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Ultimate Guide to the Burgundy Wine Region

Would it surprise you to learn that each year, the Burgundy wine region produces more white wine than red wine? See our collection of wine pictures.
iStockphoto/Leeuwtje

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When your friend tells you she bought a new burgundy car, you probably know that means it is a shade of the color red. But what if that friend told you she bought a bottle of Burgundy? Would you know that means that she bought a bottle of French wine? Considering what burgundy signifies in terms of color, would you be expecting a red or a white wine? Actually, it could be either one. It may surprise you to find out that the Burgundy wine region actually produces more white wine than red wine. Each year, the Burgundy wine region produces about 180 million bottles of wine. Of those millions of bottles, 65 percent are dry white wine and only 35 percent are red wines [source: Terroir France].

You might wonder how large this region is if it can produce 180 million bottles annually. When you see the Burgundy region highlighted out from the rest of France, it is an unusually shaped region, looking like a long strip of land running north and south. It expands over an area of about 12,000 square miles (31,500 square km) in central east France [source: Saunders].

­­­­Burgundy separates itself from other wine regions in France. Rather than being divided mainly between a few large vineyards, the region is divided between several thousand smaller vineyards and growers. Each grower's land varies in size, ranging from small to large. This size difference means that some growers simply focus on one particular wine while others are able to produce a dozen different wines or more [source: Cannavan].

In this article, you will learn about the history and culture of this region, the agriculture behind the great wines and the most famous red and white wines of the region.

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The Burgundy wine region's rich history stretches back many centuries and involves revolutions, churches and the government. The oldest written reference to the region being a hub of wine production is from Eumenes' Discources in A.D. 312. We know that the Romans were the first to bring grape vines to the area to begin the planting process. By the time the Middle Ages rolled in, monks were managing the vineyards spread throughout the area. There are records from A.D. 865 of monks making wine in the Saint-Martin-de-Tours area and selling it in nearby towns. Eventually that wine made it to Parisian markets [source: Sonkin].

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In 1395, Duke Philip the Bold created laws dictating a certain level of quality and standards for Burgundy winemakers. Then in 1416, King Charles VI officially set the boundaries of the Burgundy region, stretching from Sens to Macon. It was clear to those in charge that the wine that Burgundy produced was special enough to be distinct [source: Burgundy Wines].

Burgundy wine wasn't only enjoyed by the locals in the country, thanks to trade agreements with other European regions. There are records showing that Chablis, a famous white wine of the region, was sent on boats to England and Belgium. When the French Revolution happened in 1789, many of the monasteries where the wine was produced were destroyed. The vineyards were then broken up into smaller plots of land, and that's why there are so many small growers in the Burgundy region today.

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The Burgundy wine region, since it doesn't border any seas or oceans, is considered to have continental weather. Just like many parts of the United States, Burgundy has cold winters and hot summers. However, Burgundy has lots of rainfall during the summer heat, whereas the U.S. tends to have drier summers. The land region used to be an ocean floor millions of years ago -- therefore the soil tends to be dominated by limestone, clay and chalk. The six most distinct regions within Burgundy are, from north to south:

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  • Chablis
  • The Cote de Nuits
  • The Cote de Beaune
  • The Cote Chalonnaise
  • The Maconnais
  • Beaujolais

Each region has a different positioning on the land and therefore comprises a difference in its set of elements that affect making a quality wine, including soil and other land conditions, climate and sun exposure. The French call this multi-faceted, micro-climate a terroir. The philosophy of the terroir system posits that even though two wines are created from the same grapes, if those grapes are grown in different areas -- even in neighboring vineyards -- the resulting wines could be very different from each other. Even subtle differences in soil composition or terrain can affect the taste of the grapes, and hence, the wine produced [source: Cannavan].

The Chablis region, the northernmost region in Burgundy, often has trouble with temperatures. Summer days are too long and approaching winter days expose the plants to frost. In order to combat the potential harm of extreme temperatures, growers have experimented with windmills, sprinklers and heaters [source: Sonkin].

Aside from temperature considerations and other key elements of a terroir, the growers of Burgundy are concerned with other aspects of viticulture. Selecting the right type of grape, adhering to pruning techniques tailored to area conditions and making sure to choose the best location for the grapes in the soil are all important [source: Burgundy Wines].

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There are three dominating types of wine that come out of the Burgundy wine region, and those include dry white wines, full-body red wines and medium-body red wines. It is rare to see a blended Burgundy wine. Most Burgundy reds are made from a single grape, the Pinot Noir. And most Burgundy whites are made of 100 percent Chardonnay grapes. [source: Terroir France].

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Pinot Noir grapes and Chardonnay grapes are not the only grapes grown in the Burgundy wine region. There are two other grapes grown in the region. Primarily used to create less expensive wines, these two varieties are Gamay, used for making red wines, and Aligoté, for making white wines. These second-tier varieties become more common the farther south you travel into the Burgundy region [source: Cannavan].

Aside from the major varieties of grapes grown in the Burgundy region, there are some grape varieties that are grown in smaller amounts, simply because they aren't as popular. Saint-Bris AOC wine is made from Sauvignon and Grey Sauvignon grapes. And winemakers use Tressot and Cesar grapes to produce White Burgundy Grand Ordinaire in the Yonne district [source: Burgundy Wines].

The juice from Chardonnay grapes, which is described as "deliciously sweet," is used to create white wines of the Cote de Beaune, Cote Chalonnaise, Maconnais and Chablis district. The juice from Pinot Noir grapes is actually colorless, even though the skin is purplish-black. Interestingly, the Pinot Noir grape is used for making champagne, but when its skin is fermented and processed with the juice, the result is the rich red hue famous in Burgundy reds. [source: Burgundy Wines].

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Sources

  • Burgundy Wines. "Grape Varieties." (Accessed 2/9/09) http://www.burgundy-wines.fr/index.php?p=226&art_id=
  • Burgundy Wines. "History." (Accessed 2/9/09) http://www.burgundy-wines.fr/index.php?p=84&art_id=&PHPSESSID=b9d2f498ca0a7aba9ea6d78e5b565183
  • Burgundy Wines. "The Official Burgundy Wines Website." (Accessed 2/7/09) http://www.burgundy-wines.fr/
  • Cannavan, Tom. "Burgundy." (Accessed 2/7/09) http://www.wine-pages.com/resources/burgexp.htm
  • Saunders, Donald. "The Burgundy Wine Region of France." (Accessed 2/9/09) http://www.buzzle.com/articles/the-burgundy-wine-region-of-france.html
  • Sonkin, Loren. "Chablis: History and Recommendations for the Great Burgundy White Wine." (Accessed 2/9/09) http://www.intowine.com/chablis-history-recommendations-great-burgundy-white-wine
  • Tasting Wine. "French Wine Regions." (Accessed 2/7/09) http://www.tasting-wine.com/articles/wine-regions-and-areas/french-wine-regions/index.php
  • Terroir France. "Burgundy." (Accessed 2/9/09) http://www.terroir-france.com/wine/bourgogne_winemaking.htm
  • Wine Education. "Burgundy, France." (Accessed 2/7/09) http://www.wineeducation.com/regburg.html
  • Wine Pros. "Appellation d'Origine Controlée." (Accessed 2/9/09) http://www.winepros.org/wine101/vincyc-aoc.htm

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