Is this Burgundy’s Best Value Village?
- Thursday 15 February 2007
Like many people trying to master the complex mosaic of Burgundian vineyards, I spend hours poring over those detailed maps that identify all the crus of the region. These maps are full of surprises. How close the modest vineyards of Monthelie are to the finest growths of Volnay! How strange that only Vosne Suchots, a premier cru, breaks the swathe of grand cru sites that stretch otherwise uninterrupted from La Tâche to Clos de Vougeot! Perhaps oddest of all is how the mighty Chevalier-Montrachet is just a few metres away from the lowly vineyards of St Aubin, which also border the premiers crus of Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet.
Of course the monks, growers and bureaucrats who established the hierarchy of Burgundian vineyards knew what they were doing. St-Aubin may be a stone’s throw away from Chevalier-Montrachet, but never in a thousand years will the best whites of St-Aubin rival a fine Chevalier-Montrachet.The maps are flat, but the vineyards are not. What maps can only suggest by graphic means are the variations of elevation and exposure that make all the difference between a mediocre site and a great one.
But while it would be foolish to make excessive claims for communes such as Monthélie or St-Aubin, it is worth bearing in mind that the prices of their wines are a fraction of those demanded for the wines of their more illustrious neighbours.
If you stand facing the grand cru vineyards such as Montrachet, you will see how a side valley penetrates the hills to the left. If you follow the road that leads along this valley, you come to the villages of Gamay and St-Aubin. Both sides of this road are lined with the vineyards of St-Aubin. Most are classified as premier cru, which may suggest they are of equal quality, but this is far from the case. Some of these sites lie close to the road, where the soils tend to be heavy and alluvial, resulting in wines that lack finesse. Elsewhere there are vineyards too high on the slope, where ripeness can be marginal.
As for the vineyards just above Chevalier, the key word is ‘above’: they are high and exposed to strong winds that can delay maturation. Nonetheless these are the best sites in St-Aubin: En Remilly, Chatenière, and Les Murgers des Dents de Chien. Les Murgers is arguably the village’s best vineyard: very stony and chalky. There is very little soil here, and the vines can suffer in difficult years; but when the grapes ripen fully, they give the most powerful and elegant wines of St-Aubin. En Remilly is slightly less stony and the wines can be a touch broader, though some rate the site very highly. The same is true of La Chatenière, a steep vineyard with a fine southerly exposure which is prized by growers such as Larue.
Driving through these vineyards, it is clear that there are enormous variations. One grower’s parcel in En Remilly may differ greatly in quality and character from another’s. Thus an outstanding plot in a modest premier cru may deliver better wine than a poorly sheltered parcel in an otherwise outstanding vineyard. Nonetheless it is fairly safe to say that the best sites are those on the Puligny side of the valley. Crus such as Charmois on the Chassagne side are less steep and have soils richer in clay; the wines can be very good, but they are broader than those from Murgers and its neighbours, and have less finesse.
(St-Aubin also produces some red wines, but overall they are decidedly less interesting than the whites; at best they are light and charming, at worst rustic and dour. The top red vineyards tend to be those that are sited behind the village of St-Aubin: Les Frionnes and Sur le Sentier du Clou.)
Such reputation as St-Aubin enjoys is recent. Fifty years ago, many growers planted Aligoté rather than Chardonnay; then in the 1960s there was a vogue for Pinot Noir. Today, Chardonnay rightly dominates. Although a handful of négociants have long sought out its wines, the village is lucky to have a good number of skilled growers who have taken pains to reclaim the best sites. Parts of Remilly and Murgers were abandoned after phylloxera, and because of their steepness were not replanted until the 1980s and 1990s.
There is surprisingly little variation in winemaking styles. Simple white village wines will usually be aged either in older barrels or casks, or in tanks. Premiers crus are usually vinified and aged in Burgundian oak barrels, although the proportion of new oak rarely exceeds 30%, and is more often 15–20%. Whoever classified the vineyards of St-Aubin was over-generous in handing out premiers crus; consequently village wines, often planted in very cool sites, are sometimes over-acidic, so it is invariably worth paying the slight premium for a premier cru.
For many years the best producer in the village was Marc Colin, who has now handed over to his sons. Since the late 1990s, however, the wines of Olivier Lamy have snuck into the lead. Lamy’s wines were unexciting until the mid-1990s, when Hubert’s son Olivier took over. Each year he produces a brilliant range from Remilly, Chatenière, and Murgers, wines that are vigorous and bracing as well as packed with fruit. However, they are easily the most expensive white wines of St-Aubin.
The Larue brothers have a wide range of premiers crus to choose from, as well as vineyards in Puligny and Chassagne. In 2000 Remilly and Murgers were their top crus, and these are fruity wines with well-integrated oak that reflect the diverse characters of their vineyard sites.
Denis Clair, who is based in Santenay, is equally dependable. His are wines of vigour and length that offer very enjoyable drinking over about five years. They are modern-style whites, made with techniques such as whole-cluster pressing (also used by Lamy) and aged in slightly more new oak than most St-Aubins. But their fruit quality is excellent, and in their generosity and exuberance they reflect the personality of their producer. Like the wines from Colin, they are reasonably priced.
Dominique Derain is the village eccentric, an opinionated man with a high regard for his own wines, which have been produced biodynamically for many years. (A tub of fresh cows’ horns reposed in the courtyard when I last visited.) His winemaking is non-interventionist to a fault: no added yeasts, no chaptalisation, no acidification, hardly any filtration, even for whites. They are good, especially from En Remilly, and they seem to age well.
With this proliferation of reliable growers, it is easy to suppose that all the wines of St-Aubin are worth seeking out. But there are disappointments too. Those from Vincent Prunier in Auxey-Duresse often display rather aggressive acidity. Gérard Thomas’ wines lack aromatic zest and are marked by high acidity, which he attributes to the young vines in his vineyards. However, his Murgers has a welcome mineral character.
The two principal négociants buying from St-Aubin are Olivier Leflaive and Domaine Roux, although the latter owns vineyards in the village. Leflaive has been an enthusiast for St-Aubin’s whites for many years, and they are consistently good, although best drunk young.
Drink all 2004s from now to 2010.