They might be less well known than the famous crus, but Burgundy’s ‘climats’ offer an in-depth way of exploring the region’s terroir. Julie Sheppard heads to Burgundy with a group of sommeliers to find out more.
Burgundy is characterised by its patchwork of small vineyards, which offer tempting diversity and epitomise the definition of terroir. This was recognised with a UNESCO World Heritage site listing two years ago, which focused on the unique system of ‘climats’ that exist in the region.
‘The word “climat” is unique to Burgundy – it is the Burgundian expression of terroir,’ says Jean-Pierre Renard, who is a specialist in Bourgogne wines and an educator at the École des Vins de Bourgogne.
People have been dividing Burgundy’s vineyards since the 6th Century, when the king of the Burgundians passed a law stating that landowners must protect their vineyards by building fences around them. In the Middle Ages, monks replaced the wooden fences with stone walls and the ‘clos’ was born.
The system became more official in Napoleonic times, when officials recorded the names of the individual vineyard plots so that they could be taxed. Each named plot is known as lieu-dits. ‘In some cases one climat was broken up into several lieux-dits, if the piece of land was shared by different owners. In other cases one climat is one lieu-dit,’ explains Renard.
Complicated? You betcha! But still further layers of classification for the individual vineyard plots were added with the creation of Burgundy’s AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) system in 1936. This divided the whole region into different appellations, based on quality, with grand cru being the best.
‘Climats are part of the appellation system, though we usually just talk about grand cru and premier cru climats,’ says Renard, who admits that the various labels can be confusing. ‘The rule in Burgundy is why make something simple when it can be complicated?’ he quips.
Exploring the diverse climats of Burgundy
It was also from 1936 onwards that the various climats started to be analysed scientifically to identify their exact geological, topographical and climatic differences. Today the BIVB (Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bourgogne) defines a climat as: ‘A precisely delimited plot that enjoys particular geological and climatic conditions.’ The UNESCO World Heritage listing covers a 60km-long stretch of vineyards across the Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits, a distance which contains a quite staggering 1,247 different climats.
Virginie Doreau, Comptoir Café & Wine
Stephane Giornal, Vinoteca King’s Cross
‘This diversity explains the richness of Bourgogne,’ says winemaker Françoise Feuillat-Juillot, who owns a nine-hectare domaine in Montagny-lès-Buxy. ‘All of the winemakers here are used to working with individual plots and each plot has its own characteristics.’
‘You don’t come to Burgundy to taste Pinot Noir or Chardonnay. You come to taste Nuits-St-George; taste the terroir,’ agrees fellow winemaker Thibault Liger-Belair, whose domaine includes the famed climats of Richebourg and Clos de Vougeot.
What do climats mean for your business?
Clearly the climat system is responsible for the terroir-led approach towards winemaking in Burgundy, but what is its relevance in the UK on-trade? What, if anything, does the concept of ‘climat’ mean to importers, sommeliers and their customers?
‘There are so many variables and influences in Burgundy. climat is just one of these, but it’s certainly the most interesting,’ says Jason Haynes, director and Burgundy buyer at Flint Wines. ‘We prefer to work with domaines that really highlight climat differences so that we have a plethora of different wines from each domaine, rather than just half a dozen wines that all taste the same,’ he adds.
‘The beauty of this for restaurants is that sommeliers can be very precise with their food-and-wine matching. For example, a Meursault 1er Cru Perrières will be more taut and mineral than a Meursault 1er Cru Goutte d’Or, which will be fatter and richer. So, two wines from the same village, the same vintage, the same producer and made in the same way, will offer two very contrasting styles that can accompany two totally different dishes,’ he explains.
‘Another positive of the climat system is that the same producers are able to offer wines at different price points and different drinking windows. So a wine list could easily feature three or four wines from the same producer without fear of clashing or replication,’ he adds.
‘As a sommelier, understanding the climat system makes you appreciate Burgundy more,’ says Stephane Giornal of Vinoteca King’s Cross, one of the sommeliers on the trip. ‘Being aware of the amazing complexity and rules there are in Bourgogne makes a good wine more special to drink.’
‘I don’t think our customers really understand the concept of climats,’ says Virginie Doreau of Comptoir Café & Wine. ‘But it’s not absolutely necessary for them to understand in order to appreciate the wines,’ she adds. If customers are more engaged, she suggests focusing on the better-known climats and appellations. ‘Some of the famous climats allow people to understand the differences. I think Chablis is the easiest way to start, it’s smaller!’ she advises.