What is Burgundy and Why Do its Wines Matter?

What is Burgundy and Why Do its Wines Matter?

The Dedalus Beginner’s Guide to Wine from Burgundy and How to Enjoy It

For many of us, the love of wine begins with a glass of Burgundy.

Because all it takes is one sip of steely, bright Chablis or charming, raspberry-toned Chambolle-Musigny to demonstrate the power and precision of really good Burgundy. 

But why are the wines of Burgundy so good? It comes down to history and authenticity. The primary grapes of Burgundy — Pinot Noir and Chardonnay — are native to this region. This is where they shine. And because people have been making wine in Burgundy for almost 2000 years, winemakers have had a long time to perfect their craft.

“Good red Burgundy is the most captivating wine in the world.”

— Kermit Lynch

What is the best Burgundy?

In Burgundy, wines are classified based on where they come from — their place of origin. The more specific the place, the higher the ranking.  First, you have your regional wines, Bourgogne Rouge and Bourgogne Blanc (red and white Burgundy.) These wines can come from multiple or single vineyards in any part of Burgundy. Next are the village wines, which come from vineyards in and around a specific village in Burgundy. 

Premier Cru is next. These vineyards have been prized for centuries because here, environmental factors unique to the site — like slope or soil — result in exceptional wine. A step above, and the highest classification, is Grand Cru. Grand Cru or Premier Cru wines are made with grapes from that specific Grand or Premier Cru vineyard, and nowhere else.

  • Regional wines are generally blends of grapes of the same variety grown anywhere in the Burgundy region. 

  • Village wines come from vines in and around one of 44 villages and account for 37% of total production. 

  • There are 640 Premier Cru vineyards that produce 10% of Burgundy’s total wine production. 

  • There are only 33 Grand Cru vineyards, and they’re responsible for 1% of the wine that comes out of Burgundy. 

A rule of thumb is that the more specific a bottle of wine is about where it comes from, the better it is, because it will be speaking more directly about a specific place. So a wine from a Grand Cru or Premier Cru vineyard will generally be more terroir-driven, age-worthy, and complex. It will also be expensive, likely bearing the highest price tag on a restaurant wine list. I will have something to say about the place where it’s made.

That’s not to say you can’t find delicious Burgundy in village and regional-level wines. Many village-level Burgundy wines offer incredible value. Whereas you might pay $400 for a Grand Cru wine, you might pay $35 to $50 for a village-level Burgundy. 

Guillaume D’Angerville, of Domaine Marquis D’Angerville, makes incredible 1er cru Burgundy. And, he also makes a regional-level Burgundy at a more accessible price point. Seeking out regional or village-level wines by exceptional winemakers gives you a chance to taste their work at a more accessible price point.

One last thing to note about the vineyards of Burgundy, whether they’re Premier Cru or village-level: in Burgundy, it’s extremely rare for a vineyard to be owned by just one person. Because of complex inheritance laws (thanks, Napoleon), most winemakers own a row of vines here and another there, their holdings scattered across different vineyards and villages.

Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are incredible at expressing terroir, so they produce some of the most place-driven wines. These bottles are like time capsules, especially with how climate change is impacting winegrowing landscapes in new ways every year.

— Brittany Galbraith, Dedalus Director of Education

Tomoko Bott of Chanterêves during the harvest in Burgundy

What are the main grape varieties of Burgundy?

Burgundy’s system of land and wine classifications is endlessly complex. But their grapes are pretty simple. The primary grape varieties used in Burgundy are Pinot Noir for red wine and Chardonnay for white. So when you hear someone say “white Burgundy,” you know that they mean “Chardonnay from Burgundy.” The same goes for Pinot Noir and “red Burgundy.”

Chardonnay is the Broadway star of grape varieties. She can be anyone and do anything. If the land is her script, she effortlessly interprets it. If the winemaker is her director, she executes their vision with ease. For this reason, Chardonnay is one of the most popular varieties around the world. But in Burgundy, she shines the brightest.

Pinot Noir is more like a diva. But when handled correctly, it is responsible for some of the most valuable, age-worthy red wines in the world. It’s thin-skinned and fickle — if the slightest thing goes wrong with the weather or soil, it can ruin a vintage. But, when it’s farmed attentively, Pinot Noir can produce some of the most transparent representations of its site. In other words, it is incredible at transmitting terroir. Like a diva, if its demands are met, it reveals itself to be an incredible communicator.

There’s also Aligoté, the forgotten grape of Burgundy. Aligoté has received a bad rap for the last 50 years, but when winemakers give it the care and attention it deserves, it’s capable of producing great wine. Our team is always excited to see Aligoté come into the shop from small, thoughtful producers who give this overlooked grape its own shot in the spotlight.

What are the most important wine regions in Burgundy to know?

Burgundy is divided into four main sub-regions. One of those, the Côte d’Or, where some of the most coveted terroirs are found, is actually two regions. 

The most important regions in Burgundy to know are: 

  1. Chablis: Chardonnay
  2. Côte d’Or: 
    1. Côte de Beaune: Top quality Pinot Noir
    2. Côte de Nuit: Top quality Pinot Noir and Chardonnay
  3. Côte Chalonaise: Chardonnay, Aligoté, and Pinot Noir
  4. Mâconnais: Chardonnay

I've heard people say, “I don’t know enough to enjoy that” or “I don’t know anything about wine, I don't think that I'll be able to appreciate it.” It's my job as an educator to remind people that, sure, there's a lot to learn. But there's even more to enjoy. Just let the wine be delicious.

— Brittany Galbraith

What does Burgundy taste like?

White Burgundy can have notes of fresh lemon, pineapple, apple, pear, wet rock, flint, limestone, and oyster shell. If the wine is aged in oak, it can have flavors of vanilla bean, bruised fruit, and hazelnut.

Red Burgundy can have notes of fresh cherry, raspberry, orange peel, wet rock, limestone, forest floor, potting soil, mushroom, wild game, vanilla, nuts, and bruised fruit.

Winemaker Guy Roulot

What to eat with a glass of Burgundy?

Our general rule of thumb when it comes to enjoying wine with food is “what grows together goes together.” So when we’re drinking Burgundy, we often prioritize traditional or classic recipes that come from that region.

Some traditional dishes from Burgundy are coq au vin (a chicken cooked in Burgundy wine), escargot à la bourguignon (wild snails plucked from between the vines stuffed with butter and herbs), and boeuf bourguignon (beef braised in red Burgundy.)

Brittany suggests pairing white Burgundy with oysters or lobster. For red Burgundy, she suggests Soumaintrain and Époisses cheeses, oeufs en meurette, or chicken liver mousse and pâté de campagne. But a humble roasted chicken and herbed root vegetables would work nicely with either.

Who makes Burgundy at Dedalus?

Check out this collection of our core Burgundy producers.

Like what you read?

Want to learn more? 

  1. Check out Burlington, Vermont classes  with Dedalus Director of Education Brittany Galbraith. Brittany is a sommelier and wine expert with a passion for wine education. In her classes, you’ll taste wines and sometimes food pairings. This is a great way to dive deeper into the world of wine.

  2. Read this interview with Burgundy winemaker Tomoko Bott.

  3. Explore Burgundy and other French wine regions in this book by Kermit Lynch.

Kristen Murray of Dedalus showing a bottle of D'Angerville 1er Cru Volnay from the monopole Clos des Ducs