There has long been a friendly rivalry between France’s two premier wine producing regions, Burgundy and Bordeaux. The contrast of culture among these two leaders – Bordeaux being seen as the rich man’s playground, with Burgundy representing a more rustic, earthy and sensual approach to wine – remains to this day. Still, both offer the wine lover some of the highest quality and most expensive wines in the marketplace – with Burgundy’s list including those of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Domaine Leroy, Henri Jayer, Emmanuel Rouget, Domaine Dugat-Py, Domaine Leflaive and Domaine Armand Rousseau – and share qualities that almost always generate comparisons between them.
Burgundy’s history in viniculture is long and proud. From as early as the 3rd century B.C., wine was being produced by Roman winemakers in the region, or at least a facsimile thereof. Early vin de bourgogne, or Burgundy wine, was dense and concentrated, sweetened with herbs and honey, and almost always diluted with water in order to render it palatable. When the Roman Empire fell, the fate of the vineyards was left to abbeys and monasteries in the region, with the monks taking their cue from their Roman predecessors. The most active order, the Cisterians, imposed new traditions on the process which reflected their equally strong commitment to their faith: they abolished the practice of diluting wine with water, citing that wine held deep religious symbolism associated with the life of Christ.
Instead, they designed and implemented strategic and essential techniques to produce the best possible results, such as delicate care of the vines, pruning, and adequate alcohol levels, all to ensure that wine stayed wine and not risk turning to vinegar during its transport to other sections of the continent. And perhaps best of all, the monks kept meticulous records of their progress, documenting their findings, practices and results. In spite of the widespread destruction that ensued upon the time of the Revolution, many of their writings were salvaged, saved and used to instruct those who followed them in the how-tos of making superior Burgundy wine.
As religious dominance teetered, merchant negociants picked up the mantle from the monks. Bringing Burgundy wines to oenophiles and connoisseurs around the world, their financial leverage increased, paving the way for large-scale vinification and bottling facilities. Burgundy wine production and sales remained firmly in the hands of the negociants until after the Second World War. Today, this landscape is divided 50/50 among winegrowers and negociants.
Burgundy’s most famous wines are dry red wines made from the region’s beloved, signature Pinot noir grapes, and white wines made from Chardonnay grapes. The wines rival their Bordeaux counterparts for elegance and quality of flavor. The Burgundy region, like Bordeaux, operates under the strictest of winemaking standards, and places exceptional emphasis on AOCs. In fact, there are a higher number of AOCs in Burgundy than in any other French region. And, not surprisingly, Burgundy wines have also attracted some of the highest prices ever paid for wines anywhere in the world.
Côte d’Or: It’s All About the Soil
The Burgundy region is famous for its intense attention given to the terroir. When it comes to classification, the area of origin reigns supreme, in contrast to the producer-driven Bordeaux system.
The Côte d’Or, where Burgundy’s most expensive wines originate, boasts of a unique soil due to it being a limestone shelf. The shelf was formed over 150 million years ago, when Burgundy was completely covered in seawater. During its creation, a mixture of petrified remains of sea creatures, calcareous mudstone, limestone and seawater were compressed together. The result was Burgundy’s great and varying soil, which is at the core of the subtle differences in the region’s products. Each village’s soil is said to have a slightly different makeup, lending a sense of character to every bottle. The Côte d’Or is home to some of the greatest names of Burgundy wine, such as Gevrey-Chambertin, Clos de Vougeot, Meursault and Montrachet. The northern half, the Côte de Nuits, produces red wine almost exclusively, whereas the Côte de Beaune, around Beaune in the south, produces a mix of white wine and red wine.
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti
The unsurpassed red wine estate of Burgundy is the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. The vineyards of this domaine are clustered just north of the picturesque village of Vosne-Romanee, from where it derives its name. The pinnacle of Burgundy producers, it makes several wines of outstanding merit, although its leading wine, also called Romanée-Conti, is of primary interest. This wine, with its thriving secondary market, is the prime Burgundy contender for investment, as its performance history continues to indicate strong future returns.