People often ask, “Why are Burgundy wines so incredibly expensive?” If you’ve tried to shop for Burgundies you know they can be thousands of dollars a bottle. The key reason for the expense is that they can be spectacularly good. They’re also some of the most coveted wines in the world. The wines of Burgundy are the benchmark – the Holy Grail for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. But there are other reasons people fork over a small fortune for them: investment, status, boasting rights.
Burgundy: A short history
Burgundy, one of the world’s most beloved wine regions, is blessed with the perfect combination of geography, geology and climate for the production of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, among other cool-climate grape varieties.
Nobody really knows who planted the first grapevines in this region, which lies just northeast of France’s geographic center. Archeological evidence suggests that wine was being made as early as the second century AD; some believe that the Celts were making wine there before the Romans arrived. Burgundian wine was praised in writing as early as the 6th century.
By the time of Charlemagne (or Charles the Great), Burgundian wine was being produced in many monasteries. The Benedictines began making quality wine at their Abbey of Cluny, founded in 910. Later, they were joined by the Cistercian order, which created a large walled vineyard, the Clos de Vougeot, in 1336. The Cistercians were the first to notice the effects of terroir.
The House of Valois, which ruled as Dukes of Burgundy throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, helped elevate the status of Burgundian wine by creating a ban on the import and export of all non-Burgundian wines. That action blocked Rhone wines in the south of France from populous markets in the north, which helped boost the popularity of Burgundian wines.
Burgundy’s quirky geography
Burgundian wine still suffered from a quirk of geography. The region is landlocked and devoid of a major river, which meant that wine barrels couldn’t be shipped by riverboats, the dominant form of transportation in France for centuries. But by the 1700s, improvements in France’s road systems meant that Burgundian wine began to make its way to more distant population centers. Throughout that century, Burgundy competed with Champagne for the huge and profitable Parisian market.
World War II wreaked widespread devastation on Burgundy, like the rest of France. But determined winemakers brought the region back within a decade. By the mid-1950s, Burgundian vineyards produced some of the most celebrated wines of the 20th century.
For several decades, some Burgundian winemakers used chemical fertilizers, which eventually undermined quality. But beginning in the mid-1980s, many Burgundian wineries began to practice more sustainable and environmentally friendly viticulture, which greatly improved wine quality overall.
We asked a few experts to give their opinion on why Burgundy wines are so expensive. Here’s what they had to say:
Master of Wine James Cluer, Fine Vintage Ltd.
“One of the key ones is that they’re produced in minute quantities and with such powerful worldwide demand that will drive the prices up. Another reason is that it’s a tough place to make wine, and each year can pose certain challenges. You can have really bad vintages in Burgundy due to hail, or frost, or torrential downpours at harvest time when grapes rot and all that. So sometimes when they hit a good vintage, it will just spike the price off the charts.”
Chelsea Sawyer, Sommelier at Greens Restaurant in San Francisco
“My take on the loaded question of why Burgundy Wines are so expensive would be two reasons. First, the name Burgundy. Consumers see the name and immediately associate it to a high quality “fancy” wine; this alone allows for higher prices. Second, there is no wine quite like Burgundy. The pure expression of terroir and subtle yet significant differences found from producer to producer, from plot to plot is incredible. Burgundy allows you to travel through a glass of wine. Drinking Burgundy is an experience.”
[Editor’s Note: Some may recognize the name Villaine, and yes, it’s that Villaine! Co-owner of Domaine de la Romanee Conti (“DRC”), the global icon Aubert de Villaine. A recent vintage of DRC, if you’re lucky to purchase one, will run you thousands of dollars! So the suggestion above sounds solid!]
Eddie Osterland, America’s 1st Master Sommelier
“The best Burgundies (whites or reds) have such tension and precision in their finishes that no other wines on the planet can match. Their finishes taper as if some one pressed the sustaining pedal on a piano for 30 seconds and the flavors maintain their integrity throughout. That’s Burgundy!”
Paige Comrie, Sommelier & Influencer & Certified American Wine Expert
“Burgundy is the O.G. wine region for truly expressive wines. With over 400 documented soil types and more appellations d’origine Controlee (AOCs) than any other French winegrowing region, there’s a lot of subtlety in the terroir. Adding to the complexity of the land itself, Napoleonic inheritance laws fragmented vineyard ownership, splitting single vineyards between dozens of owners.
It’s a very complex place governing who can grow what where! Then to top it all off, Pinot Noir is a finicky grape that’s not easy to grow. All of these factors contribute to limitations to growth and overall scarcity in the market of wines made from particular vineyards, chateaus, or regions. While it may be difficult to find a particularly well-known wine from Burgundy, there are, however, some amazing village-level labels that can be both outstanding quality and more affordable.”
Brianne Cohen, Sommelier & Founder SOMMspirations
“Ah, Burgundy. One of the most revered wine regions, yet so few can actually afford it. There are a few reasons why Burgundy is expensive. For one, scarcity.
There are only 29,000 hectares under vine in Burgundy. By comparison, Bordeaux has four times that. Another reason why Burgundy is expensive is because the quality level of the wine (as a general rule) is so high and their popularity is equally high. The basic law of supply and demand. Many of the high-end wines in Burgundy are vanity wines. Wines meant to show off and flaunt. For example, a Grand Cru from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti can easily run a few thousand dollars, for those willing to fork it over. What does that mean for the rest of us? Not much. Most of us cannot afford those wines and are not their target market.
But know that there are lovely Burgundy wines for the rest of us! There are plenty of entry-level wines that provide enormous value. One such example is Domaine Nicolas Rossignol Bourgogne Rouge. This is a generic Bourgogne (meaning it does not specify a Village and does not have Premier-Cru or Grand Cru status). And for a generic Bourgogne under $40, this one is a winner with balance, structure, and depth of flavor.”