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Burgundy Wine Mastery: A WSET Level 2 Guide

with free downloadable map

Embarking on the journey to master the wines of Burgundy for your WSET Level 2 in Wines exam is akin to navigating a labyrinth of prestige and complexity. At the heart of this famed French region lies a quality hierarchy that sets the stage for understanding its wines. So first, we’ll review the grapes, winemaking and maturation options for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Burgundy.  Don’t forget to make it to the end of this post for our free downloadable map of Burgundy that we’ve created exclusively for those ready to take their WSET Level 2 in Wines intermediate exam. Let’s go!

 

Grapes: Chardonnay + Pinot Noir

Understanding the appellations of Burgundy may require some time, but mastering the grapes is a breeze. Simply put, if it’s red, it’s made with Pinot Noir, and if it’s white, it’s crafted from Chardonnay.

Now here’s what you need to know about Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for your WSET Level 2 in Wines exam…

Pinot Noir

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  • thin skins resulting in a pale coloured wine
  • requires a cool-moderate climate in order to produce good-quality grapes (otherwise fruit loses freshness and tastes cooked)
  • it’s prone to rot and disease (this is why these wines cost so much – it’s labour intensive making sure they don’t get diseases)
  • Pinot Noir can struggle to ripen in poor vintages (also making these wines expensive, you may have to throw some of your crop away!)
  • red fruit flavours of strawberry, raspberry and red cherry
  • high acid (helping wines to age) and low to medium tannins

Winemaking and maturation options:

  • most often made as a single varietal wine because their delicate aromas and flavours are easily overpowered by other grape varieties
  • most often matured in small, new-oak barrels whilst care must be taken not to overpower their delicate aromas and flavour
  • therefore older or larger barrels are often used as they impart less flavour
  • oak-derived aromas include smoke, cloves, vanilla that are balanced by the fruit aromas
  • while most are intended to be consumed while they are youthful and fruity, some very good or outstanding examples can develop complex tertiary flavours (forest floor and mushroom) in the bottle

Chardonnay

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  • this is a non-aromatic variety which means, the aromas aren’t pronounced (in WSET terms) or in my words – the aromas don’t leap out of the glass!
  • the flavours and structure of Chardonnay are dependent on the climate of where it is grown as this grape does well in cool, moderate and warm climates
  • cool climate: high acidity, light to medium body and flavours of green fruit (apple, pear), citrus fruit (lemon) and wet stones
  • moderate climate: medium to high acidity, medium to full boy and flavours of lemon, stone fruits (peach) and sometimes tropical fruit (melon)
  • warm climate: full-bodied, medium in acidity, dominated by flavours of stone fruit (peach) and tropical fruit (pineapple, banana)

Winemaking and maturation options:

  • malolactic conversion adds secondary flavours such as dairy (butter, cream) and can soften harsh acids (think about the wines furthest north in Chablis)
  • lees contact adds body and flavours of biscuit and bread
  • oak barrel fermentation and/or maturation to add body and flavours (smoke, vanilla, coconut)
Now, here are the other 2 options your book mentions. Yet, these don’t really apply to the wines of Burgundy…
  • acidification – in warm climates producers can add extra acid to the wine. Yet, Burgundy has a cool-moderate climate so grapes gain enough acid on its own
  • some may use oak chips or staves to save money (which also doesn’t apply to most of Burgundy because these wines ARE expensive!!)

Understanding the Quality Hierarchy of Burgundy for your WSET Level 2 in Wines Exam

Regional Appellation: Bourgogne AOC

At the base of Burgundy’s quality tier sits the regional appellation Bourgogne AOC. These wines offer an entry point into Burgundy’s terroir but lack the depth and complexity of their counterparts higher up the hierarchy. Since they lack the fruit concentration of grapes grown in better sites on vineyard slopes with better drainage, these wines are rarely aged in small, new oak barrels. Yet, as everyone in the world is after these wines, the prices of even the most basic Bourgogne AOC wines can be pricey!
 

Village Wines

Moving up the ladder, village wines emerge with greater fruit concentration, exemplifying the essence of their respective terroirs. Villages are frequently positioned on well-situated hillsides, offering excellent drainage and favourable aspects that bask in the sun’s warm embrace.

Village Appellations for Burgundy's White Wines Made with Chardonnay:

Furthest north are the wines of the zesty wines of Chablis AOC where grapes may suffer from the icy touches of frost in some years! Dry light to midweight wines with high natural acidity and flavours of apple, lemon and wet stones come from this cool clime. These wines generally lack the concentration for exposure to new oak barrel ageing (although rising temperatures due to climate change may alter this rule!) Yet because of their searingly high acidity, malolactic conversion is often used to soften the acidity while adding flavours of butter and cream. Furthermore, lees contact will help to raise the body of the wine as well as add yummy flavours of biscuit and bread.

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Untitled 1920 x 1280 px scaled

The crown jewel of Burgundy, the Côte d’Or, is home to the region’s most celebrated vineyards. Divided into the Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune, this picturesque landscape harbours the essence of Burgundian terroir.

There are 2 famous villages that produce the epitome of ageworthy Chardonnay-based wines in the Côte de Beaune. Meursault AOC and Puligny-Montrachet AOC are renowned for producing very good to outstanding wines boasting ripe fruit flavours (peach, melon), complexity, and body. These wines are usually enhanced by oak barrel aging (vanilla) and lees contact (biscuit, bread). These wines can be left to evolve gracefully in the bottle, developing tertiary notes – albeit at a premium price.

Venturing further south, the Mâconnais sub-region beckons with its unoaked Chardonnays. Labelled as Mâcon AOC, these wines showcase simple flavours of lemon, peach, and melon, embodying the region’s fruity charm. If you are going to dip your toes into Burgundy, some of these wines may be a little lighter on the pocketbook.

However, it’s the steep slopes surrounding Pouilly-Fuissé AOC that steal the spotlight in the Mâconnais, producing richer Chardonnays that yearn for oak barrel fermentation or maturation. These wines boast concentrated stone-fruit and tropical flavours (obviously, because the vineyards are so far south!), marking them with richness and voluptuousness.

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Village Appellations for Burgundy's Red Wines Made with Pinot Noir for WSET Level 2 in Wines Exam

Now the red wines of Burgundy, crafted from the revered Pinot Noir grape, mirror the quality tier of their white counterparts. Village appellations like Gevrey-Chambertin AOC and Nuits-Saint-Georges AOC in the Côte de Nuits offer wines of heightened flavour intensity and complexity due to their favourable aspect on the Côte. Côte means ‘hillside’ in English. And these slopes provide good drainage for better quality grapes.

Further south in the Côte de Beaune lay the villages of Beaune AOC and Pommard AOC which also produce wines with more flavour intensity, complexity and length on the finish than your basic Bourgogne AOC red wine.

 

Premier Cru and Grand Cru Wines

Reds:

Undoubtedly, the pinnacle of excellence lies within the Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards nestled within the villages. These esteemed sites grace south- or south-east-facing slopes, basking in the sun’s nurturing warmth.

The term Premier Cru or 1er Cru adorns Burgundy wine labels, signifying their prestige. Wines originating solely from a single Premier Cru vineyard may proudly bear the vineyard’s name alongside the village it comes from. Therefore, Gevrey-Chambertin, Clos Saint-Jacques 1er Cru, found on some notably expensive red wines.

At the zenith of the quality pyramid are the Grand Cru sites, hailed as the epitome of Burgundian terroir. These revered vineyards produce wines of unparalleled excellence, with each Grand Cru awarded its own appellation. For instance, Le Chambertin Grand Cru AOC forgoes any mention of the village, as its name alone speaks volumes.

These wines based on Pinot Noir are famous for their concentrated flavours of strawberries and red cherries with subtle oak aromas like smoke, cloves and vanilla. (I often smell wet soil and sandlewood notes – yummy!) As as they age, they develop enticing forest floor aromas and mushrooms!

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1 4 scaled

Whites:

Chablis AOC has Premier Cru and Grand Cru sites as well. Most of these wines are unoaked because they lack the ripeness and fruit concentration to handle the bold flavours of new oak barrel ageing. However, as the Grand Cru wines are more flavourful, complex and ripe due to their esteemed south- or south-west facing slopes, they MAY have some vanilla and toast notes from oak.

Moreover, just as the villages growing red grapes may add Premier Cru to their label, so may the white wines of Meursault AOC and Puligny-Montrachet AOC

On this same token, Grand Cru white wines have their own appellations. It is the Grand Cru wines that command the highest prices and are able to age for long periods in the cellar developing notes of hazelnut and mushroom over decades.

SommWine Tip

  • if you want to know whether your bottle of Chablis wine has flavours of new oak, search for the producer, the wine and either ‘spec sheet‘ or ‘tech sheet‘. This is usually only necessary with Chablis Grand Cru but as the earth’s temperatures are warming, this is changing.
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2 3 scaled

Harnessing the Power of Visualization of Burgundy for your WSET Level 2 in Wines Exam

To truly grasp the intricacies of Burgundy’s vineyards, it’s essential to visualize their geographical nuances- it shows you where these regions sit and allows you to make inferences about the climate. For example, take a look at the small map of France and see how Chablis sits furthest north in Burgundy

That’s why the wines of Chablis show cool-climate characteristics of lemon juice, apple, pear notes and often use malolactic conversion to taper the screamingly high acidity in the wines! That’s also why Chablis wines rarely see new oak barrel ageing – because unless they are from Grand Cru sites, the wines rarely have enough fruit ripeness and concentration to stand up to the powerful vanilla, smoke and coconut note ws brought by the oak.  You can also see why the wines here will be lighter in body than the wines from all the way down south in Mâcon and Pouilly-Fuissé. Yes??

Therefore, our downloadable map of Burgundy provides a comprehensive overview, empowering you to navigate the region with confidence and ace your WSET Level 2 exam. I recommend you print the map and write notes about how the wines taste – both red and white in each of the appellations.

Burgundy Wine Map for WSET Level 2 in Wines

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Summary

In mastering the wines of Burgundy for your WSET Level 2 in Wines Exam, one delves into a world of unparalleled terroir, craftsmanship, and tradition. Let this guide be your compass as you embark on this enriching journey of discovery. Need more help? Check out our Ultimate Guides here.

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