How Big is Burgundy? That Depends on Who You Ask

Some winemakers certainly didn’t like the tentative answer given by France’s national appellation body recently. Talks are ongoing about how to re-define the region’s boundaries.

Story by  Chris Mercer

Grand plans to re-jig the Burgundy wine map have returned to the drawing board after one suggestion brought hundreds of angry winemakers into the streets.

The debate over Burgundy’s wine boundary has frequently caused tension.

The latest drama came when France’s national appellation body, the INAO, recently proposed removing 64 northern communes from the regional ‘Bourgogne AOC’, including those in Chablis.

French media headlines screamed about Chablis no longer being part of Burgundy.

Some local wine unions called the proposals a “denial of history.” They said the move was particularly unfair given that 43 communes in the Beaujolais area further south would be allowed to retain access to the Bourgogne appellation.

The INAO backed down last month amid winemaker protests.

 

How did we get here?

Wine politics are nothing new in this region. 

Philip the Bold banished the Gamay grape from his Duchy of Burgundy in 1395, for example, favoring Pinot Noir in the now-famous Côte d’Or vineyards.

Today’s Bourgogne AOC still only permits Pinot Noir for red wine, as well as Chardonnay for whites, although the regional Côteaux Bourguignons label allows more leeway.

“The boundaries of political Burgundy have varied massively over the centuries,” said David Way, wine qualifications developer for the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET). 

“At one level, Chablis is a part of vinous Burgundy because that is where INAO decided to draw the line back in 1937 for Bourgogne AOC, following a court judgment in Dijon in 1930.”

Despite its 1,924 acres of premier cru vineyards, however, Chablis cuts a relatively isolated figure on the Burgundy map.

In another life, it was part of a larger wine region that supplied Paris, “before phylloxera and the building of the railway to the Midi took away that advantage,” said Way.  

But he said that, in some ways, it was more surprising to include Beaujolais in the Bourgogne wine region than Chablis vineyards. 

“Chablis does at least share a grape variety and a version of chalk soils with the Côte d’Or.”

Some people blame today’s arguments on yesterday’s bureaucrats for not finishing the job.

“Unlike other winegrowing regions, such as Bordeaux or Champagne, the delimitation work begun in 1937 was never completed for Bourgogne,” said the wine union for Burgundy appellations, the Syndicat des Bourgognes, and winemaker union CAVB.

“Although the historical heart of the Bourgogne region has been fully defined, this process has never been applied to those Bourgogne appellations located in the Beaujolais and Chablis.” 

The INAO had intended for its plans to fill in the gaps. 

 

Why does it matter?

For wineries, it’s a question of both heritage and finances.

Not everybody in the communes affected by the INAO’s recent plans is keen to plaster ‘Bourgogne AOC’ in large font on bottle labels. Chablis producers, especially, have a calling card of their own. 

But Guillaume Willette, of the Syndicat des Bourgognes, said many wineries in the 64 northern communes were concerned about losing access to the Bourgogne AOC name.

“Between 100 and 200 producers would have been directly affected by the loss of production, and more than 600 by the loss of potential [production],” he said. More wineries than this would have suffered “economic consequences,” he said.

Discussions have been parked, but expect them to start up again.