Burgundy is one of France’s and the world’s premier wine regions. It is the primary home to France’s Chardonnay and Pinot Noir production. It also has one of the world’s most confusing and highly regulated classification systems. It designates everything from the quality grapes grown on tiny plots of land and in distinct microclimates (105 total AOCs plus hundreds of Premier Crus and more than 40 highly prized Grand Crus) to how bottles must be labeled.
Wine has been produced in Burgundy since the Romans invaded the region. A king gave his vineyards to the church in the 6th century. Monks grew and expanded grape production and monasteries began to produce some of the best burgundy wines. After the 1789 French revolution, the church’s vineyards were broken up and sold off. Due to France’s inheritance laws, these vineyards have been subdivided into smaller and smaller plots with each generation. Today the area has thousands of small vineyards that grow grapes or produce wine. Large wine merchants, or négociants, often purchase from them and typically blend, bottle, and sell the resultant wines.
Without getting into the obscure details of the classification system, the region is divided into five major regions. From north to south, these are:
- Chablis (lean unoaked Chardonnay)
- Côte de Nuits (primarily Pinot Noir, with some Chardonnay)
- Côte de Beaune (rich Chardonnay)
- Côte Chalonnaise (Pinot Noir and Sparkling Cremant)
- Mâconnais (Chardonnay)
While each region produces nice wines, the two most important ones are Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits.
Côte de Beaune is on a limestone bench. Its warm climate produces some incredible, generally lighter, feminine-style Pinot Noirs, but it is particularly renowned for its rich, powerful, and balanced Chardonnays. It is divided into more than 25 appellations and sub-appellations. Some of the most important include Mersault and Montrachet (best known for their whites), Pommard and Volnay (renowned for their reds), and Corton (for both its whites and reds).
Côte de Nuits is also on limestone but is cooler than its southern neighbor. Although it certainly produces some world-class Chardonnays, it is best known for some of the world’s most prized, generally big, masculine-style Pinot Noirs. Although Bourgogne Hautes-Côte de Nuit and Côte de Nuit-Villages wines can be quite reasonably priced, some Premier Crus and especially Grand Crus (of which Côte de Nuit Nuit is home to 24 compared with 8 in Côte de Beaune) can sell for thousands of dollars a bottle. Among the highest quality (and most expensive) appellations are Gevrey-Chambetin, Morey-St-Denis, Vosne-Romanee (and especially Romanee-Conti, Chabolle-Musigny, and Grands Echezeaux.
Although we have visited several small, family-owned vineyards on previous trips, this time we focused on a handful of large producers and negociants. This allowed us to discuss vintages and sample wines from several appellations. We focused primarily on Côte des Beaune whites and reds, although we did manage to sneak in a few Côte de Nuit Grand Crus.
Moillard-Grivot is a large producer that makes wines from grapes grown throughout Burgundy producing a wide range of 100% malolactic, oaked wines (except its Chablis which is all stainless steel). We began with an update on the Côte de Beaune’s recent vintages.
- 2020 was a hot year whose early harvest yielded small berries with intensely concentrated fruit and high sugars balanced by high acid. The result was deeply flavored wines with nice fruit.
- 2021 was troubled from the start. April frosts were followed by snow and a cool, damp summer. The slowed ripening forced late harvests with whites having to be picked in heavy rains. A number of vintners (including Moillard-Grivot) lost about 60 percent of their Chardonnay crops. Fortunately, Pinot Noir, which had later bud break and harvest, was able to ride out the weather and had a decent vintage.
- 2022 was a very warm year which is better for Pinot Noirs than for Chardonnays. The yield produced moderately small, highly concentrated berries with good concentration, color, sugars, and acids: all fortuitous signs for a good vintage.
While many growers are waiting before making big changes in anticipation of more warming and increasingly unpredictable weather, many are already making minor modifications. For example, they are maintaining larger canopies to better shade the grapes and are keeping grapes cooler before and during vilification. Some would also like to use higher trellises to reduce radiated surface heat and increase wind flow through the vines, but current regulations do not permit this. Time will tell if and for how long such minimally interventionist actions will suffice.
During our conversations, we also found time to taste and discuss several currently available wines.
We began with whites and the winery’s 2021 Signature Chardonnay which comes from fruit from three Côte de Beaune villages. This pleasant, straightforward, neutrally-oaked wine has a bit of citrus with a smooth finish.
From here we moved up to three Chardonnays from different villages. The 2019 Puligny-Montrachet had a bit more new oak than we prefer We found the 2019 Sauvigny-Les-Beaune more interesting. The grapes are grown further north and grown primarily on limestone rather than the more clay-based soil of the south. We concluded with a 2017 Corton Grand Cru which is located still further north in the Côte de Beaune. It spends 18 (rather than 12 months) in oak, and has a bit more butter than we prefer.
For Pinot Noirs, we began with the light, not especially expressive entry-level 2018 Savigny-Les-Beaune and proceeded to more interesting (not to speak of more expensive) 1er and Grand Crus. The deeply-colored, concentrated 2016 Pommard “Les Rugiens” 1er Cru benefits from Pommard’s deep, limestone and clay soils, cooler temperatures (at least for Côte des Beaune), relatively long times, and a bit of spice from the soil’s iron oxide.
Then on to the 2016 Corton Les Merchaude “Marechaudes” Grand Cru whose tannins are still a bit expressive for our tastes. We finished with a Côte de Nuit Grand Cru. This is a very big, concentrated 2011 Clos de Vougeot with a range of dark fruits, tobacco, and still strong tannins.
We started with a tour of the family’s century-old facility beginning in the old press room with its huge, centuries-old wooden press and old barrels. There we had a brief overview of Burgundy, Côte de Beaune, and Côte de Nuit, and their 1,247 different climates—a number that hasn’t changed since 1936!
Then we walked through a few of their 2.5 acres of 13th-century cellars, part of whose foundations dates from the 3rd century AD. We passed rows and rows of barrels and rooms lined with racks with thousands of carefully cataloged, very dusty bottles.
All of this walking through wine cellars put us in the mood for a taste of what is in some of the newer bottles. We tasted wines—three Chardonnays and three Pinot Noirs.
- 2018 Chablis Mont de Milieu 1er Cru, the only Drouhin white that sees no oak, but its 100% malolactic fermentation gives it a nice rounded finish.
- 2020 Meursault blanc is a lovely, somewhat citrusy wine that is the result of limestone and a warm, dry year.
- 2018 Mersault Charmes Blanc 1er Cru was a little buttery for our tastes, but still pleasant.
- 2018 Côte de Beaune Villages rouge is a very light Pinot Noir with raspberry and a bit of tannin.
- 2019 Beaune Clos des Mouches rouge 1er Cru had a pronounced red fruit very smooth rounded finish.
- 2019 Nuits Saint Georges 1er Cru was a more heavy extracted wine with a deeper color and expressive dark fruit.
Our visit began with a tour not of the cellar, but of the lovely chateau. Each room is stocked with mementos of and an explanation of the family’s four-generation, 280-year history in the Burgundy wine industry.
While we were certainly interested in the family’s history, we were especially intrigued by the discussion of how wine was initially shipped to customers. Before the use of oak, they used small, leaky wooden casks that lost up to 20 percent of their content (and had to be refilled before delivery) over the two-week hand-pulled barge trip to Paris. They lost even more wine during the slightly shorter but much bumpier wagon trip.
Also of interest was the display and discussion of early, hand-produced bottles which were too weak, expensive, and inconsistently sized to be of much use in selling and shipping wine.
After the tour, we adjourned to the cellar where we saw, but weren’t allowed to taste, some older wines.
But we were able to taste other wines:
- 2021 Saint Veran Blanc is a nice, stainless-steel-produced wine that is fresh and crisp.
- 2019 Beaune Les Marconnets Blanc 1er Cru, from the north of Burgundy next to Savigny-Les-Beaune, is a heavily oaked, 100% malolactic wine that was too soft and buttery for our tastes.
- 2020 Fixin La Mazier Rouge is a lovely structured, dark fruit wine from the northern Côte de Nuit.
- 2019 Beaune Clos du Roi 1er Cru is pleasant, but with a slightly funky nose and taste, while not unpleasant, was a bit distracting.
- 2008 Charmes-Chambertin Grand Cru is a wonderful Côte de Nuit wine with bold red fruit, a bit of spice, and a lot of body.
One day, two very good meals:
- Le Bistro Grand Bleu where we shared two three-course lunches. The dishes included escargot and frog chilled frog leg gelee appetizers followed by shrimp gratin and a sautéed Saint Pierre fish (John Dory) with beurre blanc and roasted potatoes. We ended with lemon cheesecake and a selection of cheeses (vacheron, epoisse, and herb-crusted goat cheese). And since we had an afternoon of relative leisure, we added a half bottle of 2020 Sorine Santenay Chardonnay.
- Ma Cuisine. This was a return visit after the wonderful meal we had during a pre-covid 2019 trip. Once again we were in awe of the small restaurant’s wine list. We repeated two dishes from our previous trip—escargot (of which we can’t seem to get enough) and roasted skate wing brown butter, capers, and whipped potatoes. Different, but even more delicious was a perfectly cooked, “pink” roasted pigeon with jus and roasted potatoes. Our wine from the Burgundy-focused list was a very nice 2019 Arlaud “Los Perrieres” from Pommard.