“To be aware of the fact that geological and soil factors (type, texture, structure, depth, humidity, microbiology, parent rock etc.) topography (position on the slope, sun exposure etc.), climatic conditions (micro climates) are specific elements and essential to a particular terroir, I only need to taste…”
Sylvain Pitiot (from Terroir and the Winegrower)
The wine region of Burgundy extends from the town of Chatillon sur Seine in the north to Lyon in the south, though; I prefer to put the southern boundary at Macon, and in this way leave the Beaujolais region as a separate entity. Thus, Burgundy includes the wine regions of Côtes de Chatillon, Yonne, Côte d’Or, Côte Chalonnaise, Côtes du Couchey and Maconnais. The vast majority of Burgundy’s wines are produced from three grape varieties: Aligoté, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and they are produced without blending the different grape types. The result, therefore, is a mapping of these three grape types onto the whole range of Burgundy’s vineyards which consequently offers the wine lover a unique window through which to notice and appreciate the concept of terroir. The difference in taste between Chardonnay grown in Chablis and Chardonnay grown in Macon is something that will always delight me.
The Burgundy vineyards have been intimately worked and studied for many centuries which has resulted in a complex and highly detailed system of nomenclature, one that beginning in the 1930’s the INAO has tried to formalize into a logical network of “appellations controlees”. The system of appellations is uniform in its general outline for Burgundy’s different wine regions, but much less uniform in its application. For example, each of the Premier Cru vineyards in the Côte D’Or and Côte Chalonnaise is associated with its village of origin and corresponds specifically to one plot of land within that village, whereas in the Yonne or Chablis to be exact, the Premier Cru vineyards never make reference to their villages of origin and moreover, the 79 Premier Cru vineyards typically use only 17 names. So, putting differences aside and embracing contradiction, one can say with confidence that the overall appellation structure is organized from the general to the specific. At the most general level, vineyards from any of the Burgundy wine regions can produce white, red, rosé or sparkling wines with the Bourgogne appellation. At the first level of specificity (and beginning of disparity among the regions), there are 24 regional appellations, each of which is comprised of a group of villages which share a common appellation name. Two examples, which illustrate the possible variation in size, are Côtes de Nuits Villages and Macon-Villages. Côtes de Nuits Villages includes nine villages whereas Macon-Villages includes 83 villages. At the next level of specificity, there are 44 local appellations, each of which corresponds to a specific village such as Gevrey-Chambertin and Chassagne-Montrachet. Within the local appellation structure, but higher up the hierarchal scale, there are 750 Premier Cru appellations which mark specific vineyard boundaries within a particular village. Examples are Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru “Petite Chapelle” and Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru“Les Chenevottes”. At the highest level of the paradigm, there are 33 Grand Cru appellations which similarly mark specific vineyard boundaries within a specific village (or spanning two!).
Examples of Grand Cru vineyards are Mazis-Chambertin and Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet. One of the lovely idiosyncrasies is evident from these examples; namely, why the grand cru vineyard “climat” names Chambertin and Montrachet are attached to their respective communes at all appellation levels.
If one is interested and persistent enough to comprehend the lay of the land in terms of its geography, geology and nomenclature, the picture quickly becomes much more complex when the land is divided between the many thousands of Burgundian wine-growers. The average land holding in Burgundy is two hectares (five acres) and in some of the most illustrious vineyards such as Batard-Montrachet a mere twelve hectares can be divided among 55 growers.
A deep knowledge of the wines produced in Burgundy, it is easy to see, would be best left up to those who have lots of free time. People that are teachers or NBA basketball players might have enough vacation time to tackle such a project, but only the NBA player would have the money to taste the wines. Happily, even without four months of vacation or enormous resources, the wines of Burgundy are there to give us all the taste of one of the vine’s favorite places on earth.
Burgundy wine growers certainly have no special claim to the concept of terroir, but they have embraced the notion of terroir in a way that brings it to our attention and gives us much to think about. If our attention is turned to the infinite variations of our mother earth and its ability to give these variations expression through the grape vine and its transformation into wine, then what a lovely reminder that we are from the earth, nourished by the earth and will return to it.