What You Should Know About Red Wine from Burgundy

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Jayme Henderson)

Red Burgundy is synonymous with Pinot Noir, yet no other region conjures up so much confusion to novice drinkers, while providing so much fascination for wine lovers. What is it they know that you don’t? And how can a region that revolves around primarily one red grape seem so intimidating?

A few weeks ago, I broke down the styles of white Burgundy (Chardonnay). Now let’s discover why so many wine lovers consider the reds of this region to be the most intriguing and compelling wines in the world.

The stone-enclosed vineyards or \clos\ of Burgundy are a prominent feature of this dramatic landscape. (Image credit: Jayme Henderson)

What Is Burgundy?

Burgundy is a region within France, located in the eastern central part of the country. Two grapes are primarily planted along Burgundy’s rolling, limestone-rich hills: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, often simply referred to as “red Burgundy” or “white Burgundy.”

(Image credit: Jayme Henderson)

The cool, continental climate of Burgundy can lead to drastic vintage variation, so why have grape growers and winemakers even bothered to plant grapes here? In good vintages or with careful management, the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grown in the unique geology and geography of this region are so intriguing and compelling that many people are willing to take the risk.

What Does Pinot Noir from Burgundy Taste Like?

  • On the Eyes – Pinot Noir, a naturally thin skinned grape, is generally pale in color, but it is often even lighter in intensity when from Burgundy.
  • On the Nose – The list of aromas associated with red Burgundy is long and varied: truffles, dark cherries, wet leaves, leather, cured meats, licorice, pepper and exotic spices, to name a few!
  • On the Palate – Lean in texture and explosive in flavors, these wines are dry, with racy acidity, a product of planting in limestone soils and growing in a cool climate.
A common sight in the wine cellars of Burgundy: dust-covered bottles of ageworthy Pinot Noir. (Image credit: Jayme Henderson)

Why Doesn’t the Label Simply Say Pinot Noir?

Like I mentioned above, Burgundy is primarily devoted to two major grapes, so why is it so tricky to understand the wine labels of this region?

Unlike most wine labels in the United States, which highlight the grape variety or brand, the focus in Burgundy (and all of France, really) is on the region and the quality.

If you are interested in delving deeper into the various regions and quality tiers within Burgundy, visit Burgundy Wines; this site is an excellent reference.

The historic Grand Cru Vineyard, Clos de Vougeot, is a testament to the Napoleonic Code. The 125-acre vineyard is divided among 80 owners, some of whom own just a few individual rows! (Image credit: Jayme Henderson)

What’s the Deal With the Dirt?

Other than the Mosel Valley of Germany, nowhere else in the world is the concept of terroir more important. What is terroir? Terroir is a decidedly French word that embodies the effect of sun, elevation, soil, slope of the vineyard, and climate, as well as the hand of the winemaker. It is the sum total of everything that creates a wine and is impossible to reproduce anywhere else.

Now you can understand why soil and the concept of place are so important within Burgundy. There are countless stories of vineyard owners hauling soil back to the top of their vineyard after heavy rains. The Grand Cru vineyards are so culturally prized that many villages have actually appended the name of these famous vineyards to their town’s name as a mark of prestige (for example, Vosne-Romanée or Gevrey-Chambertin).

Pairing Red Burgundy with Recipes from the Kitchn

Just south of Burgundy lies the Beaujolais region. I visited Moulin á Vent, famous for its windmill and \Cru (Image credit: Jayme Henderson)

Burgundy’s Other Red, Gamay

When most of us think of red Burgundy, Pinot Noir is the first grape that comes to mind. Most of us associate the Gamay grape with Beaujolais, but did you know that Gamay is also planted extensively within the southern parts of Burgundy, especially within the Mâconnais region?

Gamay is most often associated with Beaujolais Nouveau, an exceptionally fresh and fruity, seasonal wine, often enjoyed around Thanksgiving. This grape can also be produced in a more serious fashion, where it drinks very similarly to Pinot Noir. It is light in color intensity, is light-bodied, and shows notes of bright, red fruits, mushroom, spice, with bright acidity.