You may be used to seeing wines labelled by the grape used to make the wine. (This is the standard in New World wines from the US, Canada, Australia.) In France, however, wines are not classified by grape, but by region, and by smaller divisions within the region — in some cases drilling down to a few rows in a specific vineyard. Few regions, though, have the detailed classification found in Bourgogne.
Savigny-les-Beaunes in Burgundy, photo by Mark Craft
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Bourgogne, or Burgundy, is a large region of France southeast of Paris. The namesake wine region is also large, but the best of the wines of the region are produced in a 50-km-long narrow strip of land running along a limestone ridge with a more-or-less east-facing slope. This magical subregion is called Côte d'Or and it extends from Marsannay-la-Côte (near Dijon) in the north to Santenay in the south, with the city of Beaune roughly in the centre..The two grapes grown here are pinot noir, used for the red wines, and chardonnay, used to make the legendary white Burgundies.
("Côte d'Or" is a contraction of the term that describes either the region or the east-facing ridge, "Cote d'Orient".)
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Vineyard Near Puligny-Montrachet, in the Côte d'Or, photo by Mark Craft
The Côte d'Or is, itself, a mosaic of 1,000 climats, A climat might be thought of as a micro-vineyard, with its own microclimate and specific geological factors that gives the grapes grown there a distinct and recognizable character and taste. It's so distinctive and culturally important that in 2015 the climats of Burgundy were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
But a thousand climats is not the end of the story! The wines of the region are also categorized in a precise and dizzying array of classifications unique to the region. So, in Burgundy there are four levels of quality —
1 – REGIONAL WINE
Regional wines, which account for 52% of production. These wines are labelled simply Bourgogne or Burgundy.
2 – VILLAGE
Village wines, at 37% of production, are labelled with the name of the neighboring wine village.
3 – PREMIER CRU
In the next tier up in quality are the Premier Cru wines, accounting for 10% of production.
4 – GRAND CRU
The most prestigious wines of the region, accounting for only 1% of production, are the Grands Crus.
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