There are 100 appellations within Burgundy, accounting for around 25% of all the appellations in France. Many of them are small, with only 7% of France’s AOC wine actually produced in the region. The disparity between number and volume results in a complex web of appellations which can be quite daunting to understand, ranging from the broad regional Bourgogne AOC to the extremely focused single-vineyard Grands Crus AOCs.
It's the latter which carry the most prestige, famous names such as Chambertin, La Romanée, and Montrachet commanding some of the highest prices of any wine in the world. Then there are the villages in which these vineyards lie, Gevrey-Chambertin, Vosne-Romanée, and Chassagne- or Puligny-Montrachet, producing wines often bought on the name of the village alone. Even regional wines, such as Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits, carry a cachet associated with few other regions.
But there are much less famous appellations, spread around the region, producing a variety of styles - even though they're usually from the same two grape varieties, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. I attended a tasting of less familiar appellations, designed to showcase the range that Burgundy offers and to prove that Burgundy is not just a two-trick pony.
Chardonnay accounts for about 60% of all plantings across Burgundy, its neutrality and flexibility making it the ideal grape to express the individual characteristics of where it’s grown and to adapt to winemaking techniques. But it's not the only white grape planted in the region. Aligoté is also important, mainly - though not solely - for everyday wines. Other grapes, such as Pinots Gris and Blanc, are a leftover from when Chardonnay was not as dominant as it is today. We tasted the 2014 Domaine Thevenot-Le-Brun et Fils from the higher slopes of Hautes-Côtes de Nuits which was 80% Pinot Blanc and 20% Chardonnay (c.$24; ✪✪✪✪). It's extremely unusual to taste a Burgundian Pinot Blanc, or indeed any serious French Pinot Blanc. It was certainly an interesting wine, with a nutty, waxy texture, but I wasn't completely convinced, as it had a sourness to it that was a little too like lemon or lime juice.
The other whites we tasted were more typical, all being made solely from Chardonnay. Without doubt the finest was from Rully, a village in Côte Chalonnaise known for its contribution to some of the best Crémant de Bourgogne. Although it's an important village, I don't taste wines from Rully often. Domaine Belleville's Les Cloux 2014 (c.$31; ✪✪✪✪✪), from a Premier Cru vineyard, was an excellent example of white Burgundy at its most beautiful and balanced: citrus and stone fruits, deceptively light with high, refreshing acidity, yet with rich, ripe fruit and creamy, malolactic aromas. Proof that Burgundy doesn’t have to come from a famous village to be high quality; proof also that vineyards are awarded Premier Cru status for a reason.
All four of the reds we tasted were made from Pinot Noir, which shines in Burgundy because it expresses the site it comes from so particularly. Three of the four villages the wines came from I hadn't tried before, so this was a fascinating tasting. We started with two wines from near Chablis, the most northerly part of Burgundy, famous for its cool-climate, acidic white wines. To taste red wine from this area is most unusual. These styles of Pinot Noir may not appeal to everyone's tastes, as the acidity is very high for a red wine, the fruit aromas not especially ripe, and the tannins astringent.
Epineuil is an appellation to the east of Chablis, with just 75ha planted, all for red and rosé. We tasted Domaine de l'Abbaye du Petit Quincy's Cuvée Juliette 2014 (named for the owners' daughter). This tasted very much like a still Pinot Noir from champagne, with stalky, green tannins and underripe red fruits. That description may not sound pleasant, but it really depends on your preferred style of wine ($41; ✪✪✪✪).
Chivry is to the west of Chablis, very near to the white-wine appellation. Domaine Olivier Morin's Vau du Puits 2014 (€15; ✪✪✪✪) was a wine I found highly acidic and dilute, though with enough tannins to hold the wine together. Impressively, a wine which was too thin on its own improved greatly with a nibble of steak we were served once the tasting had finished. Cool-climate wines can be sometimes difficult to drink on their own, but the best change completely with food due to their structure.
Further south, in more classic Pinot territory came two more red wines. The first was from Pernand-Vergelesses to the west of the famous hill of Corton. Exceptional white wine is made in Pernand-Vergelesses but there is some red wine made too. (I know this because I once quickly picked up a bottle of Pernand-Vergelesses in a shop for a blind Chardonnay tasting only to discover it was a red wine when I started pouring it ....) The second wine was from Ladoix, which is to the east of Corton. Both these wines seemed exceptionally ripe, although that may well have been in comparison to the wines from near Chablis. Domaine Laleure-Piot's Clos de Bully 2014 from Pernand-Vergelesses (€26; ✪✪✪✪) had a very attractive nose with ripe red fruits, although the palate felt closed, needing time to open up. Domaine Chevalier Père et Fils Ladoix 2014 ($48; £26; ✪✪✪✪✪) was ripe and generous, with both red and black fruits, juicy but with firm tannins. There was enough structure to allow the wine to age, although it was very drinkable now - Burgundy at its delicious best.
The wines from Ladoix and Rully were the most classically Burgundian of the eight we tasted. For all the regional variation within Burgundy, there's a reason that the best wines come from limestone soils stretching south of Dijon all the way down to Beaujolais. The perfect aspect, thin soils, and centuries of winemaking knowledge combine to create world-class wines. When seeking an alternative to the often expensive wines of Burgundy, look at a map and choose a village near to a more famous name. It's likely to be just as good and a lot less expensive.