Understanding Burgundy: Vineyard Classification 101

DSC00356I have very recently returned from my wine tasting trip through France, and want to share with you some of my adventures.  I had left the country and arranged (via US-Californian importers) some tasting visits.  Unfortunately, I struggled a bit to solidify these appointments because I was going exactly during the harvest season.  Just like in California, when there is harvest, everyone short of freaks out and becomes a wee bit less tolerant and welcoming to outsiders.  Note to keep in mind if you plan a trip for wine tasting…it is best to avoid harvest (@ mid-September through mid-october) if you are seeking people to give you their time and energy.  I found that at the wineries I stopped by where I didn’t have an appointment, they were totally closed to the public.  This was a big bummer in the Rhone Valley, where I couldn’t secure even 1 appointment because of harvest and it was Sunday (the one day that pretty much everything is closed in Europe, aargh!).  According to my fabulous guide of Provence, he informed me that everyone hunts on Sundays, so it would be difficult to get an appointment that day.  Thankfully I had 3 scheduled appointments in Burgundy, which made the experience there entirely better than through the Rhone Valley, where I couldn’t get the time of day from any producer, except one, which I will discuss on my next blog.

A bit of background on Burgundy.  It is a big mystery to a lot of folks who love wine.  It doesn’t receive the international recognition that Champagne and Bordeaux get, but the best Burgundian producers are quite ok with that.  As a whole, they value quality over quantity, they chase perfection over the dollar.  Some producers won’t release their wines when the importer asks them to, but will make the importer wait until the wine says it’s time.  I’m a fan of this attitude and approach. The best producers of Burgundy are puritanists and meticulous when it comes to their wines.  It is all about the soil and allowing the ‘terroir’ to speak through the grapes, and less about the winemaking showmanship.  Now, this may sound a little ‘tree-hugging’ for you, but it certainly rings true, as I found in my cellar tasting adventure with Louis Jadot.  Their extremely friendly and entertaining representative, Olivier Masmondet, spent 2.5 hours with me and my group tasting us through the different villages and showing us how different the wines taste, even though they are made the same way (same oak regime, use only wild yeast..never any commercial strands).  They avoid anything that would interrupt the ‘terroir’ from being expressed.  We probably tasted over 20 different village, premier and grand crus.  (I actually made a quick video of tasting in the cellars with Olivier, please check it out: copy and paste this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R-jyuimyNNA)  Anyways, what hit home, and I believe helped me really understand the essence of Burgundy, is that it’s all about the minutia, the slight variations of the soils, the aspect of a site to the sun, and slope of a site.  All of these factors are calculated in the most elaborate vineyard classification on earth. The Burgundy vineyard classification divides individual vineyards into 4 classes and enforces the precise labeling of each wine accordingly.  To further confuse and complicate the matter, because of the inherent fragmentation of vineyard ownership in Burgundy, 1 vineyard may be owned by more than 80 different growers.  Yikes!  This is the one challenge to the quality of Burgundy.  You have to be familiar with the producers as much as you are to the actual classifications.  Let’s explore the classifications:

There are 4 main ones.  Grand Crus are the 1st class, of which 30 are operating today.  Each Grand Cru has it’s own appellation, which is protected, registered and regulated with the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlee, France’s top tier of Quality wine Classifications).  Grand Crus are the best vineyards because they site offers the best aspect, soil type (for drainage and heat), slope and shelter from harsh winds for growing grapes.  They are usually, but not always, located mid-slope to take advantage of the best of these aspects to a site.  Generally, higher above mid-slope, the climate is harsher causing grapes to ripen later, or not at all, and below mid-slope, mists and frosts can get the best of the grapes.  Most of the communes (villages) of Burgundy have at least one Grand Cru, but not all.  The name of the single vineyards will be on the label.

Premier Crus are the 2nd tier.  These vineyards are the 2nd best to the Grand Crus, generally, they surround the grand crus, which are usually located mid-slope.  Looking at a detailed map of the vineyards of Burgundy, so you will generally see a pattern where premier crus form a sort of sandwich effect to the grand crus, with the grand crus, of course being the meat in the center.  There are exceptions to this of course.

The next tier are Communal or village level.  Some of the best communes can actually be as good as some Premier crus, so, it’s not always a bad option to buy a village level Burgundy. Some of the best village level wines include Meursault and Puligny Montrachet for Chardonnays, and Gevrey-Chambertin and Nuits-St-Georges for Pinot Noir, which are the 2 main grapes of this region.

The 4th level of classifications refer to the less sited vineyards, usually located on the lower-lying or even flat lands east of the commune.  They label their wines ‘Bourgogne.’  These are generally inferior wines, but also noticeably cheaper than the above.

Essentially, the classification breaks apart the land to recognize and put in a proper hierarchy the vineyards.  It truly is a brilliant classification, but one that requires an enormous amount of memorization and money to properly explore.  However, it is totally worth exploring, as I discovered.  There truly are minute differences in the land that can actually be tasted in the final product.  I wish that Californian producers and consumers alike would get out of the varietal game, and into the terroir game, because I personally would like to have a better understanding locally of how the different soil types, aspects of a site compare with each other.  Right now, you have to know the producer, and there is no national regulation, like in Burgundy, that recognizes and controls vineyard designations.  I believe this will come soon, as our industry matures and our consumers become more worldly with their palates.

Cheers!

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