BEAUJOLAIS Versus BURGUNDY
Alexandre Lazareff is a free lance journalist who writes for several newspapers including Le Figaro and The Nouvelle Economiste.This following text was used for a wine tasting which Alexandre organises for groups on a regular basis.
Should Beaujolais and Burgundy go together? These two neighbours have spent their life ignoring each other. For the Burgundy négociants, Beaujolais is part of their production and of their offer. For the wine writers, Beaujolais can be considered as one of the six Burgundy vineyards, together with Chablis, Côte de Beaune, Côte de Nuits, Côte Chalonnaise and Mâconnais. But never say that to Beaujolais producers who think they are a vineyard of their own; who feel closer to Lyon than to Dijon and who suffer from being despised by the Burgundians. At the time of the Dukes of Burgundy, the "noble" vineyards of Burgundy could only be planted in pinot noir, leaving the inferior gamay Beaujolais...
Today, Beaujolais produces "village wines" and also ten crus : Saint-Amour, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Brouilly, Côtes de Brouilly, Juliénas, Morgon, Régnié, Chenas et Moulin à Vent. If you want to remember them, just learn by heart the following phrase and find back the Cru corresponding to each of the Capital Letters : "Si Je Cache Mon Fromage, Comment Mener Royalement Bonne Chair ?".
Some of these crus like Morgon or Moulin à Vent, are very close to Burgundy Wines, even if they are made from Gamay, instead of Pinot Noir. But Beaujolais is above all famous for its "Beaujolais Nouveau" which is launched with panache all over the world on the third Thursday of November. This new wine amounts to more than 50% of the production of the vineyard.
GEOGRAPHY AND HISTORY
Burgundy is a large, disparate region in the east of France, spreading from Chablis in the north (barely south of Paris) all the way down to Beaujolais in the south (just north of Lyon). The soil is extremely varied, but most of the land under vine has a limestone subsoil. Chalky topsoil provides a good environment for the Chardonnay from which most of Burgundy's white wines are made, while areas richer in marl are well suited for red wine production, which in Burgundy is dominated by the Pinot Noir variety.
The climate is continental, with warm summers and cold, dry winters. Spring frosts are a constant threat, and rains can be heavy in late spring and autumn. Summers are relatively short and fruit cannot be guaranteed enough sun to ripen, which makes vintages very variable.
Vines have been cultivated in Burgundy since well before Roman times, but the crucial factor for the modern development of the wine industry here was the close relationship that grew up between wine production and the monastic orders founded near by. The Benedictines at the abbey of Cluny (founded in the 10th century) and the Cistercians at Cîteaux (founded at the end of the 11th century) both received vineyards as charitable donations from local aristocrats. Cluny, for example, was given land that now belongs to the celebrated vineyards of Romanée-Conti and La Tâche, while the Cistercians were presented in the early 12th century with land at Vougeot. Both orders also bought additional pieces of land and planted them with vines. The monks' disciplined and skilful approach, and the security provided by the support of the powerful dukes of Burgundy, made for excellent viticulture. In particular, the monks were able to study closely which combinations of grape variety and soil type produced the best wines.
However, during the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century most of the monasteries' lands were confiscated and sold off in small parcels. The inheritance laws introduced by Napoleon shortly afterwards, stipulating that property must be bequeathed equally to all the family's children, ensured further fragmentation of the land, and the small size of the individual holdings is now one of the most marked features of Burgundy wine production. An important role is therefore now played by the local co-operatives and by individual négociants, who buy grapes or fermented wine from a number of small growers and then mature and bottle the wines under their own label.
WINE STYLES, GRAPE VARIETIES AND LABELING
Beaujolais produces mainly red wine, with some rare exception of whites. Burgundy is unusual among French wine regions in that it is equally well known for its whites wines as for its reds. The finest white wines of the region are made from Chardonnay and are full-bodied, deep-coloured and rich in flavour, although those of Chablis will have a slight greenish tinge when young and slightly higher acidity than those produced further south.
Red winemaking is dominated by Pinot Noir, a difficult grape to grow (it does not ripen reliably ands is prone to a variety of diseases) but one that makes elegant, relatively light-coloured wines with a velvety mouth-feel and an enticing aroma. Other grape varieties may be grown, however, and the most important of these are Gamay-the variety used for Beaujolais-and Aligoté-a white grape that makes wine with crisp acidity that can be wonderfully refreshing.
Burgundy is often described as a patchwork of different soils, and it is certainly true that the local growers ascribe huge importance to the particular quality of the land on which their vines are planted. This is reflected in Burgundy's wine labelling system which, while appearing to be complicated, is based on a very simple belief. The most distinctive feature of the system is that each AC appellation applies to the piece of land where the vines are grown, rather than (as in Bordeaux) to the name of the producer.
Any wine produced in the Burgundy region that meets the basic production requirements may be labelled Bourgogne AOC; other 'generic' appellations of this sort include Bourgogne Passetoutgrains, a red wine made anywhere in the region from a blend of red grape varieties, and Bourgogne Aligoté, also made anywhere within Burgundy, but using the Aligoté grape.
Broad regional labels such as Chablis, Hautes Côtes de Beaune and Côte Chalonnaise indicate the wine has been produced in the named region. More specific are labels that denote a particular village, such as Meursault, Nuits St Georges or Volnay. Beyond this, certain vineyards are entitled to add the title of Premier Cru to the village name (the vineyard of La Perrière in Fixin, for example, may use the appellation Fixin Premier Cru AOC). The finest vineyards are entitled to their own individual Grand Cru appellation. Examples include great names such as Le Chambertin AOC, Richebourg AOC, Romanée-Conti AOC and La Tâche AOC. These vineyards are not individual holdings, however, but will be divided up between many growers, each of whom may own just a few rows of vines.