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By Mark Andrew
Nowhere is the notion of terroir held in higher esteem than Burgundy in France.
The labyrinthine nature of Burgundy’s vineyard area was established by the Cistercian monks well over 1000 years ago. They studied the land and conducted detailed analysis of the soils in each vineyard and the grapes that they yielded, before dividing the region into distinct sites that had their own inimitable terroir. They then produced separate wines from the different plots, each with its own personality.
It is remarkable just how accurate the judgement of the monks has proven to be over a millennium later. When Burgundy’s appellations were drawn up in the mid-20th century, many of the Grand Cru and best Premier Cru sites were the very same vineyards that they had eulogised about in the middle ages.
Burgundy is a complex region to grasp for a number of reasons. The maze of different villages, Napoleonic inheritance laws and vineyards divided between numerous producers make Burgundy a minefield, and the minutiae of the region’s terroir certainly doesn’t make things any easier.
In terms of complexity, the Côte d’Or is where the fun starts. It is on this hallowed stretch of land that famous villages like Gevrey-Chambertin, Vosne-Romanée and Puligny-Montrachet lie, small collections of buildings surrounded on all sides by acres and acres of vines. This is where the idea of terroir is at its apogee, with the vineyards of a given village divided and sub-divided on the basis of their underlying soils and geographic position.
The appellation system has taken these nuances into account in the form of a detailed vineyard classification. The humblest sites are only entitled to a generic regional appellation, such as Bourgogne or Côte de Beaune Villages. Above these in the pecking order are the village vineyards that can declare their place of origin on the label (Volnay or Nuits-St-Georges etc). Those sites that are considered to be of superior quality within the village are classified as Premier Cru or, in the very best cases, Grand Cru. Of the many thousands of vineyard plots along the Côte d’Or, 539 are considered good enough to be named Premier Cru and 32 are judged to be of Grand Cru level.
The attention to detail in classifying these vineyards is such that there will be rows of vines adjacent to each other from different classification levels. It is relatively common for Grand Cru vines to be seconds away from a humble village vineyard: in Gevrey-Chambertin there is a village vineyard called ‘Aux Etelois’ a section of which is surrounded by the Grand Cru vines of Charmes and Griotte-Chambertin.
As a Burgundy buyer (or enthusiastic amateur) you often get the opportunity to taste a wide range of wines from the same village, made by the same producer in exactly the same way. Perhaps it is a case of ‘projecting’, but at Dupont-Tisserandot in Gevrey-Chambertin the Lavaux St-Jaques really does taste lean and mineral, while the Cazetières (a two minute walk away) is fuller and more opulent. The Mazis-Chambertin Grand Cru really is a step up in complexity and the Corton a different beast altogether in terms of its flavour profile.
But can it possibly make a difference when the vines are so close together? Is there such a discrepancy in the terroir that vineyards next door to each other can produce wines from the same variety that differ so wildly in quality and price? Well, we can only speak as we find, and if you are asking me then, yes, there really is a difference.
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