Natty Girls-in-Training: Week Five of the WSET. Burgundy, pt. 1

by Megan Jones

Hiya friends,

How’s the New Year treating you? It’s kicking our ass at the moment. So much for dry January! Apparently the movement hasn’t caught on in Dalston, the bar’s been rammo every night so far this year. No complaints! I don’t believe in dry Jan myself. Life’s hard enough as it is, why deprive yourself of wine in the most grim month of the year? If you're a martyr though, don't forget we have some delish non-alc options. Right here. And here. And one more here.

Speaking of wine, as I always am. This week at school was all about Burgundy. I reckon even people who know nothing about wine (aka me, three months ago) know about Burgundy. An area big and complicated enough to strike fear into the hearts of wine students everywhere (and big and complicated enough that we’re gonna devote two weeks to it). This week is Burgundy whites. Let’s get down to it.

Burgundy’s climate is a tricky little b*tch. Cool continental in the north, edging into moderate further south, it’s plagued by various weather issues. Pinot Noir, aka the heartbreak grape, just LOVES grey rot. Absolutely loves it. Winemakers don’t love it so much, it can ruin an entire harvest. But Pinot Noir is next week. Mustn’t dwell. Weather can also wreck white grape harvests – the rain that hammers the region all year round can disrupt flowering, and Chablis, i.e. the home of the bone-dry Chardy, gets hit with spring frost and hailstorms. Why do the winemakers do it to themselves? Coz the wine is sick, that’s why.

Burgundy was essentially the pioneer of beaut Chardonnay-making techniques, techniques that the rest of the world tries to emulate (with varied results. Looking at you, America). They ferment in barrel then age it in there too, for six to nine months, encourage malolactic conversion (to get that gooood creaminess) and leave the wine on the lees (those dead yeast cells we talked about many moons ago) for texture. That said, the styles of Chardy vary throughout the region, thanks in large part to the changing climate. In Chablis they’re steely and puckeringly acidic, in the Côte d’Or they’re expressive and complex, then down in the Mâcon they’ve got more body, with riper fruity notes than ‘oop north.

If you’re thinking hey, Burgundy doesn’t sound so complicated! What are you whining about? That’s because I haven’t started on appellations yet. I’m about to start. I’m starting.

So, back to Chablis. Chablis is a village appellation in the north of Burgundy, whose best vineyards (premier cru and grand cru) are located on south-facing slopes. The lesser vineyards are called Petit Chablis (cute) and are generally located on the flatter plain areas, where the soil is super fertile. Sounds counter-intuitive, right? You’d think fertile soil = great wine. Wrong! Mega fertile soil actually means that a shit ton of grapes grow, so everything becomes diluted because all the resources are being divvied up among a million grapes instead of a select few. Flavours are less concentrated, all kind of junk happens. Still, wine is wine, so these vineyards provide the more mass-market Burgundy, aka the only kind of Burgundy most of the human population will ever be able to afford.

Down the road from Chablis is the Côte d’Or, flanked on the west side by the Massif Central, a big ole mountain range that provides east and south-east facing hillsides for all your grape-growing needs. It’s split into two parts: the Côte de Nuits, aka Pinot Noir town (next week’s problem) and the Côte de Beaune (this week’s problem). The Côte de Beaune is primarily Chardonnay territory, but they made room for a couple of Pinot Noir parcels as well.

Ready to get confused?

The Côte de Nuits-Villages appellation is applied to wine produced in the vineyards within Côte de Nuits, but which don’t qualify for one of the fancy village appellations. They can be red or white. The Côte de Beaune-Villages appellations applies to any one, or any combination of, the villages in the Côte de Beaune. It must be red wine. Remember how I said Côte de Nuits was red wine central and the Côte de Beaune was primarily white wine? Yep. I know. Makes no sense. At least you don’t have to remember this thing that makes no sense. Say a little prayer for me.

Underneath the Côte d’Or lies the Côte Chalonnaise, which generally produces less prestigious wines than its neighbour. Since the textbook didn’t see the need to dwell on it, I won’t either. Let’s mosey on down to the Mâconnais instead. This is full-on Chardonnay city, with a sprinkling of Gamay (what?! I thought there were only two goddamn grapes grown in this stupid region) for red wines. A good Mâcon white has apple and citrus flavours, with medium acidity and medium to full body. The most famous village appellations here are Pouilly-Fuissé and Saint-Véran, the former being the proud owner of several premier cru vineyards. The best Chardys here have ripe tropical and stone fruit flavours and are thrown into oak for a while to give ‘em some texture.

I can almost feel your eyes glazing over. One last thing on appellations. There’s a hierarchy (obviously) and it goes a little something like this.

• Regional, aka generic, labelled Bourgogne Blanc or Bourgogne Rouge, that come from absolutely anywhere in Burgundy, like maybe even grapes that grow next to the motorway

• Restricted regional wines that cover slightly more defined areas, including Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Nuits, Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Beaune, Bourgogne Côte d’Or, Bourgogne Côtes de Beaune de Nuits d’Or de Mâconnais de Grassi (okay, I made the last one up)

• Commune appellations, like Chablis or Gevrey-Chambertin

• Then at the top we’ve got premier cru and grand cru, the crème de la crème. There are over 600 premier cru sites which make up about 10% of Burgundy’s total production. You can either make wine from a single vineyard, in which case you get to proudly smack its name on the label, or you can blend from across a bunch of sites and just stick ‘premier cru’ on there, which is still a total flex.

PHEW. Are you tired? I’m tired. Let’s go shopping.

Here’s a nice little sample from the Mâcon, and here’s a yum Chablis. One more for good luck, your generic Bourgogne Blanc that’s still totally smoking.

See ya next week to chat Pinot Noir.



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