How big is Burgundy? The answer is more complicated than you might think, and it will soon change. The Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO), the governing body of France's appellation system, is seeking a solution to satisfy producers in Beaujolais and the areas surrounding Chablis by delimiting areas that will allow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to use the Bourgogne appellation. Burgundy is not just a region, it's a brand. As with most changes to the French appellation system, the debate is rife with competing personalities and politics.
Yesterday, INAO officials met at their headquarters near Paris to discuss the potential changes. Outside the building, more than 400 protesters, including vintners from the Chablis region and their local elected officials, denounced the proposed changes.
How did we get here?
About a decade ago, producers in Beaujolais began planting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in response to flagging global sales of Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages, which is made from Gamay. Growers in the Côte d'Or saw this as competition.
The INAO responded by introducing the Bourgogne Côte d'Or appellation, for entry-level wines from that region. It also removed most Beaujolais communes from the Bourgogne AOC. Most Beaujolais vintners lost the right to label their reds Bourgogne and their whites Bourgogne Blanc. Instead, Pinot Noirs had to be labeled with a new appellation, Coteaux Bourguignons, while Chardonnays were marked Beaujolais Blanc. This made many unhappy.
Now the INAO is revisiting who can use Bourgogne on their labels and who must use Coteaux Bourguignons. Their proposal, introduced last year, would allow many parts of the Beaujolais region, particularly those with limestone and clay soils, such as the Pierres Dorées in southern Beaujolais, to once again label their Pinots and Chardonnays as Bourgogne, including them in greater Burgundy.
But the proposal would also strip 64 communes, all in the north of the region and including Chablis, of the right to use Bourgogne as an AOC if they wished to. Warmer vintages have made viticulture and winemaking more attractive in parts of the Yonne department near Chablis and around Dijon as producers look for areas to make crisp, fresh Chardonnays. But under the proposal, the wines would carry the Coteaux Bourguignons label.
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This is consistent with "historical practices" according to Frédéric Drouhin, president of Maison Joseph Drouhin, which makes wine in Chablis, Côte d'Or and Beaujolais. "Today it is not possible to declassify a Chablis or Petit Chablis AOC into Bourgogne Blanc but it is possible as Coteaux Bourguignons," he told Wine Spectator. "Obviously if people could produce these two AOCs and sell them with good margin, they will do so [as Bourgogne and] not as Coteaux Bourguignons."
The top wines from Chablis would not be impacted, since their wine is labeled Chablis or Petit Chablis. "If this decision would come into effect, it would badly affect the following regions: St.-Bris, Tonnere, Vezeley and Joigny," said Christian Moreau of Domaine Christian Moreau Père & Fils in Chablis. These regions are currently allowed to produce wines under the Bourgogne appellation.
"The only big thing which may happen very soon is that all the limestone and clay territories of Beaujolais [especially Pierres Dorées] will be allowed very soon to [reclaim rights] to the Bourgogne appellation," said Louis-Fabrice Latour, president of Maison Louis Latour, which also makes wine in all three regions. "I can understand that this will upset the producers of Bourgogne Côte d'Or and l'Yonne."
As the protesters demonstrated yesterday, their voices were heard inside INAO headquarters. INAO president Christian Paly guaranteed that all the communes proposed to be stripped of the Bourgogne appellation will be reintegrated, according to François Labet, president of the Burgundy wine trade group BIVB. "What is not determined is which ones in the Beaujolais will be on the list of those able to produce Bourgogne wines," he said. The boundaries are not settled yet.
For Drouhin, there is room for everybody. "There are still good terroirs to explore in Burgundy and we have to take into consideration global warming," he said. "At the end the consumer will decide if the wine offered is of good quality, pleasure and pricing, and I am not sure they will care if it comes especially from northern Yonne or southern Beaujolais."