Ex-BIVB, 2018 – it doesn’t include Beaujolais, but it’s a pretty image!
The truth is out – Burgundy wine is not just red, it can be white or rosé, it can even be fizzy. Principally in ‘northern Burgundy’ it is about pinot noir and chardonnay, with minor supporting rôles from others. In southern Burgundy – that’s Beaujolais to you and me – it is about gamay, but the plantation of chardonnay there is starting to grow.
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 and Mâconnais is planted with chardonnay, Beaujolais is planted with gamay and the rest is mainly 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 single varieties could monopolise such an area for such a length of time. Pestilence and disease seldom allow such things to continue – and Burgundy has had its share of those – yet somehow we remain with these three varieties.
A view of ‘Greater’ Burgundy
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 one that’s rarely been planted in recent years – tressot – but Domaine Maupertuis in Chablis are about to plant some. As you can see, right, all the hectares of these grapes when added together account for no more than 0.2% of the total.
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 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.
- Selecting vines: Clones or Massal selections
- Modern massal selections
- Pinot beurot
- Pinot blanc
- Pinot noir
- Sauvignon blanc – and Gris
Selecting vines: Clones or Massal selections
The word clone has a modern science/science-fiction ring in the ears of most people, yet, the word clone has been in use for generations and the planting a single clone involves no ‘genetic modification.’ Simply, cuttings or layered shoots from a single mother vine that have been propagated – that’s it! This provides for a relatively stable baseline where genetic modification is kept to a minimum. The mother vines of the commonly used Dijon clones can still be seen at Domaine Ponsot in Morey-St-Denis – Laurent Ponsot and now Rose-Marie Ponsot are always very proud to show them off. The advantage of propagated and named clones is that they are tried and tested; those that eventually develop problems, such as disease, susceptibility to pests, or deliver poor yields (in either direction!) are slowly ‘rooted out.’
I should note that even ‘clones’ are not immune to genetic modifications; natural modifications (mutations) occur about every 100,000 cell-divisions – about the amount required for a plant to grow to adulthood. From this perspective, there are mutations separating virtually all plants – including single clones – but the vast majority of these mutations remain invisible.
Modern massal selections
Cuttings are taken from the best looking 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.
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, for a long time, almost a dying breed. Recent vintages have seen a resurgence in popularity – and marketing – that’s hardly a surprise given the high prices of the chardonnay.
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.
Given the price-growth for white burgundy (from chardonnay!) in recent years, it’s hardly surprising that much more effort in the marketing of aligoté has been undertaken since ~2017. This wider chance to taste and compare shows two interesting facets of aligoté – the latter I find very interesting;
- The better-made wines last very well – 8-10 years is absolutely no problem – and I would say optimal for those producers that utilise a little oak in their elevage.
- As aligoté ages, it seems to take on a more and more reductive quality – practically the opposite of the current fashion for chardonnay where the wines start with an agrume-style reduction, though are more prone to oxidise than a generation ago…
Or césar noir. From an AOC perspective, this vine is allowed only in the ‘Yonne’. An ancient red grape variety, which is becoming quite rare – its other name, romain, hinting at who may have introduced it to the region. DNA research in 2001 pointed to this grape evolving from a cross between pinot noir and argant.
Together (normally as a minor partner) with pinot noir it can be found north of the Côte d’Or producing Bourgogne-Irancy, or since 2000 Irancy, and sometimes crémant. If there is more than 10% in the blend, then the wine should lose its Irancy appellation – though I know of Irancys with more! In fact virtually all the plantations of this grape 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. Although not allowed by any particular AOC, there are some 100% césar wines – Domaine Maupertuis in Chablis (for example) – this wine can smell quite unattractively foxy in some years – modestly better in others. The wine, whilst tannic, has a good energy and depth of flavour – but in the majority of vintages I’m sure it’s best place is as a blending ‘instrument!’
The leaves are more open and spiky than pinot (see right) with larger bunches of larger grapes. The grape flavour is not unlike that of pinot but with a much thicker, chewier skin. César is usually harvested at least a week later than pinot, further complicating the blending with that pinot…
One of the most widely planted grapes in the world – in 2015 its vineyard area was 210,000 ha across 41 countries. The United States, Australia and Chile are also among its main producers. Easy to grow, it is relatively hardy, though shares a thin skin with its local neighbour, pinot noir.
Chardonnay has high-vigour but produces low-to-medium yields when close-pruned. Budburst occurs late so is sensitive to spring frosts, whilst ripening occurs relatively early. It manages to make palatable wine even at 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, but:
- Only a personal opinion, but I assumed that the name of the village is older than 1600s (see below), but let’s see…
- 10th Century – Cardonacum or Cardoniacum
13th Century – Chardenaci
13-14th Century – Chardenei or Chardenay
15th Century – Chardonay or Chardonnay
- It looks like the name of village came first – no?
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.
Planted around the world, yet its heimat is, without doubt, Burgundy – the staple of both Chablis and the whites of the Côte de Beaune and Mâconnais. 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 and/or vanilla. All styles in-between are possible, and indeed available.
Chardonnay, like the pinot noir grape, 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.
In the Mâconnais you may hear of Chardonnay-Muscaté; it’s a cross between chardonnay and muscat which smells more like muscat – a heavier aroma – and tastes like chardonnay, but the stems are redder in colour.
- About 7,000 hectolitres of Mâcon-Chardonnay is produced each year by the Cave du Chardonnay in the village of that name – that’s the best part of a million bottles per year. 33% of global chardonnay production is found in the US – France lies in second place with 30%, followed by Australia with 16% and then Italy with 6%. Chardonnay was (globally) the 5th most planted grape variety in 2015 – cabernet sauvignon was in first place. This 30% of global production in France means annually about 2.7 million hectolitres of wine produced from 45,000 hectares of chardonnay vines. Largest first; ‘greater’ Burgundy accounts for 15,000 hectares of chardonnay, followed by 12,500 hectares in the Languedoc then another 10,000 hectares in Champagne.
- Segmenting, a little, that 15,000 hectares of Burgundian chardonnay; roughly 950,000 hectolitres of wine is produced, of which one-third takes a regional white appellation – less than 1% (9,000 hl) is grand cru.(2012 bivb)
- The chardonnay vine is long known to be a crossing of gouais blanc and pinot noir, blanc or gris (from DNA profiling) and this crossing is believed to have happened in France. Gouais blanc is a vine with a poor and acidic reputation*, but for all that was planted in much of France for ‘basic table wine’. If we go back as far as the 14th century, then chardonnay is simply not known.
Château Thivin have some planted in their Clos Rochebonne, but more for the gardening experience – “it doesn’t make a very nice wine,” says Claude Geoffray!
- Across the world there are at least 40 ‘local’ names for the cepage. Given the much larger range of synonyms in the Bourgogne/Jura region it is assumed that the original source of the crossing was this region. In texts, this variety is first noted:
As Le Beaune by Rabelais in 1532
As Beaunois in 1600 by O de Serres
As Chardonnay in St.Sorin in 1685
As pinot blanc – chardonnay with multiple spelling variations but as a single variety between 1700s and the end of the 1800s. Even at the end of the 1800s they couldn’t decide between chardonnay or chardonnet. At one time it was described as chardonnays possibly indicating that it was not yet a single type – certainly the vineyards usually had mixed plantings with pinot blanc and gris – as, to a lower extent, may vineyards still do today.
Close to Puligny-Montrachet is the tiny village of Gamay – it’s often suggested that the grape took its name from this village, but, as usual, there’s no evidence for that. 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 and the Mâconnais. When a cuvée of gamay is produced in the Chalonnaise or the Côte d’Or, the wine is called Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire (actually anywhere in ‘greater’ Burgundy), or when mixed with pinot noir, Bourgogne Passe-Tout-Grains – Côteaux Bourguignons is the new umbrella label for wines with some gamay content.
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.
A cepage whose origin was in Burgundy – hence one of the French names – Melon de Bourgogne. Melon happens to be best known as the grape of Muscadet today, but there are still one or two tiny plantations in Burgundy. There’s a little in Vézelay, and some also at the Cave de Sainte-Marie-la-Blanche, a cooperative close to Beaune. The resulting wine is fruity and quite dynamic.
In form it is very similar to chardonnay – it is neither earlier nor later ripening than chardonnay – though it grows slower. The main difference is the grapes, those of melon are more golden at harvest time. Those that make some melon tell me that they can sell their melon easier than chardonnay as there’s a story behind it – and everyone has chardonnay!
Pinot Beurot (Gris)
Pinot Gris has so many pseudonyms – in Burgundy, it is Pinot Beurot but it’s fromentau in the Languedoc, malvoisie in the Loire, pinot grigio in Italy, gris cordelier, auvernat gris, tokay d’Alsace* and in Germany it is 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 – see right, sandwiched between bunches of pinot noir – giving rise to its common ‘gris’ name. The grape appears to prefer cooler climates, and was very well-known as Tokay in Alsace – they are now no longer allowed to use that Hungarian name – where it ages well and makes very good late-harvest wines. In most Burgundian vintages it ripens together with the pinot noir and is left included in the field blends, but in warm and dry years – like 2015 – the beurot largely did not become ripe in time for the pinot noir harvest.
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!
*Edit: Tokay update. Of-course Tokay comes from Hungary, but from 1994 Tokay d’Alsace was banned, replaced for an interim period (13 years) by Tokay-pinot-gris. From 2007 only Pinot Gris was allowed in Alsace.
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.
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.
Pinot Noir is resistant to winter frosts but as an early-budding variety, it is therefore sensitive to spring frosts. With varying degrees of success, pinot noir continues to be planted throughout more of the world; it ranks as the world’s fourth most cultivated variety (112,000 ha in 2015). 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 interest – at least, that was the case before the run of hotter vintages in the late 2010s. 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 have, historically, often been spoiled by excess oak, though this seems to be changing. It’s not just in volume that the US is becoming a ‘powerhouse of pinot’, often big, ripe and oaky – they have their 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 just 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 a vine in Nuits St.Georges in the 1930s 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, and despite the obvious optical differences, 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.
An ancient variety of white grape, allowed only in the Yonne department.
I only know of two domaines remaining in the Yonne with some of this variety. The largest plantation was only 0.3 ha in the domaine of Céline et Frédéric Gueguen but as of 2018 they planted another 0.12 hectares. The new plantation is by massale selection – it’s the only possibility because it’s effectively a forgotten grape variety! Gueguen’s initial parcel was planted in 1964 by Céline’s grandfather (of Chablis’ Brocard family).
This is a late developer of a variety, so almost always avoids the Spring frost that can cause such devastation in the Yonne. Of-course because of that it is also always one of the last vines to be harvested. The grapes are much larger than those of chardonnay, usually they produce a little more alcohol too – exceptionally 13° but normally 11-11.5° but half a degree more than the chardonnay with equivalent hang-time.
The wines of Gueguen are very fresh, pure and saline – something of an aperitif wine in the summer – but a perfect fit for their location in the Yonne. It would be intriguing to know what it would produce in Chassagne-Montrachet if cropped at only 40-45 hl/ha!
Sauvignon Blanc & Sauvignon Gris
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 1880s the wines from this chalky soil could take the Chablis label – that all ended with phylloxera and the later installation of the AOCs!
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. In 2017, only around 130 hectares are planted to sauvignon.
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.
But there is also Sauvignon Gris (synonym – Fié gris) said to be a mutation from Sauvignon Blanc: Guilhem Goisot explains “Two-thirds of our Sauvignon is blanc but the rest is gris. Before the grapes ripen you won’t see any difference between the vines, but the blanc will ripen to a golden colour, whereas the gris has light red and grey tones – like an apricot. The gris works better than the blanc in the hotter mid-slope areas, holding onto more freshness and minerality.”
These sauvignons need more care with yields than chardonnay as (unlike chardonnay) the vine is ‘fruit-bearing’ from the very first bud on each shoot – 100 hl/ha wouldn’t be a problem…