The Cote de Beaune is a key wine-producing district in Burgundy, eastern France. It is named after its main town, Beaune – the epicenter of local wine production and commerce. Famed for producing some of the world's most expensive white wines (most of which bear the name Montrachet in some form or other), the district is also responsible for a handful of Burgundy's top red wines, particularly those from the premier cru vineyards of Pommard and the grand cru Corton. As is the case for most of Burgundy, white wines are made from Chardonnay, the reds from Pinot Noir.
A narrow strip of land less than 3 miles (5km) wide, and running for 16 miles (25km) in a north-easterly direction, the Cote de Beaune's main vineyard area is almost precisely the same size and shape as its northern counterpart, the Cote de Nuits. Together these two make up the wider Cote d'Or, a region named after and characterized by the Cote d'Or limestone escarpment which forms its backbone. The importance of this escarpment to Cote de Beaune viticulture is hard to understate; not only does it protect the vineyards from prevailing westerly winds, it also provides gently sloping, free-draining vineyard sites with near-perfect south and south-easterly aspects.
(© BIVB / Muzard J.P.)
The Cote de Beaune's most favored vineyards are those on the slopes of the Cote d'Or. The limestone-rich soils and sunny exposure in these sites make for excellent 'terroir', the intricacies of which have been meticulously studied and detailed for many generations. It is the intimate knowledge of the land, and of the wine it can generate, which underpins the classification of the local land into premier cru and grand cru categories (see Burgundy wine label information).
The eastern flank of the Cote d'Or escarpment is dotted by a neat line of wine-producing villages, some separated by less than one mile, all entirely encircled by vines. Eighteen of these have their own 'village' appellations (e.g. Puligny-Montrachet or Pommard), with a carefully defined list of premier cru vineyards (e.g. Les Pucelles in Puligny-Montrachet and Les Rugiens Bas in Pommard). Some vineyards are so highly regarded that they have their own independent grand cru appellation. The Cote de Beaune's grand cru sites are divided neatly into two sections: in the south are the various Montrachet sites (of which the most prestigious is Le Montrachet) which specialize in white wines; in the north is the hill of Corton, which specializes almost exclusively in red wines.
In addition to these appellations which focus on relatively small areas (vineyards or villages), there is the district-wide Bourgogne Hautes Cotes de Beaune appellation. This broader, less quality-driven title is available to red, white and rosé wines from all over the district, but in practice it is claimed mostly by wines from less prestigious vineyards on the western side of the Cote d'Or. There is also a Cote de Beaune appellation, which one might expect to cover the whole district. Somewhat confusingly, it does not. Instead, it covers just a thin strip of land on the upper slopes of the cote above Beaune town. The remaining 90% of the cote below this (and some of the flatter land below) is covered by the Beaune appellation. There is very little documentation to explain the existence of this somewhat superfluous Cote de Beaune appellation. It was created in July 1937, just ten months after the Beaune appellation, and is barely used today.
The climate of the Cote de Beaune is continental, with slightly higher temperatures and rainfall than in the Cote de Nuits. Springtime frosts are a danger, and can do extensive damage to the vines during the delicate stages of budding and flowering. Various techniques are employed to counter this threat, from wood-burning braziers amid the vine rows to helicopters hovering overhead to generate frost-preventing air movement. Hail and strong winds are also a threat to the vines here. In the unseasonable and disastrous storms of July 2013, some producers lost up to 70% of their potential crop. Unfortunately there is very little that can be done to prevent or cure such damage.
Although Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are by far the dominant grape varieties in the Cote de Beaune's vineyards, other varieties can be found here and there, particularly Aligote, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. The latter pair are permitted in the wines of most local appellations (even those specializing in red wines), although the global popularity of their more famous cousins (these varieties all share a common ancestry) mean that their plantings are on the decline.