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Burgundy’s growers were praying for an ample harvest this year. The 2010 crop was small, and the 2012 crop minuscule; even 2011 was on the slim side. Alas, hailstorms in the Côte de Beaune in late July may frustrate hopes for 2013, too. This penury comes at a time when the world’s wine drinkers are baying for the region’s wines, with a crescendo of interest both from the US (now Burgundy’s most valuable market) and from China.
Might this give the Côte Chalonnaise the chance it’s been waiting for? This small area lies just south of Burgundy’s heartland, the Côte d’Or. Its hill line is more broken and fractured than that of the Côte d’Or, with less topographical homogeneity and fewer splendid east-facing slopes. The region has no Grands Crus, while its Premier Crus have been defined with self-defeating laxity. The fact that Côte d’Or négociants tend to use Chalonnais wines as the bargain entry-point to their ranges inhibits aspirations and price expectations. It’s Burgundy’s eternal bridesmaid.
Geologically, climatically and culturally, though, the region is a southerly continuation of the Côte d’Or. Indeed, in the days when boats were the only way to export wine, the river access of Chalon-sur-Saône (which gives the region its name) made it Burgundy’s key town. Its red wines are the sole substantial Burgundian alternative to those of the Côte d’Or, given that Chablis and the Mâconnais are overwhelmingly white-wine-producing zones, and the best Beaujolais is made from a different grape variety growing in a different soil type (Gamay in granite-soiled hills rather than Pinot Noir on limestone). The finest Côte Chalonnaise whites, for their part, quite clearly share something of the grain and finesse of those grown around celebrated Côte de Beaune villages less than 10km away. Burgundy, in truth, needs the Côte Chalonnaise, and never more than now.
It has five key villages. Bouzeron, furthest north, is a compelling oddity: the only village appellation in Burgundy for white wines made from the Aligoté grape alone. This variety, a finely strung sister to Chardonnay, seems to like Bouzeron’s quiet, cool valley location – a Chalonnais equivalent to the “Hautes Côtes” further north. Sometimes the wines seem like a southern echo of Chablis in their stony, mouthwatering incision; at other times, though, a little crisp apple fruit almost suggests the Loire valley. A finishing vinous warmth is what really gives their origins away: that sinewy quality is typical of central Burgundy. Aligoté may be less articulate than Chardonnay but its enigmatic restraint makes it usefully gastronomic. Too much, perhaps, is mixed with crème de cassis to make kir (a cocktail named after a former long-serving mayor of Dijon, Canon Félix Kir) for Bouzeron to achieve the recognition it merits.
There’s twice as much white wine produced as red in nearby Rully – indeed the village was once known for its sparkling wines, though the Chardonnay crop is now too valuable as still wine for it to be used in that way. A fine white Rully will always be fresh, quick, tight, limpid and light on its feet – lovely burgundy for seafood. It is, too, the Chalonnais white which suggests mineral notes more regularly than any other. The often slender Rully reds are less convincing, though in skilled hands (such as those of Vincent Dureuil-Janthial) they can have a quenching poise.
Mercurey, to the south of Rully, is the region’s dominant village, and with almost 650 hectares under vine, it is bigger than any in the Côte d’Or itself. It boasts some of the most perfectly angled slopes in the Côte Chalonnaise, on three separate hills set in a loose amphitheatre around the village. Premier Cru names worth looking out for include La Bondue, Champs Martin, Clos l’Evêque, Clos du Roi and En Sazenay.
This is red-wine territory, above all, and the best are fresh, limpid and juicy, their redcurrant and raspberry fruits shawled, after warm vintages such as 2009, in feathery tannins. From the top half-dozen growers, these red burgundies compete with Premiers Crus from Beaune or Santenay, even if they never have the depth or force of Côte de Nuits reds. Whites in this village tend to come from the highest slopes or the less propitious plateau land, and are less expansive than the reds, though in the right hands they still have class.
Givry is the other centre of red-wine gravity in the region: a grand little village packed with historical interest with a small, hook-shaped suite of fine slopes to its west (Servoisine, Cellier aux Moines, Grand and Petit Marole, Les Bois Chevaux and Clos Salomon all include ideal mid-slope sites, albeit with varying orientations). The locals tend to say that Givry’s reds are more “gourmand” than those of Mercurey, meaning round-contoured, lip-smacking, gratifying and easy to like. Perhaps, but vivaciousness and lively freshness are a part of their constitution too, while the best growers make wines with true Premier Cru concentration. As in Mercurey, most of the white comes from vineyards that can’t ripen Pinot regularly, though top growers have some fine Chardonnay tucked away in the best sites.
The final Chalonnais village is Montagny, close to the village of Buxy; this time the appellation is for white wines only, grown on relatively steep slopes (a geological reverse has occurred here, meaning that the steeper scarp slope now faces east rather than west, as in the rest of the Chalonnais). Until 1989, every vineyard in the village was perplexingly classified as Premier Cru; now it is simply the majority, under 53 separate names of which less than a dozen are in regular use. Quality, in fact, has to be fought for here with more assiduity than elsewhere in the Chalonnais, but the freshness and vinous poise of the best make them worth seeking out; it’s a clear contrast to the plump easiness of the Mâconnais wines further south.
Andrew Jefford’s blog ‘Jefford on Monday’ appears weekly on www.decanter.com; Jancis Robinson is away
Stéphane Briday, Chanzy, Domaine des Moirots, A&P de Villaine
Stéphane Briday, Dureuil-Janthial, Jaeger Defaix, Paul and Marie Jacqueson, Olivier Leflaive, Louis Max (whites only), Jean-Baptiste Ponsot, Rois Mages, A&P de Villaine
Ch de Chamirey, André Delorme (Clos l’Evêque), Ch d’Etroyes, Domaine de l’Evêché, Paul et Marie Jacqueson, Michel Juillot, Louis Max (whites only), de Suremain, Theulot-Juillot
Domaine du Cellier aux Moines, Domaine du Clos Salomon, Desvignes, François Lumpp, Joblot, Masse
Stéphane Aladame, Feuillat-Juillot, Michel-Andreotti, Domaine des Moirots, Ch de la Saule