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03. The grapes of Burgundy

The truth is out – Burgundy wine is not just red, it can be white or rosé, it can even be fizzy. Principally it is about pinot noir and chardonnay, though there are minor supporting rôles from others.

With the exception of parts of Germany, where so many hectares are planted to riesling, Burgundy comes the closest of any wine-making region to monoculture. There are minor exceptions of-course, but basically Chablis and much of the Côte de Beaune is planted with chardonnay, Beaujolais is planted with gamay and the rest is planted with pinot noir. Given that the global ‘variety pool’ is well over 1,000 cultivated varieties and that over the centuries many thousands of others will have come and gone, it’s amazing that one such variety could monopolise such an area for such a length of time. Pestilence and disease seldom allow such a things to continue – and Burgundy has had its share of those – yet somehow we remain with these three varieties.

There are exceptions to these 3 grapes, minorities of another five varieties – aligoté, pinot beurot, melon, sauvignon blanc and césar – are allowed to be planted in certain areas, plus an additional two that are no longer planted – sacy and tressot. It is generally accepted that all the varieties that we know today are descended from a single species – vitis vinifera – though there were/are many variations on this theme also.

Scientific studies offer us a glimpse of the the parenthood of a number of the varieties listed below, such studies can be surprising when you find treasured names have parents of ‘ill-repute’! You can read such a study here.

Aligoté

A hardy white-wine variety, aligoté was once spread throughout the Côte d’Or, today chardonnay-based wines fetch more money so it’s becoming rarer. Move to the Côte de Chalonnaise and aligoté is much more common.

Typically light and fresh with a citrus edge – more often with a reputation as aperitif wines rather than really serious bottles – of course this is reinforced by all the best white wine areas now being planted to chardonnay. One or two producers (d’Auvenay and Ponsot for instance) make very interesting and age-worthy bottles, but they are almost a dying breed.

There are reportedly two mutated varieties grown in Bouzeron, the more productive aligoté vert and the more moderately yielding aligoté doré that has higher sugar levels in cooler years. Even in Burgundy, aligoté has many synonyms; for instance in the Côte Chalonnaise you can find chaudenet gras; in Rully, giboudot blanc; in Beaune, griset blanc; in Meursault, plant gris; and in the Yonne, troyen blanc.

César

Or césar noir. From an AOC perspective, this vine is allowed only in the ‘Yonne’. An ancient red grape variety – its other name, romain, hinting at who may have introduced it to the region – which is becoming quite rare. DNA research in 2001 pointed to this grape evolving from a cross between pinot noir and argant.

Together (normally as minor partner) with pinot noir it can be found north of the Côte d’Or producing Bourgogne-Irancy and sometimes crémant. In fact virtually all the plantations are in this area north-west of Dijon. César produces dark and tannic wines, so they are sometimes made by the method of carbonic maceration – more typical of gamay – in an effort to keep these tannins in check.

Chardonnay

One of the most widely planted grapes in the world. Easy to grow, it is relatively hardy, though shares a thin skin with its local neighbour, pinot noir. It manages to make palatable wine even at quite high yields. Chardonnay is very much a mongrel of a grape, the question is, was it named after the Mâconnais village of that name – or vice versa? – we don’t know.

Chardonnay has several other obscure names; aubaine, beaunois, melon blanc, and in the distant past, pinot chardonnay. DNA research by Dr Carole Meredith at the University of California, Davis points to chardonnay originating as a cross between a member of the pinot family and an almost extinct variety from Croatia named gouais blanc that probably arrived in France (Gaul) with the Roman legions. Her research shows that several varieties, including Aligoté, Auxerrois (Alsacienne pinot blanc), gamay blanc, gamay noir and melon can be traced back to similar crosses of pinot and gouais.

Chardonnay is the 8th most planted grape globally and, as of 2005, the most planted grape in Australia, yet it’s heimat is without doubt Burgundy – the staple of both Chablis and the whites of the Côte de Beaune. Its versatility is it’s key; steely unoaked wines, sometimes without malolactic fermentation typify the cooler climate wines. Warmer regions typically produce riper, fatter, more lavishly oaked styles that smell and even taste of butter. All styles in-between are possible, and indeed available.

Chardonnay, like the pinot noir grape that follows, is a chameleon of a grape; the resulting wine is usually the direct synthesis of its location, though the vinification and oak regime can dull this.

Gamay

Close to Puligny-Montrachet is the tiny village of Gamay – it’s believed that the grape took its name from this village. Its Côte d’Or plantings were ‘banned’ in 1395 as that “disloyal grape” by Philippe le Hardi, Duke of Burgundy, to be replaced by pinot noir.

Today gamay (or gamay noir) retains a strangle-hold of red grapes in the Beaujolais region, an area nearly 4 times the size of the Côte d’Or, plus plantings in the Côte de Chalonnaise. When a cuvée of gamay is produced in the Chalonnaise, the wine is called Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire, or when mixed with pinot noir, Bourgogne Passe-Tout-Grains.

Perhaps gamay is more suited to the granite slopes of Beaujolais than the chalkier soils of the Côte d’Or, it can certainly produce wines of distinction that could come from nowhere else. Traditional vinification is by carbonic maceration, but today there is a movement that partially, or even entirely, replaces the carbonic maceration with more traditional alcoholic fermentations – in the tradition of the Côte d’Or.

Pinot beurot

So many pseudonyms… fromentau in the Languedoc, malvoisie in the Loire, pinot grigio in Italy, gris cordelier, auvernat gris, tokay d’Alsace and in Germany known as Ruländer – there are others too – at least 20 variants. It is believed to be a mutation of the pinot noir vine.

It has pinkish-grayish-white, even brown fruit when very ripe, giving rise to its common ‘gris’ name. The grape appears to prefer cooler climates, and is very well known as Tokay in Alsace where it ages well and makes very good late-harvest wines.

In Burgundy, pinot beurot is known from the Middle Ages, possibly spreading from here to embryonic Switzerland and then into Hungary by 1300 and Germany by the end of the 16th century. Today it is grown in many European countries, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, and the U.S also joining the list.

Anyone who works a ‘table de trie’ will tell you that, particularly in some vineyards of Beaune, there is a reasonable amount of pinot beurot interspersed with the pinot noir – perhaps 1-3% – whether it’s allowed or not!

Pinot Blanc

As a vine, it is easy to confuse with chardonnay, but the fermented juice is, by comparison, just a little bland, and sometimes heavy too. For hundreds of years, not just the white wine vineyards but the reds too, often had some intentional planting of pinot blanc to bring a little diversity to the vineyard and, perhaps, an extra something to the wine.

In the Côte d’Or it’s no longer allowed to be planted in many AOC’s, though plots of older vines do exist – but these plots are becoming scarcer and scarcer. In the Hautes Côtes there are no problems to plant as evidenced by the plantings in the Clos Saint Philibert.

Pinot Noir

Unlike the ‘mongrel’ chardonnay, this is a grape of ‘pure-bred’ pedigree directly descended from vitis vinifera – as much as a vine that is constantly prone to mutating can be classed as ‘pure-bred’ anyway!

In Roman times it is believed that vine was called helvenacia minor, but whether the vine arrived in the Côte d’Or via the Romans or the Greeks, or even pre-dates the arrival of both is not known. Whilst there are indications of vines in Burgundy in the second century b.c. we have no direct evidence of what was planted, however, writings in the middle-ages describe red-wine grapes called, respectively, noirien and morillon, both are believed to be pinot noir.

With varying degrees of success, pinot noir continues to be planted throughout more of the world, Burgundy is surely the spiritual home of pinot noir, yet there are more vines planted in the Champagne region or the US than the Côte d’Or. Whilst many hectares are planted in Germany (it’s the fourth largest planting there and certainly the most important red grape), Switzerland and Alsacienne France, their wines are typically light and lack any interest. I’m yet to meet a truly interesting German (wine), but Marcel Deiss has a good Alsacienne pinot and Gantenbein from Switzerland might well surprise many a Burgundy 1er Cru! Closest (potentially) to a burgundian style are the wines of New Zealand and South Africa (coastal), mixing both freshness and ripeness – those of New Zealand are often spoiled by excess oak though. It’s not just in volume that the US is becoming a ‘powerhouse of pinot’, often big, ripe and oaky – they have there own style.

Pinot noir is notorious as a ‘difficult’ grape, thin skinned, prone to both rot (botrytis) and mildew, and losing all interest if over-cropped. Not only are the berries thin-skinned, they are also small. The tannins comprise about 1.7% of the grape’s weight vs 3-6% in other red varieties – and it’s not just the tannins, the anthocyanins that provide the wine’s colour are also on a much lower level. Despite this, the wines can achieve ‘other-worldly’ proportions. When macerated with its stems the wines can be even lighter coloured, yet can at the same time, be fully concentrated and aromatic.

Pinot & Mutation – Growers have known for generations that planting the same stock (clone) in different vineyards often ends up with vines that are somehow different, we’re not talking about micro-climate specifics such as ripening and how vigorous the vines might be, but also about the shape and growing habits of the vines. The growers feel that the vine somehow adapts itself to the location. There is also a more spontaneous change that can happen, just one branch of a vine may suddenly produce only ‘white’ grapes. This mutation is believed to have been the source of pinot blanc and pinot beurot (gris): A perfect example of this was the similar mutation of vine in Nuits St.Georges in the 1930′s from which cuttings were separated and planted in their own right. These white grapes are now known locally as ‘pinot gouges’, after the domain that found, planted and still exploits them – other sources call it pinot musigny. From a DNA perspective, beurot, blanc and gouges are to all intents and purposes the same as pinot noir.

John Winthrop Haeger; North American Pinot Noir, University of California Press
Don’t be put off by the specificity of the title, I can recommend this is as a super resource for anyone with an interest in pinot-based wines.

Sauvignon Blanc

It seems out of place, but sauvignon blanc does have a place in burgundy – albeit a small one!
AOC Saint-Bris is a sub-area of the Côte d’Auxerre, itself a sub-area of the Yonne. Lying just west of Chablis, in the 1880′s the wines from this chalky soil could take the Chablis label – that all ended with phylloxera!

Somebody decided that it would be a good idea to plant sauvignon blanc and the quality was sufficient that in 1974 ‘Sauvignon de Saint-Bris’ acquired VDQS (Vin Delimité de Qualité Superieure). The quality was further recognised in 2002 when the Bourgogne AOC of Saint-Bris was declared, retroactively covering the 2001 harvest too. This new appellation would cover sauvignon blanc in 895 hectares, primarily located in the commune of Saint-Bris though also including the villages of Chitry, Irancy, Quenne and Vincelottes. Today, only around 100 hectares are productive.

Sauvignon blanc in Burgundy was once was called ‘epicier’ and the vines are apparently quite typical for the sauvignon varietal. The vines in the Saint-Bris appellation tend to be harvested reasonably late, very often later than the chardonnay. Following alcoholic fermentation the wines typically go through the malolactic fermentation, aiming to add some extra complexity to the typical sauvignon crispness.

Selecting vines: Clones or Massal selections

Massale selections from the Clos des Epeneaux The word clone has a modern science/science-fiction ring in the ears of most people, yet, planting a single clone involves no ‘genetic modification’. Simply, cuttings from a single mother vine have been propagated – that’s it! The mother vines of the commonly used Dijon clones can still be seen at Domaine Ponsot in Morey-St-Denis – Laurent Ponsot is always very proud to show them off. The advantage of named clones is that they are tried and tested; those that eventually developed problems, such as disease, susceptibility to pests, or delivered poor yields (in either direction!) have been slowly rooted out. The main difference between a massal and a clonal selection is that the former doesn’t have this proven track record. ‘Clones’ sold by vine nurseries (commercial clones) have to have been tested for (lack of!) diseases.

Modern massal selections

Cuttings are taken from the bestlooking and best-performing vines (however the vigneron chooses to define performance). But there is no knowing how the cuttings will behave in other vineyards, and in certain circumstances the vigneron could be propagating weaknesses or even undetected diseases. Massal typically offered less of a guarantee than clones but potentially offered greater diversity and personality.

Today, much of the concern about massal selections has been minimised – assuming you do it the ‘rigorous way’. Cuttings are taken from a variety of vines (in the same manner one would establish a clone) but they are then sent to nurseries with the expertise to test for faleaf and leafroll viruses, using something called the ELISA test. Those that pass are then grafted and planted out – monitoring takes place for 3-4 years and if there are no issues, they are then planted in the vineyard.

In practice, a blend of clones and/or massal selections are often used. In this way, each vine may be slightly different to its neighbour, which may help add complexity to the final wines.

3 responses to “03. The grapes of Burgundy”

  1. Rick Schofield

    Clone = “Simply, cuttings from a single mother vine have been propagated”
    Massal selections = “Cuttings are taken from ONE of the bestlooking and best-performing vines ”

    From your definitions Bill, I don’t see any difference.

    Rick Schofield
    Port Ewen, NY

  2. Keita Wojciechowski

    Missed one more grape variety which is officially grown in Burgundy: the Sauvignon Gris or Fié gris how it is called locally around St-Bris. Domaine Goisot make a single variety wine.
    Also found two Producers of Auxerrois (in the region of Auxerre), which they could not sell as Bourgogne but as Vin de Pays Coteaux de l’Auxois.

Agree? Disagree? Anything you'd like to add?