The Côte de Beaune is the southern half of the escarpment of the Côte d'Or, named after the important town and wine centre of Beaune. The greatest white wines of Burgundy and some very fine reds are grown on this stretch. Over the years the villages here and in the Côte de Nuits to the north have tended to append the name of their most famous vineyard to the village name, so that Aloxe became Aloxe-Corton and both Puligny and Chassagne grabbed the world-famous suffix Montrachet.
As in its northerly neighbour the Côte de Nuits, a cross-section of the escarpment reveals topsoils too sparse on the hilltop and too fertile in the plain to produce wine of any quality. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are planted in the lowest vineyards on flat, fertile land to produce generic Bourgogne Rouge and Bourgogne Blanc, as well as Bourgogne Aligoté and its red counterpart Bourgogne Passetoutgrains. These in turn give way to village appellation vineyards; as the ground starts to slope upwards, drainage improves, and the soil is less fertile. The principal village appellations, from north to south, are Corton and Corton-Charlemagne, Beaune, Pommard, Volnay, Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, and Chassagne-Montrachet. Many of the wines carrying the names of these particularly well-known villages can be absolutely marvellous but bottlers who care more about money than quality often bottle some of Burgundy's worst bargains under them.
Where the slope becomes more pronounced and clay gives way to stonier topsoil, the vineyards enjoying improved drainage and greater sun exposure are designated premiers crus. The finest vineyards, in certain villages only, are classified as grands crus. The premier and grand cru vineyards are mainly at elevations between 250 and 300 m (820 and 980 ft) above sea level. Near the top of the slope, where the soil is almost too poor, there is usually a narrow band of regional appellation vineyards providing fine but light wines labeled in this sector of the Côte d'Or as Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes de Beaune.
Red wines from the lesser villages of the Côte may be sold under their own names or labeled with the communal appellation of Côte de Beaune-Villages. This appellation is available for the wines of Auxey-Duresses, Chassagne-Montrachet, Chorey-lès-Beaune, Ladoix-Serrigny, Meursault, Monthélie, Pernand-Vergelesses, Puligny-Montrachet, St-Aubin, St-Romain, Santenay, and Savigny-lès-Beaune. Wines from these smaller villages can offer particularly good value for money.
The white wines produced in the better sites of the Côte de Beaune (notably in the villages of Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, and Chassagne-Montrachet, along with the grand cru Corton-Charlemagne) are the most savoury, full-bodied, age-worthy dry whites in the world - a world away from the simplistic appeal of a commercial Chardonnay. Fine white burgundy, when young, is more likely to show the character of the oak in which it has been vinified than the grapes from which it came. Hallmarks of quality are fullness of body, balance of acidity, and persistence of flavour. Only after two or more years of bottle age will a fine Meursault or Puligny-Montrachet start to show the quality of the fruit, which will deepen with age. A village appellation wine should be at its best between three and five years old, a premier cru from five to 10 years, while a grand cru worthy of its status needs a full decade of bottle ageing.