Burgundy, named Bourgogne in French, is Bordeaux’s eastern partner in the global world of fine wines. Burgundy encompasses a number of famous regions riddled with contradiction and complexity. The overall region to be examined this week runs north to south almost from Champagne to the Rhône respectively. Its medieval kingdom contains a myriad of names synonymous with the finest expression of its most planted grape varieties, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Beyond this core is Greater Burgundy encompassing Maconnais and Côte Chalonnaise. To the north lies Chablis whilst the southernmost extreme encompasses the various regions of Beaujolais.

To understand the region, take a piece of A4 paper, fold a dozen or so times into a corrugated sheet and then tip it to the south and east. This, in direct contrast to the drained expansive marshlands of Bordeaux, will give you some idea of the landscape, which produces so many variations in grape growing styles.

The wine capital of Burgundy is Beaune with its gabled houses of Gothic influence and the patchwork of brightly coloured Flemish-tiled roofs, little altered since the middle ages when the various dukes of Burgundy ran the area almost as an independent kingdom.

Fine red Burgundies rely almost exclusively on the capricious Pinot Noir grape, whilst the greatest white wines from the Chablis region are principally built from the ubiquitous Chardonnay grape.

The delicate wines created from these grapes belie the obvious social aspects of the region. Whereas in Part 2 we dealt with the grand châteaux of the Bordeaux region with their trademark vineyards and their absentee landlords and owners often making the area appear something of a ghost town, Burgundy remains a landscape of hustle and bustle with most tiny estates tilled with the mentality of peasant farmers, with a robust, unsophisticated, but nonetheless delicious local cuisine in abundance. This is also the landscape where until very recently the negociant ruled supreme. Negociant is a French term for wine merchant. It was the merchants who traditionally travelled the region buying grapes or the fermented wine from various tiny properties and blended the wine under their own label to sell to a wider market. Let’s not forget that a potato grower in Norfolk does not make crisps or chips, just as the rural farmers of Burgundy initially knew little about wine-making beyond their own family requirements and relied almost entirely on the negociant to create a wine of finesse and provide a regular income.

A great deal of change occurred in the latter part of the 20th century. It was the worldwide demand for  Burgundy that prompted the move for Domaine bottled wines with the authorship of a new breed of grower-winemaker on the label. This occurrence, in parallel with the tiny fraction of wines produced in the area compared with Bordeaux, created some eye-watering prices around the world.

In an attempt to justify the increasing demand and cost of some Burgundies, a classification not dissimilar to Bordeaux was introduced. At the lower end of the scale Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire and Bourgogne Passe-Tout-Grains occupy grand titles for often rather ordinary wines. One step up come the wines labelled Appellation Bourgognes Controlée covering both red and white wines indiscriminately sourced from across the region.

Next rung up are wines under the general villages title. Once a particular village is appended to a vineyard name its status rises again and can become a premier crus, for example from Puligny the village and Montrachet the vineyard, comes the premier crus Puligny-Montrachet.

To complete the example when the vineyard alone is named, without the village, such as Montrachet then you have reached Grand Crus status.



The history of Burgundy falls into two distinct areas. Under Charlemagne it was the monks toiling in their monasteries with walled vineyards and temperature-stable cellars sweeping away the patchwork of local growers and seeding the vineyards we know today. First on the scene were the Benedictine monks, funded by the Duchess of Burgundy in the 13th century, who created such hallowed names as La Tâche and Domaine de la Romanée Conti. The Cistercian order too was in evidence at this time although with far less exerted power. Their claim to fame was to establish Chablis, and for centuries to come brought an almost scientific research to vineyard activity being one of the first groups in France to examine the notion of terroir with an enlightened view as to where to plant, what soils suited what grapes, and the understanding of the complex micro-climates of the area.

The first serious demand for the wines of the region came during the early 14th century when Pope Clement V moved the papal court to Avignon, and for some seventy years it was wines of the Beaune region that oiled the wheels of this renegade papal outpost. The court’s return to Rome did little to diminish the demand for fine Burgundy at the tables of successive popes.

After the decline of the church in France in favour of the increasingly extravagant monarchy, Burgundian wines were still being favoured over Champagne at the court of the Sun King – Louis XIV.

The next major and lasting change occurred under what is now known as the Napoleonic Code. What occurred after the French Revolution is visually evident in the Côtes d’Or today. From the late 18th Century, vineyards were taken from church and crown and sold off to the working souls of France with one revolutionary proviso, that upon a father’s death the vineyard was to be subdivided equally between his offspring. They in turn, upon their own demise, re-enacted this process towards their own siblings under the French law of equal inheritance by children, generation to generation.

To a great extent the confusion we find in Burgundy, as opposed to Bordeaux, is in understanding not only region and vineyard names, but the many family names producing within.

The final aspect of Burgundy’s rise to world fame was the event of canal and railway access to a region formerly cut off from the rest of France and reliant only on horse and cart across bumpy hillsides. No grand port and river transport here, unlike its grand neighbours in Bordeaux.

Grape varieties

Compared to most regions and indeed countries of the world, Burgundy offers the most restricted range of grape varieties available for wine making, with precious little blending.

As we have said, the principal grape variety in Burgundy is Pinot Noir, occasionally blended with the almost tannin free grape of Beaujolais, Gamay. During the 20th century 80% of all new red grape plantings were Pinot Noir. Pinot is a thin skinned variety, unlike the other great red Cabernet Sauvignon, and although it traditionally favours cooler climes the grape is difficult to grow, ripen  and ultimately reach the levels of delight we expect. Burgundian winemakers are an optimistic breed living closer to the toss of a climate coin than almost any of their counterparts around the world.

The principal white variety is Chardonnay, a grape that has now travelled to almost all parts of the wine growing world. Here in its cool northern climes it can offer sublime expression of the fruit with natural and refreshing minerality from its chalky soil.

One lesser known and less popular white variety is Aligoté, the ingredient of some crisply dry wines with a tart finish – although dedicated fans of Bourgogne Aligoté will accept no criticism of this sparsely planted grape.

Principal Regions


As we have said, this is the historical heartland of Chardonnay, but a style that would barely be recognisable after the oft over-oaked incomers from the southern hemisphere. Expect more restrained tastes, with steely hints of minerals coupled with pineapple and apricot, although the fruits often taste refreshingly ‘green’. Straight Chablis can be reasonably inexpensive when trying to grasp the style of the region, but push the boat out to try Premier Crus and if the bank account allows, the Grands Crus where you will discover white wines that are often happy to age in bottle for ten years or more and transform into warming, honeyed, almost oily wines with great capacity to partner the most complex of modern European cuisine.

Côte d’Or

Frequently and mistakenly translated as the slopes of gold perhaps due to some of the prices the wines command. However, the epicentre of Burgundy is in fact named after the Orient, or eastern facing slopes. It is from this region that some of the world’s greatest wines emanate.

The area sub-divides into the Côte de Nuits in the north producing the region’s finest reds, and the Côte de Beaune in the south providing the most heavenly white Burgundies as well as some equally stunning reds.

Running north to south is like a who’s who of Burgundy vineyards: Gevrey Chambertin, Vosne-Romanée, Nuits-St-George,s Sauvigny-Lès-Beaune, Aloxe-Corton, Pommard, Volnay, Meursault and Montrachet to name a precious few.

Although some growers still adhere to the negociant system, many sell their own wines even though due to the Napoleonic Code the majority of winemakers own less than ten acres of vineyard.

Côte Chalonnaise

The region, due south of the Côte d’Or, was for some time a warmer region producing close contenders to their northern neighbours. More robust and to some extent a traditionally rustic style has increasingly given way to red and white wines with pretensions to compete more favourably in the wine markets of the world. Look for Givry, Mercurey and Rully for exciting reds, and Montagny, a region growing Chardonnay and ably assisted by that most famous of Burgundy’s negociants, Louis Latour.


Moving further southwards from the Côte Chalonnaise we pass through the city of Macon from whence the region takes its name. Look out for straight Macon Blanc, made solely from Chardonnay to the likes of Macon-Superieur and Macon-Villages where Chardonnay often competes with its northern growers at a welcome fraction of the price. A little further down the trail look for a warmer climate example of Chardonnay with increasing nuances of honey and butter from Pouilly-Fuissé (not to be confused with Pouilly Fumé of the Loire Valley).


Beaujolais is a part of Greater Burgundy with plantings of the once fashionable and now unfairly overlooked red grape, Gamay. The heady days of Beaujolais Nouveau are now almost happily behind us, so the first wine from the region would be a Beaujolais Villages. A large step up the ladder provides us with some stunning wines categorised as Beaujolais Crus under the headings of Julienas, Saint-Amour, Moulin-a-Vent, Chénas, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Regny, Côtes de Brouilly and Brouilly. Without doubt these are luscious, rich, velvety and with noticeably high degrees of fruitiness. It should be added that these wines will suit palates that dislike the mouth-puckering tannins associated with heavy young wines.