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Burgundy is one of the world’s most intriguing wine regions, best known for its exceptional Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays produced in an awe-inspiring array of styles. With its multitude of appellations and vineyards, each having a unique terrain, Burgundy offers an unsurpassed study in the highly sensitive nature of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to various growing conditions. While Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the most renowned of Burgundy’s grape varietals, the red Gamay and white Aligoté are also among the main grapes grown in the region. Gamay is the star of the Beaujolais region, flourishing in the granite soils there, and Aligoté is mainly used in sparkling wines.
Deciphering Burgundy’s classification system can be confusing, to say the least. When examining a wine list or an individual wine label, different vineyard names can appear next to a single village name, which is further complicated (thanks to Napoleonic Law) by the various vineyards having multiple owners, each producing their own wines for better or worse. Understanding Burgundy’s nomenclature and the characteristic styles of each region will give you an upper hand when shopping for your next bottle. So, how does the system work and what should we look for on the label?
First, let’s get acquainted with the five regions of Burgundy. From north to south, these are: Chablis, Côte d’Or (Côte de Nuits & Côte de Beaune), Côte Chalonnaise, Mâconnais and Beaujolais. Burgundy’s classification system is quite unique and is significantly different than that of Bordeaux. In Bordeaux, individual producers (château), are awarded Premier Cru or Grand Cru classifications, while in Burgundy, these classifications are given to individual vineyard sites, which are then elevated to Appellation Contrôlée (AC) status. Thus, Bordeaux has about 60 appellations compared to Burgundy’s 600 plus!
In ascending order, Burgundy’s hierarchy begins with Regional Appellation Contrôlées (ACs), which always include the word Bourgogne in their name. There are generic Bourgognes, which can come from anywhere in Burgundy, such as Bourgogne Rouge and Bourgogne Blanc, as well as more exclusive regional ACs; i.e. Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes de Beaune.
The next step up the ladder are District ACs, which exclude the word Bourgogne in their title and are named according to the wine regions of Burgundy. District ACs include Chablis, Mâcon, Côte de Chalonnaise, and so on.
Village (a.k.a. Commune) Appellations
Next up, we have Village Appellations, which are named after specific villages and divided into two groups: non-Premier Cru villages and the more elite Premier Cru villages. The name of the village (commune) will always appear on the label and will sometimes be accompanied by a specific vineyard, if the wine comes from only one vineyard site. However, if the vineyard is not Premier Cru, its name will appear in smaller print on the label.
Premier Cru Appellations
Premier Crus are esteemed single-vineyard appellations, which explains the plethora of ACs in Burgundy. To further complicate things, each vineyard (called climat in Burgundy) can have multiple owners, each producing their own wine. A vineyard under sole-ownership is distinguished as monopole on the wine label. Premier Cru status will almost always appear in print on the label, but may sometimes be designated by the village and vineyard name sharing the same font size.
Grand Cru Appellations
Finally, at the very top, we have the most prestigious Burgundies of all, those distinguished as Grand Cru appellations. There are a total of 33 Grand Crus, one in Chablis, and the remaining 32 in Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune, along the Côte d’Or. Labels of Grand Cru wines simply state the vineyard name, since these names are so well recognized in the region. For example, Chambertin and Montrachet are Grand Cru vineyards, located in Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune respectively.
When considering the wines from the Côte d’Or, we encounter a number of hyphenated names, such as Gevrey-Chambertin and Puligny-Montrachet. The reason for this? In the early 1900s, some of the villages along the Côte d’Or decided to hyphenate their village name to their very best vineyard, in order to increase sales of their village wines. In the case of Puligny-Montrachet, Puligny is the village, and Montrachet is the Grand Cru vineyard.
Wine Styles by Region
Chablis, always 100% Chardonnay, is arguably the most elegant expression of this grape in the world. This northern-most region in Burgundy, located in the valley of the Serein River, has a challenging, cool climate, which is reflected in its wines. The soils of the region are predominantly limestone, with the best wines, the Grand Cru and Premier Crus coming specifically from Kimmeridgian limestone. Characteristically, the wines of the region are lighter bodied, with citrus and green fruit flavors, high acidity, and refreshing minerality.
The “Golden Slopes” are so named because the vineyard leaves turn a brilliant gold color at the end of the growing season, after harvest. To the north, the Côte de Nuits produces full-bodied, age-worthy, Pinot Noirs that are second to none. These Pinots offer aromas and flavors of cherry, raspberry and strawberry that evolve into savory, gamey characteristics. To the south, the Côte de Beaune produces some of the world’s most complex, premium Chardonnays as well as lighter styled Pinot Noirs. These Chardonnays are fermented and aged in new French oak and can age beautifully for a decade. They have a fuller body, intriguing texture and unrivaled complexity.
The Côte Chalonnaise produces Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays that are similar to those of the Côte d’Or, but at lower price points.
Farther south in the Mâcon region, Chardonnay is King. Thriving in the warmer climate and limestone soils, these wines are characteristically rich and full-bodied with ripe citrus flavors. The most distinguished wine of the region is Poully-Fuissé, offering aromas and flavors of peach and melon, and savory qualities from barrel aging in new French oak.
Beaujolais is home to the Gamay grape, which produces fruity red wines that taste of cherry and raspberry. A special winemaking technique called carbonic maceration can impart unique aromas of bananas, bubblegum and sweet spice. Beaujolais often gets dismissed as a less than serious wine region that produces insipid Beaujolais Nouveau, the youthful wine released each year on the third Thursday of November. However, there are those of us who appreciate the fun, fruity character of Beaujolais Nouveau, and find the presence of banana aromas in wine to be more interesting than off-putting. Wines labeled as Beaujolais-Villages AC come from the villages in the north of the region and make up a quarter of production. The Beaujolais Crus are the most distinct, highest quality wines of the region. There are ten cru villages in total: Saint-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin à Vent, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Morgan, Régnié, Côte de Brouilly and Brouilly.
Terroir and Burgundy’s Classification System
Terroir is a French term that encompasses the individual soil, landscape and climate of a particular growing region. This concept is the backbone of Burgundy’s classification system. The Cistercian monks, who began acquiring vineyards in the region during the 11th century, were the first to explore, observe and record the affects of terroir on grape growing. Discovering the influence of individual growing sites led the Cistercians to begin recognizing the various Crus. Consequently, the Burgundian classification system, with its scores of appellations, was born.
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The concept of terroir is not exclusive to the great vineyards of Burgundy and Barolo. Anyone who has tasted through and experienced the so-called great growths of Northern California cabernet will immediately recognize the difference between the elegance of the Ridge Monte Bello, from high atop the Santa Cruz Mountains and the richness of wines of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, from the heart of Napa Valley.
Just because a wine is without hundreds of years of history does not mean terroir is inapplicable. Napa Valley wineries demonstrated this at the Judgment of Paris in 1976.
A similar situation is beginning to emerge in Santa Barbara, encompassing the AVAs of Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley, Sta. Rita Hills. Despite the popularity pinot noir from Sideways, winegrowers and winemakers, to date, have had most success with the Rhône varietals of syrah and grenache for reds, and viognier, marsanne, and roussanne for whites. The Burgundian nomenclature of labeling with specific vineyards has also taken hold, with Bien Nacido, Thompson, Stolpman and Larner becoming more and more familiar to the consumer.
Jaffurs, located in heart of the city, is an urban winery that uses only purchased grapes from the best of these vineyards in Santa Barbara. The winery excels in single vineyards syrahs, as well as small
productions of viognier, roussane, and grenache blanc from the famed Thompson Vineyard. Tasting through these wines, the sense of place is not lost. Santa Barbara is located on an east-west stretch of the Pacific coast line, and its climate is decidedly Mediterranean, and the city has the moniker of the American Riviera. As such, the grapes have no trouble ripening, and the resulting wine should be full-bodied, supple, and rich.
Jaffurs does not shy away from this bold style involving high alcohol levels, which in recent years, has seen a backlash from the wine community for being extracted and difficult to pair with food. These criticisms are valid to a certain extent, but the key for any wine is still balance above all else, and Jaffurs achieves it splendidly. Its wines retain a firm structure and vibrant acidity. The judicious use of oak, mostly involving used, year-old barrels, complements a dark, rich expression of syrah, without masking the primary fruit and peppery qualities.
Winemakers often aspire to make their favorite wines. And more often than not, unfortunately, the result is a wine without identity. In this case, Jaffurs might be expected to look to the Hermitage or Côte-Rôtie for inspiration. One taste of its syrahs should make its intentions clear: this is a big, badass syrah from Santa Barbara; if you would like a wine that reminds you of the Northern Rhône, go buy a wine from the Northern Rhône. These wines make no apologies for being what it is, and nor should they.