Chalonnaise Getting Better
- Saturday 1 December 2001
The 1990s have been good to the Côte Chalonnaise, with more and more producers going all out to shake off accusations of rusticity. JAMES LAWTHER MW reports on what the increasingly characterful Côte has to offer consumers right now.
Decanter Magazine, November 1998
Sandwiched between the Côte d'Or to the north and the Mâconnais to the south, the Côte Chalonnaise has had a tough time forgeing an identity in Burgundy's complex and star-studded arena. Historically, geographically and viticulturally closer in character to the Côte d'Or than its administrative companion in the département of the Saône-et-Loire, the region has often been regarded as a sort of addendum to the adjacent Côte de Beaune. The creation of the appellation Bourgogne Côte Chalonnaise (1990), an expansion of the vineyards, and renewed vigour from producers (vignerons and négociants) finally cast the spotlight on the Côte Chalonnaise in the 1990s, but what can consumers really expect from the region? The Côte Chalonnaise forms a narrow strip of land, some seven kilometres (km) wide and 35km long, just west of Chalon-sur-Saône, the rather stark manufacturing town that gives its name to the region. Within this zone 46 communes have been delimited for the production of generic Bourgogne or, with an additional tasting for the agrément, Bourgogne Côte Chalonnaise. Figures for this appellation are variable, depending on the declaration of producers in a given year, but in 1997 just over 500 hectares (ha) were declared of which three-quarters were Pinot Noir. With one or two exceptions, these wines tend to be light and fruity, to be consumed at an early age.
Unlike the Côte d'Or, the Côte Chalonnaise is less emphatically 'a wine region', with vines vying for space with woodland grove, grazing pasture and fields of wheat and corn. The best viticultural sites, though, are clearly the preserve of the communal appellations – Givry, Mercurey, Montagny and Rully – with a complexity of terrain to rival that of neighbouring Côte de Beaune. Separated from the latter by the Dheune Valley, and more fragmented in nature, the hill slopes of the Côte Chalonnaise offer an elevation of between 200 and 400 metres (m), various exposures and gradients, plus a geologist's puzzle of limestone, mineral and clay soils. Site selection, even within the communal appellations, becomes crucial to providing ripeness and complexity in the wines.
The new generation of viticulteurs from the better domaines (and the savy négociant houses) are clearly aware of this reality, as they are of the need for good vineyard management, low yields and careful vinification. Mostly in their 30s, with sound technical training from the Lycée Agricole de Beaune and occasionally experience overseas, they have added more weight, texture and style to their wines, particularly the reds. Grapes are harvested riper, destemming has become systematic, a pre-fermentation cold maceration for colour and extract more widespread, and the percentage of new oak for ageing increased but over a reduced period of time. As elsewhere in Burgundy, a spate of good vintages in the 1990s, in particular 1995, 1996 (balanced, structured and long-lived) and 1997 (softer and earlier drinking), has also added appeal. At the less perspicacious domaines the old accusation of leanness and rusticity still stands.
The sleepy market town of Chagny – noted for its Michelin 3-star restaurant Lameloise – marks the northern limits of the Côte Chalonnaise. A couple of kilometres south, the tiny village of Bouzeron cultivates 60ha (1997 figures are used throughout) of Aligoté to produce a dry, white, floral-scented wine with just a little more depth on the palate than is usual from this grape variety. The wine has been distinguished by the granting of the communal appellation status Bourgogne Aligoté Bouzeron.
On the other side of the knoll known as the Montagne de la Folie lie the mainly southeast facing limestone, clay and marl slopes of Rully. The vineyards here were virtually abandoned after the Second World War, and in the 1960s amounted to only 60ha. Replanting has since gathered apace and there are now 206ha of Chardonnay and 118ha of Pinot Noir under cultivation, reflecting the market demand for white wines and Rully's traditional reputation as a white wine producer. Rully whites tend to be fresh, forward and citrus-flavoured with a slight honeyed note, while the reds are soft, aromatic and again for early drinking. Grapes for the sparkling Crémant de Bourgogne produced by négociants in Rully are sourced from outside the commune. The majority of producers in Rully now harvest by machine. 'It's a question of economics and bureaucratic ease,' says Stéphane Briday of the Domaine Briday. His father, Michel, created the domaine from scratch in 1976 and today still leases the majority of the 11.5ha vineyard. The wines are simple but honest with an accent on the fruit, the whites fermented and aged in tank with just a small percentage of barrel-fermented wines added in the final blend. The steely-edged premier cru La Pucelle is of particular interest, as is the easy drinking, summer fruit-flavoured red Rully Quatre Vignes.
Among the clutch of producers in Rully still harvesting by hand Raymond Dureuil-Janthial and his son Vincent make an interesting comparison. Both run separate domaines, Raymond selling 80 per cent of his production direct to French consumers, and Vincent 80 per cent on the export market. The hand of 28-year old, Beaune-trained Vincent can clearly be seen in the white winemaking where contemporary methods of selection, barrel fermentation and batonnage are put into practice. As to the reds, two different styles are apparent. Vincent produces a softer, rounder style of wine, destalking his grapes, maturing the wine in cask for only 12 months and rarely fining and filtering. Raymond, conversely, maintains a more 'traditional' approach, rarely destemming, and ageing his wines for up to two years in barrel. Elsewhere in Rully, Henri and Paul Jacqueson probably make the most distinguished wines in the appellation, including another notable 'Chablisesque' La Pucelle.
Four to five kilometres south of Rully lie the horseshoe-shaped (open side to the east) vineyards of Mercurey. Saving Chablis, this is the largest communal appellation in Burgundy with 566ha of Pinot Noir under production and 70ha of Chardonnay for the rarer white Mercurey. The usually held belief is that the wines of Mercurey have more muscle and structure than the other communal wines of the Côte Chalonnaise. This is true up to a point, but scanning the vineyards from a vantage point it is clear that there also has to be plenty of variation. On the northern slopes of this amphitheatre, a string of premiers crus – Clos Tonnerre, Les Naugues, Clos des Barraults and Clos l'Evêque to name a few – exemplify good site selection. Mostly located on the mid-slope at 250m they have easterly to southerly exposures, good drainage and poor limestone soils with that Burgundian variation which distinguishes each cru (varying percentages of clay and marl and some with a ferrous content). But above these vineyards, another batch of vines runs away over the brow of the hill. These are planted at 350m, where temperatures are cooler and the westerly winds brisker, and appear to have a more northerly exposure. Quality from these vineyards has to be questionable.
The size and potential of Mercurey is an obvious attraction for producers. An extra 85ha have come into production over the last 10 years and there are a further 200ha delimited under the appellation yet to be planted. Several négociants have serious land holdings, most notably the house of Faiveley with 56ha in Mercurey and 79ha in the Côte Chalonnaise. Georges Faiveley decided that there was a future in Mercurey in the 1930s, and his grandson François, the present head of the company, remains equally convinced. Yields are kept within the statutory 40 hectolitres/ha and the wines vinified in Mercurey in a modern winery. There is a bottling for each of the vineyard holdings with the premier cru Clos des Myglands (Monopole) the most appetising of the selection and one of the longest ageing.
Another négociant firmly implanted in Mercurey is Antonin Rodet. Under the guidance of managing director Bertrand Devillard, the house has been steadily modernised and the quality of the range of wines improved. Rodet, unlike Faiveley, is not a land-owner but through various leasing agreements manages a number of estates including the star of the stable, Château de Chamirey. This 40ha domaine has 11ha of premier cru vineyards but produces just one red Mercurey and one white. The 1996 vintage for both is among the best in recent years, particularly for the elegant, richly textured, subtly oaked white.
Amongst the growers, Michel Juillot remains the largest producer with 30ha, and continues to turn out wines that are the reference for the appellation. Son Laurent has now taken over the winemaking and management, but apart from introducing cold, pre-fermentation maceration has made few changes. Keys to success remain the low cropping, well maintained and sited vineyards and the astute ageing in oak pièces. The Juillot range of wines includes a full-flavoured, mid-term drinking Clos Tonnerre from soils with a heavier clay content and, from poorer, stonier soils, the blackcurranty Champs Marlin and Clos des Barraults, which have greater depth and structure.
The smallest of the four main communal appellations, Givry, has undergone a revival over the past few years. Vineyards have been replanted, greater thought given to the appellation's potential, and a number of younger producers have come to the fore. Essentially a red wine commune with 192ha of Pinot Noir under production, Givry also produces a small amount of rare and occasionally refined white wine from 35ha of Chardonnay. A number of the vineyards, including the crus Cellier aux Moines, Servoisine and Les Grandes Vignes, have southern exposures providing early ripening and an impressive fruit character in the reds. The undisputed king of Givry at present is Jean-Marc Joblot. He firmly believes that the best sites in Givry have the same potential as many in the Côte d'Or, but is critical of the hierarchical structure in Burgundy that places them at a lowlier level. 'We are handicapped financially from making great wines by this system,' he says. This not withstanding he and his brother Vincent have replaced vines planted in the 1970s with a better strain of Pinot Noir and more adapted rootstock, improved the leaf canopy for better photosynthesis, and reduced yields. Vinification is as studied, with the emphasis on minimising the threat of oxidation, hence the use of closed stainless steel vats with an integrated system for pigeage. Maturation for the crus Clos du Cellier aux Moines and Servoisine takes place in up to 70 per cent new oak barrels. Both rank with the Côte de Beaune's best.
François Lumpp is one of the newer names in Givry, having set up on his own in 1991. His tiny 5.5ha domaine includes about a hectare of Chardonnay and half a hectare in the Clos Jus. The vineyard was reclaimed and replanted by a group of vignerons in 1990 and appears to offer the potential for fine, long-lived wines. Lumpp's 1996 version has a wonderful, aromatic, blackcurrant nose and flavour, a definite mineral edge, and a backbone of good acidity.
Montagny, the most southern of the communal appellations, remains exclusively a white wine producer. Just over 260ha of Chardonnay are planted on clay-limestone soils, producing crisp, fruity wines with a dry finish and sometimes a fuller dimension when barrel fermented and aged. There has been less of a revolution here, with fewer individual growers coming to light. The most readily available examples are produced by the négociants and the cooperative at Buxy.
Verdict on value:
There is much food for thought in the Côte Chalonnaise. Standards have improved and, carefully selected, there are some very good wines with better weight and character. But a note of caution. An important element in the region's image is the notion of value for money. Prices are presently fair, but any further increases will knock competitivity, particularly when equally good value can be found in appellations like St-Aubin, St-Romain and the Hautes-Côtes.