Burgundy and Bordeaux are often spoken of in conjunction because of their equivalent renown, and the fact that they both begin with the letter “B,” but, in actuality, they have little in common. Burgundy is much further north and inland from Bordeaux, and has a cooler climate with much greater vintage variation. Burgundy’s wine, red and white, are single varietals as contrasted with Bordeaux’s blends. It is all wine, but a radically different kind of wine.
The calcareous soil of Chablis is closer to the Aube region of Champagne than it is to the main region of Burgundy, 85 miles away. AOC regulations insist on 100% Chardonnay. The wine ferments in steel tanks, and does not see oak, resulting in great purity of aroma and taste, high acidity, and a quality called “flintiness” or “steeliness.” Seven Grand Cru Chablis vineyards inhabit a single hill overlooking the town of Chablis. Premier cru is the next level down, AOC Chablis a further step down (and the biggest production) and Petit Chablis a lesser quality designation from outlying regions. Chablis producers have fought a long battle to prevent their place name from being used for generic white wines in other countries, often a losing battle.
Burgundy has a higher number of AOCs than any other region of France. The Burgundians are extremely terroir-conscious, a perspective that goes back to the days when monks fine-tuned the wine, paying attention to every minor different in aspect to the sun, moisture retention, soil quality. Starting just south of Dijon, the Côte d’Or encompasses the Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune. The legendary Grand Cru wines flourish on the middle and upper part of the limestone slopes with their chalky soils, where (monks figured out that) they have the best exposure to the sun and the best drainage. Premier Crus sit on the less favorable sections of the slopes. The flats account for the less prestigious village wines. Lowest rung are wines labeled Bourgogne AOC. The Côte de Nuits can boast of all but one of Burgundy’s red Grand Cru appellations, while the Côte de Beaune immediately to its south has all but one white grand Cru appellation. Remember, in Burgundy red is Pinot Noir and white is Chardonnay.
The great red burgundies have an earthy quality and may improve with age, both in cask and in bottle. They are full-bodied, redolent of black currant, cherry, fresh red fruits, earthy mushroom and a shelf full of spices. They taste of the land on which they are lovingly coaxed to ripeness. The great white Burgundies have a rich mouthfeel, tremendous intensity, minerality, sometimes nuttiness, sometimes a hint of honey, with restrained elements of oak. In either case, the terroir these wines express is not reproducible. It is not even reproducible in Burgundy itself every year, since in this uncertain climate you get vintage variation, a few good years, a few not so good years.
To the south of the Côte d’Or is the Côte Chalonnaise, which has Premier Cru but no Grand Cru vineyards. Rully has 23 premier cru vineyards producing still white wine and Crémant sparkling wine. Mercurey has 30 Premier Cru vineyards and is the largest volume producer of mostly red wine. Givry is mostly red wine and has 17 Premier Crus. Montagny has 49 Premier Crus and produces only white wines. Bouzeron is the only AOC for Burgundy’s second white grape, Aligoté.
The Mâconnais district is the southernmost, if you do not count Beaujolais which is administratively a part of Burgundy. Wines labeled Mâcon may be white, red or rosé. The label Mâcon-Villages only applies to white wines. Mâcon-Villages with a village designation is used for whites or reds depending on the village designated. In the southern part of Mâcon are several Chardonnay-only AOCs: Pouilly-Fuissé, Pouilly-Loché, Pouilly-Vinzelles, Saint-Véran, and Viré-Clessé. Remember, to the French, the wine from each place is distinct and unique, notwithstanding the fact that they are all vinified with 100% Chardonnay.