Burgundy Basics

As I was finishing an advanced wine course with the WSET, the instructor asked me what wine region I would pick to visit, if I could only go to one place in the world, my answer was Burgundy. 

When it comes to wine, in particular French wine, there is nothing more confusing than Burgundy. Volumes of books have been written about the geology, the grape clones, the vineyard aspect, and the world famous clos. It is well known for both its red and white wines, mostly made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay , although other grape varieties can be found, including Gamay, Aligote, Pinot Blanc, and Sauvignon Blanc. The region is divided into the Chablis, Côte d'Or, the Côte Chalonnaise, the Mâcon, and Beaujolais. The Côte d'Or is further divided into the Côte de Beaune and the Côte de Nuit. The Côte de Beaune starts between Nuits-Saint-Georges and Beaune, and runs southwards for about 25 km. The Côte de Nuit extends from Dijon to just south of Nuits-Saint-Georges. The major cities of Burgundy are Dijon, Lyons, and Beaune. The vineyards of the Cote d’Or are the undisputed upper class of Burgundy wines, as well as the most expensive.

Clos Vougeot
If you have been following this blog for a few years, you might recall my brief history of wine. The Catholic monks (Cistercian and Benedictine) populated the Côte d'Or region of Burgundy. They kept meticulous records, for hundreds of years, on where the grapes grew best. They recorded all aspects of growth, quality of the grapes, and ultimately the quality of the wine. During those many hundreds of years, the members of the church would gift their land to the church.  As people died, the first born male child inherited the land, but if there were no heirs, the church ended up with the land. The land was also “gifted”, as payment to the church.  Wine was needed for sacramental purposes, but the monks would also host travelers, including nobility, and needed wine on hand. Wine meant income and quality wine meant more income. As their holding expanded, the Catholic Church had to recognize their best vineyards. To do so, they placed rock walls around those vineyards. These rock walled vineyards are known as “clos”. They had security, patience and of course, the time, to improve viticulture.

Then along came Napoleon, and the “Napoleonic Code”.  The code gave equal inheritance to all sons versus just the first born.  Land was confiscated from the church and nobility, at the end of the revolution and declared national assets. Those who managed to retain some of their lands often broke them up and sold as well.  This led to fragmentation and multiple owners of individual vineyards.  The problem was that even within a vineyard, there are often major differences in the quality of the grapes from vine to vine. It is important to remember that the boundaries of the vineyard didn’t change, just the ownership within the walls.

Clos Vougeot ownership fragmentation
The best (or worst) example is Clos Vougeot. This 50 hectare, walled vineyard (clos) was established by the Cistercians. Clos Vougeot is a Grand Cru (more on that below).  What was once a large clos, owned by the church, is now a large clos owned by over 80 different growers, with some owning as little as one vine. The variability of the quality is wide ranged. This variability is not so much caused by the growers, but more so by the diversity of the soil, slope, and aspect.  The church understood that the top of the clos produced the best wines, and the lower slopes the most basic. Once fragmented, some got lucky, other not so much. But, they could all call their wine Clos de Vougeot. So now, you may understand where some of the challenges occur within Burgundy.

Due to the Napoleonic inheritance laws, some vineyards were so finely divided, that owning only a small portion of a high-quality single vineyard (known as “lieu-dit”) meant that a grower often had insufficient wine to vinify on his own. Négociants were needed to bottle commercial quantities of a wine. A négociant is a wine merchant who assembles the grapes or wine, of smaller growers and winemakers and sells the result under its’ own name. 

In contrast to a négociant, a “monopole” is an area controlled by a single winery, or wine company, and can be as small as a lieu-dit or as large as an entire appellation. Each wine is sold by only one company, and it is most often mentioned on the label. Whether a monopole indicates a wine of unusual quality or not is a matter of debate.

One of the other challenges of Burgundy is the structure of the AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée), now also known as AOP (Appellation d'Origine Protégée). The AOC system in Burgundy uses four designations: Regional Cru; Village Cru; Premier Cru; and Grand Cru, to indicate where the grapes were grown. As the monks knew, certain locations produced superior quality wines. While these rankings imply differing quality levels, they actually designate places that have the potential for higher quality.

Regional Cru wines are made from blends of grapes grown in vineyards within the Burgundy region. These are the simplest of the Burgundy wines, and are often labeled as Bourgogne Blanc or Bourgogne Rouge.

As you would expect, Village Cru wines are made up of a blend of grapes grown within a designated village. And, here is where some of your challenges begin. Many of the villages have changed their names, to include the most known vineyard within their village. For example, the village of Gevrey is now known as Gevrey-Chambertin (Chambertin being the name of the best known Grand Cru in the village). So, remember that just because it says “Gevrey-Chambertin” on the label, it doesn’t mean it comes from the best vineyards. These are usually entry level wines, and decent prices.

The Premier Cru appellation identifies single vineyards that have terroir with the potential for exceptional wines. These are the vineyards that were documented by the monks, and are the beginning of the upper echelon of Burgundian wines. On the wine label, there will be a designation  of Premier Cru (or 1er Cru) and then the vineyard name. Once again, you need to know the vineyard, grower, négociant or monopole, as the designation is for potential, not necessarily results.

The highest appellation in Burgundy is Grand Cru. These are vineyards, where the combination of soil, exposure and reputation offer superior potential. But, no guarantees, as quality is not a given. Only 33 vineyards in Burgundy have this designation. Only the name of the vineyard appears on a bottle of Grand Cru wine. Some of the best, and most expensive, are Chambertin, Clos de Tart, Le Musigny, Romanee-Conti, and La Tache

There is so much more to learn about Burgundy. My hope is that your takeaway from this article is that your first consideration should be the name of the producer and/or the importer. Find one you like and stick with them. People have spent their entire wine career trying to understand Burgundy. Explore, and if you are lucky enough to taste the best that Burgundy has to offer, savor it. As long as you remember that you get what you pay for, you will understand the allure of this special wine region!


I often get e-mails or phone calls from friends and blog followers, asking for advice on wine choices, or whether I have tried a certain wine that is being sold for a low price on one of those bargain wine websites. This week, I got a notice on my cellphone, as a Facebook notice, that I had been tagged in a comment from one of my friends. The message read, “Charcuterie.... Missing Madrid... Jim Newcomb.... Where are you when we need you? I can't decide Wine Flight".

Well, I don’t know what the wine flight choices were, but I can certainly make some recommendations. 

The first course of action is to understand what “charcuterie” is. Then we can use that information to determine what types of wines would work best.

Charcuterie is basically cured meat. This meat can be salted, smoked, or brined. The word is French, but its’ origins come from the Latin for “caro” or meat, and “coctus”, or cooked.  Prior to the advent of refrigeration, the idea was to preserve the stock of meat over the course of many months. Until the use of nitrates for preservation, salt was the preservative of choice.

The meat is usually pork, but can be made from any type of protein (seafood, poultry, beef, or game meats). The most common type of charcuterie is “forcemeat”. Forcemeat is a mixture of ground meat and fat, along with a variety of spices.  The meat can be coarse, or pureed into a smooth emulsion. The most common forcemeats are salami (brined, salted or dry cured) or sausages (raw meat in casings that need to be cooked, usually by boiling, grilling or smoking).

Another style of charcuterie is “mousseline”. In this style the meat is much lighter in texture, and made from leaner cuts of meat. The meat is usually blended with cream or eggs, adding to the mousse-like texture of the final product. The most common would be Pâté and terrines. Pâté is considered the finer textured of the two, and usually is made from liver.

There are many types of charcuterie, and this article is not meant to cover each style or production process. A basic understanding of what charcuterie generally is, helps us to determine what the best style of wines might be for pairing. There are a couple things that we find in common for charcuterie: salt, and fat. The additional variable is the curing process, spices used, proteins used, and the curing process involved.

Let’s look at salt first. Salty foods need a wine that can contrast, or counteract the saltiness. This is accomplished with sweet, acidic, or sparkling wines. The salter the charcuterie, the sweeter the wine need to be. Now, to be clear, we aren’t looking to pair a dessert wine with our salami, all we need is a touch of residual sugar in the wine. In this case, the most likely candidates would be Riesling for white, and Beaujolais (Gamay) for red.

Our second common component is fat. Fat will coat your mouth, so we need something that will cleanse the palate. This can be accomplished either with a sparkling wine, or an acidic wine. I find that most sparkling wines have a tough time holding up to some of the “heavier” flavors of pork or beef based charcuterie,  so usually avoid the sparkling route (but it can be very nice with lighter pâtés and terrines). The choice to cover the most bases would be higher acid grape varieties. In this case, our previous two choices of Beaujolais and Riesling would work, but we can add a couple more choices: Chenin Blanc and Barbera. We now have four wine choices that would work with most any type of charcuterie. Add some spicy components to the charcuterie, and you might also consider Gewurztraminer, or even a blend from Cotes du Rhone.

These are by no means the only wine choices. If you know your wine varieties, and their general profile, you can experiment in good faith. Also remember that local wines, usually work with the local products. So, try to determine where the style of charcuterie was developed, then look for wines from that region that might fit the bill. But most of all, don’t worry about it. Experiment, and have fun!

Dinner in Portugal?

The decision had been made over a month ago...our next wine pairing dinner would be in Portugal. Well, actually traveling to Portugal wasn't in the budget, so why not bring the tastes of Portugal to our local dinner table, then pair some Portuguese wines with those courses?

Followers of this blog know that we have a small gourmet group. About every three months, we gather together a group of eight people to learn about traditional cuisine, cooking techniques, then create those dishes for an evening of food, fun, and wine.

This evening, we created a four course (maybe five, if you include both appetizers). The table was set with a Mediterranean theme, and our hosts had found a channel on Spotify.com that played Portuguese music. They had strung lights across their back deck, and put tea candles on the table. The mood was set, and the evening temperatures had cooled to a comfortable degree versus the daytime heat and humidity.

Our first appetizer was Peixinhos da Horta (batter fried green beans). The batter was made with white wine, and had the consistency of a tempura batter. The fresh green beans were battered and fried in olive oil, then lightly salted. For the wine pairing I went with a Quinta de Azevedo Vinho Verde. When I see fried food on the menu, I immediately think of something with effervescence to help cleanse the palate. Salt requires effervescence, sweetness or acid. Vinho Verde fits the bill on most counts. It isn't sweet, but there is an amount of fruitiness, that lends itself to the flavor of the green beans.

Our hosts added one more appetizer a couple days before I went out to purchase the wine. The addition was Camarao com Piri Piri (Grilled Shrimp with hot sauce). While the Vinho Verde worked with the shrimp, the hot sauce really required something with some more residual sugar. The Piri Piri (hot sauce) was made with olive oil, garlic and hot peppers, that had soaked together for a week. While many turn their nose up at Lancer's Rose, it really worked well with this dish.   Lancer's is made with a blend of grapes (Aragones, Syrah, Touriga Nacional, Castelao, and Trincadeira). Lancer's is a slightly sparking wine and slightly sweet. I would say it is the "original" white Zinfandel.

The next course was Canja (a traditional Chicken soup with Basmati rice, lemon juice and mint). The one thing I can say about Portuguese food, is that it is pretty simple. Not too many ingredients, and not terribly complicated. This dish was a perfect example of what can be done with only seven ingredients, to create a wonderful dish. While the dish was easy, the wine pairing was a challenge. I always try to stay within the region. But, finding light red wines, or hardier white wines at our local wine shops presented a challenge. So, I focused on a Portuguese beer, only to find the store I drove to was out of it. I had to break the region "rule" and went with a white wine from the Galicia region of Spain. I paired this with Vina Godeyal Valdcorras (the grape is Godello). This actually worked nicely.

Our main course was Costeletas de Carneiro Escondidinho (Lamb Chops with a Port, Cream and Mustard Sauce), served with fingerling potatoes and carrots. This was a hearty dish, and called for a full bodied red wine. I found two wines that met our needs. The Abriza Alentejo 2009 was made in more of a new world style (a bit more ripe red fruit than the second wine). The second wine was a Quinta do Cruto Duoro Riserva 2009 (made with traditional Port grapes, but not in a fortified, or sweet style). Both wines were opened more than an hour before dinner, and allowed to aerate a bit. Lamb is one of those wonderful meats that just pairs so well with red full bodied red wines, and this was no exception. The Port, mustard cream sauce was a beautiful addition.

The final course was a dessert course of Delicia de Laranja (Orange Cake). When pairing wine with desserts, always make sure your wine is sweeter than the dessert. The simple choice would have been a Port, but red port is pretty heavy, and this cake was fairly light. White Port is hard to find in our area, so I went off the coast of Portugal, to Madiera. The island is a Portuguese archipelago located about 250 miles off the coast of Portugal. I chose Blandy's 10 Year Old Malmsey. This "cooked" wine has a wonderful sweetness, with raisin and caramel notes, that worked with the baked orange cake.

My hope is that by reading this easy Portuguese wine dinner, you too will create a regional wine pairing dinner. If you do, please share your menu in the comments section. If you need help with a pairing, contact your local Sommelier, wine shop, or send me an e-mail.