Burgundy is the origin of Pinot Noir so anyone with a real interest in Pinot must ultimately look back at red Burgundy for a starting point. Once, great (or even really good) Burgundy is experienced, the Pinot lover may continue to drink mostly new world Pinot but they will keep coming back for Burgundy as well. When you look at the label of a bottle of Burgundy, a lot of information is available if you know the code. Here are some things to look for.
Domaine vs. Negociant-Eleveur
In Burgundy, there are two types of companies who make, bottle, and sell wine: Domaines and Negoçiant-Eleveurs.
A Domaine-producer is a land-owner who farms his own grapes, makes them into wine, and bottles his own wine all on his own premises. A domaine may be large or small, backward or advanced, quality-oriented or commercial-oriented. A domaine owner may only bottle a small percentage of the wine he makes and sell the rest to the negoçiants or he may bottle it all. The fact that a wine is Domaine-bottled (or estate bottled) does not make it better or worse than a negociant wine of a particular style. So what is the big deal about Domaine Burgundy? It is simply that the domains are smaller (in terms of production) and the owner/winemaker is making wine year after year from the same vines growing in the same ground that he farms. Instead of the dozens of wines a negoçiant might offer, a typical domaine makes from three to eight different wines with a few making only one or two wines and a few others making as many as 18-20. In any case, the owner-grower-winemaker has control from start to finish and is working with grapes from a limited area that usually spans only one or at most two or three villages. While domaine-bottling is not a guarantee of quality, it is possible to follow certain selected domaines and know that there will be a consistency of style and quality.
A Negoçiant-Eleveur, or “Negoçiant” for short, buys from growers who may or may not also be domaine-bottlers. The traditional role of the negoçiant was to buy wine in barrel from the growers, raise the wine (perform elevage) in the negociant’s cellars and then blend, bottle, and sell the wine to markets local and around the world. Negoçiants sometimes buy already bottled wines that they age, label, and sell. Some of the best large negoçiants of today buy only grapes instead of wine and perform all their own vinifications. Some negoçiants go as far as leasing vineyards and doing all the farming themselves wherever they can in order to have more control over the quality of the crop and therefore the quality of the wine it yields. Many negoçiants wind up over the years buying vineyards and so become domaine owners as well. The wines from those negoçiant-owned vineyards or other negoçiant-controlled (under lease) may even list a domaine name on the label that is different than the negoçiant’s name. For example, a bottle of Louis Jadot might also list “Domaine Louis Jadot”, “Domiane des Heritiers de Louis Jadot”, “Domaine Gagey”, or “Domaine du Duc de Magenta” on the label as Maison Louis Jadot has controlled all four of these domaines (while owning only the vineyards under Domaine Louis Jadot). While these big producers are large enough that the owner, winemaker, and grower are not all the same person or even related (which can lead to a disconnect), they may have an advantage in having professionals or even multiple professionals in each of those roles. It is possible for large negoçiants of this sort to achieve very high levels of quality across a diverse range of products. This trend of negoçiants owning land has become so common that I can’t easily to come up with the name of even one traditional negoçiant who doesn’t own at least one vineyard.
It is important to note whether the producer is a domaine or negociant because that will tell you something about each particular wine’s hierarchy designations.
The Burgundy Hierarchy of Quality
Above all else, Burgundy is a wine from somewhere. And that “somewhere” is listed on the label. A basic Burgundy may just say that it is “Bourgogne Rouge” (red Burgundy). Just that “Bourgogne Rouge” along with a domaine’s name will tell you pretty much where the grapes were grown while “Bourgogne Rouge” with just a negociant’s name may mean just about anything. A more specific regional designation for Burgundy is “Bourgogne Rouge Terroirs de Cote d’Or” meaning that all the grapes were grown in the classic heart land of Burgundy between Dijon in the north and the Cote Chalonnaise in the south. In the quality hierarchy for the Côte de Beaune and the Côte de Nuits (the southern and northern halves of Burgundy’s famous Côte d’Or) are the tow best su regions of Burgundy. Wine blended from certain villages in the Cotes de Nuits or in the Cote de Beaune may be known as Cote de Nuits Villages or Cote de Beaune Villages respectively. Here “villages” is pronounced “vee-lahj”.
The next step up in quality is a wine named for its village – such as “Volnay” or “Nuits St. Georges. These grapes for these wines, often referred to as village wines (with “village” again pronounced as “vee-lahj”), must be grown 100% within the legal boundries of the Village appellation. Negociant’s village wines are often blends of several growers’ plots in a single village appellation. A domaine’s village wine is usually a single vineyard wine that is outside the 1er cru or grand cru areas of a village. Often these single site village wines carry a vineyard name that is not a premier cru. Rather it is called a “lieu dit”. These “lieu dits” are named single sites such as Meursault “Narvaux” or Marsannay “aux Echezeaux” that are legally recognized but not at premier cru quality.
A wine with a village name and the name of a vineyard with the indication “1er cru” or “premier cru” (such as Beaune-Greves 1er cru or Gevrey Chambertin Clos St. Jacques 1er cru) is another step up. These premier cru wines offer more quality and focus and a broader range of flavor potential. A wine labeled with only the name of the vineyard such as “Le Corton” or “Clos de Tart” or “Latricierres Chambertin” is a “grand cru” at the top of the quality heap. Depending on how you count them, there are only thirty-some grand cru in the Cote d’Or so it is assumed that the burgundy aficianado will know (or at least recognize) them. For wine novices, naming the cru of Beaujolais can be a fun drinking/parlor game. For aspiring Burgundy experts, naming the grand cru of the Cote d’Or is more fun and challenging.
If you know how to read the label, you will immediately know whether a wine is regional, village (and if village, whether a lieu dit), premier cru, or grand cru. Along with the producer’s name and the vintage, this tells you most of what you need to know before you taste.
When Red Burgundy isn’t all Pinot Noir
Red Burgundy is 100% Pinot Noir … except when it isn’t. There are thee instances where this can be and only one of them makes it onto the label. A few producers around Corton have a bnit of Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris intermingled with there Pinot Noir. This is legal but as the vines die out, the must be replanted to Pinot Noir. Andy anyway, the wines are still 100% Pinot, jus not 100% Pinot Noir.
When Cru Beaujolais – which is made from Gamy rather than from Pinot Noir – is declassified, it is supposed to declassify to “Bourgogne Rouge”. In practice, it usually gets blended into Beaujolais-Villages but it is possible to have a wine labeled Bourgogne Rouge that gives no indication (other than that it is made by a Beaujolais producer) that it is 100% Gamay.
The last non 100% Pinot instance is what concerns us here. “Off-the-slope” Bourgogne vineyards (too low in elevation or too far east to be a village, premier cru, or grand cru) sometimes have a bit of Gamay still planted and so yield a wine made from two grapes – a blend of Pinot Noir with some Gamay called Bourgogne Passe tout Grains. While the law requires that Passe tout Grains must be at least 1/3 Pinot Noir, most of the better Côte d’Or producers use well in excess of 70% Pinot noir. Nevertheless, Bourgogne Passe tout Grains is one of the very few red wines from Burgundy that are not 100% Pinot.