Burgundy Beyond the Cote d’Or
Burgundy proper encompasses four main wine producing regions and, within them, any number of sub-regions. The main areas are Chablis, the Côte d’Or, the Côte Chalonnaise, and Macon, Many would add Beaujolais and there are ties to Burgundy but Beaujolais is in the department of the Rhone. The most famous area, the Côte d’Or, is divided into two smaller areas, the Côte de Nuits in the north and the Côte de Beaune in the south. While these divisions are geographic, they also are reliable indicators the types of wine each region produces. To understand Burgundy, a wine enthusiast should look at these areas both independently and as part of the whole. We’ll consider the Cote d’Or separately. Here’s a look at the rest of Burgundy.
Macon is the vineyard area immediately to the north of Beaujolais. As recently as twenty years ago, Macon was an area producing 80-90 percent red wine from Pinot Noir and Gamay. The remainder was white wine from Chardonnay and Aligoté. The emergence of Pouilly-Fuisse as a America’s favorite dry white import led to conversion of increasingly large amounts of vineyard to Chardonnay to take advantage of Pouilly-Fuisse’s popularity and the general boom in Chardonnay sales all over the world. Today, Macon produces over 95 percent Chardonnay wines.
THE VINEYARD AND ITS PRODUCE
The soil in Macon is good grape-growing soil with the limestone ridge that forms the Côte d’Or breaking up into a series of hills. The limestone-mineral character in the wine is further diluted by much higher yields than are allowed on the Côte d’Or Where Macon Chardonnay slips a bit in quality, it makes up ground in producing a large volume of good wines at mostly reasonable prices. Wines from Macon may be sold as Bourgogne Blanc, Chardonnay, or Macon. Wines from a selected group of villages are entitled to the appellation Macon-Villages. With in the Macon-Villages appellation are a number of villages whose wine may be sold under the village’s own name. Examples include Lugny (Macon-Lugny) and Viré (Macon-Viré). The village of Chardonnay could market its wine as Macon-Chardonnay. There are two appellations that encompass groups of villages that make a better wine than most Macon-Villages: St. Veran and Pouilly-Fuisse. St. Veran is the lesser of the two areas but makes very good Chardonnay at a price closer to Macon-Villages than to Pouilly-Fuisse. Pouilly-Fuisse is the star of Macon.
When the St. Veran appellation was created in the 1970’s, the law was written with a misspelling. The village was named St. Verand with a “d” but the law spelled it St. Veran (no “d”). The people changed the name of their village to fit the law as that was thought to be easier than changing the law. The wines are a sort of scaled down Pouilly-Fuisse. Some of the best St. Verans are better than many of the commercial Pouilly-Fuisses.
Made from grapes grown around the villages of Pouilly, Fuisse, Solutré, Vergisson, and Chaintré, Pouilly-Fuisse is Macon’s main claim to fame. As Montrachet defines the potential of Côte de Beaune white wine, Pouilly-Fuisse defines the best of Macon. Pouilly-Fuisse gained its reputation in the US. as an inexpensive alternative to Chablis. It has long since passed all but the best Chablis in price. Most Pouilly-Fuisse from reputable shippers and producers is the equal of comparably priced California Chardonnay and some is truly outstanding white wine. The top wines from top vintages can exhibit ripe apple and tropical fruit character and support a layer of toasty, buttery, vanillan oak. Such wines can sometimes pass for Côte de Beaune whites. For a less expensive alternative try wines from St. Veran, or, of course, real Chablis.
There are some fine wines made in the basic Macon-Villages appellation that can rival most anything made in Pouilly-Fuisse. These wines come from small estates with old vines. These small producers strictly select only the best grapes and work to keep yields at very low levels, in many cases less than one half the legal yield is produced. Most of these wines are sold under the name Macon and the village they come from as in Macon-Clesse or Macon-Ige.
The COTE CHALONNAISE
The Côte Chalonnaise is the area between the Côte d’Or and Macon. If the Côte Chalonnaise has a reputation in the US market, it is that of a viticultural backwater with little going on. Nothing could be further from the truth. The producers of the Côte Chalonnaise are busy improving their quality by such means as reducing yields and utilizing the most current production techniques utilized in the Côte d’Or.
THE GRAPE VARIETIES AND VINTAGES
The Côte Chalonnaise utilizes the same Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that reach greatness in the Côte d’Or. In addition Aligoté and Gamay are grown but their wines are rarely more than just good. Côte Chalonnaise vintages tend to follow Côte d’Or vintages. For a guide to the white wines, use the white Cote d’Or vintages, for the reds, use red Cote d’Or vintages.
THE VINEYARD AND SOILS
The whole of the Côte Chalonnaise features richer soils and less favorable exposures than the Côte d’Or. While the limestone ridge that makes up the Côte d’Or continues through the Côte Chalonnaise, its influence is less obvious. This is due to the richer soils and higher yields. The wines show good, ripe fruit characteristics with some limestone-mineral character. While the Côte Chalonnaise has many vineyards that stand out as premier crus, there are no grand crus.
THE GROWING AREAS AND THEIR WINES
The Côte Chalonnaise starts in the South with Montagny and moves north through Givry and Mercurey. Rully is the Côte Chalonnaise’ northernmost appellation. Rully surrounds on three sides the village of Bouzeron.
The southernmost appellation of the Côte Chalonnaise, Montagny is restricted to growing only Chardonnay. The term “premier cru” means little in Montagny as any wine with at least 11.5% alcohol is entitled to use it. As Montagny is not popular in the US, it can be hard to find. Top producers such as Caves de Buxy and Ch. de la Saule can exhibit ripe, spicy apple fruit with hints of butter, rich nuts, and minerals.
Givry produces mostly red wine from Pinot Noir grapes. Though the village has no premier or grand vineyards, there are some fine wines from named vineyards. Red Givry is stylistically similar to a good Cotes de Beaune-Villages with good raspberry and strawberry fruit and an earth and mineral component. White Givry tends to be clean and dry with some mineral notes but could use more fruit flavor. Baron Thenard is a top producer.
Like Givry, Mercurey produces mainly (95%) red wine from Pinot Noir grapes. The rest of Givry’s production is white wine made from Chardonnay. Mercurey has no grand crus and six premier crus. The best white wines are on par with the wines of Rully. The best reds show crisp strawberry and cherry fruit with some notes of earth, flowers, and minerals. Top producers include Faiveley, Patriarche, and Antonin Rodet.
Rully is the top white wine-producing village of the Côte Chalonnaise. While its production is only one half white, more Chardonnay is planted every year. At their best, Rully’s white wines resemble a cross between good village level Meursault and Chassagne-Montrachet. They show good Chardonnay fruit layered over oak and limestone. Excellent examples can be found from Jacqueson and Chateau de Rully.
Bouzeron is a small appellation noted for the world’s best Aligoté (a dubious distinction) and fine Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines with an almost crystal expression of fruit. The Pinot Noir is light and refreshing with concentrated fruit flavors and virtually no earthiness. The Chardonnay is ripe and balanced with spicy oak and hints of limestone. The village’s top producer is its mayor, Albert de Villaine (who is also the manager and a co-owner of the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti). Michel Goubard is another fine producer.
Chablis is the northernmost appellation of Burgundy and is actually closer to parts of Champagne than to the Côte d’Or or any of the rest of Burgundy. This closeness to Champagne extends to Chablis’s soils, chalky Kimmeridgean clays, and grape variety, Chardonnay. For many years, Chablis was considered the world’s best dry white wine. The name was bastardized the world over and eventually the real thing was all but forgotten outside of France. Macon’s Pouilly-Fuisse replaced Chablis in the minds of most Americans and on the wine lists and shelves of most American restaurants and retailers.
THE GRAPE AND THE SOIL.
Chablis is Chardonnay. When made from grapes from a top vineyard with low yielding vines and fermented and aged in stainless steel, Chablis is the ultimate expression of Chardonnay fruit. The soils of Chablis, like those of the best parts of Champagne and the Loire valley are ideally suited to the production of high acid white wines. Chardonnay takes to the Kimmeridgean clay as well as to the Côte d’Or’s limestone. The Kimmeridgean clay is a white, chalky soil made up of the fossilizes remains of ancient, tiny sea animals. It takes its name from the English town of Kimmeridge located not too far (by Texas standards at least from the more famous town of Dover.
There are two schools of thought on how to make Chablis. They differ over the use of oak. One school goes for the full Burgundian treatment with barrel fermentation, full malo-lactic fermentation, and sur-lie barrel aging. The other school believes in preserving as much fruit as possible through long, temperature controlled fermentations in inert vessels (stainless steel, large old wooden tanks, or glass lined tanks), limited malo-lactic fermentation, and limited lees contact during aging in inert vessels. There are excellent wines made by both schools.
Top producers in the stainless steel camp include Albert Pic, Long-Depaquit, Baron Patrick, Simonnet Febvre, William Fevre, Drouhin, Moreau, and Louis Michel. The oak school includes such top producers as René Dauvissat and François Raveneau. Guy Robin makes wine in both styles. Laroche combines stainless steel fermentations with up to six months of barrel aging.
THE GROWING AREAS OF CHABLIS AND THEIR WINES
Chablis is divided into four classes of wine. In ascending order of quality, they are Petit-Chablis, Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru, and Chablis Grand Cru. The grand cru and premier cru wines are usually single vineyard wines identified by the their vineyard name.
Petit-Chablis comes from the outlying areas with least favorable soils and exposures. While it is 100% Chardonnay, that is its only distinction. Most Petit-Chablis is thin, mean wine that is either overly acidic or diluted tasting, depending on the vintage and producer. It is not expensive but is almost never worth its price. Avoid.
The basic appellation of Chablis is making a comeback. Prices, which in the past have exceeded $30.00 a bottle from top producers have dropped dramatically. Many very good village level Chablis wines are now available for under $22.00 a bottle. At these lower prices, the wines once again are beginning to sell in the US. These wines show crisply balanced apple and lemon fruit with a unique note of terroir from the chalky clay. The best of the village Chablis hint at the quality to be found at the premier cru and grand cru levels.
CHABLIS PREMIER CRU
While there are 40 premier cru vineyards in Chablis, the individual sites are combined to be marketed under the twelve most recognizable names: Fourchaume*, Montée de Tonnerre*, Mont de Millieu*, Vaulcoupin, Les Fourneaux, Beauroy*, Côte de Lechet, Vaillons*, Melinots, Montmains*, Vosgros, and Vau-de-vey. The best wines come from those names indicated with an asterisk. These sites have better exposure and more of the Kimmeridgean clay soil, sometimes over a limestone base. The wines they produce are richer and fuller flavored than village Chablis. Due to their high acid levels, the top wines from the best vintages have the potential to develop for five to ten years. There is a trend toward producing wines labeled “Premier Cru” with no vineyard name. These wines are blends of two or more premier cru vineyards or blends of premier and grand cru vineyards.
CHABLIS GRAND CRU
These are the vineyards that in the right year and made by the right producer can provide wines that are the ultimate expression of Chardonnay. The seven sites that are the grand crus of Chablis are Blanchot, Les Clos, Les Preuses, Vaudésir, Valmur, Grenouilles, and Bougros. A five-and-a-half acre vineyard called La Moutonne straddles the grand crus of Vaudésir and Les Preuses; La Moutonne has an unofficial status as a grand cru. The Grand Crus are located adjacent to each other on the northwest bank of the Serein River. The share a fine southwest exposure. All the grand cru sites have the same Kimmeridgean clay soils mixed with some other soil types, all over limestone. The yields are lower and the grapes ripen sooner and more evenly. The wines are more concentrated and richer than any others in Chablis.
CHABLIS AGING CHARACTERISTICS
Most Village level wines should be consumed by their fifth year in even the best of vintages. Premier crus drink best at three to six years old, depending on the quality of the vintage. Grand cru wines can drink well to about three years and again after five years of age. Grand cru Chablis, if kept in a cool, moist, dark cellar, has the potential to last fifteen to twenty years with most improvement during the first ten to twelve years.