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Burgundy for Beginners

- Adrian Read

The world of fine French wine is rich with complexity.


The crucial thing to remember is that winemakers, most French wine drinkers, and even French wine laws, are concerned only with where the grapes were grown.


Unlike us. Our main interests are grape variety (or varieties) and wine style -- white or red, dry or sweet, rich or light and elegant.


Because French winemaking traditions are so much older, and wine knowledge -- or perhaps wine familiarity -- runs so much deeper, all that secondary information supposedly comes to you automatically once you know where the grapes were grown.


In France appellations (names) are given to places, not to wines.


Here’s an elementary guide for newcomers to the wines of Burgundy.


For our purposes, red Burgundy means 100% Pinot Noir, white Burgundy means 100% Chardonnay (although you will rarely find the grape varieties mentioned on Burgundy labels).  


There are four levels, covering both red and white wines, each level progressively more specific about grape origin. The quality of wines can vary considerably across the levels, but the most famous vineyards have earned their reputations -- and become sought-after and expensive -- over hundreds of years.


REGIONAL/DISTRICT. These appellations represent about 40% of Burgundy’s production. The most common labels are Bourgogne Rouge (red) or Bourgogne Blanc (white) but there are also district names such as Mâcon and a number of other district appellations. Those sold internationally may indicate grape variety. They can be made from grapes grown anywhere across a particular district or (in theory) across the entire 10,000ha of Burgundy vineyards. They range from generic wines of quite basic quality to Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs of village and sometimes premier cru standard.


VILLAGE. As the name implies, all grapes for these wines come from a single, named village or commune. Examples for reds are Volnay or Gevrey-Chambertin and for whites Meursault or Puligny-Montrachet. The hyphenated names are the result of villages attaching to themselves the name of their most famous vineyard. A village wine may also come from a named vineyard or site, and it’s easy to see that quality (and price) will vary widely with either historical sentiment or winemaking/grape-growing skills or both. What makes things even more complex is that dozens, even hundreds, of wines are properly labelled, say, ‘Volnay’, with the name of the producer often less prominent. Although label designs will vary widely, all the wines have the same name: Volnay.  


PREMIER CRU. Over the centuries certain vineyards and sites have shown that they consistently produce grapes of a higher quality than their neighbours. There are 585 premier cru (literally ‘first growth’) vineyards across Burgundy and their status will be prominently stated on the label, usually (but not always) with the vineyard name alongside. Grapes from premier cru vineyards, both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, are the cream of the crop. Premier cru is often shortened to 1er cru. These vineyards make a little less than 20% of Burgundy’s total production. By most standards the wines are expensive, or very expensive.


GRAND CRU. If premier cru vineyards represent the cream of the crop, grand cru grapes are la crème de la crème. There are just 34 grand crus (literally ‘great growths’), white and red, scattered throughout Burgundy, representing less than 5% of production, but so famous that they are permitted to use the vineyard name alone on the label, with no village name. The grand cru designation will also always appear. These are the great wine names that are almost universally known -- names such as Chambertin, (Le) Musigny, La Tâche, Richebourg (reds), and (Le) Montrachet and Corton-Charlemagne (whites).


They are the great names, with prices to match. But the great values often lie elsewhere. Unfortunately the theoretical status of Burgundy vineyards and sites is not always reflected in the final wines. The village wines of a gifted producer are quite likely to outclass the premier crus of one less competent or careful.


Experienced Burgundy hands come to know the producers with integrity -- the producers that can be trusted.


And that’s where Langton’s comes in. We taste before we buy. We work with importers and with buyers who live in Burgundy. We send our own experts, including Langton’s co-founder Andrew Caillard MW, to Burgundy almost every year.


We deal only with producers who operate with integrity.


Burgundy is yours to explore. You will decide what you prefer. Will it be -- with Pinot Noir -- the fragrance and delicacy of Volnay or the meatier style of Pommard? With Chardonnay, will you prefer the steeliness of Chablis or the richer, more oak-influenced style of the Côte de Beaune?


Until you can make these choices for yourself, let Langton’s be your guide. As we say, Langton’s is the home of Burgundy in Australia.

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