The World of Fine Wine
Out of Control?
Burgundy Appellations and Classifications
Jasper Morris MW recounts the often complex history of the official recognition of Burgundy’s myriad vineyards and predicts what might become grand or premier cru in the future.
In Andrew Jefford’s The New France, the Côte d’Or alone is credited with more than 500 appellations. 1) Although it seems as though there are many more, there are in fact only 100 AOCs in Burgundy—a figure that puts the region way out in the lead in France. The confusion perhaps comes from the existence of several hundred premier cru vineyards, though these do not count as appellations. It is as easy to muddle appellations with classifications as it is to confuse topsoil and bedrock when the discussion turns to terroir.
The concept of classification
There are references to specific named vineyards as early as the first millennium, but it was not until the 18th century that commentators began to consider the qualitative differences between one vineyard and another. Claude Arnoux was still more interested in the styles of particular villages than in any notion of classifying vineyards, though he does single out Champans within Volnay and is exceptionally fulsome in praise of Montrachet.
2) The development of merchants, beginning with the house of Champy in 1720, along with the increasing interest of the haute bourgeoisie in owning vineyards, began to have an effect. The first négociants, originally courtiers-gourmets, guided foreign buyers and then began to buy up the crop at harvest and vinify/mature it themselves. With the arrival of middlemen came the concept of choice, as the courtiersgourmets decided which wines to recommend to customers.
Dr Morelot began to classify the best vineyard sites by singling out his têtes de cuvée. 3) This idea was taken much further by Dr Jules Lavalle, who classified the vineyards for all the main villages of the Côte d’Or. 4) The very finest were specified as tête de cuvée or else hors ligne, after which came première, deuxième, and troisième cuvées. His work formed the basis of an official classification along similar lines in 1861. This was put in place, and a map drawn up, by the Comité de l’Agriculture de l’Arrondissement de Beaune, with the vineyards color-coded in pink for first class, yellow for second class, and green for third. The vineyards north of Vougeot are uncolored, however, because the vignerons of Gevrey-Chambertin (speaking also for their neighbors) complained that they were not part of the Arrondissement de Beaune and would have no truck with any map or classification put forward by the Beaunois.
When, subsequently, the relevant committees began to decide which vineyards should be designated premier or grand cru, much use was made of these early classifications and maps.
The origin of appellations
The early years of the 20th century were a difficult time in the French wine world. The vineyards had not recovered from phylloxera, while oidium and mildew were frequentand unwanted visitors. There was a tendency to resort to high-yielding hybrid vines, to cut corners in order to cut costs, and, if opportunity arose, to pass off lesser wines under more noble names.
Regulation was needed, and it came in alternate steps—first by the producers themselves and then through government initiatives. The necessary antecedent was the Waldeck-Rousseau law of 1884, which allowed for local syndicats to protect and promote their industries. By 1900, there were 22 vigneron syndicats in the Côte d’Or and two for négociants. One syndicat of particular interest—set up by six doctors who were also vineyard owners, with the intention of guaranteeing authenticity in the face of widespread merchant fraud—was the Union Viticole des Médecins Propriétaires de la Côte d’Or, established in 1896. They proposed domaine bottling, with labels, capsules, and corks all marked with the name of the vineyard, vintage, and owner, plus his address on the label.
In 1900, 79 Chablis producers formed an association to guarantee the authenticity (in terms of region of production) of bottles labeled as Chablis. There were to be wax seals on the feuillettes and stock records of the vintage, quality, and quantity of the wines in their cellars.
Then came the law of 1905, aimed at protecting the consumer from fraudulent wines, which in Hugh Johnson’s words, was a “statement of principle against the fraudulent or deceptive use of names or descriptions”. 5) This was followed just after World War I by the law of May 6, 1919, which opened the way for geographical delimitation, with the clear intention to protect lawful producers from fraudulent colleagues. The concept of usages loyaux, locaux, et constants, the linchpin of the French appellation system, was aired for the first time.
Now work started in earnest on developing what were to be called appellations d’origine. In 1923, Baron Le Roy de Beausmarie of Château Fortia promoted a charter of what should constitute Châteauneuf-du-Pape, specifying the delimited area, permitted grape varieties, training and pruning methods, and minimum alcohol levels. This, among other developments, which included rules for the production of Roquefort (the area was delimited, but no thought was given to what type of animal the milk should come from, ewe or cow), inspired Joseph Capus, a professor of agriculture and a politician in the Gironde, to develop his Capus law in July 1927, which expressed the need for appellation rules, as well as just delimitation. This idea was eventually codified in the décret-loi of July 30, 1935, which created the AOC—appellation d’origine contrôlée—in place of simple appellations d’origine.
Interestingly, whereas 15 million hectoliters of the 1934 crop (out of 75 million hl total) were declared as appellation in its simple form for the 1934 vintage, only 3.5 million hl of the 1939 crop (total 68 million hl) were declared under the stricter AOC rules. This indicates the size of the previous “passing-off” problem.
The 24 generic AOCs are mostly Bourgogne or Bourgogne with a regional subdivision, plus Mâcon and Mâcon Villages. It might be simpler to cut these back to the two Mâcons, Bourgogne Aligoté, Bourgogne Passetoutgrains, Bourgogne Rouge, and Bourgogne Blanc, while allowing for geographical indicators from specific areas of interest, without counting such items as Bourgogne Montrecul, Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Beaune, or Bourgogne Coulanges-la-Vineuse as separate appellations in their own right. The first of these, incidentally, is one of five single vineyards in the Côte d’Or that have entire appellations in their own right but that are only classified with generic status. Very bizarre.
But this is not quite as weird as the AOC Bourgogne Grande Ordinaire, which still accounts for 50,000 cases of wine a year. The wines are typically rather more ordinaire than they are grande. Reds are mostly Gamay, though the ancient César and Tressot are permitted in the Yonne. Whites can be Chardonnay, Aligoté, or Melon de Bourgogne, plus Sacy in the Yonne. Melon is in fact the white Gamay but is better known elsewhere as Muscadet. It has been replanted recently in and around Vézelay for selling as Bourgogne Grande Ordinaire.
The 43 “village” appellations are based, self-evidently, on the specific communes for which they are named. A few AOCs with wider catchment areas, such as Côte de Nuits Villages, Côte de Beaune Villages, Chablis, and Petit Chablis, are included in this category. In fact, over half the village appellations include wine from other communes.
Some of the examples are certainly straightforward enough, such as Prémeaux being included in Nuits-St-Georges, or part of Brochon within Gevrey-Chambertin. But there are also some bizarre manifestations. Ladoix-Serrigny has its own appellation as Ladoix, but a few of the village vineyards and several premiers crus are styled under the name of Aloxe-Corton!
Any village with its own appellation should have a character distinct from its neighbors, so that one can say with conviction, “This is Puligny and that is Chassagne; this is Chambolle-Musigny and that is Morey-St-Denis; this is Auxey-Duresses and that is Monthélie” (more difficult but still possible).
Some vineyard sites may be produced as separate cuvées and specified as such on the label. This would normally be where a grower has one site more favourable than the majority of his holdings in the village (such as the Chavy brothers, who both produce a Puligny-Montrachet Les Charmes as well as a straight village version), or else in a village where there is a sizable number of village lieuxdits of interest—most notably Meursault for white wines and Gevrey-Chambertin for reds.
Some of these single sites may have peculiarities of circumstance or flavor profile that make them quite individual but lack the consistency or classical nature of their commune to justify a higher classification.
Vineyards within the village appellation may be classified as premier cru—there are 635 of these in Burgundy at the last count.6 The original 1935 legislation did not allow for a separate category of premier cru, though the decrees pertaining to some communes did provide for certain vineyard names to be used alongside the name of the village. Codifying of these de facto premiers crus did not happen until 1942, when it was done in a hurry by a commission that included such luminaries as the Marquis d’Angerville, Henri Gouges, and Joseph Clair-Daü. Generally, they awarded premier cru status to the historical premières cuvées that had not made it into the grand cru category.
One reason for this codification was that vineyards with cru status would not be requisitioned by the occupying German forces. This was of particular relevance in the Côte Chalonnaise, where almost the whole of the Montagny appellation was classified as premier cru for this reason. Subsequently, and uniquely in Burgundy, all the vineyards in the appellation could be classed as premier cru, as long as the wines achieved a natural alcohol of 11.5%. This has since been revised, sensibly, but the background history explains why such a large part (nearly 60 percent) of this relatively humble AOC is premier cru.
For a single-vineyard site to be classified as a premier cru, it should—in my opinion—reflect the essential characteristics of the commune it comes from, and it should have more than one layer of flavor. A good premier cru should “kick on,” delivering the expected flavor profile on first tasting and then developing further in the mouth. There are many premiers crus that are rarely seen under their own names, being lumped instead into cuvées described as, for example, “Volnay 1er cru,” and arguably these should not have received the premier cru classification.
Currently, St-Romain and Marsannay—both postwar appellations—and Chorey-lès Beaune are the only communes that do not have any premier cru vineyards. Dossiers are, however, being submitted for the first two. Interesting times in Burgundy local politics… In Marsannay, the authorities want to see a limited number of premiers crus put together by assembling several lieux-dits under one name. This is causing concern among vignerons who have been successfully selling cuvées under single-vineyard names that would thus be slated to disappear.
A recent trend has been to promote certain vineyards to premier cru status but for one color only. Thus, Sous Frétilles in Pernand-Vergelesses and Les Gréchons in Ladoix are only premier cru for white wines; Les Joyeuses in Ladoix for red. If this idea had been current much earlier then it could have been used to very good effect in Chassagne-Montrachet, where some of the premiers crus now planted to Chardonnay are clearly red-wine terroirs.
Each grand cru, the top classification, has its own separate appellation. There are 33 of these, albeit including Charlemagne, which is no longer used. Seven are specifically for white wine, the remainder for red, though Musigny and Corton may also produce whites. Two are fully interchangeable in terms of surface area (Charmes-Chambertin and Mazoyères-Chambertin), while Chambertin Clos de Bèze may be sold as Chambertin.
Corton is a single grand cru but acts as an umbrella for a whole host of different vineyards that may append their name to Corton, such as Clos du Roi, Bressandes, Maréchaudes, and so on. In similar fashion, there is a single appellation for Chablis grand cru, though seven separate vineyards exist, along with the brand La Moutonne.
A grand cru worthy of its name should have a clearly definable character of its own that is separate from, and grander than, the prevailing style of the village. Hence the grand cru on the label carries only its own name (such as La Tâche) rather than the name of the commune it comes from, though of course the commune in question may well have borrowed the name of its finest vineyard as part of its title (like Puligny-Montrachet, Gevrey-Chambertin, or Vosne-Romanée).
The decision-making for what should qualify as grand cru must have been fascinating. It seems to have been a mix of tradition and local politics, with producers pulling out old labels or invoices to prove that their wine used to sell under such-and-such a famous name. Those with land in the best sites were quick to set up bodies to defend their ground, hence the creation in 1929 of the Syndicat de Défense de l’Appellation Chambertin. Some of the more interesting debates are outlined below.
Chambertin and its neighbor Clos de Bèze were automatic selections for grand cru status and most of the satellite vineyards—Latricières, Mazis, Ruchottes, Griottes, Charmes, and Mazoyères—were reasonable choices, though eyebrows must have been raised at the full extent of Mazoyères, notably the section that drops down all the way to the main road. The battle, however, was largely fought over what else might be included. The two likeliest vineyards were Combottes and Clos St-Jacques. Combottes is the only vineyard on mid-slope between Bonnes Mares and Mazis-Chambertin that is not classified as grand cru. There is a perfectly good reason for this, since the vines dip down here in the same way as they do in Vosne-Romanée Les Suchots, and the wine probably does not deserve to be any more than premier cru. But might the fact that, at decision time, all the owners of Combottes happened to be vignerons from Morey and not from Gevrey have weighed against its inclusion?
Similarly, the Clos St-Jacques was at that time a monopoly of the Comte de Moucheron, an “aristo” from Meursault. Tales are told of his arrogance during sessions of the tribunal that disinclined those responsible from accepting a possible St-Jacques-Chambertin. Others have suggested that the vineyard’s separation from the rest of the Chambertin slope might have been an equally good reason. Perhaps Clos St-Jacques does better as an outstanding reference among premiers crus than it would among the grands crus.
Decision-making in Morey-St-Denis was easier. Clos de Tart, Clos de la Roche, and Clos St-Denis were awarded grand cru status, the last two having been swollen by the addition of neighboring lieux-dits in the preceding years. Clos des Lambrays would certainly have been included, but the then owner, Madame Renée Cosson, was much too grand to be prepared to deal with bureaucrats. Lambrays was rapidly added in 1981 after a change of ownership.
There is a morsel of Bonnes Mares within Morey-St- Denis, but the vineyard is rightly considered as part of Chambolle-Musigny. Here, only Bonnes Mares and Le Musigny have been designated as grand cru, but I doubt if anybody would object if Les Amoureuses were to be promoted. It is usually sold at the same price as Bonnes Mares by those who have both.
What to do with the Clos de Vougeot? Here the great historical tradition of this walled vineyard has led the decision-making, for all that the potential of the terroir at the foot of the clos is widely agreed to be well below the standard of the upper part. A glance at a map of the Côte de Nuits makes the anomaly evident enough. Still, the argument for making Clos de Vougeot a case apart, thanks to its past history and its current role at the heart of Burgundian pageantry, is persuasive enough.
Vosne-Romanée has six grands crus of its own, plus two from neighboring Flagey-Echézeaux. One of the former, La Grande Rue, was promoted only in 1991—as with Clos des Lambrays, it was a matter of the owner of the time not applying for grand cru status. Since the vineyard lies between La Romanée and La Romanée-Conti on one side, and La Tâche on the other, it did not take too long to make the decision, though the legal processes necessary for official ratification went at the pace of an off-color Burgundian snail. The grand cru Richebourg also includes the lieu-dit Les Varoilles, while La Tâche incorporates most of Les Gaudichots. In fact, over the years, little parcels of Gaudichots have been traded between the Lamarches and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti to harmonize the borders of La Grande Rue and La Tâche.
Echézeaux was the most controversial of the original selections because of its size. Local vineyard owner, activist, and politician Etienne Camuzet had already taken some of his fellow producers to court in 1925 for using the name for wines grown in neighboring vineyards, but the authorities in Beaune found against him. The final decree boosted the 3.55ha (8.77 acres) of Les Echézeaux du Dessus to ten times the size, with the inclusion of Les Treux, Le Clos St-Denis,Les Cruots, Les Beaux-Monts Bas, Les Laochausses, Les Rouges du Bas, Les Champs Traversins, Les Poulaillères, En Orveaux, and Les Quartiers de Nuits —quite a diverse set of terroirs and qualities.
Nuits-St-Georges missed out—though, in a sense, deliberately so. Mayor Henri Gouges, himself owning vines in many of the best sites, decided not to push for anything to be singled out as grand cru but to plead the cause for a high percentage of premier crus instead. As a curious footnote, when the local vignerons asked for the Terres Blanches vineyard, recently reclaimed from woodland, to be promoted from Côte de Nuits Villages, the authorities deemed it worthy of premier cru status rather than village Nuits. Will it be possible without pressure to include such neighboring vineyards as Les Cailles and Vaucrains? Or will such a demand for the larger area bring the whole project down?
The Hill of Corton
Three villages now share the grands crus of Corton and Corton-Charlemagne: Aloxe, Ladoix, and Pernand. Aloxe grabs the glory in one sense, with its hyphenated Corton, but while Pernand manages to maintain a life of its own, Ladoix has struggled over the years to establish much of an identity.
In the past, the vignerons of Ladoix and Pernand would often sell their wines as Corton, so when the time came to set up the appellations in the 1920s, both those villages requested AOC Corton, as well as AOC Aloxe-Corton itself.
In 1930, the first judgment found in favor of Ladoix for 28.71ha (70.94 acres) to be called Corton. Aloxe appealed, and the right was given only for Le Rognet et Corton. Ladoix took the case upstairs to the Court of Cassation. Finally, in 1942 the decision came down in favor of Vergennes as well as Rognet et Corton, but not the other vineyards.
Meanwhile, Aloxe was at war on a second front, with Pernand. It was okay to designate the Pernand vineyards in En Charlemagne as “Charlemagne” but not as “Corton-Charlemagne,” since, in their view, the more westerly orientation of En Charlemagne was no match for the more southerly exposure of their own Le Charlemagne. A first judgment in 1934 sided with Aloxe, but the final AOC decree in 1942 gave the decision to Pernand.
Officially, there are in fact two white grand cru appellations here: Corton-Charlemagne and Charlemagne. The 1937 decree, confirmed in 1942, stipulated only Chardonnay for the former but Chardonnay or Aligoté for the latter, at least up until 1948. In theory, Charlemagne still exists today for the Pernand and Aloxe vineyards (but not those of Ladoix, which may only be Corton-Charlemagne), though nobody uses it. Well, almost nobody—2hl were declared as Charlemagne in 2005! What if Le Charlemagne (Aloxe) and En Charlemagne (Pernand) were to go under their own names in future, reserving Corton-Charlemagne for the remaining vineyards currently within the appellation, or a blend of any of the above?
In 1966, Corton-Charlemagne in Pernand was expanded by about 10ha (25 acres) farther up the valley, exposed west or even northwest. It is hard to see that this area justifies the grand cru appellation. Then, in 1978, Grandes Lolières and parts of Hautes Mourottes, Basses Mourottes, and Moutottes were promoted to grand cru Corton.
Why, oh why, oh why? The end result of having an outsize grand cru called Corton is that the wines are not valued by merchants, critics, or consumers. Producers find their wines difficult to sell, even though prices are usually lower than most other grand crus. Would it not be better to have some of the finest premier cru vineyards, which would therefore be sought after, rather than a second-rate catch-all grand cru?
Perhaps the arrival of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, which has taken a lease on the best three of the late Prince de Mérode’s vineyards, will revive the image of Corton. But if one could start all over again, one might propose separate grands crus for Le Corton, Clos du Roi, Les Bressandes, Le Rognet et Corton, and perhaps Les Perrières, Les Grèves, and the upper part of Vergennes, reclassifying the remainder as premier cru.
Nobody could doubt the ranking of Le Montrachet itself, though there was still some negotiating to be done as to what was to be included. In 1921, court action was taken successfully against certain vignerons who had been using the name Montrachet for vineyards outside le vrai Montrachet. A small area of Murgers Dents de Chien (in Chassagne) was, however, incorporated into the final delimitation. Bouchard’s parcel just up slope from its Montrachet—now designated as Chevalier Montrachet La Cabotte — was not.
In the early 1930s, the Comte de Moucheron proposed that all producers of Le Montrachet should move to domaine bottling, with their names and the name of the wine on both corks and labels, and a minimum price agreed for each vintage, with the possibility also of a general agreement to declassify in a weak vintage. Despite the support of other Meursault-based producers, such as Comte Jules Lafon and Jacques Prieur, the proposal was not adopted. Or possibly, given local politics, the proposal failed because it originated from Meursault and not from Puligny or Chassagne.
Chevalier-Montrachet and Bâtard-Montrachet had histories long preceding appellation. However, neither André Jullien in 1832 nor Jules Lavalle in 1855 mentions Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet or Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet, which now complete the lineup, though only after much discussion. How wide to extend Bâtard? One suggestion proposed vineyards as far afield as the Hameau de Blagny for inclusion. Another idea was to elevate Les Blanchots-Dessus into Blanchots-Bâtard-Montrachet. The line between Criots, which did make the cut, and Blanchots, which did not, is a fine one but, on balance, accurately drawn in the end.
Next door in Meursault there are no grands crus, though the elevation of Perrières is often discussed. A dossier has been submitted for the Clos des Perrières of Domaine Albert Grivault. My own view is that Meursault Perrières is better left as a premier cru, but if anything were to be elevated it should be all of Les Perrières Dessus, which includes Clos des Perrières but not Les Perrières Dessus. Almost certainly this would prove to be a politically unacceptable distinction among local growers.
Chablis led the way with the 1900 syndicat, mentioned earlier in this article, and with the denomination of grand cru. André Jullien considered Le Clos as outstanding, followed by Valmur and Grenouille, then Vaudésir, Bouguereau, and Mont-de-Milieu, all within his première classe.7 Blanchot fell into the same category but was quoted separately, because it is in the commune of Fley, not Chablis. Les Preuses and “une partie de Bougereau” only appear in his deuxième classe. This view continued with the original grand cru classification, there being just five of them in 1935 (Blanchots, Clos, Vaudésir, Grenouilles, and Valmur), with Bougros and Preuses added only in 1938. Anachronistically, Roald Dahl’s eponymous character Uncle Oswald drinks a Grand Cru Grenouilles in 1912.8
No vineyard as yet has been classified in the Mâconnais, but there is a move afoot to work toward this. For the past few years, producers have been encouraged to make separate cuvées from their best sites and to label them as such. Thus, Clos de Monsieur Noly and Clos Reyssier in Chaintré; Les Crays, Maréchaude, En Carementrant, and La Roche in Vergisson; Le Clos, Vers Pouilly, and Vers Cras in Fuissé; Les Chailloux and more of Vers Cras in Solutré. Will some or all of these soon be classified as premier cru? Or even grand cru? A commission has been set up, with two members from each of the communes of Pouilly Fuissé, four from St-Véran, and two from Pouilly-Loché and
Vinzelles, to look into this together. I am hopeful that they will recommend not too many vineyards to begin with, and then only at premier cru level. It will be far easier to add further names later on than to remove status given too hastily at the outset.
I am intrigued to know how Pouilly got to throw its weight around so much, giving its name not just to Pouilly-Fuissé but also to Pouilly-Vinzelles and Pouilly-Loché, when the little hamlet of Pouilly is not even a commune in its own right, except as part of Solutré-Pouilly. For that matter, how did the seven communes either side of Pouilly-Fuissé wind up as St-Véran when the new appellation was created in 1971? True, one of the communes has almost that name, but St-Vérand is spelled differently and is the second-smallest of the seven. There may yet be further appellations created in the Mâconnais, if other locations apply successfully to follow the example of Viré-Clessé, which was awarded its own AOC in 1998.
We cannot really need 100 Burgundian appellations, can we? Is this not much too complicated? Why not cut back to the grands crus (and simplify those), plus 15 or so village appellations, with premier cru vineyards where really justified, and a handful of generic appellations? Then we could truly get a handle on the various names and understand what Burgundy has to offer. How many consumers care that Pouilly-Loché exists?
So far, so good. But look at it from the producer’s point of view. Imagine that you are a young vigneron working in a less famous area—one of the Mâcon villages, perhaps, or an outlying part of the Auxerrois, or perhaps St-Romain or Marsannay in the Côte d’Or. If you can get a full appellation for your village (Mâcon, Auxerrois) or perhaps have your vineyards upgraded to premier cru (St-Romain, Marsannay), that would be a tremendous boost to your ability to market your wine and to encourage friends, family, and colleagues to develop their own initiatives in your district. It seems to be happening for Viré-Clessé.
The odds favor the creation of many further crus, once the Mâconnais gets into the game, and maybe another small handful of appellations. But perhaps it will not be entirely one-way traffic. There must be a possibility that Bourgogne Grande Ordinaire will one day cease to grace the shelves!•
Burgundy Appellations & Classifications Jasper Morris MW
This article originally appeared in Issue 23, 2009 of The World of Fine Wine magazine, a quarterly magazine devoted to wine and all thing vinous.
It boasts an authoritative cast of writers—including Huon Hooke, Andrew Caillard MW, James Halliday, David Schildknecht, Jancis Robinson MW, and Oz Clarke—contributing some of the most original writing published today, under the editorial baton of Andrew Jefford, and the said Mr Johnson. Find out more at the magazine website : www.finewinemag.com
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1. Andrew Jefford, The New France, p.95.
2. Abbé Claude Arnoux, Situation de la Bourgogne…
3. Dr Denis Morelot, Statistique de la Vigne Dans le Département de la Côte-d’Or.
4. Dr Jules Lavalle, Histoire et Statistique de la Vigne et des Grands Vins de la Cote d’Or (1855).
5. Hugh Johnson, The Story of Wine, p.439.
6. BIVB website.
7. André Jullien, Topographie de Tous les Vignobles Connus (1832).
8. Roald Dahl, My Uncle Oswald, p.38.
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