The simplest thing to understand about Burgundy is the grapes. With the exception of a few minor grapes, most of the wine produced here is made from Chardonnay, if white, and Pinot Noir, if red. The best of these inland vineyards is saved for these major grapes, and the production of wine here highlights the soils and land. Every undulation, soil type, raindrop, and photon of sunlight determines the distinct flavors of the wines made in Burgundy’s vineyards.
Burgundy is not one soil, but many soils that were formed on an ancient seabed. The soil types are based on and named after the sea creatures that gave their exoskeletons to create them. As these animals died, their shells fell to the seafloor and over time decomposed and became limestone. When the Alps were formed the tumult fractured this seabed and exposed the different layers in different areas.
Later, monks who worked the vineyards on these convolutions recognized the differences of the wines coming from plots of land with varying altitudes, soils, and orientations. Slowly they began to form a hierarchy of plots or climats. Those atop the hills to the west of the region were not the best. Moving down the eastern slope toward the Saône River plain the wines became better. The middle of the hill formed a high quality tenderloin, and, as the vineyards began to reach the bottom of the slope, the quality paled again. Since the monks knew on which side their bread was buttered, popes drank from the tenderloin found on the middle of the slope, cardinals, the top of the slope, and bishops from the bottom. The nobility, having the money to fund the church, were afforded some of the better wine also. Wines grown on the flat land was least desirable. Flat land wine was for the workers.
Thus began the system of hierarchy now in existence. The land of Burgundy is classified as to its quality. This classification system, while always sacrosanct in every Burgundian vigneron’s mind, was spelled out in the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée or AOC laws instituted in the 1930s to verify place of origin for wine and to thwart passing off subpar wines as better. The elevation of the classification of a climat of Burgundy can only be changed through the act of the Institut National des Appellations Contrôlée et de la Qualité (INAO) rewriting AOC code. Since the tradition of these climats ranking is nearly ancient, and the land called Burgundy is fixed, no great changes will be made. To wit: one of the few, if not sole, elevations since 1939 was the elevation of Clos des Lambrays from Premier Cru to Grand Cru in 1981. Declassification of wine, on the other hand, is not out of the ordinary. If a grower has poor premier cru fruit one year, he can always label the wine as from its commune.
Here are the AOC rankings from lesser to greater.
Regional AOC usually have the word Bourgogne in their names. They are mainly from the flat lands and are simple wines. Their names specifies just where fruit is sourced. E.g., Bourgogne Rouge is red from anywhere in Burgundy, Mâcon (an exception to the Bourgogne rule of thumb) is red or white from the Mâconnais sub-region. These wines are allowed a bit of the lesser Burgundian grapes to be fermented in. A few of these are Aligoté, Pinot Beurot (Pinot gris), Melon (Muscadet), and Gamay. While considered simple wines, good regional Burgundy now starts in the mid $20 range and goes up from there. The wine is usually ready to drink upon release.
Communal (Village) AOC wines come from a smaller, more specific area. Meursault is red or white from vineyards specifically around the commune or village of Meursault. A vineyard name may be added to the label. These vineyards are called lieux dits or named places but are not officially categorized by the INAO – for example, Meursault Clos des Mouches. Expect to pay $60+ for a Village level wine. These wines show best after three years.
Premiers Crus are specific commune vineyards or climats recognized and ranked by the INAO. These vineyards are found on the upper or lower areas of a hillside and thus would have been earmarked for cardinals or bishops respectively. These wines always have a Commune name and the words Premiers Cru or 1er Cru on the label. They may be made from a blend of premier crus and carry the Commune name + 1er Cru or they may be sourced from a single Premier Cru and carry that Village + single climat’s designation. E.g., Meursault 1er Cru or Meursault Les Charmes 1er Cru. $90 is the opening price for this level. Expect the wine to begin showing its glory starting at five years.
Grands Cru, these exact words, will be on the label of the wines made from the recognized best climats of Burgundy. They will not have the village name on them. They are found in the middle of a hillside and were set aside for the popes. One of the best known Grands Crus is Montrachet, a Chardonnay which needs no other name, and has no comparably flavored sibling. Montrachet is nothing else and nothing else is Montrachet. These are the most long-lived and should be held for at least five years although most will begin to be best at a decade. Opening prices for Grand Cru Burgundy averages $200.
The uniqueness imparted by the terroir of the climats of is the basis for the region’s intimidating AOC hierarchy. Burgundy’s wines, made from only two grapes, account for only six percent of all the wine produced in France. However, Burgundy’s 84 AOCs make up 23 percent of the country’s 363 AOCs. Here, vive la difference is taken to the nth degree.