Blame It on Napoleon: Burgundy’s Grand Crus Explained

How Did Burgundy Become So Intricate?

Deciphering Burgundy’s dizzying patchwork of more than 100 different appellations is often described as frustrating, complicated, and confusing. Before the French Revolution occurred in 1789, Burgundy’s most prominent and best vineyards belonged to Cistercian monks and the French bourgeoisie from the 17th century. It was straightforward: Royals with lots of money owned the vineyards, and the monks tended the land and made the wine. The church was well paid for its historical success of consistently producing the finest wine for those who could afford to drink it – and the royals of the French courts were avid consumers.

In 1804, after kicking out the French monarchy, Napoleon Bonaparte forever changed the course of French laws, including those of Burgundy’s vineyard owners. In the French Revolutionary spirit of “Liberte, ” Egalite,” Fraternite,” he created the Napoleonic Code, perhaps his most lasting accomplishment. This streamlined the legal system, which, until Napoleon’s leadership, had consisted of laws derived from Roman, feudal, and royal legal codes, all of which favored the rich. Napoleon sought to modernize France and institute legal regulations that reflected the revolution’s principles. Eliminating all privileges based on birth, the Napoleonic Code established equality before the law, granted freedom of religion, and established universal property rights. The feudal system was abolished in one fell swoop, and peasants and monks were freed from serfdom and manorial dues. The laws Napoleon created continue to form the foundation of French civil law to this day.

The church’s remaining vineyards were broken up during Napoleon’s governance and sold off to individual growers. Under the new Napoleonic inheritance laws, all owned property could be passed down to the owner’s heirs, male or female. Ultimately, this led to a profusion of increasingly small family-owned wineries and the emergence of the negociant system. Since then, the continued subdivision of precious vineyard holdings has passed from generation to generation. Before Napoleon’s governance, Benedictine and Cistercian monks had indelibly left their mark on Burgundy’s wine industry. For centuries, the monasteries played a crucial role in developing their excellent agricultural acumen, and the new vineyard owners were keenly aware of this. (More on this later). Once the vineyards were done being split up, some growers were left with just a precious row or two of vines. The minuscule harvests made it impossible to make a living by growing and producing their wines. However, if the growers sold their grapes to negociants, the worth of their grapes, when combined with other growers, became a viable way to sell their harvests and obtain a profit.

Throughout the march of time, the negociant business arrangements have continued and ultimately led to the profusion of increasingly small, family-owned domaines. It is not uncommon to have generations of cousins, aunts, uncles, and in-laws growing single rows of inherited vineyards divided between them upon the deaths of their relatives. A prominent example of this is Clos Vougeot, a single 125-acre vineyard that monks had once run. Today, it is parceled into plots owned by nearly 80 different owners, some of whom only have enough vines to make less than a case of wine per vintage. Each of these owners is entitled to use the Grand Cru Clos de Vougeot designation on their labels according to the French AOC laws; however, each wine’s quality, style, price, and reputation vary widely.

Because the vineyards do not belong to singularly owned châteaux, such as in the Bordeaux region, but are split between many owners, the emphasis in Burgundy is on the terroir. And given the vast 12,194 square miles belonging to the region, there is a complex array of different terroirs. The differences in geography, soils, slope aspects, proximity to waterways, and distinct climates all play starring roles in determining the quality of the vineyards and, ultimately, the grapes. Burgundy’s claim to fame is the concept of terroir, which is now cemented in vinous history.

What Makes a Grand Cru . . . a Grand Cru?

So, now let’s go back to those Cistercians monks. They were responsible for laying the earliest foundation for naming the Burgundy crus and the region’s concept of terroir. Since medieval times, and long before the French Revolution, they had been masterfully tending the vineyards of Burgundy. The church had owned vast amounts of land throughout Burgundy, and the local Cistercian and Cluniac Orders doctrines lay in the belief that an agrarian life devoted to farming and manual labor led to a more observant and prayerful existence. Since the monks were not working in vineyards to earn money or cultivate the land for their heirs, they conducted lives dedicated to viticulture and winemaking for the purity of the endeavor – and to supply the church with sacramental wine.

The origin of Burgundy’s Grand crus can be traced to the work of the monks, who were able to delineate and isolate the plots of land that consistently produced wines with the most distinct exemplary characteristics. Therefore, they established that Burgundy had certain areas superior to others. It was not until many years after the church’s holdings were dissolved that the cru system of AOC classifications would be ratified. In 1855, the same year as the famous Bordeaux Wine Official Classification was launched, the Beaune Committee of Agriculture began classifying the Burgundy vineyards – all based on the long-held belief that the monks had been correct on their assessments of which vineyards were superior to others. Initially, there were five “classes” – all based on the five different forms of terroir that produced the finest wines. Finally, in 1936, the French national AOC legislative branch made most of the elite vineyards into Grand Cru “appellations d’origine controlles”. Henceforth, Burgundy’s wine labels were to state the appellation in bold and the producer’s name in smaller text underneath.

The primary levels of the Burgundy classifications, in descending order of quality, are Grand crus, Premier crus, village appellations, and Bourgogne appellations. The Grand cru wines comprise just 2% of Burgundy’s wine production, with all but one of the Grand crus being in the Cote d’Or region. Grand cru vineyards are distinct in that they face Easterly to Southeasterly and lay at the middle sections of the area’s hilly slopes. Importantly, they are protected from the Westerly winds and rain emanating from the Atlantic Ocean far to the West of Burgundy. The vines on these prime parcels provide optimal sun exposure and water drainage. Different soils favor Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, respectively. With over 400 types of soil and various micro-climates in Burgundy, each Grand cru produces wines with distinctive stylistic differences.

Of the 33 Grand Cru appellations, 24 are in the Cote de Nuits, eight are in Cote de Beaune, and the 33rd is the Chablis Grand cru. While all the grand cru labels must include the mandatory reference “Grand Cru,” it is only the red Grand Crus (which is always Pinot Noir) that can be followed by the name of the “climat” or vineyard sight. An example of this is Corton Grand Cru – Les Bressandes. It states not only that it is a Grand cru but exactly which plot of Corton the grapes in the wine came from, in this case, Les Bressandes.

The List of the Burgundy Grand Crus

Cote de Nuits

  1. Bonnes Mare
  2. Chambertin
  3. Chambertin-Clos de Beze
  4. Chapelle-Chambertin
  5. Charmes-Chambertin
  6. Clos de la Roche
  7. Clos de Tart
  8. Clos de Vougeot
  9. Clos des Lambrays
  10. Clos Saint-Denis
  11. Echezeaux
  12. La Grande Rue
  13. Grands Echezeaux
  14. Griotte-Chambertin
  15. Latricieres-Chambertin
  16. Mazis-Chambertin
  17. Mazoyeres-Chambertin
  18. Musigny
  19. Richebourg
  20. La Romanee
  21. Romanee Conti
  22. Romanee Saint-Vivant
  23. Ruchottes-Chambertin
  24. La Tache

Cote de Beaune

  1. Batard-Montrachet
  2. Bienvenues-Batard-Montrachet
  3. Charlemagne
  4. Chevalier-Montrachet
  5. Corton
  6. Corton Charlemagne
  7. Criots-Batard-Montrachet
  8. Montrachet

#33 is Chablis, which rounds out the illustrious Grand Crus of Burgundy!

Burgundy Grand Cru Selections for the Bucket List Cellar

Each Grand cru wine from Burgundy has its own story, distinct character, flavors, and aromas. The Grand crus indisputably represent the world’s most famous wine labels for both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines. What sets the Grand cru wines apart from lesser quality wines is the ability to age. Both the red and white Burgundy Grand cru wines can be cellared for many years, and with each passing year, they grow in value and complexity. Collectors worldwide recognize particular Grand cru wine producers as the most sought-after and highly exclusive. Here are the recommendations for building an exemplary Burgundy Grand Cru cellar:

  1. DRC Romanee Conti 2019 – Achieving perfect 100-point scores from wine critics of Decanter and Wine Advocate, this wine comes from the world’s pinnacle Pinot Noir producer. It sets the highest standard by which all other Pinot Noirs are measured. To own this wine is to be in a stratospheric collector category. This is arguably the world’s most famous wine – period!
  2. Leroy Domaine d’Auvenay Les Bonnes-Mares 2005 – The most well-known wine critics and sommeliers consistently sing the highest praises of this quintessential red Burgundy coming from a near-perfect vintage. Produced by the charismatic and forward-thinking Lalou Bize-Leroy, she spearheaded biodynamic growing practices throughout all her vineyards long before it became the fashion. Believing that great wine is an expression of the cosmos, she does indeed produce other-worldly divine wine.
  3. Rousseau Chambertin 2012 – Napoleon once said, “Nothing makes the future look so rosy as to contemplate it through a glass of Chambertin.” He was not wrong! And what could be rosier than to drink the wine of iconic producer Domaine Rousseau? This family of Chambertin producers has been creating some of Burgundy’s finest wines for over 100 years and several generations. Highly structured and complex, these wines can be cellared and enjoyed far into the future.
  4. George Roumier Corton Charlemagne 2018 – This white Burgundy comes from a legendary vintage and is a pristine showcase of Chardonnay in its most expressive form. Roumier’s current winemaker is the third generation of Roumier family vintners to dedicate themselves to creating some of the best white wines on Earth. The hillside vineyards of Corton were first planted with white varieties by order of Emperor Charlemagne. His wife is said to have pressured him into drinking white wine, as the red wines he loved were sadly staining his beard.
  1. Domaine Leflaive Batard Montrachet 2017 – Batard-Montrachet is considered one of the world’s best terroirs for growing Chardonnay. Couple the outstanding terroir with the preeminent producer of the Montrachet Grand crus, and the wines reach epic proportions. The pioneering Leflavie family converted their vineyards to biodynamics in 1996, dedicated to the health of the domaine’s soils and vines. This white Burgundy is pure, unsurpassed elegance and finesse on the palate.

Jacques Prieur Musigny 2019 – There is a lot of anticipation and excitement about the excellent 2019 Burgundy vintage. This is especially felt in the heart of Burgundy’s Cote de Nuits in Musigny. Since the late 1800s, the Domaine Jacques Prieur winemakers have produced some of the world’s most iconic, collectible white wines. These Chardonnay wines created by one of the region’s most revered producers, in combination with the vintage, make this wine one that can be cellared and enjoyed for many years.