Monday, September 12, 2011

BURGUNDY: A Triumph over Terrain

Cote d-Or vineyard
Soils of distinction are celebrated, even vaulted into esteemed status in Burgundy, where the best wine producers triumph over terrain. With more than 2000 years of wine history, and a maze of appellations, this prized region from frosty, isolated Chablis in the north, to its baked and hilly expanse in Beaujolais is confusingly without continuity.  It does, however, have a higher number of the French Appellations d'origine Controlee', over 100 AOC's, to be found in fragmented Burgundy compared to anywhere else. The esteemed Grand Cru's make-up a scant 2% of production here, with almost 85% composing the lower-tiered commune(village) and regional AC's. As a result of  Napoleonic 19th century law which decreed partible inheritance, familial parcels are consequently small and those prized sites like the 125 acre Grand Cru Clos Vougeot AOC today has 80 owners!
Chablis Premeir Cru Fourchaume
Isolated Chablis is Chardonnay, and Chardonnay is Chablis AOC. The commune's commerce historically comes from the River Serein, which flows northwest to the Yonne, which runs to the Seine, giving Chablis wines access to the important Paris marketplace. It sits closer the the Aube region of Champagne than it does to the Cote de Nuits, 80 miles away, and probably has more in common with Sancerre in the Loire's Central department.  In this Burgundian outpost erosion-formed soils north of town, seven(7) Chablis Grand Cru's share a Chardonnay south-facing hillside in the sea-fossil composed Kimmeridgean soils. Bougros and Blanchot are the bookends, Vaude'sir and Valmur share the middle separating the Grand Cru's of Les Preuses, Grenouille, and Les Clos. Chardonnay produced by these domaine's is naked and pure, ranking among the best examples of the noble grape in the world. The regions second-tier Premier Crus(40) fan around the commune on both sides of the River Serein, and the blended wines of Chablis AOC can come from anywhere inside the demarcated region.

When we think of Burgundy, we think mostly of the Cote-d-Or, or Golden Hillside, south of Dijon. Generally, vineyards are situated on a fault-line of elevations and hills on the western banks of the southerly flowing Saone River. Importantly, it was not until the Canal de Bourgogne was completed in 1832, that the wines of this region had easy access to thirsty Paris and the Atlantic shippers, rather than Lyon. Today, you could drive the length of this famous region in about 45 minutes. If you had a day, you could walk the 6 mile northern half of the Golden Hillside, spanning the 25 noble Grand Cru's of the  Cote de Nuits and its 14 villages. Facing east overlooking the river valley, exposed on an elevated, well-drained strata of limestone and clays; Gevrey-Chambertin, to Morey-St. Denis, to Chambolle-Musigny(+ Chardonnay), and on to Vougeot, and Flagey-Eche'zeaux, and Vosne-Romanee'  are the prized red wine kingdoms of 'an iron fist in a velvet glove', Pinot Noir.

More than eight(8) miles to the south, ringing the southern face of the Hill of Corton, the Grand Cru's of the Cote-d-Or begin again, in the region, Cote de Beaune.  Dominated by world benchmarks of rich, opulent Chardonnay, a trio of Grand Cru's: Corton, Corton-Charlemagne, and Charlemagne band around three(3) white wine communes: Pernand-Vergelesses, Ladoix-Serrigny and Aloxe-Corton, with only the lower elevations of Corton AOC producing Grand Cru Pinot Noir. Miles to the south lies Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet, esteemed Chardonnay villages that take, as is the practice, part of their commune name from their communes most important vineyard. In addition to their seven(7) Chardonnay Grand Cru's, these two villages hold 75 of the Cote-d-Or's prominent 448 Premiers Crus.
Chassagne-Montrachet Premiers Crus

Heading southeast towards the River Saone,  the important Premiers Crus district of Cote Chalonnaise begins at Chalon-sur-Saone. Of its five(5) communal AOC's, Ruilly, Mercurey, Givry and Montagny(+ Chardonnay), which produce mostly reds, only Bouzeron AOC in the North of the district is known for the lemony Aligonte still wines. Another hour south and your are in Macon, epicenter of the volume producing Maconnais appellation, where its 40 designated villages bottle generally serviceable red, white and rose' wines in greater quantity than any of the previously listed AOC's. Significantly better than the base Macon AOC appellation, the Chardonnay wines of Pouilly-Fuisse AOC are considered to be the stars of the region.
Crus Beaujolais Morgon

Less than 10 miles down the southern road and you are in the heart of largest district of Burgundy, Beaujolais AOC. Administered by the neighboring Rhone department, this sunnier region contains ten(10) communes(villages) or Crus which produce the world's best wines from the early-ripening red Gamay grape. Every year the Gamay district growers and cooperatives produce more than half of Burgundy's total production, even as Philip the Bold outlawed its northern districts cultivation in 1395. In the best years, the rolling hills of schist and granite soils from the Grand Cru villages of: St-Amour, Julineas, Chenas, Moulin-a-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Regnie, Cote de Brouilly and Brouilly AOC's show how noble this less full-bodied grape can be. The lesser appellations, including fruity Beaujolais Superior and the designated Beaujolais-Village AOC's are volume tiers and benefit from Gamay whole cluster fermentation thru carbonic maceration.

Scattered over more than 200 miles from Chablis to Villefranche sur Saone in Beaujolais and across a number of administrative departments, Burgundy certainly appears to lack continuity. The locations of the Grand Crus more closely resemble pepper flakes on a yellow tablecloth than great estates sharing a common landscape. But beyond the basic negociant assembled regional appellation(s) and vineyard blends that are designated as Village AOC's, Burgundy wines coming from the specific sites that are the better Premiers Crus and illustrious Grand Crus are all about the best of expressions of their unique soil(terroir). Historical challenges include a few great vintages every decade because of the extremes of their continental climates and northern latitudes, as well as small production of the best sites. But when the best of Burgundy is displayed in its truth, it is a triumph over terrain.
Clos de Vougeot 
 A Votre Sante'!

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