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08. The hierarchy of wines

Let us concentrate on the Côte d’Or:

There are 4 potential ‘levels’ of wine which you can find in Burgundy, and one other that is interesting to discuss. Those levels are :

  1. Grand Cru
  2. Premier Cru
  3. Villages
  4. Regional

An interesting topic to add, that I will finish with, is the one of ‘declassified’ wines.

Grand Cru Wines

gc01Starting, where-else but at the top. These are the grandest of wines, both red and white and they acount for less than 1% of the region’s production. They are the jewels of the Côte d’Or, and of France even, noting that they are often (though not always) priced as such.

All of the white grand crus (GCs) are today found in the Côte de Beaune, though in the next few years a single exception from the Côte de Nuits – Musigny – could make a re-appearance. This wine makes a useful example a little later.

With the exception (Burgundy is the land of exceptions) of the Cortons of the Côte de Beaune, all the red GCs can be found in the Côte de Nuits.

To be classed as a GC the wine must be made from grapes of the allowed variety from a regulated patch of land from vines of at least 3 years of age and below a certain maximum yield of grapes per unit area of land.

Properly stored, adequately aged then appropriately served a GC should be a compelling experience.

Each grand cru has its own appellation.

Premier Cru Wines

These are subject to the same grape, yield and sourcing limitations as the GCs (actually there is a tiny amount of 1er cru aligoté – otherwise forget I mentioned it!). The 1er Cus are also raised on gifted sites and account for no-more than 5% of the total Burgundian production. They are still (or should be) very good wines, but on average not quite as good as the GCs. Today a handful of premier crus regularly outperform the more mediocre GCs, but don’t expect them to be bargains – the market prices them ‘appropriately’!

The designation of ’1er Cru’ gives us our first opportunity to complicate life…

The majority of 1er Crus are from named vineyards – this name will appear on the label e.g. Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Folatières: this wine comes from (no surprise) the Folatières vineyard in the village of Puligny-Montrachet. Now what does it mean if the label says only Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru? There could be a number of explanations:

  1. The producer simply didn’t want to put the vineyard name on the label – they don’t have to.
  2. The producer has mixed wine/grapes from two different 1er Cru vineyards in Puligny-Montrachet – so none is named on the label – it’s not now allowed. Mixing wine from two different villages (as opposed to two different vineyards in the same village) means that they lose the right to either village name on the label (so regardless of quality/cost, the wine would be allowed only the base ‘regional’ classification).
  3. The wine could be declassified Grand Cru – see last section.
Villages wines

This is the next level down and for many people is the level where ‘real’ Burgundy starts; that’s because certain characteristics and styles are ascribed to the wines of different villages – meaty Savigny, elegant Volnay, spicy Vosne-Romanée, nutty Meursault etc… this is your first real opportunity to test these ideals.

With the same grape restrictions as our first two categories (including a little aligoté) the villages level wines have a slightly higher allowed yield per hectare. Village level wine is also a favourite hunting-ground for bargains. As an example, any vineyard-site in Puligny-Montrachet whether it be Grand Cru, 1er Cru or a village vineyard can go into a bottle labelled with the ‘simple’ name Puligny-Montrachet.

Regional Wines

This is our base classification and the bottles can wear various labels; Bourgogne Rouge, Bourgogne Blanc, Bourgogne Pinot Noir, Bourgogne Chardonnay or Bourgogne Aligoté – even ‘plain’ Bourgogne – then there is Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Nuits, Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Beaune etc., etc., – everyone wants to get in on the act of appending the word Bourgogne to their wine, even the Beaujolais are thinking about it! You can find a better list here. The allowed yields per hectare are higher than for the other classifications and it is here – for the first time that you might come across that stable grape of the Beaujolais in a wine labelled as Bourgogne Passetoutgrains which is mainly Gamay mixed with a lower percentage of pinot noir. The best wines are often the ones that ride on the coat-tail of the famous appellations; just across the road from Vosne-Romanée or from the next-door vines to Meursault for instance.

Declassification – when the wine might not be exactly what you expect…

Intruigingly a wine with a 1er Cru label may not be 1er Cru at all – it could be from a Grand Cru – but only if the grapes came from a GC within the borders of village referenced by the label. Why might a producer choose to ‘declassify’ wine in this way? Just a few possibilities:

  • Perhaps it is forced, the grower may only have a handful of GC vines – too few to vinify – so blends the grapes with those from a 1er Cru vineyard.
  • Another possibility is that the winemaker didn’t think he’d produced something good enough to wear a GC label – it’s only likely to be a concientious producer that takes this route
  • Perhaps the winemaker exceded the allowed yield for his expensive grand cru, rather than pour it away at the equivalent of €100 per bottle (or more), or send for distillation, he may elect (unofficially!) to put it into his or her premier cru
  • Domaine de la Romanée-Conti offer us a fine example with their Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru – it is a blend of grapes from multiple grand crus in Vosne-Romanée that were passed over as not almost good enough for the individual grand cru wines. Such a blend cannot take a single grand cru appellation name so must move one step down the hierarchy.

Declassifying two steps from Grand Cru to Villages level is rare, but a fine example is the double declassification of the young vines Grand Cru Ruchottes-Chambertin by the domaine Dr Georges Mugneret to villages Geverey-Chambertin – Gevrey-Chambertin because Ruchottes-Chambertin is in Gevrey-Chambertin – the domaine felt the wine made from these young vines not to be good enough to wear a grand cru label. That said, the bottle costs as much as an average 1er Cru, and most producers would have sold there grapes to a négociant who would have sold the wine as a Grand Cru! Any time now this domaine will raise the level on the label to Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru as they think the wine gets better with older vine age.

The rarest example of declassification is the triple step of putting a regional label on a Grand Cru.

  • A producer would be compelled to do this if they accidentally blended two GC’s from different villages as even the individual village appelation is no longer allowed.
  • Another reason for doing this brings us back to the second paragraph of the grand cru section above – a rare plot of chardonnay vines in the Côte de Nuits village of Chambolle-Musigny, placed in the Grand Cru of Musigny. This wine would be the only white GC in the Côte de Nuits, but today the producer thinks the wine made from the young vines not yet good enough for a GC label saying that the wine is currently about 1er Cru level. Unfortunately for the producer (de Vogüé) a one-step or two-step declassification is not available – why? – this is where history intervenes; there is no AOC (appellation) for either a Chambolle-Musigny white (villages) or a 1er Cru Chambolle-Musigny white, because back in 1935 when AOC came into force non-one produced village or 1er cru white in Chambolle, hence, none was registered!

So here are Grand Cru sited grapes with a Bourgogne Blanc label – don’t get too excited though – it’s only a small number of bottles and they are very expensive despite the label…

2 responses to “08. The hierarchy of wines”

  1. Ed Lmmer

    Bill – I think you dropped a word in this item:

    •Perhaps the winemaker exceded the allowed yield for his expensive grand cru, rather than pour it away at the equivalent of €100 per bottle (or more), or send for distillation, he may elect (unofficially!) to it into his or her premier cru

    great website
    Ed Lammer

  2. Manda Bear

    Love it ;) thank you for sharing this, I learn so much.

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