Burgundy is home to some of the most expensive wines in the world, including those of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Domaine Leroy, Henri Jayer, Domaine Leflaive and Domaine Armand Rousseau. Its renown goes back many centuries; in 1522 Erasmus wrote: “O happy Burgundy which merits being called the mother of men since she furnishes from her mammaries such a good milk.” This was echoed by Shakespeare, who refers in King Lear to “the vines of France and milk of Burgundy.”
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 producers’ names often appear at the bottom in much smaller text.
Vinification is the process of turning the grapes into wine. It has changed little over the years but there are variations in technique however. Winemakers may follow family tradition for example and of course they take into consideration the characteristics of the plot and the vintage. Once the grape juice or must has completed the alcoholic fermentation, and has turned into wine, ageing in vats or barrels begins. This gives the wine its personality, its unique characteristics and complex aromas.
Pinot Noir is the dominant grape variety for red wine in Burgundy. This grape is a particularly sensitive variety, requiring careful handling. Vinification processes vary from winemaker to winemaker – some for example destalk the grapes, others process whole bunches. For white wines, the grapes are pressed on arrival in the winery, but for red wines they are placed in vats to macerate. The juice is clear to start with and requires contact with the skins and pips to bring colour and tannins to the wine. During this maceration process, the alcoholic fermentation begins, either naturally or sometimes it is triggered with the addition of yeasts. Each day, the cap of skin and pips is broken up and pushed down into the juice to help the development of color and tannins. The process is known as pigeage and used to be done with the feet. Nowadays, a special tool is used.
When fermentation is complete, the wine is pressed and then placed in vats or barrels for ageing. During the ageing process, the red wines undergo a second malolactic fermentation, during which the malic acid in the wine turns to lactic acid, making the wine smoother.
For white wine, the grapes are pressed straight after harvesting, usually without destalking. Here the skins and pips are discarded unlike in the red wine process of maceration. The juice is then put into oak barrels or vats and alcoholic fermentation takes place. In Burgundy, a secondary malolactic fermentation takes places where the malic acid in the juice turns into lactic acid making the wines smoother. In wines made elsewhere, this second fermentation doesn’t happen.