Calling the person in charge of making wine in Burgundy a “winemaker” will likely give him or her a level of discomfort. In France, these people are called “vignerons,” which literally translates to “vine growers” because ultimately, the French believe the grapes “make” the wine, not the person in charge of converting them into wine. This is probably more true in Burgundy than in any other place in France.
By taking a more facilitating role in the process, French vignerons let the grapes do the talking, allowing them to express their unique sense of place through something the French call terroir.
Terroir comes from a combination of environmental factors including climate, soil, elevation and angle of the vineyard to the sun, and even sometimes surrounding flora (for example, the minty characteristics of some Australian red wines have been attributed to the location of vineyards near eucalyptus trees).
If there is any doubt that terroir plays a huge role in Burgundy wines, both red and white, one only needs to try wines made from the same vintage, with the same varietal of grape, by the same winemaker, using the same processes, but from different vineyards. Even when those vineyards are sometimes less than 100 meters apart, the wines will be noticeably different, at least when they are made in Burgundy with as little human intervention as possible.
This approach to making wine is much different than in a place like California, where modern winery techniques and technology are routinely employed to make wines that are predictably consistent and designed, for the most part, to meet market trend demands. When wine drinkers loved the overly oaked and buttery Chardonnays, that was how California winemakers made them. When that style of wine started to lose popularity in favor of a more refreshing expression of the grape, California winemakers adjusted their processes to address the demand.
Although no one has figured out how to control the weather (yet) and there will always be vintage variations, California winemakers have even learned how to minimize climatic effects (beyond yields) in the winery. In Burgundy, the vigneron makes his or her main decisions in the vineyard: how to prune the vines; when and how to adjust yield through “green harvesting;” and most importantly, when to harvest. Once the grapes are picked and delivered to the winery, the vigneron does mostly the same thing ever year to produce the wine, with a result of having wines that strongly reflect the vintage conditions, even if it means making wines from the same vineyard that will taste different year to year. For this reason, knowing the vintage of a particular Burgundy wine is much more important than knowing the vintage of a California wine – and most other New World wines for that matter.
Burgundy is known for two wines that make up the large majority of planting in the region: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The best Burgundies are named for the village or vineyard from which the grapes came. Chablis, Meursault and Montrachet are all names of villages where well-known white Burgundies are made entirely from Chardonnay grapes; Gevrey-Chambertin, Pommard and Nuits-St. Georges are all names of villages where popular red Burgundies are made entirely of Pinot Noir.
There are four classifications of Burgundy – except for Chablis, which has its own classification system – which relate to the quality of the vineyards. The lowest classification is “regional wines,” which make up more than half of all wine from Burgundy. They are created using grapes from a variety of villages. These wines are labeled “Bourgogne” – Burgundy – without naming a specific village.
The second classification is “village wines,” which are sourced from grapes from a single village, the name of which will appear on the label.
The third classification is “premier cru,” which are produced from vineyards within a village that are considered excellent. These wines will name the village from which they come on the label, followed by the name of the vineyard right next to it. Often, premier cru is denoted 1er cru on the labels.
The highest classification is grand cru, which is produced using grapes from only the best vineyards. Grand crus make up less than 2 percent of all Burgundy vineyards and many of the wines produced from those vineyards are rare and very expensive. Only the name of the vineyard will appear on its own on the label.
Although the wines from the different classifications will vary greatly in terms of their power and elegance, wines made from Burgundy tend to have some distinct characteristics because of the climate and soil conditions throughout the region. The Pinot Noirs tend to be less fruity than most New World expressions of the grape, with more earthy tones. They tend to have firm acidity, something that helps them generally age better than Pinot Noirs from others places.
The Chardonnays produced in Burgundy differ greatly because of their ability to easily pick up the nuances of terroir. Chablis makes very acidic wines with citrus flavors and strong minerality. Only some of the grand crus are aged in oak. In southern Burgundy, where Pouilly Fuissé is made, the wines reflect their sunnier climate with more fruit flavors. In between the two lies the Côte de Beaune from where the best Chardonnays come. These wines, oaked in French Oak, show concentrated flavors, power and elegance and are generally recognized as the best expressions of Chardonnay in the world.