This week sees the launch and related tastings of the 2011 Burgundy En Primeur campaign. So, this week we'll be discussing all things Burgundian and covering aspects such as grape varieties, styles of wine, classifications and of course......
What does En Primeur actually mean?
We'll start with the En Primeur question as it applies not only to Burgundy but to Bordeaux as well. In a nutshell it is where winemakers showcase their new wine before it is ready and often before it is bottled. The wine is 18 months old and the idea is that you buy it whilst it is still at the winery. The winery then essentially 'looks after it' for you and when it is ready to be released you pay to have it sent to you via a bonded warehouse. The assumption is that by the time you receive the wine it has already increased in value and were you to wait until it was released, it would cost you a lot more. It is not uncommon that wine bought En Primeur is resold before it has even made it into the country.
But how do you know what you are buying?
This is a tricky one as there are so many appellations, Premier Cru and Grand Cru classifications and then of course the myriad winemakers to get your head around. Over the next few paragraphs the basics will be covered and hopefully things will become a bit clearer.
This is one of the easiest subjects to cover in Burgundy as there are only two main players, Chardonnay for white wine and Pinot Noir for red. There is also Aligoté (white) and Gamay (red) but these are found in smaller quantities.
The wine regions of Burgundy follow the same system as those seen in the rest of France; the 3 main categories of Generic, District and Commune. Examples being Bourgogne Rouge or Blanc, Cotes de Beaune, and Puligny-Montrachet respectively. For wines to carry the name of the appellation they must abide by the laws of the region which get more strict and specific the smaller the area is; some of the main commune wines are mentioned on the map and are what we call the 'named wines', named after the place it is from rather than the grape.
Premier Cru and Grand Cru
When each commune was allocated its Appellation status the winemakers and growers were given the option to define their vineyards even further and award the best either Premier Cru or Grand Cru status. There are 560 Premier Cru vineyards and only 30 Grand Cru vineyards. Most of the Grand Cru vineyards are located in the Cotes de Nuits district.
Grapes sourced from Premier Cru vineyards are allowed to be blended together for the wine to be called Premier Cru. If the grapes are sourced purely from one Premier Cru Vineyard then the name of the vineyard is noted on the label too. See the bottle for example where 'Mont de Milieu' is the named Premier Cru vineyard. Grand Cru wines are a little different as it depends where the vineyards are located.
In Chablis the rules apply as they do to Premier Cru. There is a hillside of 7 Grand Cru vineyards and wine can either be a blend of these or labelled individually.
For the rest of Burgundy for a wine to be labelled as Grand Cru grapes must be sourced entirely from one Grand Cru vineyard and the name of said vineyard shown as the appellation. Sometimes the name of the village does not appear at all as it is the vineyard itself that is the emphasis.
In order for villages to improve their image they 'attached' the name of their Grand Cru vineyard to the village name. For example, Montrachet is a Grand Cru vineyard which is part located in the village of Puligny and part in Chassagne. Both villages added the name of the vineyard and are now known as Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet.
Just to add to the confusion in Burgundy there is also the small matter of Napoleon abolishing the law of primogeniture. This is where rather than the first born son inheriting all the land on the father's death, the land is split between all sons. This continued for generations so one vineyard may now be split up into many parcels owned by many different people. A good rule therefore in Burgundy is that it is not the vineyard or the chateau that you should necessarily look out for but the winemaker. A good winemaker will make good wine across the board and even in years when the vintage conditions have not been ideal.
So, that's Burgundy in a nutshell and over the next few posts we'll go into more detail about certain elements and explain some of the styles of wine found.