Understanding a Burgundy Wine Label

What is the difference between “Bourgogne Pinot Noir”, “Beaune” wine, “Beaune Premier Cru” and “Grand Cru”? Let’s learn how to read a Burgundy wine label.

1 – Burgundy Wine Castle and Vineyard = A Wrong Picture

Many people have a precise image of wine making in France: a large chateau, in front or on the side of which are acres of vineyards from which the wines of that chateau is made.

This is not however generally true of Burgundy.

2 – French Wine Negociant Actually Make the Wine

Most of the wine made in Burgundy is made by people known as negociants. A negociant is a person who buys either grapes or (unfermented) grape juice from a (grape) grower, and who then processes those grapes or grape juice into wine.

This is (yet) another important concept of Burgundy: there are two processes going on simultaneously,

  1. the growing of grapes,
  2. and the making of wine.

And these two processes are quite often not done by the same people. (This is certainly not unique to Burgundy).

What distinguishes one red from another, one white from another is chiefly terroir, and the specificity of place.

3 – How to Read A Burgundy Wine Label

There is a classification system that identifies where (either in general terms, or very specifically) the grapes have come from.

The wines of the Côte D’or are divided into 4 groups or levels (ostensibly correlated to complexity and pricing).

4 – Regional Burgundy Wines

In my friend and French wine negociant Alex Gambal’s case, the label says “Bourgogne Pinot Noir” (a label such as this could say just Bourgogne or just Pinot Noir and it signifies the same thing).

This designation means that the grapes (all of which are pinot noir, as we well know) can come from anywhere in the geographic area of Burgundy.

These wines (ie. regional wines) comprise perhaps 50% of the total Burgundy production.

Although in the “basic” category, these wines can be quite good…and affordable.

5 – What is a Burgundy Villages Wine?

This is where it starts to get really interesting.

For Alex (and others), a label such as “Puligny Montrachet” is a village wine (in this case a white).

This means that, by French law, all of the grapes must have been grown somewhere within the village of Puligny Montrachet.

In terms of terroir, this now becomes a much more defined place name. These wines are about 35% of the total production.

Learn how to pronounce the Burgundy wines with audio in this article.

6 – What is a Premier Cru Burgundy Wine?

We can think of this grouping as a variation, or sub-set of village wines.

Not only will the label say a village name, but it will define a specific vineyard within that village.

There are approximately 500 premier cru vineyards, comprising about 10-11% of total production.

A premier cru label would always say “Puligny Montrachet” (the village), and then (often underneath) the name of a specific vineyard: “Les Pucelles” or “Folatières”, etc.

There are 13 premier cru vineyards within the village of Puligny Montrachet only… So, this designation defines an even more specific terroir.

7 – What is a Grand Cru Burgundy Wine?

This is as high as it goes (and almost always the most expensive. Some of these wines can sell for as much as $1000 per bottle!).

There are only 34 Grand Cru vineyards in all of Burgundy.

This is perhaps 2% of the total production.

Just to make things a little more confusing, because these wines/vineyards are so treasured, the French feel that you must know these vineyards by their names only, so these labels will have only the names of the vineyards:

  • “La Tache”,
  • “Le Montrachet”,
  • “Corton Charlemagne”,
  • “Romanée-Conti”,
  • etc…

OK, time for a break…and a glass of wine :-)

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