as appellations—is labelled according to one of four classifications, providing an idea of the quality.
These make up 52% of all wines produced in Burgundy and are made from grapes sourced anywhere in the region, usually labelled Bourgogne Rouge (red) or Bourgogne Blanc (white). Crément de Bourgogne is part of this category, while the particular grape variety is often noted on the label.
These are named after the villages closest to the vineyards they hail from, and comprise 37% of Burgundy’s wines. Though they don’t possess the oakiness of higher quality classifications, they are fresh and fruity with slightly more complexity than regional wines. This is because village appellations grow their grapes in better soils, in smaller, more defined areas, allowing a sense of place to be better expressed. Examples of renowned village wines include Givry and Mercurey.
Approximately 10% of the wine produced in Burgundy is Premier Cru. Factors like soil type and ageing potential give these bottles an intensity lacking in village wines, while still being significantly more affordable than those in the Grand Cru category.
As the most prestigious classification, just 1% of Burgundy’s wines fit this category. Famous examples include Chardonnay by Montrachet and the Pinot Noir from Romanée Conti. With intense flavours and impressive ageing potential, these are the finest wines in Burgundy, perfect for collecting, cellaring, and selling.