Understanding wine labels can appear daunting at first, but once armed with the right information to break down the confusion and identify the most important details, you will realise that there is more than meets the eye to learning about the liquid inside by interpreting what’s on the outside.
In today’s article, we’re delving into Burgundy’s labelling system, deconstructing labels and making it a lot less complex than at first appearance.
Burgundy, located in east-central France, is indisputably one of the most renowned and prestigious French wine-producing regions, distinguished for outstanding Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Due to the highly diversified areas, soils and climates of the region, there is a significant difference in quality among Burgundian vineyards, which demands a more detailed and complex labelling system.
In addition to vintage, alcohol content and volume, a Burgundian wine label usually consists of producer name, village name, vineyard name, appellation title, bottler and producer location. Every label displays the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) that was introduced to regulate wine trade and defines where the wine is from. In line with Old World traditions, Burgundy labels focus on the region and producer of the wine rather than the New World approach of focusing on grape varietals.
As the value of Burgundy wines is influenced by the producer as well as the wine growing areas, the AOCs are divided into four categories that are significant indicators of the vineyard quality. Burgundy wines are classified in a clear hierarchy; at the bottom we find Regional wines, next there is Village, at a higher level there are Premier Cru areas and at the top there are the Grand Cru vineyards that constitute their own appellations.
Regional wines make up for over 50% of the Burgundian wine production and do not have a specific appellation, usually only displaying the ‘Bourgogne’ AC.
Village wines take their names from the villages where the grapes are from and constitute 37% of the total wine production, with notorious names being Mercurey, Gevrey-Chambertin and Pouilly-Fuissé.
Premier Cru (or 1er Cru) appellation determines vineyards with a consistent, high quality that represent 10% of the total production. 1er Cru wine labels state the village appellation and the vineyard name, followed by the Premier Cru classification. Renowned 1er Cru vineyards are Meursault Charmes, Vosne Romanée and Gevrey Chambertin Clos St Jacques.
The highest Burgundy appellation is Grand Cru, which identifies Burgundy’s finest vineyards and top wines. For these wines, the label only specifies the vineyard name and the Grand Cru status. While they constitute less that 2% of the total Burgundy production with only 33 Grand Cru vineyards in the whole region, the wines are bold, complex and highly sought-after, with hugely acclaimed ‘elite’ names like La Tâche, Romanée Conti, Montrachet and Grands-Echézeaux.
The diversity of the Burgundian terroir allows to divide the region into five main wine-growing areas, each with a very unique character.
Chablis is known for its lean Chardonnay that takes the typical citrus and white flower aromas from the type of soil and the semi-continental climate; notable Grand Cru vineyards are Les Clos, Valmur and Vaudésir.
Côte de Nuits
Côte de Nuits is well-known for its top-class Pinot Noir and for being home to 24 of the 33 Grand Cru vineyards, with Vosne-Romanée and Chambolle-Musigny being amongst the most remarkable.
Côte de Beaune
Côte de Beaune together with Côte de Nuits constitutes Côte d’Or and is famous for Le Montrachet Grand Cru, considered one of the world’s top vineyards for Chardonnay.
Côte Chalonnaise is known for smooth Chardonnay and rustic Pinot Noir wines and is home to Mercurey – one of the leading Village wine appellations.
Lastly, the Mâconnais region is characterised by a warmer climate resulting in well-structured Chardonnay. One of the major Mâconnais wine appellations Pouilly-Fuissé has recently been awarded with a Premier Cru recognition for 22 vineyards, becoming the first appellation in the area to be classified as 1er Cru.
PRODUCER VS NÉGOCIANTS
Another factor contributing to the complexity of the Burgundy region is land ownership; while only a limited amount of landowners and growers bottle their own wine, the majority of the Burgundian bottlers are called négociants and acquire grapes or grape juice, marketing the bottles under their own name (some négociants own land too!). When the wine is produced by the vineyard owner the label displays ‘mis en bouteille au domaine’’ while négociants would usually use the expression ‘Mis en bouteille par...’.
Producers transfer their own styles to the wine, highly influencing its quality. There are thousands of producers in Burgundy and most of them only own small bits of land; due to their different capabilities and approaches, wines from producers of adjacent lands can deeply vary in taste and character. Examples of Burgundy's most well known producers include Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Domaine Leflaive, Domaine Armand Rousseau and Domaine Leroy.
Despite its complexity, Burgundy’s wine labelling system allows consumers to make reasonable judgements on the wine’s quality and style through the key information displayed on the label: producer and vineyard classification. When it comes to Burgundy, there is nothing better for wine lovers than tasting numerous vintages from different producers and vineyards to discover their favourite wine styles and characters.