Burgundy (Bourgogne in French) is an historic and highly respected wine region in eastern France. Burgundy wines have long had devout followers throughout the world and continue to do so today. Although Bordeaux produces about four times as much wine every year, Burgundy’s estimated 74,000 acres (30,000ha) of vineyards are considered to be of equal importance, producing some of the most exclusive wines on Earth.
Burgundy wines come from several distinct sub-regions, each with its own particular character. Four of these are located at the heart of Burgundy, in a narrow strip running for 75 miles (120km) between the towns of Dijon and Macon. From north to south they are the Cote d'Or (comprising the Cote de Nuits and Cote de Beaune), the Cote Chalonnaise and the Maconnais.
Chablis, situated in an isolated pocket of limestone hills in north-western Burgundy, produces white wines so distinct in style from those of central Burgundy that it is often treated as a region in its own right. A full 130 miles to the south of Chablis lies Beaujolais – treated by the wine world as a sub-region of Burgundy, despite being located in the Rhone-Alpes region.
The two key grape varieties of Burgundy are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, both members of the extended 'Pinot' family of grape varieties. Their 'poor cousins' Gamay and Aligote are also grown throughout the region, producing more rustic styles of wine. Gamay is used in the red and rosé wines of Macon, while Aligote has its own appellation in the form of Bourgogne Aligote. In the late 14th century, the first Duke of Burgundy outlawed Gamay, dismissing it as unfit for consumption. It was still permitted within the Rhone administrative region, however, where it found a new home in Beaujolais.
Wine production in Burgundy operates in three distinct ways. The first is through negociants, who buy the grapes or wine from several smaller producers and sell it under their own names. The second is via co-operatives – organized groups of grape-growers who pool their resources to establish a winery for collective use. The third method involves wine producers who own both vineyards and a winery. This is less common than the other two because of the costs involved in building and maintaining winemaking facilities.
The complexity of Burgundy's land divisions and the presence of co-operatives and negociants are inextricably linked – one giving rise to the other. The principal cause is found in the Napoleonic inheritance laws, which give equal inheritance rights to all children of a family. Before the French Revolution (1789), the French church and nobility owned most of Burgundy’s vineyards, but these were sold off and fragmented by the revolutionary government, and have been further divided with every subsequent generation.
The Burgundian climate is predominantly continental, with relatively short summers and cool winters, making it a challenge for the grapes to ripen fully. The greatest threats for Burgundy’s grape-growers – especially those in Chablis – are spring frosts and hail, which can cause great damage to flowering vines. The landscape here is characterized by its limestone soils, manifested either in rolling hills, steep, sharp valleys or rocky outcrops. These soils are of immense importance to the character of Burgundy’s wines, bringing a quintessential minerality and complexity – particularly to the white wines. In fact, along with considerations of orientation, it is the precise soil make-up of the best Burgundy vineyards that brings them elevated Premier Cru or Grand Cru status.