Nov 03 2009

Demystifying the Burgundy Label

By Maggie Smith
Are you one of those people that love to drink wine but steer clear from French wine because you just don’t know what type of wine is in that bottle? There’s usually indecipherable French writing, probably a picture of a chateau-looking house, and what seems to be a name of a place or region, but nothing about what grape type you’re about to purchase! The French are known to produce the greatest and most expensive wines in the world, deservedly so; but it can be very intimidating to actually pick up a bottle. Each week we will take a wine tour of individual regions in France and start demystifying the wine region and the label region by region and break down these scary walls!

This week, lets start with Burgundy. If you can remember back to your childhood, you may have seen your parents drinking red wine out of a jug labeled Burgundy. Before there were laws protecting the names of these wine growing regions in France, producers such as Ernest and Julio Gallo created and marketed a cheap red wine and named it “Burgundy.” This has nothing to do with actual Burgundy region in France, and presented a negative connotation to actual French Burgundy wine. If you are in the Burgundy section of your local wine shop or on your restaurant wine list, the easiest thing to know about this region is that if it’s red Burgundy, it’s Pinot Noir, and if it’s white, then it’s Chardonnay. This is the only thing that is easy about Burgundy. It’s the most studied and difficult region to decipher so we’ll take a generalized look at this region to gain some understanding.

Pinot Noir is one of the most delicate, sexy, silky, mysterious wines in the world. It’s known for it’s subtly and its layers and layers of aromatics. Pinot Noir flavors truly whisper to you, and the varietal keeps you guessing, only revealing itself after you’ve courted it for a long while. It has been revered by wine connoisseurs since the beginning of time and has now come to the masses, thanks in large part to the movie Sideways. Burgundy, France is hands down the benchmark for Pinot Noir world wide. It’s where it shows itself off best and is what Pinot makers all over the world try and emulate.

The Chardonnays of Burgundy can bring out the same sensations (such as our Pouilly-Fuisse). It’s nothing like the oaky, buttery, tropical Chardonnay grown in California. It’s again a much more subtle style of Chardonnay with a core of stony minerality showing off more of a soft, creme fraiche-like texture. The aromas are reminiscent of baked apple pie, with toasted almonds sitting on your neighbor’s windowsill, and you can only catch glimpses of those aromas when the wind blows your way.

The entry-level Burgundy (known as Bourgogne in France) will say just this on the label. The place where the grapes are grown, not the producer, is the most prominent information on the label. When your wine says Bourgogne on the label, this means the wine producer is getting their grapes from the entire region–it’s equivalent to saying “I live in Cook County.” When you start going up in price and quality, the label will state a village (such as Gevrey-Chambertin or Pommard). This is specifying your grapes came from a certain village in Burgundy–now you’re narrowing down that you live in Chicago. Now each village has it’s own special “flavor,” and part of the fun of buying these wines is discovering how greatly grapes can differ from one another, even when grown just down the road from another village.

The next step up from village is Premier Cru or also known as “1er Cru” on the label. This means that it comes from a specific vineyard within the village name on the label–now you’ve narrowed down your place to a neighborhood in Chicago, such as Bucktown. These Premier Cru wines are recognized by the French government as being of superior quality and worthy of superior price. Narrowing down the place where your grapes are grown will give you a more focused, intense and complex wine worth its price.

The next step up is Grand Cru Burgundy, which are known as the best and most expensive Pinot and Chardonnay in the world and only needs to list the name of the Grand Cru vineyard it comes from, the vineyard name says it all! If you can afford to buy Grand Cru, put it away for at least 10-15 years to get the most out of your investment.

Hopefully this is has demystified your Burgundy label and region a bit. If you want to know more about the flavor profiles and structures of each village then let us know and we can break it down even more for you on another article–this is just a starter course!Map of Burgundy and Villages

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