Burgundy Wine Guide: Some of the Most Expensive Wines in the World

Burgundy Wine Guide

The Burgundy wine region may be small in size, but its influence is enormous in the world of wine; the complexity of Burgundian wines can cast fear into the heart of even a seasoned wine expert. Although the region is home to some of the most expensive wines in the known universe, there are plenty of good, affordable wines that can be found here too.

Wine making in the region goes back to the Romans in the 1st century AD, however it was the Catholic monks that really established the first vineyards during the Middle Ages, in which they would make wine for the church and for the Aristocratic Dukes of Burgundy.

At the time of the French Revolution, the land was given back to the people and was fragmented into small plots. Today, the system of small vineyards still prevails. Hardly any of the vineyards belong to a single owner, and because of the cost of the land in a wine-producing region of 111,000 acres the average estate is a mere 18.5 acres.

The easiest way to understand the complex nature of Burgundy wines, is to remember that there are only two grape varietals of importance: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. To the vigneron (wine-maker/grower) Burgundy is not the original home of these grapes, but the terroir that best expresses their characteristic: elegant, complex and highly enjoyable!

South of France Wine Map

Burgundy is not just one big vineyard, but the name of a province that contains several distinct and enigmatic regions. By far the richest and most important Burgundy wine region is the Côte d’Or, which is composed of Chablis, Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune, Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais, encompassing over 70,500 acres of vineyards. Immediately south of the Mâconnais is Beaujolais, which is quite different from Burgundy in terms of scale, style, soil and grape. The most popular grape varieties grown in Burgundy include Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Gamay and Aligoté.

There are nearly 100 AOCs in Burgundy, most of which refer to the geographical areas in which the wine is produced. Built into the geographical appellations is a quality classification that is practically a work of art in itself, the most elaborate of which is that of the Côte d’Or, further complicated on slight differences in nomenclature and spelling between different producers.

The rules and stipulations concerning the Côte d’Or are as follows:

Grand Cru: These are First Class vineyards, of which approximately 31 are in operation today, mainly in the Côte de Nuits. Each Grand Cru has its own appellation – the single, simple vineyard name (Musigny, Corton, Montrachet, sometimes prefixed with “le” – is the patent of Burgundy’s highest nobility of wines.

Premier Crus, the next rank, use the name of their commune (civil townships), followed by the name of their vineyard. If the wine comes from more than one Premier Cru vineyard, the commune name plus the words “Premier Cru”, for example Chambolle-Musigny, Les Charmes or Chambolle-Musigny Premier Cru, are used. Some Premier Crus are better than others, which is hardly surprising since Burgundy has more than 635 in all!

Appellation Communale is the third rank: that is, the right to use a commune’s name such as Mersault, and these wines are often referred to as the “village wines”. The name of the vineyard is permitted on the label, but it must be in smaller print than the name of the commune.

Fourth there are less propitiously sited vineyards, even within some of the famous communes, which only have the right to call their wine Bourgogne. Typically on the lower lying land east of the D974 road, the produce may be secondary, but this is not always the case as there are growers here who offer some of the Côte d’Or’s rare bargains!

Burgundy Wine Map

Chablis produces the white Burgundy wine of the same name, one of the most famous in France. All the wines are white and produced using the Chardonnay grape. It is the growing region located the furthest north and is geographically set apart from the rest of Burgundy. The vineyards here must be protected from frost by windmills, sprinkler systems and oil burners.

The River Serein flows through the area, moderating the climate. The grapes here have been grown since the Cistercian monks first started the vineyards in the 12th century.

Chablis wine is often imitated, but the imitations rarely resemble the real thing. Grown on limestone, Chablis is a crisp, steely white with flinty mineral flavours. It is brisk, fruity, and very dry, with a refreshing acidity.

There are four levels:

Grand Cru Chablis, the highest rating available, has been given to seven vineyards. These wines are rich and dry with a combination of butter, nuts and minerals. Grands crus may be matured in oak.

Premier Cru designation has been given to 30-odd vineyards in various towns around Chablis and account for about one-quarter of production. Chablis, without any other designation on the label, means a wine from any of the parishes in the Chablis district.

Petit Chablis is a light, less alcoholic wine made in the outlying parts of the district.

Côte d’Or, often called “hills of gold” or “golden slope,” is actually the abbreviation of Côte d’Orient or “eastern slope.” The best vineyards face southeast to maximize the sunlight. Côte d’Or has over 60 AOCs and thousands of growers. Villages of Côte d’Or have tended to append the name of their most famous vineyard, e.g., the town of Nuits with the vineyard of St-Georges became Nuits-St-Georges. Puligny and Chassagne both claim Montrachet.

Côtes de Nuits, just south of Dijon, is the northern part of Côte d’Or and is home to 24 Grand Cru vineyards and some of the world’s most expensive plots of land. Around 80% of the wines produced here are Pinot Noir and the remaining 20% – either Chardonnay or Rosé, a specialty of Marsannay – are produced in only four villages specialising in white Burgundy wines.

The Grand Cru vineyards form a patchwork on the eastern slopes facing the valley of the Saône River, starting at the village of Gevrey Chambertin, past Morey St-Denis and south to Vougeot and Vosne Romanée. Most are small and can have many owners, due to the structure of post-French Revolution inheritance laws.

A red Côte de Nuits is robust and elegant. Its bouquet is intense and fragrant. The villages producing Côte de Nuits are Chambertin, Morey-St-Denis, Chambolle-Musigny, Vougeot, Vosne-Romanée and Nuits-St-Georges. Côte de Nuits wines take ten years to mature.

The Côte de Beaune is the southern part of Côte d’Or and is named after the medieval town that is the heart of wine commerce in Burgundy. Burugndy wines here are quite different from those of its neighbour to the north.

Here, the valleys are open and rolling, the vineyards have more of a south-easterly exposure, and Chardonnay plays a more important role with 7 of the 8 Grand Cru vineyards producing Burgundy white wine – Corton, Corton Charlemagne and Montrachet being some of the well-known names.

Red Côte de Beaune wines are noteworthy for their aroma and their warm bouquet. They have a tendency to a slightly lighter body and a quicker maturation than the Côtes de Nuits. The white Burgundy wine are straw-yellow, robust, thick, smooth, and very dry. The best-known villages are Aloxe-Corton, Savigny, Pommard, Meursault, Chassagne-Montrachet and Santenay. Côte de Beaune takes at least five years to mature.

Beaune is home to the region’s best wine merchants, including Joseph Drouhin, Domain Chanson, and Louis Jadot. These Burgundy wine merchants also own much of the land. There are no grands crus, but three-quarters of the wine is designated premier cru. Succulent, approachable, extremely delicate, they have the softness and aromas of wild fruit and flowers. Côte de Beaune designates wine that is made anywhere between Aloxe-Corton and Santenay. Beaune wines are slightly superior to Côte de Beaune.

Wine cellars at Domaine Chanson
Wine cellars at Domaine Chanson

Generic Burgundy wine tends to be difficult to find. The reds are a light to medium wine made from the Pinot Noir grape. The Côte Chalonnaise district produces some of the best wine with the general Bourgogne designation. Good regional wines include Irancy (red) and Epineuil (rosé).

Côte Chalonnaise is named after Chalon-sur-Saône, and is situated between the towns of Chagny and Saint-Vallerin. There are no Grand Cru vineyards here, as the Dukes of Burgundy were centered in Dijon and liked to keep their holdings close to home. They considered these areas to the south to be more rural and for the peasants.

The first village in the northern part of the region is Bouzeron, the only appellation devoted to the other white grape of Burgundy, Aligoté. This is a perfect summer white and pairs well with fish and shellfish. Aligoté is floral, with notes of citrus and flint, and sometimes a touch of honey.

Burgundy red wines of the Côte Chalonnaise are pleasant, but the district is better known for its white Burgundy wines. Côte Chalonnaise whites, made from Chardonnay or Pinot Noir grapes, are pale, light, and clean tasting. The best-liked white wines are Mercurey, Mâcon, Mâcon Supérieur and Mâcon Villages and, above all, Pouilly-Fuissé.

Another village to mention is Rully, the vibrant centre of Cremant de Bourgogne production since the 19th century. These white and rosé sparkling wines are made in the traditional method, just as in Champagne.

The villages of Mercurey, Givry, and Montagny lie atop wonderful soils; layers of Jurassic limestone and marl with topsoils of eroded pebbles and clay. The area around Givry, in the middle of the Chalonnaise, has over 13 types of soil. These different plots give the wines individual character and the winemakers here really know their soils, with some having held the vineyard lands since the 17th century.

Bordeaux Wine Guide Grapes
Image result for bordeaux red wine grapes A red Bordeaux blend is primarily composed of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, with smaller portions of Malbec and Petit Verdot

Burgundy wines from this area range from smooth Chardonnays with subtle oak influences and ripe tree fruits to more rustic Pinot Noirs, filled with dried strawberry, cherry, earth and forest influences, and even suede-like tannins.

The most southerly region, and the largest of Burgundy wine region, is the Mâconnais. Located between the town of Tournus and St. Veran, it lies at the crossroads between the north and south of France. The change is striking as you travel south and the climate is decidedly warmer; in fact, harvest begins a full two weeks earlier here than in Chablis.

The Mâconnais district makes three times as much white Burgundy wine as the rest of Burgundy put together. A huge quantity of light, dry Chardonnay wine, sold as Macon and Mâcon Villages, is made every year.

Beaujolais is bordered by Burgundy to the North; the Saône River (which leads to Côtes du Rhône) to the East; Lyon, to the South; and the Monts de Beaujolais (the hills of the Massif Central) to the West. Beaujolais is just 34 miles long and 7-9 miles wide.

The area is naturally divided into two sections by the Nizerand River with different soils on each side of the river. This is important to note because the soil types hold the key to Beaujolais’ flavour. There is mostly granite and schist (decomposed rock) to the North and clay- based soils (marl) to the South. All of the Cru vineyards are located on the North side.

Beaujolais is made up of over 60 parishes that produce one of the most famous red wines in the world. Made exclusively from Gamay grapes, Beaujolais wine is, generally, light-bodied and fruity. Before the 1950s and 1960s when Georges Duboeuf began bottling it, Beaujolais was generally sold in pots or mugs.

The wines are soft fruity reds with almost no tannin. They should be enjoyed slightly fresh and young, within a year.

The Gamay grape produces the characteristic banana, cherry and bitter chocolate flavours.

There are three categories of Beaujolais:

Beaujolais AOC is the biggest appellation consisting of all 96 wine-making villages; a few in the northern half but most from the south. The clay soils and flatlands of the south make it more difficult to properly ripen grapes. Because of this, there is a wide variance of quality in Beaujolais AOC depending both on producer and vintage.

Beaujolais AOC are said to be easy to drink due to much refreshing acidity and little tannin. The flavours and aromas are fruity and even ‘grapey’ – raspberry, cherry, cranberry and, sometimes, a touch of fresh, tropical banana (a flavour that comes from the wine-making method).

Burgundy wine - Beaujolais Nouveau

Beaujolais Villages AOC comes from the same part of the district as Beaujolais AOC. These areas are a little more specialised and the wines a little deeper and darker in colour and character. Many of these villages are located on granite or schist soils, so the wines have a more ‘mineral’ quality. Beaujolais-Villages is from one of 38 listed communes, 30 of which can put their name on the label, including Beaujeu, the village that gave the district its name. One-third of all Beaujolais is Beaujolais-Villages.

Although most of the Burgundy wines are red with notes of strawberry and blackcurrant, the white Burgundy wines are pale and light with notes of pear, tropical fruit and blanched almonds.

Cru Beaujolais is the best of the Beaujolais with flower and fruit and freshness; peach, apricot and rose are often cited as flavours. There are 10 Crus of Beaujolais, all in the north and producing only red wine. Usually, the labels will simply state the name of the Cru as they are that renowned!

Each has its own distinct personality, based on terroir– climate, soils, altitude, aspect and a host of other factors – that are duplicated nowhere else. These Burgundy wines are much more complex and will develop beautifully over time.

By law, Beaujolais may not be sold until 15th November of the harvest year. This early wine is called Beaujolais Nouveau.

Burgundy Wine Autumn Vineyards

Chambolle-Musigny produces blended wines with Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris grapes from several vineyards. Often described as “feminine,” the red wines are elegant, delicate, silky, refined and long-lived.

Chassagne-Montrachet is chiefly known for dry but succulent, golden, flower-scented Burgundy white wines. The whites, which account for more than half of the production, are some of the finest dry Burgundy white wines in the world. The area also makes full-bodied fruity reds and spicy full-flavoured whites. The reds are similar to the bigger red wines of Côtes de Nuit, but slightly sweeter and slow developing. The Montrachet vineyard lies in both the villages of Puligny and Chassagne. The change of Montrachet wines from white to red comes mid-village.

Clos de Vougeot is the “claret” of Burgundy. It is produced in an enormous vineyard, actually a whole parish of vineyards, on the southern border of Chambolle-Musigny. While it started as a few vines planted by Cistercian monks in the 12th century, Clos de Vougeot, at 125 acres, is now the largest grand cru in Burgundy.

Following the Revolution, the vineyard was bought by six merchants. Each holding has been split over the years, and there are now more than 80 individual owners. The Burgundy wine produced here is a plump, full-bodied, spicy red with flavours of red summer fruits, chocolate and liquorice.

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Corton-Charlemagne is one of the great Burgundy white wine regions. Made exclusively from the Chardonnay grape, it is a big, golden-coloured wine. It is like Meursault but not so soft, and steelier.

The conditions around Fixin tend to make for rustic, tannic wines that take years to evolve into rustic, softer ones. Much of the wine produced here is sold as Côte de Nuits-Villages.

The village of Gevrey appended the vineyard of Chambertin (Bertin’s field) to its name. Gevrey-Chambertin wine is robust, full-bodied, and oaky. The best reds have flavours of plums and cherries with a hint of spice. There are nine grands crus and 27 premiers crus here. Legend has it that Napoleon never took anything else on campaign.

Wine from Givry is mainly red. The whites are dry and floral. The soft earthy reds have a flavour of cherry and red currants.

Mâcon Blanc is the round and melon-flavoured Burgundy white wine of Mâcon. It is not as dry as Chablis or as soft as Meursault. Mâcon Blanc is the white Burgundy wine equivalent of Beaujolais, unqualified by village or vineyard. Mâcon Supérieur is Mâcon Blanc with one degree more alcohol.

Mâcon Villages, accounting for 90% of the white Burgundy wine, is from one of 42 listed villages around Mâcon.

The wines of Meursault, made from the Chardonnay grape, are very dry and rich, full of the flavours of butter, hazelnuts and spices. Meursault is soft, mellow, and broad with a very pale gold colour.

Montagny is dedicated to the Chardonnay grape, making mainly medium to full-bodied white Burgundy wines full of hazelnut and gun-flint flavours. Increasingly, they are aged in oak barrels. Premier cru status is given to all the wines produced here. Morey-St-Denis boasts excellent producers who make some of the most reliable red Burgundy wines. They are big, strong, earthy wines meant to be enjoyed with great feasts. They are late developers, starting out feminine and elegant, and tending to rusticity. Village Burgundy wines can be outstanding. Clos de la Bussière is an excellent example of a premier cru from the area.

Tough and tannic when first made, Nuits-St-Georges red wines mature into soft, savoury wines, with plenty of meat. The blackcurrant and game flavours of these Burgundy wines often take as long as 20 years to reach their peak. There are no grands crus; however, there are more than 30 premier crus

Selection of Burgundy Wine and Bordeaux Wine

Pernand-Vergelesses reds are pleasant and softly jammy but short on finesse and complexity. The whites, with crisp, well-defined, delicate flavours of apples and herbal fruits, are better than the reds.

Pommard ranks second among Côte de Beaune wine communes. All the Burgundy wines share the characteristics of firmness, fairly deep colour and bouquet. They are among the richest and most tannic in Burgundy. Full-bodied, with black cherry flavours, they definitely need cellaring.

Pouilly-Fuissé, medium to full-bodied, dry, sometimes slightly honeyed, is the most famous Burgundy white wine of the district, with an annual production of six million bottles. It is made entirely from the Chardonnay grape and sometimes aged in oak barrels.

Puligny-Montrachet wines, elegant and steely with the flavour of peaches and apricots, are among the greatest dry Burgundy white wines of France. Puligny-Montrachet is home to four of the greatest dry white grands crus in the world.

Rully produces a variety of wines using Pinot and Chardonnay grapes. The majority of wines are fresh, apple-y, oak-aged white wines. Reds are medium-bodied with wild raspberry and violet aromas. Sparkling white wines are sold as crémant.

St-Véran is a relatively new appellation, created in 1971. It lies in both Beaujolais and Mâconnais. The Burgundy white wines produced here are light, dry and rich with a slight mineral edge.

Santenay, often called Santenay-Côtes de Beaune, makes red and white wines, though the red is better. Earthy, rustic reds, similar to Chassagne-Montrachet, are strong with a tender softness.

Volnay is the last red before the Burgundy white wine country of Montrachet and Meursault. Volnay is the most delicate red Burgundy, fresh and lively, elegant and velvet-textured, with a pronounced scent of a blend of violets, raspberries and ripe plums. It is very approachable when young. Volnay is one of the most reliable AOCs in the region.

Vosne-Romanée is home to some of the most prestigious vineyards in Burgundy. The elegant, velvety reds are of almost uniformly high quality. Romanée-Conti, one of five grands crus, is a tiny vineyard (less than four and a-half acres) on a hill above Vosne. The wine is extraordinarily rich, stuffed with plums, spice, and oriental flavours.

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