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The Other Burgundy, Part II
By Gerald D. Boyd
Mar 23, 2010
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The French call it “Bourgogne” while the rest of the wine world refers to the province in eastern France as Burgundy.  But either way, the undisputed fact among most wine drinkers is that Burgundy produces ne plus ultra Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  Prime vineyard land along the Côte d’Or, a spectacularly valuable ridge of limestone soils,  yields red Burgundy from the Côte d’Nuits and white Burgundy from the Côte de Beaune.  These are mostly limited production wines and all are expensive, an important consideration in these hard economic times, when wine consumers are looking for bargains that still deliver quality and flavors they enjoy in their favorite Côte d’Or wines.

The good news is there is another Burgundy.  Satellite appellations producing distinguished, value Chardonnay and Pinot Noir include Marsannay, Saint-Aubin, St. Veran, Givry and Irancy, the latter a one-off red from the Yonne department which is also home to the crisp whites of Chablis.  While the wines from these appellations lack the public image and lofty prices of neighboring Côte d’Or wines, they do offer strong value.  

As a follow up to previous visits to the Côte d’Or, I made my first trip to these lesser known Burgundy appellations last December.  What I found was friendly, enthusiastic winemakers and vintners, mostly second and third generation members of wine families, eager to tell their stories and for the wine world to learn about their wines.  Many of the winemakers I met travel fairly widely, and have worked grape harvests or done cellar work in other parts of the world--an exposure that allowed them to talk about their wine without a lot of formality.

Exploration of the wines of Marsannay, Saint-Aubin and Irancy were covered in my column in February, leaving this second part for a look at the mostly white wines of St. Veran and reds of Givry.

South of the Côte de Beaune lies Givry, a mostly red wine zone tucked within the sprawling Côte Chalonnaise.  Further south still, just before crossing over into Beaujolais is the Maconnais, famous for value white wines, including those of St. Veran. 

By a geological and climactic happenstance, the wines of Givry and St. Veran are made from the same grapes grown in the same or similar soils as in the Côte d’Or, but the terroir is different enough to keep the wines of Givry and St. Veran outside the boundaries of the better known Côte d’Or appellations.  Still, the wine people of these two less heralded appellations work within the absolutes of the current French AOC system (the term AOC will be dropped at the end of 2010 to be replaced by the EU designation AOP or Appellation d’Origin Protogee) and are proud of their historic regions and wines and they continue to look for new ways to improve their wines while still observing the rules.

St. Veran

One of the most striking things you notice traveling through the St. Veran region is the large number of old, head-pruned Chardonnay vines, some as old as 80 years.  This arresting sight is not often seen in New World regions, like California, where Chardonnay is usually trained on trellises and the head-pruned old vines yield clusters of red grapes.  St. Veran, an appellation created in 1971, has about 1,600 acres of Chardonnay going to 380 individual wineries and cooperatives. The region is wedged between Maconnais and Beaujolais and adjacent to Pouilly Fuisse.  There are no Premier Cru vineyards in St. Veran at this time, but efforts are underway to designate some of the region’s better vineyards as Premier Cru.

In this area, the vineyards and appellation boundaries of St. Veran, Pouilly-Fuisse and Macon Villages intertwine, requiring the guidance of a local to point out where St. Veran ends and Pouilly Fuisse begins.  The wines share some similarities, as well, although St. Veran village wines may lack the structural power of Pouilly Fuisse, they do have more body than simple Macon-Villages.  Some critics ding St. Veran for being mostly commodity wines, pointing a finger at the cooperatives.  Depends on what you’re looking for.  I found most of the wines I tasted to be lightly honeyed with crisp acidity, mineral nuances and good depth of flavor. 

St. Veran producers like Domaine Deux Roches (Two Rocks) turn out very good Chardonnay from single vineyards like Terres Noires.  Brothers-in-law Jean-Luc Terrier and Christian Collovray farm 49 acres of hillside vineyards in the northern part of the St. Veran appellation.  Deux Roches wines are clean, crisp and elegant, with honeyed flavors backed by a subtle mineral note.  I also liked the lightly oaked wines of Olivier Merlin.  Like so many domaines in the area, Merlin also produces Pouilly-Fuisse, Saint-Aubin, Macon blanc and rouge and Beaujolais.  It’s about as close as French winemakers come to being multi-regional with their wines.

The red wines of Givry have a storied reputation, being a particular favorite of Henri IV.  The royal endorsement of the Pinot Noir based wines is believed to have been responsible for the collection of fine cellars in the region of the Côte Chalonnaise.  The wines, however, did not always carry the Givry name, since after the First World War many of them were sold under the name of neighboring Mercurey.

Today, Givry stands on it own and enjoys a reputation for solid red wines at good values, ones that are lighter than those of Mercurey, but with a subtle earthiness that compliments the ample berry-rich flavors.  There are 27 Premier Crus, including Les Grandes Vignes, Cellier-au-Moines, Clos Saint Pierre and Le Paradis.  The village appellation vineyards, originally planted by Cistercian monks, are being replanted.

Winemaking in Givry, as in the other places I visited, is a combination of old and new. Conscious of the traditions and practices of their grandfathers and fathers that brought the Pinot Noir wines of Givry to their present status in France and the world, the present generation of winemakers is incorporating new techniques, many of which they learned about from working in Oregon, California and New Zealand or from the free exchange of ideas and techniques shared by winemaking colleagues worldwide.

The aim of Givry winemakers is not to change the style of their wine, but to make it better.  A better understanding of the vineyard and the age of the vines allows today’s winemaker to make adjustments in maceration and fermentation, while applying the right amount of seasoning through a judicious use of new and used oak.  There’s also the closeness and sharing that exists today in the worldwide community of Pinot Noir producers, a fraternity that didn’t exist only a few decades ago.
Despite all this viticultural consideration, the growers and winemakers I visited in Givry emphasize one point, and it is terroir.  Cut it any way you want, but you will be told that Givry is what it is as a wine because of what it is as a grape-growing place.  End of discussion.  If one where to insist, using New World logic, that the emphasis on the value of terrior is only as important as the value of the resultant winemaking, you might be greeted by a Gallic shrug, more or less a polite way to excuse your ignorance.  It’s an academic argument that, in my mind, is not as important to the consumer, as the quality of the wine.  And there, Givry comes through, both in quality and value.  Givry producers I like include Domaine Mouton, Domaine Joblot, Domaine Vincent Lumpp, Domaine Thenard, Clos Salomon, Louis Latour, Antonin Rodet and Domaine Chofflet-Valdenaire. 

Many books and impassioned essays have been written about the pleasures of Burgundy wine, though they are mostly about the Côte d’Or.  There’s good reason for that, but there’s also good reason to look beyond the Côte de Beaune and Côte d’Nuits to the wines from such lesser known appellations as Saint-Aubin,  Marsannay, Givry, St. Veran and Irancy.

For value, Saint-Aubin offers supple Chardonnay not unlike more expensive Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet, while the mineral Chardonnays of St. Veran compete in quality but not price with Pouilly-Fuisse.  Marsannay reds provide some of the same breed and finesse of neighboring Côte de Nuits wines and Givry, with its blend of fresh fruit and earthy flavors, is a good alternative to the pricier Mercurey.  In these trying economic times, these five Burgundy appellations have something for every wine taste and budget.

One thing I found puzzling about many of the producers in these regions is their seeming naïveté concerning the international markets in which they strive to place their wines.  Many of the vintners and winemakers I spoke with did not know the name of their U.S. importer and some were not sure if they exported to the United States.  And all of them were clueless regarding the retail price of their wines in the United States.  The U.S. wine market is vast, complex and multi-layered, making it hard for anyone to do business, but it is this kind of insular attitude that keeps good wines, like the ones I tasted in the five lesser-known Burgundy appellations, off the shelves of U.S. wine shops, unless small adventurous wine explorers seek out good domaines, import the wines and then help to hand-sell them in local markets.

Hopefully, as American wine consumers with a love for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir look for quality and value, the wines of the “Other Burgundy” will be more available in all parts of the United States.