Corton-Charlemagne is the Grand Cru appellation for the white wines of the Montagne de Corton hill, in the Cote de Beaune district of Burgundy. The appellation was introduced in 1937 and covers land in the three surrounding communes of Aloxe-Corton, Ladoix-Serrigny and Pernand-Vergelesses. It is essentially synonymous with the Charlemagne appellation, which covers only the vines in Aloxe-Corton and Pernand-Vergelesses. For reasons known only to French bureaucrats, the Charlemagne title has not yet been annulled.
It was the Emperor Charlemagne who famously had the first white grape varieties planted on the Corton hillside. The red wines he loved so much stained his long white beard and his wife is said to have pressured him into drinking white wines instead. These would not necessarily have been made from the Chardonnay grapes used today. They are more likely to have been a mix of Pinot Gris (locally known as Pinot Beurot), Pinot Blanc and Aligote. It was not until after the phylloxera outbreak of the 19th century that Chardonnay took over as the dominant variety in Burgundy's premium white wines. Aligote and Pinot Blanc are still permitted in Corton-Charlemagne wines today, although only in small quantities.
While the red wines of the Corton appellation are generally labeled with the name of a specific climat, this is not the case for Corton-Charlemagne. The variation in style between the wines is much less than that between the Corton reds, reducing the need to specify the precise vineyard of origin.
The hill of Corton itself is a large outcrop of limestone, set slightly apart from the main Cote d'Or escarpment. It marks the northern end of the Cote de Beaune and abruptly halts the vineyard-strewn plain which flows north from Beaune. The top of the lozenge-shaped hill is covered in dense woodland, replaced by vineyards from about 1130ft (345m). Vines occupy the slopes of the hill for almost its entire circumference, although the Grand Cru rating covers only the southern half of the hill, sweeping majestically around from due east to due west. On the western side, the limestone soils are closer to the surface and this is reflected in the (mostly white) wines made from these vineyards. The eastern side is a touch warmer – being more exposed to the morning sunshine – and richer in the marlstone which is so well suited to Pinot Noir.
Classic Corton Charlemagne is considered to be amongst the finest of Burgundy's whites, and is famous for its combination of fruit flavors (figs and baked pears) and mineral character (flint) – the latter being particularly prevalent in wines from the cooler western slopes. Corton-Charlemagne ranks among the world's more expensive white wines, although it still does not reach the prices commanded by its Montrachet counterparts.