Good value Burgundy
By By Alain Echalier Photographs: Courtesy of the estates - © BIVB Sébastien Boulard, posted on 05 May 2022
For aeons, Burgundy’s Grands Crus, labels such as Montrachet, Romanée Conti or Chambertin with their often hefty price tags, have inspired wine enthusiasts the world over. But prestigious wines are not Burgundy’s only forte. We take a closer look at the lesser known side of the region’s wine range – the ‘generic’ Burgundies, which also have a terroir story to tell.
Burgundy’s top wines are primarily named after their vineyard site – Montrachet or Chambertin for example, locally referred to as ‘climats’ – or their home village (Gevrey-Chambertin, Chablis…).
The balance of the region’s wines can be only identified by the name of the region – Bourgogne or Burgundy – positioned in the centre of the label for enhanced visibility. On around half of these wines, the name of the region is followed by a complementary geographical designation such as Chitry, Montrecul or Tonnerre. These specific designations either refer again to a village or to an area slightly larger where the typicity – soil type, micro-climate and vineyard management techniques for instance – is less consistent. This level of appellation is described as regional or generic.
Right off the bat, we should stress one important point, and that is that two recent phenomena have combined to significantly ramp up the quality, typicity and reputation of these wines. The first is the dearth of wines, pushing availabilities out of sync with global demand, thereby triggering a rise in prices and providing growers with the resources to constantly progress. The second is global warming, which has improved quality in the northern part of Burgundy where sunshine levels may previously have been slightly lacking.
The definition of terroir
As a wine region, Burgundy stretches over 250 km from North to South. Vines grow at elevations ranging from 250 to 400 m above sea level. The North is home to wide valleys which push sidelong into the limestone plateaux of the Paris basin. In the middle, a thin strip located on the border between the valley floor and the plateau is called the ‘Côte’, and in the South, in the Mâcon area, hill ranges run parallel to one another from North to South. Wines labelled under the regional ‘Bourgogne’ appellation mostly hail from the northern part of the Côte.
The climate is moderately oceanic, fairly cool but, as mentioned above, warming up due to climate change. Winters are cold and summers fairly hot. The average temperature is 11°C and rainfall is quite well distributed all year round.
Herve Kerlann's vineyards in cuillery, on the way to pommard
Red wines hold the lion’s share of the regional appellation. The native Pinot noir grape is virtually the only contender in the three northern departments. In the South, however, Gamay puts in an appearance, as does the black varietal César in Yonne, though in small quantities.
For the white wines, Chardonnay – also native to the region – is the ubiquitous grape. Although a dash of Pinot blanc is occasionally added, the variety is tending to be phased out. Aligoté can be used to make single varietals, subsequently labelled ‘Bourgogne Aligoté’.
As Pinot noir and Chardonnay react strongly to variations in their natural setting, Yonne wines – in the North – show high acidity, whereas their counterparts in the southern areas are more supple.
The wines are bone dry, with less than 2g/litre of residual sugar for the reds. Irrigation and use of wood chips are outlawed, and theoretically, yields must not be in excess of sixty or so hectolitres per hectare. All of this paves the way for quality wines, enshrined in law since 1937. Though the percentage may vary from one year to the next, around 45% of output is bound for exports.
Domaine Persenot Gérard: Aligot on point
This estate, located in Saint-Bris-le-Vineux, boasts 23 hectares. 65-year-old Chantal introduces us to the property. She and her husband, a fourth-generation farmer, now only deal with sales, whilst their son-in-law produces the wines. The village’s claim to fame is that it is the only one in Burgundy to grow Sauvignon blanc – after all, Sancerre is not far away. But at this particular estate, Aligoté reigns supreme with 9 hectares under vine. The variety grows on clay-limestone soils where the limestone content is lower than for Chardonnay; the Persenots also produce Chablis and Petit-Chablis. Although traditionally, Aligoté is served with a dash of blackcurrant liqueur, more careful winemaking and advances in quality make it a good partner for appetisers of cold cuts or starters – without the ‘crème de cassis’. The price tag is just 7 euros a bottle, and although cork closures are used, the wines are only designed to be kept for a couple of years.
The family also produces some red Bourgogne Côte d’Auxerre, partly matured in oak, from a six-hectare vineyard. Neither oak chips nor staves are welcome here, and consumers enjoy the faint oaky note. There is also a white iteration, which is either aged in tanks or with a little oak – prices range from €9 to 11. The good news is that, at these prices, Burgundy becomes perfectly affordable. On the flipside, production is low and the family “is not looking for new customers”.
Domaine de Vauroux: If the entry-level wine is good…
Olivier Tricon, the owner of Vauroux farm, will soon have clocked up 40 years as a farmer. Located in Chablis, he obviously produces wine, but also wheat, peas and lentils, among others. This enables him to make his own compost, which he uses as an amendment for his vines.
He also farms a dozen hectares of Chardonnay to produce ‘Bourgogne Chardonnay’, at yields of 40 to 50 hl/ha, well below the maximum legal threshold. The wines sell well and enjoy good growth in export markets such as Japan, the United Kingdom and the Nordic countries. Not everybody is familiar with the finer details of Burgundy vineyard sites, so being able to use just two words to describe the wines is useful. As he lacks grapes, he buys in fruit for his trading business but strives to produce a hallmark ‘Côte d’Or’ style. As he points out, the area produces the kind of minerality and acidity that you don’t find elsewhere in Burgundy. It’s not all plain sailing, as demonstrated in 2021 when spring frost dealt a big blow to output. Olivier’s overriding aim is to provide his customers with quality wines, but not at the price of Chablis.
Olivier Tricon of domaine de vaucroux
He only uses stainless steel tanks, ferments the wines slowly at low temperatures and is in no rush to bottle the wines. Although consumers increasingly drink young wines, he provides something in the middle ground. The previous weekend, he tasted some 2017s and 2018s which offer the style he prefers.
Climate change has prompted him to adapt, bringing harvest dates forward for instance. Generally speaking, the fruit is now healthier, chemical weedkillers have been superseded by machine tillage and use of sulphur has decreased dramatically. In fact, he bottles his wines in a nitrogen atmosphere, further reducing usage of this typical preservative. ABV stands at around 12% and must not climb any higher, otherwise the acidity would drop. Anyway, Olivier Tricon is not a fan of 13.5% ABV wines – there needs to be a refreshing feel and the fruit shouldn’t be overripe or too concentrated. For the aperitif, keeping the wines ethereal is key. The estate offers a perfect illustration of the old saying that, if a winery’s entry-level wine is good, then the rest will follow.
Domaine Boussard: A matter of personal taste
Olivier and Isabelle Boussard are at the helm of an estate they literally created from the ground up, starting with planting their own vines. The vineyards are located in Chablis, whilst the winery and cellar are farther South, in Nitry. They now farm 23 hectares and every year apply for some extra planting rights.
Their wines are mostly white, mirroring the pattern across the region, and they produce several ‘Bourgogne Chardonnay’ labels fermented in stainless steel. In a blind comparison of the region’s wines, Isabelle explains that whilst Petit Chablis is easy to recognise with its very lively characters, the nuances between a Chablis village and their Bourgogne Chardonnay become more subtle. Only a seasoned taster can spot the difference.
Their vineyards are also home to 8 to 9 hectares of Pinot noir, which allows them to produce a red wine and some rosé. The vines are now old enough to produce quality wines. Isabelle recommends serving them in glasses with a large bowl at fairly cool temperatures of around 13 to 14°C because they warm up very quickly. Also, using a decanter to aerate them can prove beneficial, particularly as all the estate’s wines have very low amounts of added sulphur.
Isabelle and Olivier Boussard and their daughter Margot
The rosé has a fairly deep colour and is made using the ‘saignee’ method where the grapes soak for around ten hours on the skins. This is a far cry from the typical Provençal style of pale rosés. They are a firm favourite with customers and the estate carries no inventories. Despite this, production of rosé wine in Burgundy is constantly on the decline and now marginal.
The final wine in the couple’s portfolio is a Crémant de Bourgogne rosé, where their Pinot noir wine is transformed into a sparkling offering by a service provider. Isabelle has a preference for the rosé version which she finds less acidic than the white – and for that she is willing to use their Pinot noir which is more expensive than Chardonnay. Ultimately though, for 12 euros a bottle, you can indulge in some raspberry-scented, traditional method sparkling wine in Burgundy-style bottles.
Baudouin Millet: Keeping Burgundy affordable
Baudouin Millet’s farm is located in Tonnerre, just a few kilometres North-East of Chablis. He therefore produces Chablis, but also provides vineyard maintenance services, grows cereal crops, and produces electricity from solar panels. Basically, he’s an entrepreneur if ever there was one!
He also owns a wine trading company and produces Bourgogne Chardonnay, buying grapes around Tonnerre and Auxerre, so mostly in northern Burgundy. In the glass, the difference between his Chardonnay and a Petit Chablis is marginal – the vineyards are occasionally even adjacent. The wine sells for around 12 euros, compared with 12.5 for Petit Chablis. But there are times when he sources grapes from the other end of Burgundy, near Mâcon.
In 2021, a dramatic fall in production led to a two-fold increase in the price of fruit compared with previous years. So does this sound the death knell for reasonably priced Burgundy wine? Is the retail price about to double? Millet’s answer is reassuring – no, the entire supply chain, from producers through to distributors, will reduce their profit margins, though some increases are to be expected.
Chablis winegrower Baudoin Millet
Although Baudouin Millet is a lover of red wine, he doesn’t actually produce any. He did consider it, but despite global warming and possible use of barrel ageing, he feels that red wines from the Tonnerre region are still too light.
So he produces a Crémant, blended from local Chardonnay and Pinot noir. A friend carries out the secondary bottle fermentation, but he decides on the blend – usually 2/3 Pinot noir and 1/3 Chardonnay – and the dosage. The resultant sparkling wine is labelled as ‘Brut’ even if the current dosage is just 4g/litre, and it certainly has a tense flavour, making it just right for the aperitif!
Maison Kerlann: Wines for pleasure
Hervé Kerlann is an oddball on the Burgundy wine scene. Although his family used to trade in wine, Kerlann is of Breton descent, was born in Morocco, has lived in Bordeaux and Canada and has had a number of professions. In 1998, he took over what was left of Château de Laborde, built in 1678 in Meursanges.
He has 3 hectares of vines, 2 of which are entitled to ‘Bourgogne’ status; the remainder is labelled either as PGI Sainte-Marie La Blanche or Vin De France. Even though all the land is in Burgundy – South-East of Beaune – not all of it falls within the boundaries of the Burgundy appellations.
Passionnate winegrower Hervé Kerlann
From these vineyards, he crafts a Pinot noir which retails for €10 a bottle and, as he points out proudly, is sold by the Grande Epicerie in Paris and for export to Japan. In a previous life, he used to export wines to Asia and has held on to a part of this business.
He also produces a Bourgogne Aligoté which is soaked on the skins for 4 days in barrels made from acacia wood. Although the length of soaking is too short for the resultant wine to be called ‘orange’, it’s an experiment. “I conduct trials”, he explains, “and in doing so, I get a different texture”.
There is also a white Pinot noir-based wine labelled PGI Sainte-Marie La Blanche. Asked why he produces a ‘blanc de noirs’ in Burgundy, he responds, “Why not? Personally I like Blanc de Noirs Champagne, so…”
Cave de Mazenay: Moving upmarket
Jean-Christophe Pascaud is the technical director of the estate, which belongs to the owner of Château de Couches. He manages twenty hectares eligible for the ‘Bourgogne Côtes du Couchois’ appellation, just two of which are planted to Chardonnay. The primary focus here is red wine. Pascaud also buys fruit, thereby more or less doubling production.
Some of the Pinot noir grapes are dispatched to négociants, whilst the remainder is bottled and sold directly, mainly from the cellar door facilities. Prices range from €7-8 to 12.5. “€12.5 seemed expensive, but with increased demand and price rises across Burgundy, that is no longer true”, comments Pascaud.
There was a time when the area was colder than the ‘Côte’, i.e. the more prestigious part of Burgundy which is home to the Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune. But the latest hot years in 2018, 2019 and 2020 have ramped up quality levels. Is there a desire then to gravitate towards village appellation status instead of simply a complementary geographical designation? Definitely, says the estate’s technical director. In fact, a dozen estates in the local area are already mapping out vineyard sites. With the clock ticking, it’s probably best to discover the wines whilst they’re still affordable!
Les Orfèvres du Vin: Attracting a new consumer audience
On the other side of Burgundy, in the Mâcon region, this small co-operative winery currently has 45 member growers who farm 85 hectares of vines. Amélie Thomas handles winemaking and Maryline Vandaele sales.
The range here includes Coteaux Bourguignons made from Gamay and sold for €5.80. Beaujolais-style winemaking techniques are used so the wine is distinctively fruit-driven and slightly peppery. The winery is popular with private customers who come to buy wines from the shop in bottles or even on tap – why not?
The Bourgogne Pinot noir with a price tag of €8.10 also sells well. It displays faint liquorice and white pepper notes. Again, it offers access to Burgundy-labelled wines without breaking the bank.
Jean-Christophe Pascaud and Ludivine Griveau, manager of the Hospices de Beaune Vineyard
Obviously the two partners in wine produce whites too. The Aligoté, which is only made in diminutive amounts, shows very distinctive citrus fruits and intense aromatics, pushing its former blackcurrant liqueur sidekick onto the backburner. With a starting price of €8.90, the Chardonnay is slightly more expensive but still very affordable.
In 2021, frost slashed production volumes by half. Some local winegrowers are planning to offset the volume decline by a 20% increase in prices. As northern Burgundy intends to raise its prices significantly, the knock-on effect is to give southern Burgundy some ‘breathing space’. In fact, Maryline has already noticed a change in the winery’s customer base. Despite this, Les Orfèvres intends to apply only moderate price increases of between 8 and 12%.
As always, Burgundy is home to the two extremes on the scale – prestige and luxury on one side, simplicity and pleasure on the other. And although the latter category is tending to contract sharply due to consumers trading up, we have to be thankful that it is still alive and well, both in the North and South of the region. That’s not only for all of us to continue treating ourselves, but also so that a time-honoured countryside tradition of wine as a food, without snobbery and for casual enjoyment can continue into the future.
You might like these articles.