It is often said that great wine begins in the vineyard, and with many of the world’s most storied wines, that is unequivocally true. Yes, viticulture can be confounding, but it’s the all-important factor that truly makes great wine. The soils upon which these vines grow matter, as do their elevations, orientation to the sun and various microclimates.
Get to know some of these special vineyards below.
Burgundy lays claim to a large number of the world’s most storied vineyards. Many of these inimitable sites, also known as climats, are UNESCO World Heritage sites. Perhaps the most iconic site is Romanée-Conti, of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC) fame.
This vineyard is a monopole, which means it’s a vineyard or appellation owned and controlled by one winery. Its cemetery-like cross stands sentry at the mouth of the vineyard, lending an almost solemn reverence to match its near-mythical status.
Romanée-Conti is also a clos, or walled vineyard. This particular clos only produces around 450 cases of wine per year from a parcel that measures just under five acres. In 2018, a bottle of 1945 DRC sold for $558,000 at a Sotheby’s auction. Other notable older vintages include the 1966 and 1978.
The vineyard was planted in the 13th century by monks of the Saint-
Notable Producer (if the opportunity ever presents itself): Domaine de la Romanée-Conti
Another revered climat, or vineyard, in Burgundy is Montrachet, located in the Côte de Beaune, the southern part of the esteemed Côte d’Or. Centered around the town of the same name, the Côte de Beaune is not strictly a white wine region, but the whites are for what the region is known.
Montrachet is a grand cru vineyard thought to be the greatest place in the world for Chardonnay production. It’s situated between the famed towns of Puligny and Chassagne. The vineyard lies midslope and faces southeast, which protects against the strong, westerly winds.
Well-draining, calcium-rich soils allow the grapes to stay hydrated, and to thrive.
Like Romanée-Conti, it also covers a small growing area—only 20 acres, or eight hectares—to produce the longest-lived and most expensive white wines in the world. Montrachet is not a monopole, so there are a few owners who make wine from the site.
Notable Producers: Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Bouchard Père et Fils, Domaine Leflaive, Joseph Drouhin, Louis Latour
There’s one premier cru vineyard in Burgundy that inspires awe in the way that many grand crus do, and that is Gevrey-Chambertin’s Clos Saint-Jacques.
Why is Clos Saint-Jacques rated as a premier cru vineyard only? It’s believed that during the establishment of Burgundy’s classification system, some owners refused to pay the higher fee associated with the higher tier of classification. Of course, everything always comes down to money.
In Clos Saint-Jacques, five owner-producers are allowed to use the vineyard name on the bottle: Louis Jadot, perhaps the most affordable of the five producers; Domaine Armand Rousseau; Domaine Sylvie Esmonin; Domaine Fourrier and Domaine Bruno Clair.
Armand Rousseau has the largest holdings at a little over five acres. Its wines are said to be the plushest of the bunch, but all are held in high esteem.
Notable Producers: Domaine Bruno Clair, Domaine Sylvia Esmonin, Domaine Fourrier, Louis Jadot, Domaine Armand Rousseau
Clos des Goisses
The name says it all. While clos means walled vineyard, goisses is French for “very steep vineyard,” and this roughly 13.5-acre plot on the north end of the Marne River in Champagne ascends from 30º to 45º. Such a slope requires manual farming (standard in Champagne) or, somewhat anachronistically, horses and plows.
Planted to both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, this premier cru vineyard has grown wine grapes since the 16th century and is currently the warmest site in Champagne. Its south-facing orientation and surrounding wall creates a warmer microclimate than the rest of Champagne. This ensures that the grapes ripen, and its special chalk soil acts as a heat conductor.
Notable Producer: Philipponnat
Coulée au Serrant
Planted in the 12th century by Cistercian monks, Coulée au Serrant has been continually harvested each year. As of 2020, the vineyard has seen 890 consecutive vintages.
Coulée is a monopole and appellation in the Savennières district of the Loire Valley, owned by Nicolas Joly. The vineyard’s 17-plus acres are planted to one of the flagship grapes of the Loire, Chenin Blanc. The south-southeast vineyard is farmed according to biodynamic principles and has vines that average from 35 to 40 years old. They sit on schist, quartz and flint soils, which provide distinctive minerality.
Notable Producer: Domaine Nicolas Joly
“It was like touching the stars with my hands,” says Luciano Sandrone, a Piedmont producer, about Italy’s most famous cru.
Says Michele Chiarlo, another Barolo producer: “When I was able to buy [acreage in Cannubi] it was a joy, almost like touching heaven with my fingertips.”
Grapes have been grown in Cannubi since before Barolo was a designation. Owned by 19 producers, its 37 acres have been at the center of contentious property disputes and naming rights over the years, and one time the issue made its way to Italy’s Supreme Court.
It is such a revered name that neighboring vineyards like Cannubi San Lorenzo and Cannubi Muscatel sought to use the “Cannubi” name as a demonstration of their wine’s quality. In 2013, courts decided that the neighboring vineyards could use the name to promote their proximity to the world-famous site.
Notable Producers: Brezza, Damilano, Michele Chiarlo, Sandrone, Paolo Scavino
To Kalon Vineyard
In Greek, To Kalon means “the beautiful,” and standing at the overlook from Robert Mondavi Winery, it’s easy to understand why. The 1,000-acre parcel in Napa Valley’s Oakville appellation sees acres of vines butted up against a blue, cloudless sky and the lush, green Mayacamas mountains.
To Kalon is also home to the small yet mighty parcel named I-Block, lauded for having North America’s oldest Sauvignon Blanc vines, now 75 years old. Their thick, gnarled trunks are untrellised and require no irrigation, concentrating their already bright fruit flavor.
If America had grand cru vineyards, To Kalon would certainly be at the top of the list. As Napa Valley is known for Bordeaux grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, however, it’s more fitting to say that To Kalon is a kind of “first growth” vineyard.
And because To Kalon was part of the partnership between Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Bordeaux first growth Château Mouton Rothschild, the analogy is even more apt.
Like Cannubi, its enviable location and soil diversity has made To Kalon a target, of sorts, with some of the best and most expensive wineries in the Valley vying to produce a To Kalon-labeled wine. The vineyard is currently divided among a few conglomerates. Robert Mondavi-Constellation owns the largest holdings at nearly 450 acres, while grower Andy Beckstoffer has 90 acres and Opus One has 35 acres. The rest are owned by a handful of smaller growers.
Notable Producers: Robert Mondavi, Opus One, Realm Cellars
Because of Burgundy’s storied pedigree, Pinot Noir is almost as noble as grapes come. And Pinot Noir in the States is gaining a foothold. Even Burgundian denizens praise Oregon’s Willamette Valley for its great terroir for Pinot production.
The region’s Mecca is often considered to be Shea Vineyard, a 290-acre property in Yamhill County renowned for its sedimentary sandstone soil. Shea dedicates 149 acres to Pinot Noir and six acres to Chardonnay.
Proprietor Dick Shea supplies grand cru-quality grapes to some of the most vaunted and well- known Oregon and California wineries.
Notable Producers: Bergström, Ken Wright Cellars, Shea Wine Cellars, Winderlea
Bien Nacido Vineyard
Located on California’s Central Coast, Bien Nacido dates to 1837. However, it didn’t arrive on many wine lovers’ maps until the Millers, a fifth-generation family of California farmers, purchased it in 1969.
Their dream was to shepherd a vineyard that rivaled those of the great estates of Europe. Many people believe that dream has been realized.
Bien Nacido lies in the Santa Maria Valley of Santa Barbara County. It’s one of the coolest growing sites in the state due to the ocean influence and transverse (east-west orientation) Santa Ynez mountain range. The vineyard is planted to 900 acres of vines and supplies grapes to many high-end wineries in California.
Notable Producers: Au Bon Climat, Bien Nacido Estate, Qupé, Twomey, Migration
Old Garden Vineyard (Barossa Valley)
Contrary to what one might believe, the world’s oldest-producing vines are not in Europe, but Australia. Planted in 1853, the Old Garden vineyard is now owned by Dean Hewitson, winemaker and proprietor of Hewitson winery in South Australia.
Old Garden has the great honor of never having been affected by phylloxera, the vine root louse that wreaked havoc on many of the world’s vineyards in the 1800s. It is home to the world’s oldest, perpetually-producing Mourvèdre vines in the world. They are currently 168 years old and produce a rich, deeply complex wine.
Notable Producer: Hewitson