In battling through the French wine industry with its Bordeaux’s, Grand Cru’s, terriors and AOC’s, it is refreshing to visit Burgundy, where it is almost California-like with its concentration on varietals: All red Burgundies are pinot noir, and all white Burgundies are chardonnay.
Well, more or less. A neutral-tasting high-acid grape, Aligoté, is grown in the region and used for the sparkling wine, Crémant de Bourgogne. Also, the red grape, Gamay is used to produce Beaujolais – but while Beaujolais is technically within the Burgundy wine region, it is universally identified as a Beaujolais. Likewise Chablis, in the extreme northern portion of Burgundy, is made of 100% chardonnay fruit but retains the name of the sleepy little town of Chablis.
By the way, never, ever confuse a sumptuous French Chablis with the cheap American and Australian jug wines which pirated the name, “Chablis,” though they never contained a drop of chardonnay.
Of all the wine regions in the world famous for red wine, Burgundy is the coolest and most northern, situated in eastern France roughly between the cities of Dijon and Lyon. The climate is continental, with very cold winters and hot summers. Rain, hail and frost are all possible around harvest time. Therefore, year-to-year variations among Burgundies can be great, going from exalted to depressing in a single year. Drinking Burgundy is, in fact, wine’s ultimate crap shoot.
There is archaeological evidence to suggest that viticulture was established in Burgundy as early as 51 BC. The earliest written praise of Burgundy wine was recorded in 591, though the fruit at that time was probably Fromenteau — chardonnay came along much later.
Burgundy wines have experienced much change over the past 75 years. First, there was the economic depression of the 1930’s, followed by the devastation of war in the 1940’s. Ravaged and depleted vineyards were lovingly restored, using potassium fertilizers, until in the 1950’s the region produced some of the most stunning wines of the 20th century.
Over the next 30 years the vines were over fertilized into producing higher yields of less acidity, flavor and concentration. During the period 1985 – 1995 there was a turning point in Burgundy; a new course in winemaking began producing deeper, more complex wines – a course which continues to this day.
What should you expect when you lift that glass of Burgundy? A good white Burgundy will be complex and multi-layered – but forget the adjectives you might use to describe a California chardonnay; opulent, buttery, oaky, bursting with tropical fruit, etc. Flavors will be subtle, mineral, less conspicuous. A red Burgundy can have plumy fruit laced with spice, citrus or mocha flavors. But the reds can also be earthy, a term Europeans tend to associate with sensuality. Not surprisingly, we Californians are more likely to call it barnyard, and worry about brettanomyces.
— D.D. Smith