Wine Week: Burgundy Deciphered
Anyone who has traveled down a grocery store wine aisle has seen them. Bottles of mysterious alcoholic liquid in jugs labeled “Burgundy”. Sometimes it’s white, sometimes it’s red. But who on Earth knows what’s in there? Is it Burgundy? Is Burgundy a grape? A blend? Well, it may come as a surprise to you, but Burgundy is a place.
In the 4th century, a Germanic tribe named “The Burgundians” settled into a region of the Western Alps that is now in Northeast France. Did they grow grapes and make wine? Most likely, however, the Celts who inhabited the area before them did as well. These two tribes of nomadic conquerors set the groundwork for what would become one of the greatest wine regions in the world.
It wouldn’t be until the 6th century when the Franks and Roman Catholics conquered the area that it would really take off as a wine-growing region. They planted widely with the Church and it’s Monks heading up most of the production for religious and ceremonial purposes, as well as a way to make money for the church itself. The Roman Catholic church would continue to produce wines primarily up until 1789 when most of the properties were sold to commoners after the French Revolution. It was then that things began to change.
Under private control, wineries thrived. Sub-regions began to emerge as top-quality places to buy wines from. The very best of these wines were referred to as Grand Gru (the best) and Premier Cru (Second Best, but definitely very good). Today wines with these designations can fetch prices into the thousands per bottle. Not all premium Burgundies are quite that expensive. A savvy wine shopper may be able to obtain a premier cru for under $30, if searching hard enough.
Yes, Burgundy is a beautiful place. Agriculture thrives there. But, what’s in the bottle? That’s a rather simple question to answer. Although some regions in France are allowed to grow less popular varieties like Aligote and Pinot Gris, the bulk of wine production is Chardonnay for white wines and Pinot Noir for red. In the smaller region of Beaujolais, you will find Gamay Noir to be the grape of choice.
French laws controlling varieties of grapes (known as the Appellation Control) have been in place for nearly 200 years. These laws also control other important factors like where the wine was produced, the quality designation of the wine, the aging of the wine, the harvest of the grapes, and more. These laws protect the values of certain wines as well as the consumer buying them. A Grand Cru Chardonnay from the prestigious subregion of Batard Montrachet, for instance, may obtain prices upwards of over $1000 per bottle at release. It’s not uncommon for the rarest and most premium reds to reach even farther. A quick search for Domaine Romanee-Conti will yield results of bottles priced above a good used car. Certainly not something most of us will pull the cork on this evening.
So does that mean my three-liter Jug of “Pablo Rontari Burgundy” $6.99 on sale is an age-worthy Pinot Noir from France? No. ...and drink it quickly as possible because “age-worthy” is definitely NOT a good descriptive word for it! In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Italians and other winegrowers settling the far-reaching “California frontier” planted all sorts of grape varieties. Their vineyards were often a mish-mash of who-knows-what and whatever they could get. The grapes were harvested at once and marketed in any way that would help sell them. Names like Burgundy, Bordeaux, Chablis, Champagne, Rhine, and others were thrown about to help sell the wine. However, all of those names belong to protected wine regions in Europe. In America, they mean nothing. They can be literally anything, and often won’t even resemble the wines whose name they’ve evoked on the label.
Today, that tradition is still in place. Bulk wine manufacturers will label their field blends with the names of appellations in Europe to indicate a style of wine, but not necessarily according to their laws. Your “Rhine” wine may not contain a single grape grown in the Rhine region of Germany… but be lightly sweet and resembling a wine from that region. It’s loosely correct, but also misleading. There are efforts now in America to stop the use of these names entirely for bulk wines.
So go ahead and shop those teardrop-shaped wine bottles in the French wine section. It’s just your old friends, Pinot Noir, Gamay, and Chardonnay. For convenience, here are a few more names you may see in association with Burgundy: Pouilly Fuisse, Beaujolais, Macon Villages, Chablis, Macon-Lugny, M
ontrachet, and Beaune. There are many others, but these are some of the mos common ones. Bon Appetite! Cheers! Salud! Bonzai! Prost! Or whatever you may say… just enjoy!
Matt Stetson is a level 3 sommelier and owner at the Bone Sack Cider Company in Saint Cloud.