Corton-Charlemagne is the Grand Cru appellation for the white wines of the Montagne de Corton hill, in the Côte de Beaune district of Burgundy. The appellation was introduced in 1937 and covers the three surrounding communes of Aloxe-Corton, Ladoix-Serrigny and Pernand-Vergelesses. It is essentially synonymous with the less-used Charlemagne appellation, which covers only the vines in Aloxe-Corton and Pernand-Vergelesses. There are around 52 hectares (130 acres) of vineyard entitled to use one or both of the these Appellations Contrôlées.
The Emperor Charlemagne is said to have ordered the planting of the first white grape varieties on the Corton hillside. The red wines he loved so much stained his long white beard, and his wife (one of several) is said to have pressured him into drinking white wines instead. These would not necessarily have been made from the Chardonnay grapes used today. They are more likely to have been a mix of Pinot Gris (locally known as Pinot Beurot), Pinot Blanc and Aligoté. It was not until after the phylloxera outbreak of the 19th century that Chardonnay took over as the dominant grape variety in Burgundy's premium white wines. Aligoté and Pinot Blanc are still permitted in Corton-Charlemagne wines today, although only in small quantities.
The hill of Corton itself is a large outcrop of limestone, set slightly apart from the main Côte d'Or escarpment. It marks the northern end of the Côte de Beaune and abruptly halts the vineyard-strewn plain which flows north from Beaune. The top of the lozenge-shaped hill is covered in dense woodland, which is regarded as a crucial component in the mesoclimate. In 2017 rumours that this 66ha (163 acres) site was to be sold and possibly developed with further vineyards led producers to band together to safeguard its survival.
The trees are replaced by vineyards from about 345 meters (1130ft) downwards. Vines occupy the slopes of the hill for almost its entire circumference, although the Grand Cru rating covers only the southern half of the hill, sweeping majestically around from due east to due west. The Le Charlemagne, Les Pougets and Les Languettes lieu-dits, facing southwest to southeast are responsible for most of the Corton Charlemagne output. However, while the red wines of the Corton appellation are generally labelled with the name of a specific climat, this is not the case for Corton-Charlemagne, probably reflecting a greater degree of homogeneity between the three parcels.
The clay topsoil has eroded away from the top of the slope nearest the trees, leaving a limestone-marl mix most suited to white grapes, which has historically been the source of Corton-Charlemagne. Further down the slope there is more clay, iron, scree and fossil-rich soil more suited to Pinot Noir. The eastern side is a touch warmer – being more exposed to the morning sunshine – and richer in the marlstone which is so well suited to Pinot Noir.
Classic Corton Charlemagne is considered to be amongst the finest of Burgundy's whites, and is famous for its combination of fruit flavours (figs and baked pears) and mineral character (flint) – the latter being particularly prevalent in wines from the cooler western slopes. Corton-Charlemagne ranks among the world's more expensive white wines, although it still does not reach the prices commanded by its Montrachet counterparts.