Burgundy under the radar
Author: Adam Bruntlett
The Côte d’Or is home to some of the most famous wines and vineyards in the world. In a vintage as brilliant as 2019, Adam Bruntlett – our Burgundy Buyer – recommends looking beyond the familiar to find a wealth of fabulous under-the-radar red and white Burgundy.
Burgundy’s Côte d’Or has a sterling reputation for making some of the world’s very best red and white wines – and deservedly so. Villages of renown such as Gevrey-Chambertin, Vosne-Romanée, Chambolle-Musigny and Puligny-Montrachet produce Grands and Premiers Crus that are in perpetual demand among discerning collectors and wine lovers. Neighbouring villages may be less well-known but often produce excellent wines and offer real value for money; this has never been truer than with the 2019 vintage, where many of the wines from these villages have found homes in the cellars of Burgundy lovers like never before.
There are several good reasons why this is the case. With demand dwarfing supply of the top villages, buyers invariably look to emerging regions for value. But there’s a simpler explanation: quality is improving. Climate change has had a positive impact in the vineyards, and there’s an increased focus on making quality wines in the cellars. In the past, many growers in these villages simply grew grapes and sold them to négociants. As domaines are passed down, next-generation vignerons increasingly want to produce wines under their own name. Doing so profitably means that high quality becomes a prerequisite.
Here, I’ve highlighted some under-the-radar Burgundy appellations you should seek out.
Located at the northern tip of the Côte de Nuits, and running into the suburbs of Dijon, Marsannay is one of the most dynamic and exciting villages in Burgundy. With limited exceptions, the best wine here is red. Marsannay once found favour for its rosé wines, but that has since all but died out. The AOC itself only came into being in 1987; vineyards were previously used for Bourgogne Rouge or Rosé de Marsannay.
A cohort of young, passionate growers (including our own Laurent Fournier) are moving the appellation forward. They’ve been improving quality and pushing for recognition of its excellent terroir. Legal machinations and French bureaucracy have held back the project but, within the next few years, we expect sites such as Clos du Roy, Longeroies and Es Chezots to be classified as Premier Cru.
There is a huge variety of soil types and the wines consequently have plenty of character and individuality. While prices have begun to increase with talk of Premiers Crus, these remain excellent value in comparison to more famous neighbours such as Gevrey-Chambertin.
Fixin is an appellation specialising in red wines which remains relatively unknown outside of Burgundy. This is due to its local popularity and also because of its somewhat undeserved reputation for rusticity. The best examples, many of which come from growers based outside the appellation itself, emphasise the fruit and manage the firmer tannins. La Perrière and Le Chapitre are the pick of the vineyards.
This is a somewhat forgotten appellation, perhaps because it is to the east of the main road and does not have any Premiers Crus, this can be a fine source of well-priced red wine, if made in a pleasurable, fruit-forward style. The wines tend to be light, supple and quite simple, although Vosne-Romanée’s Jean-Pierre Guyon’s Les Bons Ores is an example of the silken texture that can be achieved with first-rate winemaking.
Situated to the northwest of Beaune, Savigny-lès-Beaune can produce some excellent wines when made from old vines with carefully managed yields and gentle winemaking. The wines can be a little rustic if not made carefully, but the relatively low prices, particularly for Premiers Crus, mean that this can be a source of bargains from the best growers and winemakers.
Some excellent examples come from producers based outside the appellation, who vinify the wines gently and take care not to reinforce the natural structure. Similarly to neighbouring Chorey, this is a village which previously suffered from a lack of ripeness in many years but is now prized for its propensity to produce fresh and crunchy wines with modest alcohol.
St Aubin is a relatively young appellation which sits geographically just behind Puligny- and Chassagne-Montrachet. It was once mostly planted to Pinot Noir because of the popularity of red wine at the time due to the so-called “French paradox”. More recently, it has become a high-quality area for Chardonnay production. This is thanks to its cool microclimate, created by the proximity of two valleys, along with its limestone soils and well-exposed sloping vineyards.
Its wines are typically energetic and refreshing. A number of dynamic estates are making wines which now rival those of its more illustrious neighbours. While prices have risen in line with its burgeoning reputation, St Aubin still offers value in comparison to Puligny and Chassagne.
Situated to the south of Chassagne-Montrachet, Santenay is an underrated source of Pinot Noir. There’s an increasing fashion for planting Chardonnay here; it’s easier to sell and gives a larger yield. There are some sectors, especially at the top of the slopes, which suit Chardonnay. However, Pinot Noir is the strong suit, the soil type being very similar to that of the Côte de Nuits.
In the past, it suffered more than many villages from the period when high-yielding selections of Pinot Noir were planted, and the wines were often thin and dilute. However a combination of improved pruning methods, gradual replanting with finer plant material and natural vigour reduction through time has improved quality. The soil type varies here and the wines can range from fine and elegant, through to fruity and pleasurable to structured and almost rustic. This is technically the last village in the Côte d’Or, with neighbouring Maranges falling into the Saone-et-Loire département.
Maranges is an often-forgotten appellation to the south of Santenay. A collection of three separate villages, each had its own appellation until 1988. The regrouping into Maranges kickstarted something of a revival, although it is only in the last few years that there has been an increase in domaine bottling. Production is 95% Pinot Noir.
The lack of visibility is almost certainly explained by the use of these wines to fill out Beaune négociants’ Bourgogne cuvées. All completely legal, of course. The wines’ firm structure was helpful in boosting the quality of lesser wines. The best vineyards are the Premiers Crus, arranged on the south-facing slope bordering Santenay. The villages are legally in the Saone-et-Loire département, so not technically part of the Côte d’Or.
Down the valley to the west of Meursault, the vineyards of Auxey-Duresses sit on either slope. Some face northeast as a continuation of the Meursault appellation. Most, including the Premier Cru sites, face south and east following on from Monthélie. The north-facing vineyards are particularly suited to the production of energetic white wines. The opposite side is warmer and produces wines of more weight, while retaining the freshness that comes from proximity to the valley of the Avant Dheune. Consequently, the red wines often tend to have a firm tannic structure while whites always retain freshness.
The vineyards of St Romain are between 350 and 410 metres above sea level. This is notably higher than the Côte de Beaune, and therefore cooler. There is also a lot of active limestone in the soil; there are some amazing limestone cliffs around the village. It’s set among several valleys, so not as open to the sun as the Côte, often shrouded in mist/cloud early in the morning.
There are no Premiers Crus as yet, but work is underway to look into the possibility. Climate change has had some benefit here: the wines are now prized for their ability to retain freshness even in warm vintages. The majority of the vineyards (including arguably the best, Sous le Château) are in an amphitheatre which faces due south. There are a number of well-regarded domaines who specialise in St Romain, while the availability of grapes means many négociants also produce bottlings.
Bordering Volnay at the mouth of the valley of the Dheune (which separates Meursault and Volnay) Monthélie is an underrated source of red wines, which often share some of the charm and perfume of its immediate neighbour, without the same longevity or complexity.
The best Premier Cru vineyard sites are those which are a continuation of Volnay’s Clos des Chênes, and Les Duresses which borders Auxey. Being a mainly south-facing bowl the vineyards of Monthélie can get quite warm in the summer, which gives white wines with an opulent and almost tropical profile, while the reds are often richer and juicier than the more elegant Volnay. Duresses is probably the best vineyard, facing east rather than south, which mitigates the heat and ensures there is balancing freshness.