Thursday, February 16, 2023

France Series: Burgundy and Beaujolais

Sometime in the late 14th century, the red variety with a long name, Gamay Noir a Jus Blanc, was introduced into the vineyards of Burgundy.  The move was  controversial, mainly for those that grew the noble Pinot Noir grape.

Ripe Pinot Noir

The official name is long to distinguish Gamay Noir from the red-flesh Gamay Teinturier, which in French literally means "dyer."  At one time, the juice from these teinturier grapes was used to help deepen the juice of weak colored grapes.

Today, Gamay Noir accounts for less than 10% of the plantings in Burgundy, but the variety is planted in 98% of Beaujolais vineyards.  Burgundy and Beaujolais  are among the few regions in France with just one or a few grapes. 

Ripe Gamay

And there are more differences. Most importantly, red and white Burgundy are among the most expensive wines in the world, with the most coveted ones priced at hundreds of dollars, while the most expensive Cru Beaujolais costs little more than a hundred dollars. Aging is also different.  A well cellared Burgundy will last a few decades while the best cru Beaujolais will likely top out before 10 years.

The wines from each region are, in their own right, unique. So let's take a closer look at the two regions.   


Known as Bourgogne in French, Burgundy is a province in eastern France, best known for the Cote d'Or, a long pencil-thin region, famous for its white wines made from Chardonnay and reds from Pinot Noir. 

Administratively, Burgundy also includes Cote Chalonnaise, Maconnais, Auxerrois and Chablis. In terms of production, Maconnais is the largest, followed by the combined output of Chablis and Auxerrois, the latter a rather common wine used in blends more than as a varietal. 

An aside. Auxerrois is a prime example of the confusing nature of grape names being mixed up with wine names and place names.  To begin, Auxerre is a city in north east France.  Auxerrois is another name for Malbec in Cahors and Auxerrois Gris, is a synonym for Pinot Gris in Alsace.  Auxerrois is more popular than Pinot Blanc in Alsace, but is often not mentioned on a wine label, although can be labeled as Pinot Blanc.

The ancient history of Burgundy dates to circa 50 BC, when the Romans conquered Gaul, followed by the Celts, the Franks and the Vandals.  But by the 10th century, a major change occurred in Burgundy, from barbarian rule to Christianity.

Various monastic orders, notably the Benedictines, are credited with the origins and development of Burgundy vineyards and wine, starting in the 10th century.  By the 13th century, the Benedictines owned vast vineyard holdings, including what is known today as Domaine de la Romanee Conti: Romanee-Conti, La Tache, La Romanee, Richebourg, Romanee Conti and Romanee-St.-Vivant. 

Domaine de la Romanee Conti

Today, the Cote d' Or, (or "Golden Slope") is synonymous with Burgundy and, in fact, is the source of the region's most distinguished wines.  From the city of Beaune north, the Cote de Nuits is known mainly for red wines, from Pinot Noir, like Gevrey-Chambertin and Vosne-Romanee. 

South of Beaune, in the Cote de Beaune, white wines, from Chardonnay, are best known, such as Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet.  The famous growths of Pommard and Volnay, both red wines, plus Santenay and St. Aubin round out the wines of the Cote de Beaune.


Due south of the Maconnais lies the regional city of Macon and on the city's southern edge is the beginning of the province of Beaujolais.  Administratively, Beaujolais is often thought of as part of Burgundy, but it is different, mainly in soils, location and grapes. 

Limestone and granite, two of the elements that help varieties like Pinot Noir and Gamay to ripen fully, are found throughout the rolling hills of the Cote d'Or and Beaujolais. However, it is the Gamay Noir a jus Blanc (or Gamay Noir) grape that determines the character of Beaujolais. 

Perhaps, a third element is even more important thing as it sets Beaujolais apart from other French wines:  carbonic maceration (C-M) , the wine making technique used to fashion the clear juice of the Gamay Noir grape into a fruity grapy red wine that delights wine drinkers everywhere.  

Most of the wine bottled simply as Beaujolais is made using carbonic maceration. The process is involved, but the simple explanation is whole clusters are loaded into a tank and about a third of the mass is crushed by the weight of the grapes above. The grape juice on the bottom of the tank ferments as usual, releasing carbon dioxide that causes an intracellular fermentation in the grapes at the top of the tank. 

The new wine rests for a few days and then is released as Beaujolais Nouveau. A small amount of C-M is sometimes used to brighten standard Beaujolais but C-M is not used in Cru Beaujolais.


A step up from Beaujolais are the 10 Beaujolais Crus, so-rated for the vineyards around the named villages.  From north to south: St. Amour, Julienas, Chenas, Moulin-a-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Regnie, Brouilly, Cote de Brouilly. The wines from these select villages are considered so good that they deserve a special designation.  Morgon and Moulin-a-Vent are considered the biggest most concentrated.  In blind tastings, aged Beaujolais Crus have been mistaken for Cote de Beaune red.

Collectors of French red wine say that Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhone are most desirable...and then there is everything else.  Try a bottle of red Burgundy or Beaujolais and see for yourself. 

Note:  The next entry in the France Series: Rhone and Loire, will appear in this space on March 10, 2023. 


Next Blog: New Zealand's Other White Wine

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