What makes Burgundy, Burgundy?

by MW Wines | Jun 29, 2017

My love for Burgundy began in 2004. Pinot Noir had been my red wine preference for many years, and producers such as Bindi, Epis and Coldstream Hills had been my go to wines. And then one day, on a whim, I randomly picked up a bottle of pretty cheap red burgundy, a 2002 Domaine de la Vougeraie Bourgogne Rouge ‘Terre de Famille’. My wife and I drank it that evening, and our futures changed in that moment. This is not an exaggeration. The wine, whilst only a very modest example of what Burgundy is capable of, simply had another dimension of savouriness and interest which I had not encountered in Aussie Pinot, at least in my experience to that point.

Later that year, we booked a holiday, my first visit to Europe. Burgundy had become a must visit for us and we spent four incredible days in the region. At the time, I was not in the wine trade, so our experience was limited to eating and drinking in the many fine restaurants in and around Beaune and tasting at the various producers (negociants mainly) that were open to the public. It was magical, and I was utterly enamoured with the wines, the food and the culture.

It became immediately apparent this was no normal wine region. Most wine regions around the world are relatively simple to understand, but the sheer complexity of the classification system, which reflects the complexity of the terroir, blew my mind. It triggered in me a deep thirst for knowledge (and I guess a literal deep thirst...) to attempt to decipher and understand this region.

But let’s be clear, “understanding” such a deeply complex and ever-changing region is impossible. We are talking about a 40 kilometre stretch (Cote de Beaune and Cote de Nuits) which has 32 classified Grand Cru vineyards, more than 500 classified premier cru vineyards and a similar number of classified “lieux-dit” village vineyards, with the vast majority of vineyards having more than one owner (some as many as 80). There are literally tens of thousands of potentially different wines that can be produced in any one vintage. To quote Clive Coates – “nowhere is fine wine...made in such small quantities, in so many different ways, and by so many characters, each convinced that only he or she has the magic recipe for success.”

Without going deeply into the history of the region, there are fundamentally two key aspects that drive this complexity; the success of Burgundy is owed equally to the people that for more than 2000 years planted and tended the vines, as it is to the land itself.

The terroir in Burgundy is unlike any other in the world – aspects, soil, elevations, wind flows and temperatures change with a very complex topography/geography, differing sometimes only metres apart. Geographically Burgundy has been 200 million years in the making, while the elements shaped, formed and nurtured the land to create a totally unique grape growing environment.

This concept of terroir had long been recognised by the owners of the land (historically the church, the aristocracy and more recently anyone with the money and interest to acquire them), and this was ultimately ratified into France’s AOC (Appellation Origine Contrôlée) system in 1936.

It was the Cistercian monks in 1336 who first recognised the role terroir played in their own wine – made from their vineyard Clos de Vougeot – noticing that within their own boundaries the different plots produced recognisably different wines. 

Adding to this is the complex inheritance laws in the Napoleonic Code which applies to the region, whereby upon the passing of a vineyard owner, the ownership of the vineyard is divided equally between the siblings.

A complex history, an even more complex classification system and family inheritance laws make it a place no-one completely understands.

I have been visiting the region almost every year since 2004, and indeed it was this passion for the region that ultimately led to my change in career, from corporate advisor to owner of MW Wines. I am truly fortunate to be able to continue my journey of understanding in line with my career, and I now count a number of winemakers in the region as friends. Each time I visit and first drive past the main vineyards of the Cote d’Or, either the vineyards of Gevrey from the north or Chassagne from the south, I get a buzz of excitement, knowing what joy awaits in consuming the wine, food and culture of the region.

Nick Stamford, Managing Director MW Wines

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