Burgundy 101: French Wine For Beginners

On a recent trip, we took the train from Interlaken to Paris. The ride brought us through east-central France, past an area known as Burgundy or Bourgogne. As wine lovers and serial excursionists, we knew we had to stop and make the most of this travel day!

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We chose a guided tour with Authentica, which picked us up just a few yards away from the Dijon-Ville train station (Gare de Dijon-Ville.) Storing luggage on a layover trip is always a challenge, but luckily the large tour van easily accommodated our suitcases.

Our guide started the trip by handing out reading material on the various Burgundy wine regions and classifications. Even with these helpful resources, the intricacies of French wine can be overwhelming. To assist you, we’ve compiled a cheat sheet to Burgundy!

We have used a bold font to signify common wine vocabulary. Italicized words signify the French translation that you will see and hear while traveling through Burgundy.

The Grapes & Regions

To start, it is important to understand the difference between Old World and New World wines. New World refers to wines made outside of Europe. These wines tend to be a bit bolder in flavor because winemakers can experiment with multiple grape types or varietals. On the other hand, Old World wines are celebrated for honoring age old traditions and following a strict set of rules.

Of course, Burgundy falls into the Old World category. In fact, it is one of the oldest wine growing regions in the world. Here are a few things to remember about this famous region:

  • There are two noble grape varietals in Burgundy: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. These names will not always be listed on the bottle. As stated above, French winemakers (vigneron) are under strict regulations and are not permitted to grow any other varietals*. Because of this, it can be assumed that if you are drinking a white wine from this region, it is made from Chardonnay grapes and if you are drinking a red wine from Burgundy, it is a Pinot Noir.
  • French wines pride themselves for being expressive of terroir. Sometimes referred to as “sense of place”, terroir is a term used to describe where the grapes were grown. This includes characteristics like soil, climate and vineyard placement. All of these factors impact how the grapes develop and therefore how they taste. Because of the importance of terroir, Burgundian wines (and Old World wines in general) label according to geography.
  • There are five major growing regions in Burgundy, (Chablis, Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune, Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais). Our tour took us through Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune.

* There are other “non noble” grapes grown in burgundy, but they are used mainly for blending purposes. A famous exception is the Aligoté grape which is popularly blended with blackcurrant liquor (Créme de casis). Together these Burgundian beverages create the deliciously sweet Kir cocktail. Don’t leave without trying one!

The Classifications

Our first stop was a private cellar where we were able to taste the wines. In the cellar, we learned more about French classifications, which fall into four categories.

Grand Cru

Premier Cru

Village wines

Regional wines

You can imagine these classifications like a pyramid chart, with Grand Cru at the top, in the smallest quantity and regional wines sitting abundantly at the base.

Known simply as Bourgogne Rouge or Bourgogne Blanc, regional wines tend to be light and fresh, making them perfect for sipping in between meals (known as an apertif). If you are a fan of sparkling wines, Burgundy also produces Crément de Bourgogne which falls into this regional classification.

Next there are Village wines, which are grown in specific towns or villages. The names of these towns will be listed on the label. Because all of the grapes in the bottle were grown in the same location, the characteristics of that village’s terroir will start to show through in the wines flavor. For example, the village of Chablis is known for limestone soils and you can taste the chalky, mineral driven notes in a bottle of Chablis wine.

Higher on the pyramid you will find Priemier Cru or “1er Cru”. Not only are the grapes from a specific village, they come from special vineyards within the village, known as climats. These wines will be more complex in flavor because all of the grapes will share defined terroir characteristics like the slope of the hill they were grown on, or the amount of sunlight they get each day.

Finally, you will find wines that are designated as Grand Cru. These wines are often very costly and made for cellaring. The plots of land where Grand Cru wines are grown can be right next to Priemier Cru plots, but they are designated as the best. Unlike the regional wines, Grand Cru will have bolder flavors and more oak influence because they are aged longer in barrels.

After tasting the wines in the cellar, we had the chance to stroll through some of the vineyards to see the gentle sloping hills and sunlight that makes each grape so special. It was incredible to see the agricultural influences that differentiate Burgundy wines from other famous regions. Now when we open a wine list at a restaurant, we can better appreciate the process and care that went into cultivating each selection.

All of this was possible because we chose to break up our train ride and seek adventure. We encourage you to do the same and make the most of every journey!

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