Welcome to the new Burgundy: Chablis out, Beaujolais in

A proposal to redraw the map of AOC Bourgogne is causing consternation among the region’s winemakers. Nina Caplan hears both sides of the debate

Words by Nina Caplan

Thorey-sous-Charny, 35 miles west of Dijon, would lose the chance to include the word Burgundy on its labels if the INAO plan goes through. Image credit: William Craig Moyes

The picture is so simple a child in the local école primaire could understand it: a bright green pear with a label saying ‘Pomme’. The child might, however, be a little puzzled: pomme means apple, after all. But for Burgundian winemakers, including Bruno Verret, president of the Regional Burgundy Syndicates, who designed the poster, that is precisely the point. If the French wine authorities say this pear is an apple, then so it is. And nobody, the poster adds, likes to be ‘pris pour une bonne poire’ – or made to look a sucker.

Why all this talk of apples and pears without a grape in sight, you might be wondering. The issue is complex, but at its essence is an attempt by the INAO (Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité, which regulates France’s wine appellations) to redraw the map of the Burgundy AOC – that is, the area within which winemakers are permitted to label their bottles ‘Bourgogne’. The map’s borders were set in 1937 – though the process was never finished, according to Chablis winemaker Vincent Dampt. “And the commission which was charged with drawing up the new map didn’t necessarily take the right things into account.”

The objective, according to INAO director Marie Guittard, is to reduce the official Burgundy area in accordance with a plot-by-plot assessment according to “soil, weather conditions and human understanding of the terroir: objective criteria that can’t be contested.” Which shows admirable ambition… but does perhaps underestimate the average Burgundian vigneron’s approach to supposedly objective criteria that don’t suit his or her particular objectives.

The poster, designed by winemaker Bruno Verret, is aimed at preserving – rather than morphing – the individual identities of Burgundy and Beaujolais

The INAO’s plan caused uproar. In northern Burgundy, 64 communes, including Chablis, would lose their right to the AOC Bourgogne classification. The designation is supposed to offer an entry-point into the typicity of Burgundian wines – yet, while wines made from the Gamay grape in parts of Beaujolais would be included, those from the Pinots and Chardonnays of northern Burgundy no longer would. Also excluded was the area around Dijon. So, in wine terms, the Burgundian wine capital would no longer be in Burgundy.

As if that weren’t odd enough, the concurrent expansion to the south would bring in areas of Beaujolais that are, says Dampt, “closer to the Rhône than to Burgundy!” And here’s where the real issue lies – the target of the pear-apple. There was once Gamay in Burgundy proper, but it was pulled up by order of Burgundy’s Duke, Philip the Bold, in 1395, who described it as ‘déloyal’. His comments are often misunderstood – déloyal means unfair, not unfaithful; Philip considered the grape a bad match for Burgundian land. Over 600 years later, today’s winemakers agree.

“Gamay suits the granite and sand of Beaujolais. Burgundy is limestone and clay, and Gamay is too productive on that soil – it makes poor-quality wine there,” says Thibault Liger-Belair. He should know: he comes from an old family with vines in Vosne-Romanée and other Burgundy grands crus, but in 2008 bought land in Beaujolais and now makes terrific wine there, too. “These are two regions, with personalities that are different, even opposing, even though there are family ties between them,” he says.

His analysis is rather apt, since this row does have elements of a family quarrel. DNA analysis shows that Gamay is related to Pinot Noir; Beaujolais, just south of Burgundy, is like the younger sibling trying both to make its own way while taking advantage of its more established elder’s reputation. Liger-Belair points to records that show that in 1911, Moulin à Vent – now one of the ten individual crus of Beaujolais, although they hadn’t been formally established back then – sold for the same price as Vosne-Romanée. Thereafter, Burgundy began estate bottling; prices and prestige rose and rose. Beaujolais, meanwhile, got Beaujolais Nouveau.

The Gamay grape makes poor quality wine in Burgundy, says Thibault Liger-Belair. Image credit: William Craig Moyes

Cheap, young Beaujolais was once the daily drink of nearby Lyon – it was said that three rivers ran through the city: the Saône, the Rhône and the river of Beaujolais. In the 1960s and 1970s, this thin, tart yet fruity, easy-drinking wine went from being a minor celebration of another successful harvest (it is the first French wine released each year) to an enthusiastically promoted trend. Fermented swiftly using the carbonic maceration process and released to great fanfare on the third Thursday of each November, Beaujolais Nouveau made Beaujolais winemakers wealthy with relatively little effort and removed the incentive to produce serious, ageworthy wines. When the style fell out of fashion in the 1990s, the region suffered. Today, just over a quarter of production is still Beaujolais Nouveau, but winemakers in crus such as Moulin à Vent, Morgon and Côte de Brouilly make more complex wines. They just take care not to call themselves Beaujolais.

“I don’t make Beaujolais, I make Moulin à Vent,” says Edouard Parinet, director of Château du Moulin à Vent. Other top producers echo him: Château Thivin and Château des Ravatys make Côte de Brouilly; Jean-Marc Burgaud makes Morgon. Liger-Belair’s wines are Moulin à Vent and, he says, “you need really good glasses to spot the word Beaujolais on the label”. When Valentine’s Day comes around, the producers of Saint-Amour trumpet their wines; less is said about the cru’s location just south of Macon, in Beaujolais.

But neither would they want to bracketed as Bourgogne. For these winemakers, the row over the Burgundy AOC is an irrelevance, useful only to big producers or merchants who want to label cheap wine with the most commercially valuable classification they can get. Top producers, whether in Morgon or in Chablis, don’t declassify their wine to the basic level. Dominique Piron, winemaker and president of Inter Beaujolais, the region’s wine body, is adamant. “The young people here want to make Beaujolais, not Burgundy,” he maintains, meaning they want to express this granitic terroir as fully as possible, rather than make use of a different name – or grape variety – for cynical reasons. “For me, the future is entirely Gamay. I want more roundness, more depth, more colour. I don’t want to plant Pinot Noir.”

Producers of Beaujolais ‘cru’ wines don’t tend to put the word ‘Beaujolais’ on their labels

For less fortunate winemakers in the region, however, it’s not hard to see that an option to plant Pinot Noir, if it could be labelled as Burgundy, would be very enticing – just as it is easy to understand why Burgundians are horrified at the thought. It is harder to understand why producers of Chablis, a region whose slavish admirers – and labels – tend to mention neither Chardonnay nor Burgundy, might suffer from going it alone. But winemakers have a connection with history that is literally deep-rooted, and just because most choose not to embrace their Burgundian identity doesn’t mean they accept being deprived of it. These are tough times, what with climate change, ever-increasing competition from ever-expanding numbers of wine-producing countries, and now a pandemic that has badly hurt restaurants and bars. And in tough times, there is strength in numbers.

The Burgundians, determined to prove that an apple is an apple and there are no suckers in their region, turned out in droves to protest at the February meeting intended to finalise the new map. The result was a rapid volte-face: “I will not be the president who takes Chablis out of Burgundy,” said head of the INAO National Wine Committee Christian Paly. Then coronavirus arrived and the row, like everything else, was silenced.

Now, though a date for the next INAO meeting has yet to be set, the topic is rearing its head again. So what will happen next? According to Liger-Belair, Beaujolais ought to reject the chance to make substandard Burgundy and concentrate on making great Beaujolais instead. To do so, Beaujolais needs to establish its own hierarchy – preferably one that makes clearer that the best Beaujolais are also Beaujolais. It needs to make its own name and its own way. If the region makes basic Burgundy, whether substandard Pinot Noir or the lesser of its Gamays, then it will never be other than Burgundy’s poor relation. But if Beaujolais learns to stand alone, it can be a great wine region, as close to yet as different from Burgundy as, well, apples are from pears.


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