Special Report: The Great Burgundy Breakdown

Part One: Climats vs. Lieux-Dits, Vintage Reports and Value in Burgundy

By Sara d’Amato

Sara d'Amato

Sara d’Amato

Wine buyers and critics from across the globe convened in Burgundy this past spring to taste through the most recent vintages from north to south. This expansive undertaking included salons from all 5 major viticultural regions that spanned crus, villages, regional appellations and uncountable climats and lieux-dits. How many wines of Burgundy can one taste in 5 days? My count came in at about 700 and I have published many of the best examples at the end of this article.

Compared to other global wine regions of repute, Burgundy is relatively small at just under 30,000 hectares, with Bordeaux measuring four times that size. Even smaller are the divisions of site, individual lieux-dits and climats, sometimes split into parcels less than a hectare per grower. Burgundians are fastidious about categorization. The Cistercians monks of the 3rd century, that valued quality over quantity, took the time to observe, sort and classify the slopes, rolling hills and valleys that make up this varied region. Even further back, shifting of tectonic plates contributed to the varied geological puzzle that makes up Burgundian terroir.

Burgundy is classified into crus – Grands and Premiers followed by Village appellations and then generic regional appellations. If you know your Burgundy, you are probably familiar with most Grand Crus of which there are 33. Chablis is the easiest because there is technically only one Grand Crus with 7 associated climats. Grand Crus and Premier Crus are made up of single vineyards. If you knew all of your Premier Crus then I would imagine you do nothing but drink Burgundy as there are 585 located in the Côte d’Or and Chalonnaise. It is less clear in Chablis because although 89 vineyards are classified as Premier Cru, only 17 are readily used. Most producers will choose to use the name of a better known climat within their permitted grouping. Got it? Good, because it gets just a little more complicated . . .

Les Grand Jours de Bourgogne 2018 kicks off in Chablis - 1

Les Grand Jours de Bourgogne 2018 kicks off in Chablis

Climats vs. Lieux-dits – What’s the Difference?

First off, “climat” is a uniquely Burgundian term that refers to the specific climatic, geological, geographical, historical and cultural conditions that make an individual plot of land special. To summarize, it is an expression of the concept of terroir. (“Terroir” is also very much a Burgundian construct but, of course, not a term limited to the region.) A climat is a parcel of land, named and precisely delimited. The definition of “lieu-dit” is virtually identical and thus terms are sometimes used interchangeably. This may be the least of the myriad of complexities you face with Burgundy but one which has always gotten under my skin.

Wine producers and administrators alike in the region will admit to the amorphous distinction between these two terms. If you want to provoke lively discussion in Burgundy, then ask this question. My more enlightened understanding after the Grands Jours de Bourgogne and followed by a recent visit by the BIVB to Toronto involves bureaucracy. Such that, if a named area has a historical standing and persisting quality, it will usually find its way into the “cahier de charges” which is a document assembling individual AOC regulations. If the wine producer wants to use that name on the label, they are then required to provide assurances that their fruit originated from that site. If a particular sub-site is not specifically mentioned in the “cahier de charges” it is more often referred to as a “lieu-dit”. Strictly speaking, it could be called a climat but it is more colloquially appropriate to refer to the place as a lieu-dit. Lieux-dits are less established in an administrative sense but their significance can run deep. Also, the origin of the wine with a named lieu-dit is not assured or scrutinized in a regulatory fashion.

Names of climats and lieux-dits are fascinating, complex and often have counterintuitive meanings. Names can reference geographic environment, a historical event, a person or even savoire-faire. It is near impossible to get an exact count on the number of climats and lieux-dits but the number is likely in the thousands. If historic curiosity and wine trivia excite you then secure yourself a copy of The Climats and Lieux-dits of the Great Vineyards of Burgundy by Marie-Hélène Landrieu-Lussigny and Sylvain Pitiot who have spent a great part of their lives exhaustively investigating 1463 of these sites – from the meaning of their names to their geographic and geologic particularities.

What’s in a Vintage?

At many of the large salon tastings over the week, the focus was on vintages from 2014 to 2016 that gradually revealed their idiosyncrasies as detailed below.

Vintage 2014

A highly sought out and very elegant vintage. In some cases the wines are understated and in other cases they are distinctly “classic”. It was a difficult vintage, to be sure with a cool, wet summer and a destructive hailstorm that caused significant damage in the Côte de Beaune. Producers in the area lost up to 50% of their crop resulting in fewer single vineyard bottlings, in particular with respect to the Premier Cru category. A reduced yield did help concentration and ripening in a vintage where there was less heat than the norm. Conditions were easier in Chablis and in the Côte de Nuits. Across the board, the whites are overall accessible in nature with good variation of styles. Reds were classic in style although perhaps less available in some cases due to low yield.

Vintage 2015

A warm, riper year with lower acidity and more roundness overall. Wines with big mouthfeel – Forbes Magazine refers to 2015 as a “hedonist’s vintage”. The summer was hot and dry and many growers decided to pick early. Generous and sensual, the wines across the board showed more ripeness than in 2014. The wines of 2014 received a great deal of critical praise early on, but some may criticize them as too brazen and lacking subtlety.  A vintage where winemaking practices and careful vineyard management techniques makes the difference between balanced wines that can last the test of time and more basic examples. Producer Nicolas Potel predicts that 2015 will have notable longevity and will evolve with surprising results. The whites, although ripe, are not lacking in acidity. Some may verge on tropical but there seem to be very few “flabby” examples.

Vintage 2016

A naturally disastrous vintage which left many winegrowers scrambling to bring in what they could. Yields were low. Frost damage was the first of the scourges of the season with Chablis getting hit the hardest. The Côte d’Or survived the frost better but not by much. The south was most resilient but the north sustained significant damage in the spring. An outbreak of mold formed the second wave of challenges requiring many producers to drop their biodynamic and organic practices in favour of saving whatever they had left. Pockets within Burgundy seem to have been affected more than others with Marsannay almost entirely lost. Hail came too, especially in Gevrey-Chambertin, where vineyards were unevenly affected. Chambolle-Musigny did not fare well, with a similar fate for Vougeot, Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet. Everywhere else was hit-and-miss. The results of 2016 will be far from uniform but there will be some gems to be found in what remains.

Regional and Village Discoveries

Within this expansive tasting of Burgundy, there was a great deal that was unexpectedly superb but I am happy to report on several charming discoveries that offer solid value, at least for now. I have outlined some of those discoveries below from the 5 major regions of growth.

Hunting for Value in Burgundy 3

Hunting for Value in Burgundy

Chablis & le Grand Auxerrois

Irancy

Make your way 16 kilometers southwest of Chablis and you’ll find the surprising red wine producing village of Irancy. It was given status in 1999 and has the anomalous feature of allowing a small percentage of a rare, local, deeply coloured and tannic grape variety known as césar to be blended with pinot noir. Although the addition of only 10% césar is permitted, this particularity results in unique wines of growing reverence. Only 5 hectares of this grape is planted despite a rich history involving the arrival of this grape by Roman legions centuries ago. This affordably priced region will surely not remain so for long so collect while you can!

Producer Spotlight: Domaine Brice Garlan

Three generations of Garlan men have grown this property from 3 hectares in 1946 to almost 20 today. Brice Garland now has over 12 hectares planted in Irancy with over 7 in Chablis and Petit Chablis. Look out for the Beaux Monts 2016 Irancy. The wines are surprisingly powerful yet still balanced with flavours of dark cherry and violet with a peppery aroma. Sensual and persistent, these wines are best consumed after 3-4 years in bottle.

Vézelay

The relatively new appellation of Bourgogne Vézelay anointed in 2017 shows tremendous potential for high quality chardonnay production in the north. Only chardonnay can be grown here and instead of limestone rich soils as are dominant in Chablis, the soils here are more clay based and thus produce a uniquely different sensory experience well worth seeking out.

Producer Spotlight: Domaine Brice Garlan

A cooperative that was built specifically to showcase the quality of the region of Vézelay. It was banded together like-minded individuals with a desire to see the region given appellation status by the INAO. Founded in 1985 after the region was given the right to sell under the Bourgogne appellation, the co-op pushed (along with the support of independent vignerons) to as a sub-appellation of Bourgone. This was granted in 1996 and further persistence gained the appellation independent status in 1997. An impressive success story to be sure.

Côtes de Beaune

Saint-Roman

This village appellation in the Côtes de Beaune since 1947 often goes overlooked. It has a rich Neolithic history and sits on a high elevation slope with calcareous soils interrupted by bands of clay – well suited to chardonnay. Generously perfumed reds with both freshness and silky texture also get thumbs up.

Producer Spotlight: Domaine Martenot-Mallard

A small winery producing fewer than 3,000 bottles, the estate was previously known as Le Domaine de la Perrière of Bernard Martenot. An intrepid new generation has taken over 8 years ago and renamed it Martenot Mallard. The winery now hold an impressive 16 hectares, not all yet used for the estate’s production. The wines show impressive amplitude and richness and are produced with a very light hand.

Mâconnais

Viré-Clessé

A newer appellation in the Mâconnais, Viré-Clessé was created in 1999 based on the two communes (Viré and Clessé) situated between Tournus and Mâcon and have since superseded the appellation names Mâcon-Viré and Mâcon-Clessé. The two slopes that make up this appellation are made up of limestone and marl as well as sandstone pebbles called “chailles” and clay further down. The limestone pebbles commonly found in the Mâconnais “cray” have a presence here as well. There are a multitude of climats and lieux-dits used in this appellation, many of them have names directly related to their geographic situation. Chardonnay here can be quite compelling and generously perfumed with spring flowers and a characteristic minty note. Wines are often delicate, fresh and easy drinking but the best have the potential for mid-term ageing.

Producer Spotlight: Denis Jeandeau

Denis Jeandeau exemplifies the enthusiasm, charisma and inventiveness of the younger generation of winemakers in Burgundy. He farms only 1 hectare done organically and hand-harvested and buys from other organic growers. Jeandeau is particularly proud of his wines of Viré-Clessé but also exploits in Saint-Véran and Pouilly-Fuissé. A fan of large formats, Jeandeau makes sure to showcase his best vintages in a substantial fashion.

Mâcon-Uchizy

Uchizy is a small commune in the large region of Mâcon. The generic appellation produces mainly average quality but there are some surprising wines that can be found here. Several of the communes, such as Uchizy, have been singled out for their ability to repeatedly produce wines of higher quality and there are many more. Mâcon-Uchizy wines are all white (chardonnay) along with 10 others that focus on whites. There are 11 other communes in the Mâconnais that are only red and rosé wine producing areas allowing both pinot noir and gamay grape varieties.

Producer Spotlight: Les Héritiers du Comte Lafon

The Lafon family gained recognition in Meursault but close to 20 years ago acquired property throughout the Mâconnais. Lafon had the foresight to recognize the untapped potential of the region securing vineyards in Uchizy and Viré-Clessé.

Côte de Nuits

Fixin and Marsannay

Despite having 6 Premier Cru climats, Fixin doesn’t get enough play in on this side of the pond. Its appellation status has been recognized since 1936 and is primarily a red wine production zone with very little chardonnay. Its pinot noir has a recognized richness and tannic presence that it is often called a “winter wine”. Yet, it has a more delicate side as well that presents itself with a perfumed, floral aromatics. Marl and calcareous soils contribute to the wines’ dichotomy. Gevery-Chambertin is a close neighbour and Fixin’s wines show notable similarities.

Marsannay is working very hard to achieve Premier Cru status on multiple climats but as of yet, have been awarded none. This is sure to change soon and thus is a region of very good, current value. White, red and rosé are produced here and quality is all over the map. The reds are generous, whites are round and floral and the rosés tend to be deeply fruity.

Producer Spotlight: Domaine René Bouvier

Producing wines both in Fixin and Marsannay, René Bouvier takes regional expressiveness very seriously. Domaine René (and there are multiple Bouviers not to be confused) exploits 18 hectares under vine in organic fashion, of which average 60 years of age but some up to 90 years in Gevery-Chambertin. The oak program here is phenomenal resulting in impressive integration in their wines. I have never tasted Marsannay with such colour and ageworthy capacity as these examples.

Stay tuned for Part 2 that will detail: the case for Grand Cru pinot noir, old vintages at Clos Vougeot, a spotlight on Chablis and the Crémant boom.

Santé!

Sara


Sara’s Burgundy Picks

90 Domaine Brice Garland 2016 Les Beaux Monts, Irancy ($26) – Irancy is the most northern Burgundian appellation where pinot noir is produced located not far from Chablis. This cuvée contains up to 10% of an indigenous grape variety known as césar which adds colour and tannic profile. The nose has a cooler climate aromatic character of pepper and berries but the palate avoids any green or underripe flavours. Well defined by acidity and fine tannins with surprising complexity and depth of flavours. Although drinking well now, this Irancy has the depth of flavour to enjoy for another 4-5 years. Tasted February 2018.

90 Cave Henry de Vézelay 2014 Cuvée Henry de Vézelay ($29) – Although the independent appellation status of Vézelay won’t show on the label until the 2017 vintage, the 2014 shows remarkable character, worthy of its own designation. This 100% chardonnay cuvée was farmed conventionally with full malolactic fermention, followed by bâtonnage in oak and minimal filtration. Wonderfully balanced with fruit trumping winemaking. The aromatics are generous with an abundance of white flower, grapefruit zest and peach skin. The palate is mid-weight showing mild and pleasant oxidative nuttiness which enhances the complexity. Drinking well now. Tasted February 2018.

91 Denis Jeandeau 2016 Viré-Clessé ($30) – Denis Jeandeau exemplifies the enthusiasm and inventiveness of the younger generation of Burgundian winemakers. He farms only 1 hectare of his own organically and buys from other growers in an attempt to showcase the distinctive character of nearby appellations. His Viré-Clessé is farmed organically from 40 year old vines on the east-facing slopes surrounding the village of Viré. Wild yeast fermented for best expression of terroir with a mix of new and used barrels although the majority is aged in neutral vessels. Still a touch closed, the wine shows remarkable potential with a taught structure and very good concentration. It should unravell nicely in the next couple of years showcasing fleshy fruit on its mid-weight frame. Tasted February 2018.

92 Denis Jeandeau 2016 “Secret Minéral” Pouilly-Fuissé ($35) – The “Secret Minéral is aptly named as although we know many regions of Burgundy are able to produce a salty, mineral tasting profile, the exact cause of this taste profile remains largely a secret of nature. This Pouilly-Fuissé is produced from 45 year old vines in the marl soils of Soultre and Vergisson, hand-harvested an whole bunch pressd with indigenous yeast fermentation in older barrels. In short, well treated with respect for local terroir. The wine offers the ample body one would expect from the appellation without heaviness and a levity from freshness. There is a pleasant nervy element that tingles and teases. The wood treatment is notable but integrated and relatively well balanced at this early stage.  A delight for the senses, demonstrative but balanced by precision and clarity. Tasted February 2018.

90 Les Héritiers du Comte Lafon 2015 Les Maranches, Mâcon-Uchizy ($35) – A profound respect for the environment and the use of biodynamic practices results in some of the most representitive wines of the Mâcon and more particularly, this appellation to watch,  Mâcon-Uchizy. Dominique and Bruno Lafon, fourth generation producers were some of the first in the region to adopt such prescribed and precise viticultural practices in the region, convinced that there was real potential in this often overlooked region. Both high altitude and south-facing, Mâcon-Uchizy is certainly an appellation that deserves attention. The wine is quite floral with light tropical notes, ripe orchard fruit and a generous nature. The 2015 vintage is evident here but the wine is cut by some underlying freshness that seems to percolate from its depths. Drink now or hold another half decade. Tasted February 2018.

92 Domaine Hubert Bouzereau-Gruère et Filles 2016 Les Tillets, Meursault ($90) – The Domaine Hubert Bouzereau Gruere is a union of two viticultural famiies, that of the Bouzereau’s from Meursault and the Gruère’s of Chassagne-Montrachet. Since 1970, they have been growing and producing together now joined by their daughters Marie-Laure and Marie-Anne which marks the 8th generatin of their family’s exploits. They hold 10 hectares thoughout the Côtes de Beaune focusing on whites with a small percentage of reds with wines that run the gamut from Grand Cru Premiers Crus, Villages as well as regional appellations. Les Tillets is a vineyard on a higher slope southeast-facing which was free of frost in this tricky vintage. A high energy style with plenty of freshness and power. A strong mineral vein cuts through the flavours on the palate. Peach and apple dominate the finish of very good length. Highly structured and still quite tight but a riveting wine. Best 2019-2023. Tasted February 2018.

93 Domaine Hubert Bouzereau-Gruère et Filles 2016 Limozin, Meursault ($85) – The Domaine Hubert Bouzereau Gruere is a union of two viticultural famiies, that of the Bouzereau’s from Meursault and the Gruère’s of Chassagne-Montrachet. Grapes here were sourced from Le limozin lieux-dit, located just below the 1er cru of Les Genevrières and is named after the local nearby stream. It’s ability to outperform its village status is apparent in this distinctive Meursault that presents some creamy malolactic character on the palate but a fresh edge remains. A mineral flavour and texture further adds definition to the palate. Notes of apple, pear and lemon are introduced and linger on the finish of good length. The fatness is superbly balanced by acidity and result is a harmonious and very drinkable whole. Best now to 2022.

92 Domaine Gaston & Pierre Ravaut 2015 Ladoix ($41) – Ladoix is the gateway appellation to the Côtes de Beaune and tends to produce pinot noirs that are more fleshy and with notable structure. This very fine example has a compellin acidic structure offering freshness and finess. The freshness is fractured and multilayered supporting the fruit like a staircase. The aromatic are also quite apppealing with dried crunchy leaves and exotic spice at the forefront. Very good length with time still to come. Best 2019-2024. Tasted September 2018.

93 Domaine Chapelle de Blagny2016 Les Ravelles, Meursault 1er Cru ($98) – An explosively refreshing Meursault with impressive volume and finesse. A real focus on elegance here with intriguing flavours of soy, butter and a light toastiness emphasizing the fresh orchard fruit. Finely crafted and balanced even at this young age. Tasted March 2018.

93 Domaine Marc Rougeot  2016 Sous La Velle Meursault ($70) – Marc Rougeot’s style is very low interventionist with no sulfur addition until the very end, natural yeast fermentation and no filtration. This lieu-dit is located below the village of Meursault and offers a surprising degree of substance. Not all baby fat though, there is an impression of crystalized butter similar to a salty crunch that adds texture and intrigue to the palate. Fleshy peach, pear and even a hint of passion fruit contribute to the pleasure-giving nature of this youthful Meursault. Enjoy now but this should evolve beautifully until at least the end of the decade. Tasted March 2018.

94 Domaine Jean Monnier et Fils 2016 Genevrières, Meursault 1er Cru ($70) – Nicholas Monnier is a 7th generation producer who approaches his whites with a profound respect for terroir and history. This youthful example offers delicate floral perfume and tender stone fruit. The palate is intense and fresh with notable minerality and a linear, angular demeanor. Clean with great purity that is not dependent on oak for enhancement. Memorable with undeniable ageing potential. Tasted March 2018.

93 Domaine Jean-Marc Boillot 2016 Pommard ($60) – An impressive bombshell, this wonderfully concentrated Pommard verges on showy but has just enough restraint to create tension on the palate. The depth of flavour is notable and involves a concentrated dynamic of red and black fruit, held together by significant acidic and tannic structure. A floral note that is a bit overwhelmed at present on the palate, leaks through on the finish and lingers memorably. Best 2019-2025. Tasted March 2018.

92 Domaine Jean-Marc Boillot 2016Carelle sous la Chapelle, Volnay 1er Cru ($75) – This delicate and reserved Volnay seems likely to unfold shortly as already, wildflower and black pepper waft to the surface given a little air. The palate showcases fine acidity gentle red and purple plum along with a polished tannic presence. Elegance and subtelty are the names of the game at present and highten anticipation. Best 2020-2024 Tasted March 2018.

94 Domaine Jean-Marc Boillot 2016Pitures Dessus, Volnay 1er Cru($85) – The expected degree of finesse is unquestionably met by this 1er Cru Volnay. Sourced from the climat of Pitures located just south of the village of Volnay, close to Pommard on a relatively steep slope, rocky at the top with deep clay soils lower down. The result is a wine with the power and structure of Pommard but the elegance of Volnay. Although the aromatic character is subdued for Volnay, this expression is tight, nervy and amply built. The tannins are closer to what you’d expect from Pommard but pleasantly lack any significant drying character. A compelling wine with exceptional pedigree. Best 2020-225. Tasted March 2018.

95 Domaine Jean-Marc Boillot 2016 Les Jarollières, Pommard 1er Cru($100) – Sourced from the 1er Cru of Jarollières which is an ideally rocky climat, eastwardly exposed and bordered by several prestigious 1er crs such as Les Rugiens and Volnay’s Frémiets. Powerful but with very fine tannins – a result of the Domaine’s philopsophy to destem 100% when it comes to pinot across the board in an effort to showcase the purity of the fruit. Fresh and juicy, potent but still offering finesse. Its nervy restrait is almost titilating. Vibrant and authentic with excellent length. Best 2019-2025. Tasted March 2018.

93 Domaine Jean-Marc Bouley 2016 Clos de la Cave, Volnay ($85) – Thomas Bouley now runs and maintains his father, Jean-Marc’s estate in a very hands on fashion involved in every aspect of the care of his 9 hectares in Volnay and Prommard – from pruning to ploughing. The grapes for the “Clos de Cave” are treated in organic fashion and are sourced from the back of the estate from a south-east facing plot of 38-year old vines. The harvest is undertaken a touch earlier than neighboring producers to rep firm structure and 50% stem inclusion further adds to the overall structure. Slightly reductive in character, this pinot noir has the guts to march into the future with more of its authentic fruit revealed with every step. Impressive precision. Best 2020-2026. Tasted March 2018.

94 Domaine Jean-Marc Bouley 2016 Les Caillerets, Volnay 1er Cru ($100) – This Volnay offers a marked abundance of fruit as is typical of this highly regarded, southern Volnay cru. Les Caillerets is named after the small pebbles which help reflect light and keep warmth in the vinyeard. An abundance of blueberry, cherry, violets and licorice dominate the palate. Its crunchy sweetness may have to do with a small degree of carbonic maceration in the mix. A vibrantly compelling wine with appealling accessibility but pulled together by a generous lick of acidity. Tasted March 2018.

92 Domaine Jean-Luc Joillot 2016 Les Vaumuriens, Pommard($65) – This single vineyard Volnay exhibits a generous nose with highly sensual aromas of violets, black pepper and a hint of sandalwood. The palate is fresh, upbeat with a youthful character. Red fruit and black cherry combine on the palate matching bitterness with sweetness. Although the tannin is of full throttle, Pommard strength, there is a notable accessibility about this wine due to it fleshy core and long, rather complex finish. Tasted March 2018.

92 Domaine Jean-Luc Joillot 2016Les Noizons,Pommard($45) – Well situated, the Noizons lieu-dit’s clay and limestone based soils translate into rich, fleshy flavours matched by and edgy uplift from fresh acidity and firm tannic grip. Black pepper and exotic spice are indiscreet on the nose white flavours of red apple skin and red plum liven the palate. Still quite taught, this pinot is best enjoyed after 2019. Tasted March 2018.

94 Domaine Jean-Luc Joillot 2015Les Petits Epenots, Pommard 1er Cru($100) – Sourced from one of Pommards best vineyards, this most northern of the trio of Epenots vineyards has a gently sloping southeastern aspect and a pebbly topsoil with high iron content underneath. The richness in this 2015 incarnation is sublime and its slowly opening flavour profile creates a great deal of anticipation. A firm but not drying tannic structure and a tug of acidity keeps the palate in line. Excellent length. Best 2019-2024. Tasted March 2018.

94 Domaine Jean-Luc Joillot 2016 Les Rugiens, Pommard 1er Cru ($100) – The iron rich soils of Les Rugiens contribute to the riveting nature of this dynamic pinot noir. A mineral intensive flavour profile with fine and softer tannins than expected. Notes of red apple, plum, cherry and iodine chime in on the palate. Both elegant and accessible. Highly compelling. Tasted March 2018.