02/29/2012 12:19 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Understanding Burgundy: Birthplace of "Terroir"

Most San Francisco Bay Area fine wine aficionados are fans of Burgundy. Dinners and tastings featuring the Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs of Burgundy, known respectively as white and red Burgundy, tend to be the most popular fine wine events in the area. That includes the weekend of festivities known as La Paulée de San Francisco, an every-other-year event that just concluded this past Saturday.

members of the Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin singing at La Paulee (photo courtesy Gary Chevsky)

I attended the $300 ticket grand tasting that day, featuring dozens of examples from the sought after 2009 vintage. That tasting was followed by a $1400 per person BYOB dinner -- probably the most expensive BYOB event in the country.

"Burgundian" is also probably the most used and abused adjective in the wine world. It is applied to wines from California and elsewhere that aspire to some of the refinement, silky texture, vibrant acidity and minerality for which wines from Burgundy are known. Rarely, however, do wines described by producers and marketers as "Burgundian" ever taste anything remotely like a typical Burgundy.

And Burgundy sales continue to climb in the U.S. generally, with growth of 27% by volume and 38% by value just over the past year.

So what is it about Burgundy that makes its wines among the world's most cherished, imitated and expensive?

First and foremost, I think, is the long history of winegrowing and careful study of what grapes do best where in this region, especially in the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir growing heart of this region, the famous Côte d'Or ("golden slope"). This 30-mile long stretch of vineyards, lying along the eastern side of a hilly region, is made up of two sections, the Côte de Nuits, where over 90% of the vineyard area is planted to Pinot Noir, and the Côte de Beaune, the vast majority of which is devoted to Chardonnay.

view of a portion of the Côte d'Or from the Richebourg vineyard

Grapes have been grown here since the first century A.D. Catholic religious orders have played a major role in growing and refining the wines of the region since about 600 A.D. The Cistercian order, in particular, devoted themselves to observing and classifying the best vineyard sites in the region. They had a notion that the different expressions of the grape coming from different plots gave some insight into the mind and workings of God.

Their work and focus has come down to us as the concept of terroir, the now widely accepted view that wines from different sites vary in accordance with the microclimate, soil characteristics, exposure and orientation of each particular site.

The result is that the vineyards of the Côte d'Or, are the most thoroughly studied, over the longest period of time, of any vineyards in the world. Based on these observations, which were followed by those of wine writers and experts who continued the classification effort over the past two hundred and fifty years, the vineyards of Burgundy have been carefully categorized according to a hierarchy of five levels.

The very top of the pyramid -- the absolute choicest vineyard sites, representing only two percent of the vineyard area of the Côte d'Or -- are the grand cru vineyards. These include Montrachet, long thought to be the greatest vineyard in the world for Chardonnay, and Romanée-Conti, solely owned by Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, whose wines are the world's most expensive Pinot Noirs. Recent vintages, like 2007 and 2008, are selling at auction and some retailers for $9,000 to $10,000 a bottle. Most grand cru bottlings, however, sell for a relatively more reasonable $125 to $300.

The next level is the premier cru vineyards. There are over 630 sites designated as premier cru, making up about 12% of the vineyard area of the Côte d'Or. Premier cru wines fetch $50 to $250 or more, depending on the quality of the vineyard and the reputation of the producer.

Below this are the village appellation wines, entitled to carry the name of the town or village where they are grown, in part because the wines reflect the typicity of wines from that area. Village wines make up about 36% of production. Village wines, like a Chambolle-Musigny, Gevrey-Chambertin or Meursault from a good producer, can be a relative bargain, selling for $25 to $40 or more a bottle.

The lowest level are the regional appellations, including simple Bourgogne (French for Burgundy), as well as sub-regional appellations, like Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes de Beaune. This level also includes wines made in the region other than the dry whites and reds, like the sparkling Crémant de Bourgogne.

As you can see, with the very top vineyards accounting for only two percent of production, there's a huge scarcity factor helps drive the pricing of these wines, which are now sought after by collectors in Shanghai and Hong Kong, as well as London, New York and San Francisco.

Laurent Ponsot at La Paulée (photo courtesy of Gary Chevsky)

The greatest producers of Burgundy, whose wines tend to be good in virtually every vintage, due to their careful vineyard management, low yields and minimal winemaking intervention, designed to permit the nature of the wines' terroir to show through as much as possible, include Armand Rousseau, Coche-Dury, Comtes Lafon, Domaine Leflaive, Domaine Leroy, Domaine Ponsot and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

For my complete report on the weekend's La Paulee grand tasting of wines from 22 of Burgundy's top producers, see my blog here.