Wine in Burgundy, an overview

The grapes, the land and the basis for classification, everything to understand Burgundy wines.

The Burgundy area, often called Bourgogne, stretches north-south from Chablis in the north (although Chablis is separated from most of Burgundy), through Cote de Nuits, Cotes de Beaune, Cote de Chalonnais, Cotes de Macon. Furthest south is Beaujolais which is sometimes included as part of Burgundy.

An overview

Excluding Chablis, the most prestigious areas are Cotes de Nuits and Cotes de Beaune. The Cotes de Nuits is most renowned for its red wines and the Cotes de Beaune for its white wines.

Burgundy is a complex area and has around 100 appellations... more than any other French region although it is less than half the size of Bordeaux.

Burgundy differs from Bordeaux in 4 major respects: the grapes, basis for classification, fragmentation and the inefficiency this fragmentation means.

The grapes

In the Cotes de Nuits and Cotes de Beaune the only allowable grapes are Pinot Noir for the red wine and Chardonnay for the white wine. Chablis also has to be 100% Chardonnay. In the fringe areas Chardonnay and Pinot Noir still predominate. Beaujolais has to be 100% Gamay grape. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are not permitted in Bordeaux.

Basis for classification

Vineyards in Burgundy are classified according to terroir ie the particular area where the grapes are grown. All grapes grown in a particular classified area have the same classification regardless of owner. A particular vineyard eg Clos de Vougeot, may have many owners each with a few rows of vines but all these owners share the same classification for their wine. In Bordeaux it is the producer, the chateau, that is classified. Neighbouring chateau in Bordeaux can be classified differently based on historical assessments of the quality of the producer's wine.

Fragmentation of the land

Historically, much of the prime land of Burgundy was owned by the church or by the aristocracy. Napoleon Bonaparte broke up these big estates and the land was distributed amongst the people. This fragmentation continues through the inheritance laws which require the land to be divided equally amongst the children. A hillside of vines may look like one estate but perhaps there are one hundred owners each with a small number of rows. Many of these growers have small holdings of vines. Those vines may well be scattered across many classifications or appellations which means that the grapes have to be kept separate. Bordeaux has a different history and the estates have generally remained intact. The vines around the chateau will generally all belong to the chateau.

This fragmentation means that it is often inefficient for many growers to produce their own wines. A characteristic of Burgundy, therefore, is the negociant... someone who buys grapes from a number of growers within the same classification/appellation and combines the grapes into a single production. In Bordeaux it is much more usual for the chateau to bottle its own wine.

Understanding Burgundy wines

All of the above means that Burgundy wine has more complex labelling and is often more difficult for the non professional to understand. A rule of thumb is that more wording on the front label signifies a more prestigious and more expensive wine. That wording is intended to define as precisely as possible the exact location of the grapes ie the terroir.

The most prestigious land is designated Grand Cru. The next level is Premier Cru. Further down there are Village wines (the name of the village is on the label). There are then Regional wines.

Grand Cru and Premier Cru represent around 12 of total Burgundy. Volumes are small and prices reflect scarcity and international demand.


Arthur Till has been interested in the fruits of the vine for many years and shares his enthusiasm for wine with others through wine appreciation courses, a wine group and the tours he organizes.