Burgundy has a higher number of Appellation d'origine contrôlées (AOCs) than any other French region, and is often seen as the most terroir-conscious of the French wine regions. The various Burgundy AOCs are classified from carefully delineated Grand Cru vineyards down to more non-specific regional appellations. The practice of delineating vineyards by their terroir in Burgundy go back to Medieval times, when various monasteries played a key role in developing the Burgundy wine industry.
The Burgundy region runs from Auxerre in the north down to Mâcon in the south, or down to Lyon if the Beaujolais area is included as part of Burgundy. Chablis, a white wine made from Chardonnay grapes, is produced in the area around Auxerre. Other smaller appellations near to Chablis include Irancy, which produces red wines and Saint-Bris, which produces white wines from Sauvignon Blanc.
Some way south of Chablis is the Côte d'Or, where Burgundy's most famous and most expensive wines originate, and where all Grand Cru vineyards of Burgundy (except for Chablis Grand Cru) are situated. The Côte d'Or itself is split into two parts: the Côte de Nuits which starts just south of Dijon and runs till Corgoloin, a few kilometers south of the town of Nuits-Saint-Georges, and the Côte de Beaune which starts at Ladoix and ends at Dezize-les-Maranges. The wine-growing part of this area in the heart of Burgundy is just long, and in most places less than wide. The area is made up of tiny villages surrounded by a combination of flat and sloped vineyards on the eastern side of a hilly region, providing some rain and weather shelter from the prevailing westerly winds. The best wines - from "Grand Cru" vineyards - of this region are usually grown from the middle and higher part of the slopes, where the vineyards have the most exposure to sunshine and the best drainage, while the "Premier Cru" come from a little less favourably exposed slopes. The relatively ordinary "Village" wines are produced from the flat territory nearer the villages. The Côte de Nuits contains 24 out of the 25 red Grand Cru appellations in Burgundy, while all of the region's white Grand Crus are located in the Côte de Beaune. This is explained by the presence of different soils, which favour Pinot Noir and Chardonnay respectively.
Further south is the Côte Chalonnaise, where again a mix of mostly red and white wines are produced, although the appellations found here such as Mercurey, Rully and Givry are less well known than their counterparts in the Côte d'Or.
Below the Côte Chalonnaise is the Mâconnais region, known for producing large quantities of easy-drinking and more affordable white wine. Further south again is the Beaujolais region, famous for fruity red wines made from Gamay.
Burgundy experiences a continental climate characterized by very cold winters and hot summers. The weather is very unpredictable with rains, hail, and frost all possible around harvest time. Because of this climate, there is a lot of variation between vintages from Burgundy.
In 2003, the Burgundy vineyards (including Chablis but excluding Beaujolais) covered a total of .
There is archaeological evidence of vine-growing in Burgundy being established in the second century AD, although it has been speculated that Celts may have been growing vines in the region already when the Romans conquered Gaul in 51 AD. The earliest recorded praise of Burgundy wine was written in 591 by Gregory of Tours, who compared it to the Roman wine Falernian.
Monks and monastries of the Roman Catholic Church have had an important influence on the history of Burgundy wine. The first known donation of a vineyard to the church was by king Guntram in 587, but the influence of the church became important in Charlemagne's era. The Benedictines, through their Abbey of Cluny founded in 910, became the first truly big Burgundy vineyard owner over the following centuries.
After the French revolution of 1789, the vineyards were broken up and sold to the workers who had tended them. The Napoleonic inheritance laws resulted in the continued subdivision of the most precious vineyard holdings, so that some growers hold only a row or two of vines. This led to the emergence of négociants who aggregate the produce of many growers to produce a single wine. It has also led to a profusion of increasingly small family-owned wineries, exemplified by the dozen plus "Gros" family domaines.
Burgundy wine has experienced much change over the past seventy-five years. Economic depression during the 1930s was followed by the devastation caused by World War II. After the War, the vignerons returned home to their unkempt vineyards. The soils and vines had suffered and were sorely in need of nurturing. The growers began to fertilize, bringing their vineyards back to health. Those who could afford it added potassium, a silver-white metallic chemical element that contributes to vigorous growth. By the mid-1950s, the soils were balanced, yields were reasonably low and the vineyards produced some of the most stunning wines in the 20th century.
Understandably, the farmers had no inclination to fix what wasn't broken. So for the next 30 years, they followed the advice of renowned viticultural experts, who advised them to keep spraying their vineyards with chemical fertilizers, including potassium. While a certain amount of potassium is natural in the soil and beneficial for healthy growth, too much is harmful because it leads to low acidity levels, which adversely affect the quality of the wine.
As the concentration of chemicals in the soil increased, so did the yields. In the past 30 years, yields have risen by two-thirds in the appellations contrôlées vineyards of the Côte d'Or, from 29 hectoliters per hectare (yearly average from 1951 to 1960) to almost 48 hectoliters per hectare (1982-91), according to a study by the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine. With higher yields came wines of less flavor and concentration. Within 30 years, the soils had been significantly depleted of their natural nutrients.
The period between 1985 and 1995 was a turning point in Burgundy. During this time many Burgundian domaines renewed efforts in the vineyards and gradually set a new course in winemaking. All this led to deeper, more complex wines. Today, the Burgundy wine industry is reaping the rewards of those efforts.
Burgundy is in some ways the most terroir-oriented region in France; immense attention is paid to the area of origin, and in which of the region's 400 types of soil a wine's grapes are grown. As opposed to Bordeaux, where classifications are producer-driven and awarded to individual chateaux, Burgundy classifications are geographically-focused. A specific vineyard or region will bear a given classification, regardless of the wine's producer. This focus is reflected on the wine's labels where appellations are most prominent and producer's names often appear at the bottom in much smaller text.
The main Burgundy classifications, in descending order of quality, are: Grand crus, Premier crus, Commune or Village, and finally generic Bourgogne:
Other Burgundy AOCs that are not as often seen are Bourgogne Passe-Tout-Grains AOC (which can contain up to two thirds Gamay (the grape of Beaujolais) in addition to Pinot noir), Bourgogne Aligoté (which is primarily made with the Aligoté grape), and Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire. The latter is the lowest AOC, and Grand is intended to refer to the size of the area eligible to produce it, not its quality. There are certain regions that are allowed to put other grapes in miscellaneous AOCs, but for the most part these rules hold. These regulations are even confusing to the majority of French adults, according to research (Franson). Sparkling wine is also produced, as Crémant de Bourgogne. Chablis wines are labeled using a similar hierarchy of Grand Cru, Premier Cru and Village wines, whereas wines from Beaujolais are treated differently again.
In total, there are around 150 separate AOCs in Burgundy, including those of Chablis and Beaujolais. While an impressive number, it does not include the several hundred named vineyards (lieux-dits) at the Village and Premier Cru level which may be displayed on the label, since at the Village and Premier Cru level, there is only one set of appellation rules per village. The total number of vineyard-differentiated AOCs that may be displayed is well in excess of 500.
Burgundy vineyards make up some 60,000 acres (240 km²) of production. Generally, the small wine growers sell their grapes to larger producers called negociants who blend and bottle the wine. The roughly 115 negociants who produce the majority of the wine only control around 8% of the area. Individual growers have around 67% of the area, but produce only around 25% of the wine. Some small wineries produce only 100-200 cases/year while many producers make a few thousand cases/year. Grower/producer made wines can be identified by the terms Mis en bouteille au domaine, Mis au domaine, or Mis en bouteille à la propriété. The largest producer is Maison Louis Latour in Beaune with 350,000 cases/year. The negociants may use the term Mis en bouteille dans nos caves (bottled in our cellars), but are not entitled to use the estate bottled designation of the grower/producers.
For the red grapes, all production in the Cote d'Or is focused on the Pinot noir grape while the Gamay grape is grown in Beaujolais. In the Cote de Nuits region, 90% of the production is red grapes.
Rules for the red Burgundy appellations, from regional to Grand Cru level, generally allow up to 15% of the white grape varieties Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris to be blended in, but this is not widely practiced today.
The British wine critic Jancis Robinson emphasizes that "price is an extremely unreliable guide" and that "what a wine sells for often has more to do with advertising hype and marketing decisions than the quality contained in the bottle." While Grand Crus often command steep prices, village level wines from top producers can be found at quite reasonable prices.