Burgundy produces some of the most famous, expensive and sought after wines in the world and has a mystique unlike any other wine producing region. This is due not only to its long history but also to the Napoleonic Code which has resulted in a vine growing area which is split up into a myriad of small holdings, some with only one or two rows of vines. The Burgundy classification system is terroir focused, the geographical emphasis a result of 400 different soil types in Burgundy. This contrasts with Bordeaux’s producer driven classification which links to the individual chateaux.
The investment-grade wines are limited to a very select group of Grand Cru wines with strictly defined AOC laws. The most sought after wines are from the Cotes de Nuit region and specifically from the Vosne-Romanee village. These include the iconic Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, which has achieved some of the highest ever value wine sales, for example the 1990 vintage recorded a sale, which equated to £15,702 per bottle.
Investment-grade wines and their producers
The history of wine growing in Burgundy almost certainly dates back to Roman times with the first written evidence being in 591 when Gregory of Tours wrote his History of the Franks. However it was mediaeval Burgundy, thanks to the monks and monasteries, which had cellars and store rooms in which to mature their wine that laid down the foundations for the future of wine in the region. Its reputation was enhanced in the 14th century when the papacy relocated to Avignon and demand soared for the wines of Burgundy to the north.
From the 15th century the power of, first, the Dukes of Burgundy and then the King increased so that the power of the Church by contrast declined and many of the famous vineyards were sold to the bourgeoisie in Dijon. But it was the French Revolution in 1789 that resulted in vineyards being sold off and further fragmented as a result of the law of equal inheritance laid down in the Napoleonic Code.
The final addition to the jigsaw was the classification in 1861 by the Beaune Committee of Agriculture of the best vineyards in to ‘grands’ and ‘premier crus’ which was underlined in the 1930’s by the Appellation Controlee system. In addition to the individual small family producers the myriad of negociant houses and co-operatives only adds to an amazing kaleidoscope of wine.
Fortunately someone saw sense when determining the grape varieties of Burgundy because although they have four permitted by the AC regulations, in reality it is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that dominate the region. The other red grape, Gamay, predominant in Beaujolais, has around 3,000 hectares planted but its light constitution prevents it from producing wines that will age for too long. Aligote has a loyal following but there are only about 500 hectares planted. It is acknowledged worldwide that Chardonnay and Pinot Noir when grown in the unique landscape of Burgundy produce the most sublime and expensive wine in the world.
However, it is not enough simply to have two of the world’s greatest grape varieties to hand as you also need perfect terroir. As luck and centuries of tradition would have it Burgundy also passes that test in spades. Its success is based on limestone from the Jurassic period which populates the landscape from the undulating hills of Chablis down the spine of the Cote d’Or to Pouilly Fuisse.
Combine this with a continental climate which produces cold, dry winters followed by cool summers which can be punctuated with heavy rainfall and hail, and the climate could be considered more marginal than Bordeaux. Fortunately, Chardonnay is very hardy and produces the finest, full-bodied dry white wines in the world in this climate. Pinot Noir is more temperamental and several vintages in a decade may lack sufficient sun for the grape to ripen properly. However in great vintages the red wines produced are excellent.
But what makes Burgundy unique compared to every other major fine wine region in the world is the sheer complexity of the vineyard holdings. They are the most minutely parcellated on the globe as a result of a number of factors. Traditionally the land has been owned and managed by individual smallholders as there was no influx of outside capital to establish great estates such as in Bordeaux. This was exacerbated by the Napoleonic code’s insistence on equal inheritance for every family member and finally compounded by the fact that the land has become so valuable that holdings have been divided down the generations. Individual vineyards may be owned by scores of different owners. That is why it is essential to assess the quality of each grower and winemaker.