When it comes to wine, no region in the world evokes more passion or enthusiasm than Burgundy. For many, Burgundy’s appeal feels magical and almost intangible. How can such a small region be so completely and overwhelmingly difficult to master? Part of the answer lies deep beneath the surface, from which beautifully manicured and perfectly tended vines emerge, evenly spaced and similarly oriented, basking in the warm summer sun. There is something uniquely extraordinary about the dirt in Burgundy, arguably some of the most studied soil on the planet. Burgundy is so hyper-differentiated that grapes of the same clone of Pinot Noir planted arm’s length from one another and vinified the exact same way can yield dramatically different flavors. While we tend to associate terroir with dirt, it’s important to note that it does not refer exclusively to soil. Rather, it is a hard-to-translate term that defines all the influences that provide a wine or an appellation with a sense of typicity and place. Granted, soil is the most significant contributing factor. However, microclimate, macroclimate, slope, aspect, exposition, orientation, density, trellising, and many other variables all contribute to the terroir puzzle. It is therefore far more complicated and nuanced than simply identifying different soil types or minerals within.
So, why Burgundy?
Burgundy’s stature as the apex of all wine regions isn’t by chance. For generations, Burgundy has represented the benchmark of great wine, a deserving moniker earned long before pop-culture movie references. Burgundy benefits from the confluence of two enormously significant factors. First, we must consider the inherent terroir of the region. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, is history. Burgundy isn’t the only region with incredibly variegated terroir. What really sets Burgundy apart is that for hundreds of years its terroirs were studied, researched, documented, and codified by the most scholarly and focused individuals of the time.
Two Thousand Years of History
We owe the ancient Romans a significant debt of gratitude for establishing vineyards in the first and second centuries in what was then known as Gaul. Though divided into subregions, the greater area included all of modern-day France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and westernmost Germany. Wine was extremely important to the Roman Empire and great effort was taken to cultivate land best suited for viticulture. In the ensuing centuries, wines from Burgundy gained acclaim. This was solidified in the year 312 with the first written reference to vineyard land in Burgundy. Roughly a millennium later, the monks of Cluny and Cîteaux developed methods to efficiently work the vines and began meticulously studying the vineyards. In the centuries that followed, these monks were able to identify specific sites wherein there were measurable differences in quality. During this period in history, the monastic orders were some of the only people with written language skills. Furthermore, they had the discipline, methodology, and time to properly and extensively codify their vineyards. This was a multigenerational practice with empirical and scientific evidence being passed from generation to generation. The result is an amazingly complex and, moreover, accurate classification system of Burgundy’s vineyards that
we still rely on today.
The meticulous work of these monastic orders underpinned the foundation for the classification of Burgundy in 1936 under the French AOC or Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (now known as AOP—Appellation d’Originie Protégée) laws. Burgundy was among the first officially classified regions under the AOC/AOP scheme. Burgundy’s vineyard areas were divided into the successive quality categories of Villages, Premier Cru (1er Cru), and Grand Cru. These designations were designed to differentiate and guarantee vineyards, parcels, and sub-parcels based on their quality of wine. Amazingly, the difference between a villages-level and grand cru–level plot can sometimes be measured in a matter of inches. During a recent trip to Burgundy, I was able to traverse from a grand cru to a premier cru with one step. A second step in a different direction put me in a villages-level vineyard. If that’s not enough to make your head spin, it gets even more complicated than that.
The regions and vineyards of Burgundy are considered to be climats. Specific to Burgundy, a climat is a delimited geographical area benefiting from specific natural and identified conditions. Through their particular attributes, the climats provide each appellation with specific and unique organoleptic signatures. Think of a climat as the ultimate expression of terroir. These climats are what give wines from Burgundy their unique identities. Their names and origins are derived from the heritage, environment, know-how, experience, and human history of the region. The climat is a plot of vines that has been precisely demarcated and which has been recognized by its name for centuries. Each climat has its own specific characteristics of geography, aspect, and exposure. Notably, production from each climat is typically vinified separately with the resulting wine taking its name from the climat where it originated. The identifiable characteristics of the climat will be present consistently from vintage to vintage. For example, the climat Montrachet is classified as a grand cru. Its territory covers part of both Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet. Another popular expression of climats is found in the various clos: centuries-old stone-walled vineyards. Famous clos include the Grand Crus of Clos de la Roche, Clos de Tart, Clos Saint-Denis, and many more.
Terroir is by no means a strictly French concept. Following in Burgundy’s footsteps, winemakers the world over are closely studying and identifying specific macro- and microparcels. It is becoming increasingly popular to identify climats and even subplots. Wines from these identified sections are being vinified separately and often bottled as their own expressions. This allows the signature terroir of a given vineyard or plot of land to shine through. Alternatively, winemakers are using microparcels and microvinifications almost as an artist would use different brushes and strokes in order to compose a perfect finished piece. For example, some plots may tend to impart more organic earthiness, while others more primary red fruit, and yet others might deliver higher acidity or a leaner fruit profile. In the deft hands of skilled growers and winemakers, these parcels can be precisely combined in order to create a complete wine that is greater than the sum of its component parts. For either activity, it is essential that the winemaker has a complete grasp of the individual terroir signature of each plot and how best to express it (whether as a soloist wine or member of a vinous symphony orchestra). It goes without saying that study and winemaking experience in Burgundy can and does help winemakers and grape growers hone and perfect their abilities to both read the land and properly express its unique characteristics in the bottle.
While we have made leaps and bounds in technological advancement vis-à-vis our ability to identify different soil types, mineral compositions, microclimates, water factors, and more, these are only tools. A vigneron and winemaker’s inherent ability to read and understand the land are far more important to a Burgundian-style winegrowing and winemaking model than any piece of tech. All the drone technology, satellite imaging, soil measurements, hydric stress meters, and chlorophyll content analyzers in the world cannot replace a grape grower or winemaker’s ability to properly understand the land and identify unique characteristics of specific parcels. They cannot create the terroir. They can only assist in properly isolating and identifying it. Ultimately, nature will determine the art of terroir. The winemaker and grape growers will simply help identify it and coax
it from grape to glass.