With almost 100 appellations, Burgundy is the most heavily regulated region in France. The Burgundy AOP system consists of a four-tier hierarchy of appellations—régionale, village, premier (1er) cru, and grand cru—in which quantities reduce but wine quality theoretically improves as one climbs the ladder. Régionale wines comprise about 50% of production, whereas the grand cru appellations, located only in the Côte d’Or and Chablis, account for less than 2% of the total production of Burgundy. Premier cru, technically, is not a separate class of AOP; rather, these are legally defined geographic designations for village AOP wines.
The baseline regional appellation for the entire Burgundy winegrowing region is Bourgogne AOP. Red, white, and rosé wines fall under this designation and are generally produced from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. Increasingly, regional wines prominently state the name of the variety on the label. Other lesser Burgundy varieties—Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, César—may be included, but they are generally limited to supporting roles and are disappearing from modern vineyards. Bourgogne AOP varietal wines labeled as Gamay are permitted in the area of Beaujolais, but an effort to stem consumer confusion led to the grape’s disqualification for general Bourgogne AOP rouge and rosé wines in 2011. At the same time, authorities rechristened a little-used regional appellation, Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire AOP, as Coteaux Bourguignons AOP in an attempt to revitalize it. Coteaux Bourguignons shares the same broad dimensions as Bourgogne AOP, but its regulations allow the inclusion of Gamay in red blends. Inexpensive blended white and rosé wines are also authorized for the appellation.
While a Bourgogne AOP wine may theoretically contain grapes harvested anywhere in Burgundy—some Chardonnay from Chablis, a little from the Côte Chalonnaise, some from the outskirts of Puligny-Montrachet, and a splash from the Mâconnais, say—many indicate a more limited area of production on the label. Certain villages, vineyards, and geographic regions may legally append their names to Bourgogne AOP, more precisely defining the wine’s origin. Technically, these are “geographical designations” of Bourgogne AOP rather than distinct appellations. For example, Bourgogne Côte Chalonnaise is produced within the Saône-et-Loire département, just south of the Côte d’Or. Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Nuits and Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Beaune—the “high slopes”—red and white wines are sourced from scattered vineyards in the low mountains just west of the more prestigious Côte d’Or village appellations. Several villages in the Yonne département may append their name to Bourgogne AOP, including Chitry and Épineuil. Finally, four lieux-dits were approved in the 1990s as geographic designations for Bourgogne AOP: La Chapelle Notre Dame, Le Chapitre, Côte St-Jacques, and Montrecul. Even if a geographical designation is not listed, domaine producers often source material for Bourgogne AOP from vineyard parcels near their home villages; négociant houses may cast a wider net.
In addition to the Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes geographic designations, the Cote d’Or produces Côte de Beaune-Villages AOP and Côte de Nuits-Villages AOP. Côte de Beaune-Villages wines are red, and grape material may be sourced from any village in the Côte de Beaune save Pommard, Volnay, Aloxe-Corton, and Beaune itself. Côte de Nuits-Villages wines are red or (rarely) white, and may be sourced from the villages of Fixin and Brochon in the north, and Prissey, Corgoloin, and Comblanchien in the south.
Bourgogne Aligoté AOP is a separate appellation for varietal wines produced solely from the white Aligoté grape. Wines from the appellation are often—but not always—simple and refreshing, and the grape frequently exhibits high acidity. In Burgundy, the wine is usually consumed as an apéritif, or combined with crème de cassis as the classic base for a Kir cocktail.
Red and rosé wines, modeled on the field blends of the past, are produced throughout the Côte d’Or and southern Burgundy as Bourgogne Passe-Tout-Grains AOP. Pinot Noir and Gamay account for a minimum 30% and 15% of the blend, respectively, and the two grapes must be vinified together. Red Passe-Tout-Grains is far more common than rosé.
Crémant de Bourgogne and Bourgogne Mousseux are Burgundy’s two sparkling wine AOPs. Bourgogne Mousseux is an older, rare appellation reserved exclusively for sparkling reds produced via the traditional method—in fact, once the first sparkling wines appeared in Burgundy in the 1820s, it was not uncommon to see sparkling red renditions of many of the famous crus, like Clos de Vougeot or Chambertin. Crémant de Bourgogne debuted in 1975 as an AOP for hand-harvested, traditional method white and rosé sparkling wines, principally produced from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Crémant styles may be made throughout Burgundy, but much production is concentrated in and around the commune of Rully in the Côte Chalonnaise, where Burgundy sparkling wines were born in the early 19th century.
All of the above appellations are, in one sense, generic: they should offer varietal character and should invoke Burgundy in a basic way, but any serious glimpse at terroir generally begins at the village level. AOPs that carry the name of a village, or commune, are found in every sector of Burgundy, from Chablis in the Yonne to the crus of Beaujolais in the far south. The most important village appellations are aligned in a tidy, nearly north-to-south line in the Côte d’Or, from Marsannay to Maranges, and the relative character each village imparts is the subject of endless debate among connoisseurs and wine professionals. In the villages of the Côte d’Or, vineyards graded simply as village (rather than premier cru or grand cru) are generally located on a commune’s eastern side, where the angle of slope is slight, or along the far western fringe, adjacent to forest-capped ridgelines—where both elevation and slope are far more significant. Between these extremes lie the premiers and grands crus.
Premier cru vineyards in the Côte d’Or, in Chablis, and in four appellations of the Côte Chalonnaise have been singled out for superior potential quality, and they are subject to tighter restrictions on yield, must weight, and minimum potential alcohol than the village AOPs. As these vineyards are technically geographical designations appended onto the village AOPs rather than separate, distinct AOPs themselves, one can blend fruit from different premier cru parcels within the same village and still use the term premier cru, sans actual vineyard name, on the label. In some instances, smaller premier cru vineyards may be grouped together into larger ones, and producers may have the option to choose which vineyard name they prefer. In Chablis and Chassagne-Montrachet, this is especially common. A premier cru vineyard may be under single ownership—a monopole—and therefore only one producer will make the wine, but far more commonly, multiple producers will own sections of a single vineyard and each bottle small lots of the wine.
Grand cru wines are the apex of Burgundy in terms of price and—hopefully—quality. These represent single-vineyard sites of such renown that they have achieved their own AOP status, independent of the village they lie within. Maximum yield and minimum must weight levels become even more restrictive, and monopole grand cru AOP law mandates hand-harvesting. The 32 current Côte d’Or grand cru vineyards range greatly in size, from La Romanée AOP—which, at 0.85 hectares, is the smallest AOP in France—to the massive Corton AOP, comprising 160 hectares. While they are, in the eyes of the law, theoretically identical in quality, there are certainly “A tier” and “B tier” grand cru vineyards in the court of price and public opinion. Some of the largest AOPs, like Corton and Clos de Vougeot, have sectors that hold greater potential than other sites within the same vineyard—but, of course, the skill of the individual producer can be an equalizing factor. Not all grand cru Burgundy is actually grand; poorly or indifferently made wine, despite its price and rarity, is still poorly and indifferently made wine.
Unlike premier cru wines, grand cru wines in the Côte d’Or must be produced solely from the single, stated vineyard. A blend of Chambertin AOP and Chambertin-Clos de Bèze AOP (two neighboring grand cru appellations in Gevrey-Chambertin) could claim neither AOP as its origin on the label, just as a blend of Gevrey-Chambertin AOP and Vosne-Romanée AOP fruit loses the right to display either appellation on the label. In these two cases, the wines would be “declassified” as Gevrey-Chambertin AOP (with the right to a generic premier cru geographic designation) and Bourgogne AOP, respectively.