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Sunday, January 6, 2013

Burgundy's Grape Varietals

In contrast to many regions in France, there are only a few grape varieties that are grown in Burgundy.   Moreover, unlike several other French wine regions, Burgundy varietals are rarely blended.  A general rule of thumb is if it’s white, it’s made from 100% chardonnay; if it’s a red Burgundy, it’s 100% Pinot Noir (one of the few exceptions, is Gamay, which is used almost exclusively in the Beaujolais district of Burgundy).

Chardonnay grapes account for nearly half of Burgundy’s vineyards. (Up until recently, this variety was thought to have originated in Burgundy, however, DNA testing shows that the two parent grapes of Chardonnay are the indigenous French Pinot Noir, and the Croatian grape Gouais Blanc.)  If it is an expensive Burgundian white, you can bet that it is pure Chardonnay.

Burgundian Chardonnay is known simply as “white Burgundy.”   These Chardonnays have minerality notes.  (This is not surprisingly as 70 million years ago Burgundy was a seabed and the petrified remains of a multitude of shellfish from this ancient sea floor have created Burgundy’s premier limestone soils---the cause of the wine’s mineral-like nuances.)  White Burgundies tend to be much more austere in style (high acidity, mineral-like notes, with soft nuances of lemon and green apple when young) than the fruit forward Chardonnays of California.  (Grown in a warmer climate and often influenced by oak and malo-lactic fermentation, new world Chardonnays tend toward lush profiles of pineapple, tropical fruits, vanilla and butter).

Chablis, the northern most district of Burgundy (located only 60 miles south of Paris), produces iconic white Burgundies that transcend the variety from which they are made.  The Chablis version of Chardonnay owes much more to the local soil and climate rather than the grape.  (Chablis is cooler and has more minerals in its earth).   Producers in Chablis, furthermore, avoid malo-lactic fermentation and the use new oak, which further differentiates Chablis from the Chardonnay made in the more southerly parts of Burgundy. 

Pinot Noir, the main red varietal of Burgundy, accounts for nearly 40% of the grapes that are grown.  While Pinot Noir is grown all over the world, the varietal’s origin is thought to be Burgundy.   The grape reaches rock-star status here and these wines have a loyal, almost cult-like following of oenophiles.

“Red Burgundy” is made exclusively from the Pinot Noir grape.  The best Burgundian reds generally come from the Côte d’Or (“the golden slope”).   Located about 250 miles southeast of Paris, this is the “money-honey” district and home to some of the world’s most expensive reds.  Thirty–two of its thirty-three vineyards are Grand Cru.  Pinot Noir represents over 90% of the production.

In comparison to the new-world style, Pinot Noir from Burgundy is much more restrained.  Weather strongly contributes to this disparity (in California, for example, fruit typically ripens fully due to ample sun, whereas, in Burgundy grapes struggle to ripen.  Fully ripened grapes are replete with sugar, however, at the expense of acid which balances out sweetness and provides structure.  Furthermore, when all of the sugar ferments into alcohol, new world Pinots can have very high alcohol levels.)  Burgundian reds are prized by connoisseurs because of these differences.

Other main Burgundian varietals include Gamay used to produce Beaujolais’ light, fresh, fruity and easy to drink red.  Aligoté, a white grape, produces a dry, light white, and is also used to produce Burgundy’s sparkling wine, Cremant.

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