The second week of January is traditionally Burgundy Week in London. At the many tastings of 2020s that would usually be planned for next week, the vast majority of wines would be from the Côte d’Or, the east-facing “golden slope” of limestone and marl that produces Burgundy’s most revered and most expensive wines.
Yet anyone who studies a map will see that the southern end of the Côte d’Or bleeds straight into the northern end of the Côte Chalonnaise wine region. It is named after its main town, Chalon-sur-Saône. To the west, Côte Chalonnaise wine country clusters round the villages of Bouzeron, Rully, Mercurey, Givry and Montagny. Their wines are generally much, much less expensive than those of the Côte d’Or but the soils and elevation are very similar, and many vineyards enjoy the same sort of aspect as most of those on the Côte d’Or, facing the rising sun.
So why are Chalonnaise wines perceived to be so decidedly inferior? The reasons are more historical and political than geographical. Napoleon was keen to give strong focus and character to each of the new départements into which France had been divided after the French Revolution. The Côte d’Or was intended to focus on wine production, while to its immediate south, Saône-et-Loire, named after its two most famous rivers, was to focus on farming, especially Charolais beef, and industry. Montceau-les-Mines, west of wine country, was a mining centre, an important source of coal throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. The iron ore deposits around Le Creusot, north of Montceau, gave rise to a rash of vast factories during the industrial revolution.
But everything changed. The ravages of the phylloxera louse towards the end of the 19th century left Côte Chalonnaise vineyards, like most on the planet, in a terrible state. Added to that, men returning from fighting in the first world war were lured to work in the factories, rather than vineyards. (The Côte d’Or had little industry to speak of, so viticulture there was much less seriously ruptured.) The result was that the best vineyard sites — those on the slopes that were the most difficult to work — were abandoned in favour of the more fertile plains. Quantity was prioritised over quality and the Côte Chalonnaise became known as a source of cheap vin de soif for local factory workers.
The second world war was no kinder to vintners here. In the excellent and much-revised second edition of Inside Burgundy, Jasper Morris points out that the demarcation line between occupied and Vichy France cut right through the region and at least one citizen was arrested for visiting her garden in Vichy France from her house in the occupied zone.
Yet the Côte Chalonnaise had a tradition of medieval monastic viticulture as venerable as the Côte d’Or. Viewed from this historical vantage point, it was only fairly recently, in the late 20th century, that the better vineyard sites were replanted.
Since vines take years to produce their best wine, now is surely the moment for the second coming of the Côte Chalonnaise. Furthermore, there is quite a group of ambitious producers there today.
One is Domaine A&P de Villaine in Bouzeron, just two miles from Santenay in the Côte d’Or. It makes some of the most distinctive wines in Burgundy: single-vineyard expressions of Burgundy’s “other” white wine grape, Aligoté, which has long been regarded as a poor substitute for Chardonnay because it’s more difficult to ripen. Yet climate change has revealed just how good fully ripe Aligoté can be, and this domaine makes many of the finest.
The “A” in the name (now just Domaine de Villaine) refers to Aubert de Villaine, who has just retired from leading the Côte d’Or’s most famous wine estate by a mile, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. For many years, he and his American wife Pamela lived in Bouzeron but they have now moved. Since 2000, the domaine has been run by Aubert’s nephew, Pierre de Benoist, whose parents own Sancerre’s Domaine du Nozay.
Aligoté is beloved by de Benoist. “Immediately when I tasted the wine I felt similarities with the Sauvignon in Sancerre,” he says. It is certainly as high in acidity and makes a great aperitif.
Still, most of the white wines of the Côte Chalonnaise are Chardonnays, just as the reds tend to be Pinot Noirs — exactly as it is in the Côte d’Or. When I visited the region in September, I was particularly taken by the single-vineyard Chardonnays of Domaine Feuillat-Julliot, which happen to be made by an all-female team. The great majority of grapes grown here in Montagny’s pretty, east-facing amphitheatre go to the large co-op in nearby Buxy. Yet Françoise Feuillat, daughter of the owner of the famous Mercurey domaine Michel Juillot, has grown her own domaine from eight to 15 hectares, replacing red wine vines with Chardonnay. She and her daughter Camille bottle everything themselves.
The grandest domaine of the Côte Chalonnaise, in terms of its holdings, is the historic Domaine Thenard of Givry, which enjoys the enviable situation of being the second-biggest owner of the fabulously expensive white wine vineyard in the Côte d’Or, Le Montrachet, where it owns almost two whole hectares. Even the billionaire entrepreneur François Pinault has managed to acquire just 0.04ha of Le Montrachet vines. Both Dom Thenard and Pinault produce Le Montrachet, along with about 15 other owners of vines in this famous vineyard. Pinault’s is available in such small quantities that it is for personal use only.
The Côte Chalonnaise also produces some fine reds. Ones to watch are those being made by Philippe Pascal and Guillaume Marko in the spectacular new four-floor, gravity-fed winery of the restored Cistercian Domaine du Cellier aux Moines on a steep slope overlooking Givry, which must be one of the region’s finer vineyard locations. This is just one property where young vines produce better-quality wine than the older vines because the previous owners planted poor-quality clones of Pinot Noir.
In most wine regions, only the finest vineyards earn the title Premier Cru, or first growth. But in the Côte Chalonnaise, arguably far too many are designated as such. Perhaps it is the desire to signal clearly which are the best sites that has propelled what you might call rampant Premier Cru inflation in the Côte Chalonnaise. For example, almost 60 per cent of Montagny’s vineyards are classified as Premier Cru, which is so many as to stretch credibility. Further north, in Rully and Givry, the proportions (less than a quarter) are perhaps more useful.
This is very much a region in transition but, as Anne-Cécile Lumpp, daughter of vigneron François Lumpp in Givry, assured me while showing off their latest vintage, the Côte Chalonnaise is on the rise.
Recommended Côte Chalonnaise producers
Domaine Belleville, Rully
Domaine du Cellier aux Moines, Givry
Domaine Dureuil-Janthial, Rully
Domaine Faiveley, Mercurey
Domaine de la Folie, Rully
P&M Jacqueson, Rully
Domaine Claudie Jobard, Rully
Domaine Feuillat-Juillot, Montagny
Domaine Bruno Lorenzon, Mercurey
Domaine François Lumpp, Givry
Domaine Jean-Baptiste Ponsot, Givry
Domaine Ragot, Givry
Domaine Suremain, Mercurey
Domaine A&P de Villaine, Bouzeron
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