Burgundy basics

Class and complexity
When you hear about wine from Burgundy you think of tradition, refinement, and limited quantities of fine wines. Most often, whites made from Chardonnay and reds made from Pinot Noir come to mind.

Sounds simple, but tradition and language make these wines complex. Every element related to each wine has a history.

· Ownership of vineyards (and parcels within) can be traced for centuries.

· Grapes have been grown to standards defined long ago, and the way the grapes have been nurtured has been tracked in detail.

· Locations and the vines themselves have been rated and are reexamined regularly.

· The characteristics of every aspect of the environment have been documented: hours of sunlight, rainfall, humidity, drainage, soil, layers of terrain underneath the soil, angle of the slope, exposure, the type and quantity of pests.

What’s in a name
You need to know which wines you’ve tasted and which ones you want to taste. When selecting Burgundy, you’ll need to be able to pronounce it so that others will understand it, or be able to write it down, or pay the consequences.

Labels contain not only the name of the village (unless it’s a Grand Cru wine) but also the producer.

A grower sells his grapes, or his wine, to a négociant: a wine-merchant. Some négociants are more than merchants – they are growers and producers of wines of their own.

Certain well-regarded Burgundy wines are known for specific and consistent characteristics—utterly unlike equally well-regarded wines made from grapes just a neighboring parcel away. Master that!

The wine that is available to taste and purchase now is likely to be age-worthy and not fully matured. While it will improve and taste quite different with age, even as a new release Burgundy commands a fine price. Some Burgundies are made to be consumed medium term; but many don’t come into their own until 7-20 years of cellaring.

Before choosing a wine
To choose, you’ll need to learn a little, consult with experts, and know what you want, unless price is not a consideration.

First, learn the names of the regions.

· Côte d’Or is the name for the region of Burgundy where the noblest wines are produced. However, the wines from the Côte d’Or are identified by their sub-region.

· The Côte d’Or’s sub-regions are the Côte de Nuits, the northern portion; and the Côte de Beaune, continuing south and westward from the Côte de Nuits. Burgundies are sometimes organized in geographical order of the villages within the Côte d’Or, so become familiar with the names of the villages. It's the equivalent of grouping wines from Northern California into Napa wines, Sonoma wines, and other regional appellations.

· There are three additional wine regions in Burgundy, continuing to the south and west from the Côte de Beaune.

Second, learn the names of the classifications of French wine. Classifications signify vineyard quality.

· Grand Cru (grawn crew) is the highest classification and refers to vineyards that have been rated the best. Grand Cru Burgundy is a single vineyard wine. Some Grand Cru vineyards in the Côte d’Or have their own appellation and therefore the label might omit the name of the village.

· Premier Cru (prum-yay crew) vineyards are the second best, even though the literal translation is “first.” You will see the name of the vineyard on the label.

· The next best classification is called Village (vee-yahzh). A wine classified as a Village has a higher classification than a wine with a regional appellation or generic appellations.

Don’t be confused between the classification named Village and the word village. In some locations in France, all the vineyards in a wine village are rated Grand Cru. And an appellation can cover a very tiny area, such as one vineyard, or a village, or a larger region including a number of villages.

Last, read, talk, and taste, casually and comfortably. Remember, regardless of rarity or cost, wines exist to be fully enjoyed and consumed with good food and friends.

When you're ready to buy
Talk to the wine seller or the sommelier, and taste what you can afford. Tell your wine seller what your budget is and what wines or characteristics you enjoy. Otherwise, you may be wishing for a lovely, supple, ripe wine but receive one that is muscular with massive tannins. Or you may wish for a wine that has been called feminine but get one that you think is thin or past its prime. You may want a wine that is age-worthy but get one that is fully matured.

Any of the above terms could apply sometime during its lifespan to a good, even a great, wine from Burgundy.

To learn more about Burgundy, read, taste or take a class.

Introducing Wine, A Complete Guide for the Modern Wine Drinker, Oz Clarke
Puligny-Montrachet, Journal of a Village in Burgundy, Simon Loftus
Dictionary of Wine, Hachette Wine Library
Vintage Charts, Jancis Robinson

Karen Silverston