Burgundy at a Glance - A Basic Primer
Copyright 2003 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed November 10, 2003. For more information go to wineloverspage.com
One of the most severe limitations of the "30 Second" format - even when I press it well beyond that time span even for the most voracious speed-reader - is that it's tough to encompass some of the most important wine-related topics in the space of a short article intended for grab-and-go consumption.
And so it is with Burgundy, one of the world's most historic wine regions and arguably one of its best. I've touched on Burgundy over the years with the occasional wine-tasting report or article focusing on a specific village or region, but to this point haven't tried to take on an overview.
Burgundy is peculiarly difficult for the average wine enthusiast to get to know, not only because it's complicated but also because it tends to be expensive. Great Burgundy is rarely cheap, and cheap Burgundy isn't often great. Good buys are out there, but you have to work to find them.
Since I'll be leading a tour of Burgundy (plus Champagne) with French Wine Explorers just over six months from now - and hope to persuade at least a few of you to come along (details below) - let's take a shot at a very basic summary today in a few short "bullet points" organized as a quick-reference card.
- WHERE: Most broadly defined, Burgundy runs north and south along the Saone river in France between the cities of Lyons and Dijon (plus Chablis, which is a good distance northwest of all the rest). The southern portion of Burgundy incorporates the Chalonnaise, Maconnais and Beaujolais regions; but when most wine enthusiasts speak of Burgundy, they are talking about the relatively small section around Beaune, just south of Dijon, where the hillside stretch called Cote d'Or (Slope of Gold) incorporates the Cote de Nuits and the Cote de Beaune, where some of Earth's most favored vineyards grow.
- WHAT: Called Bourgogne ("Boor-gon-yuh") in French, Burgundy wines are almost invariably made from only two grape varieties: Pinot Noir for the reds, and Chardonnay for the whites. There are a few exceptions, like the Gamay grape in Beaujolais and the white Aligote and Pinot Blanc. We'll talk about them another day.
- WHEN: In terms of the length and texture of its vinous history, Burgundy is one for the books. Legend asserts that the ancient Romans found vineyards here when they conquered Gaul in 50 B.C., and vine growing has carried on without a break for more than 2,000 years since: by monks in the Dark Ages through Charlemagne's time, by dukes and barons thereafter, and by small farmers and entrepreneurs after the Revolution, when Napoleon's empire broke up the old holdings of the church and the nobility, a policy further complicated by inheritance to create a jigsaw-puzzle map of tiny properties that befuddles wine enthusiasts to this day.
- WHY: What makes Burgundy so desirable? There is little debate that both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay reach their quality pinnacle in these relatively small places; and Pinot in particular, while one of the most challenging grapes to get right, is one of the most rewarding when it all works out. Two millennia of wine-making tradition and as much experience in selecting the best possible vineyard sites further contribute to the quality factor; and sheer rarity based on limited yields from tiny vineyards drives the supply-and-demand ratio for the most sought-after wines out of all proportion. Most of us will have little opportunity to taste the greatest Burgundies. But with a little effort and care, we can certainly enjoy some good ones.
Advanced Burgundy Info: If you're already seriously into Burgundy, or would like to be, there is no better source of consumer information about the wines of the region than Burghound.com, a quarterly journal about Burgundy published by my friend Allen "Burghound" Meadows. Subscribe by visiting the website.
ABOUT THAT BURGUNDY TOUR: As I mentioned above, our annual group wine tour with French Wine Explorers will be May 24-30, focusing this year on Burgundy and Champagne.
We'll enjoy extensive tastings at top wine estates in Burgundy, including the best Premier and Grand Crus in the Cote de Beaune and the Cote de Nuits. Luxury accommodations are included at the elegant 4-star Hotel Le Cep in Beaune, and we'll dine in some of the region's best restaurants including the 3-star Lameloise in Chagny.
In Champagne, we'll visit two of the world's most famous Champagne houses, Moet et Chandon and Veuve Clicquot, as well as top smaller producers. Our home in Champagne will be Relais & Chateau member 4- star Hotel Royal Champagne, with a commanding view over the vineyards of the Cote des Blancs. Along the way, we'll see some of the fascinating cultural sights in both regions, including the 13th century Clos de Vougeot and the spectacular Reims Cathedral, where the kings of France were crowned.
There's still room, but don't procrastinate, as the size of the tour group is strictly limited. A spot or two on this tour would make a great holiday-season present for a loved one, or yourself. For more information, or to make reservations, visit the Champagne and Burgundy tour page on the French Wine Explorers Website, send E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 1-877-261-1500 (toll-free in the U.S. and Canada) to request a reservation form. Or, if you feel more comfortable contacting me about it directly, send me E-mail at email@example.com and I'll be happy to answer your questions.