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Bargains Abound in Burgundy, Part II
By Michael Apstein
Jun 2, 2015
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With demand for Burgundy pushing prices relentlessly upward, savvy consumers should look to lesser-known appellation to find affordable wines.  Last week’s column focused on red wines.  This week, I’ll explain why the quality of the wines from these less prestigious appellations has soared, recommend a few more reds, and discuss the whites. The recommendations are not meant to be comprehensive.  There are many more excellent producers than I can list here.  My strongest recommendation is to explore these under-appreciated appellations, and this column will offer pointers on where to begin.

(To see last’s weeks companion column on relatively affordable red wines from Burgundy, go to http://winereviewonline.com/Michael_Apstein_on_Burgundy_Bargains.cfm.  Alternatively, simply click on the name beneath my photo on the WRO “Home” page to see an entire archive of columns headed by last week’s article.)

A Leap in Quality

Although the quality level of all Burgundy has risen over the last couple of decades, the leap in quality in these lesser-known appellations has been truly amazing.  These appellations have benefited disproportionately from climate change because they encompass sites where grapes could not achieve adequate ripeness a decade or two ago.  But there’s been an equally important reason for the increased quality of the wines from these locales according to Amaury Devillard, who owns a number of estates in Burgundy, including the superb Château de Chamirey:  “Advances in viticulture and winemaking have revolutionized the quality of the wines from these areas as a new generation of winemakers have taken the reins.”  

As an example of the change in viticulture, Devillard points to his grandfather, the Marquis de Jouennes, who showed him plots at Château de Chamirey, the estate in Mercurey that he purchased in 1932, where vines never produced high quality grapes.  Now, after replanting, those plots are producing top-notch grapes, according the Devillard.  “The terroir was never the problem.  It was the way the vines had been planted and tended--the spacing and pruning--that prevented their full expression.”  He continued, “In my grandfather’s time, the focus was on quantity because wine was viewed as nourishment.  Workers were drinking five or six liters--not bottles--a day.  Today, with modern viticultural science yields are way down and quality is way up.”

Crop yield is especially important for Pinot Noir because, unlike Merlot, the quality of the finished wine drops dramatically when the yield increases even a little.  Many winemakers have told me that the precipitous drop in quality resulting from only a minor increase in yield explains the price premium on wines made from Pinot Noir.  Producers can make a drinkable Merlot with a yield of 10 tons per acre, whereas Pinot Noir becomes hollow and vapid once yield exceeds about half that.  Of course, this also means that quality when working with Pinot Noir comes at a cost, and a monumental one when yields are reduced to something like half what one’s vines could conceivably produce.

Advances in winemaking, fueled by a younger generation of winemakers, have been as important as those in the vineyard, according to Devillard.  He explained that winemaking knowledge in France in general and Burgundy in particular, for better or for worse, was insular and limited to copying what one’s parents and grandparents had done in the past.  By contrast, the current crop of winemakers have trained at schools and/or worked abroad (Devillard himself worked in South Africa), subsequently employing modern techniques that resulted in cleaner expressions of wines in appellations that formerly suffered from an unattractive rusticity.

Mercurey

Mercurey, located in the Côte Chalonnaise, is a treasure trove for red wines.  Vineyard prices are about one-tenth of those in Meursault, according to Devillard, which means that consumers can buy premier cru wines from there without breaking the bank.  Indeed, the 2012 Mercurey 1er Cru “Les Ruelles” from the Château de Chamirey ($42) is quite rich and powerful for a Mercurey and is outstanding with its dark cherry skin-like bitterness, balance and refinement.   A satiny texture makes it very appealing now.  Indeed, I’d be happy with any of the 2012s from Château de Chamirey.

Domaine Faiveley, a top producer based in Nuits St. Georges, has substantial holdings in Mercurey from which they produced an excellent 2012 village Mercurey, “La Framboisière,” which, with its juicy cherry-like freshness atop subtle minerality, is ready for immediate consumption.  Their refined premier cru, 2012 Mercurey “Clos de Myglands” ($45), focuses on the firm minerality of Mercurey and would benefit from a few more years in the cellar.  The 2007 “Clos de Myglands,” consumed at dinner last week, delivered the perfect combination of minerality and a combination of fresh and dried fruit flavors wrapped in suave tannins.

Among the other Côte Chalonnaise-based producers who consistently make attractive Mercurey, I would single out Domaine de Suremain.  Another local producer to watch is André Delorme where Nadine Gublin, the talented winemaker at Domaine Jacques Prieur, is the consultant.

Maranges and Auxey-Duresses

Maranges, which is basically a southern extension of Santenay, produces wines that tend to be slightly less refined, but are nonetheless charming.  Look for those from Xavier Monnot who is clearly one of the appellation’s leading producers, making wines with great polish.

Auxey-Duresses, another village similar to St. Aubin that is in a valley just to the west of the major appellations of the Côte de Beaune, is a great place for well-priced red wines.  Domaine Jean et Gilles Lafouge makes refined wines from this appellation that are far superior to what their price suggests. 

White Wines Under the Radar

Bourgogne Blanc:  Just as major négociants (such as Bichot, Bouchard, Chanson, Drouhin, Faiveley, Jadot, and Latour) all make Bourgogne Rouge, they all produce Bourgogne Blanc, which like other white Burgundies, is made from Chardonnay.  The grapes may be grown throughout Burgundy--from as far north as Chablis, to the Côte d’Or, the Côte Chalonnaise and to the Mâconnais in the south.  The Bourgogne Blanc wines from these producers average less than $20 a bottle.

The 2012 renditions are, like their counterpart reds, particularly attractive because the warmth of the vintage added a little more ripeness to the wines.  Unlike wines from more prestigious appellations, they often carry the name of the grape on the label to remind consumers they are made from Chardonnay.  Still, as with the reds, don’t expect the richness of New World Chardonnay.  These Bourgogne Blanc vary with the style of the producer--Jadot’s is a little richer, Drouhin’s a bit more delicate--and focus on minerality and acidity rather than opulent fruitiness.  At about $14, the 2012 Drouhin Bourgogne Blanc “Laforêt” is an exceptional value. 

The exceptionally talented grower, J. J. Vincent, whose home base is in Pouilly Fuissé in the Mâconnais, produces a splendid array of wines from that appellation under the Château Fuissé label.  The Vincent family has recently expanded their operation into a small négociant business, taking advantage of their longstanding relationships with other growers in their areas.  Vincent’s 2012 Bourgogne Blanc ($17), for example, with a combination of bright acidity and subtle creaminess, is very appealing.

The Bourgogne Blanc from high-end Côte d’Or estates, such as Méo-Camuzet, Marc Colin or Michel Bouzereau to name just three, provide you with an opportunity to taste for yourself the extraordinary talents of these winemakers without breaking the bank.  Méo-Camuzet’s rare white wine from the Hautes Côtes de Nuits is called “Clos Saint Philibert” ($35).  Marc Colin’s Bourgogne Chardonnay “La Combe” ($25) is sourced from a single vineyard within the limits, but the not appellation, of Puligny-Montrachet.  Bouzereau’s Bourgogne Blanc ($31) comes from vineyards abutting the village of Meursault--and tastes more like Meursault than many a lesser grower’s wine actually labeled Meursault.

The Mâconnais

Over the years I’ve consumed many cases of inexpensive but good wines from the Mâconnais that were labeled either Mâcon-Villages (sourced from as many as 40 different villages) or from a specific town within the appellation (in which case the wine is labeled with the town’s name appended, as in Mâcon-Lugny).  More important than the actual location of the vines is the producer who makes the wines.   Look for bottlings from Bret Brothers or La Soufrandière, which is the name under which they bottle their estate wines.  Other producers whose Mâconnais wines I recommend highly are Auvigue, Sainte Barbe, Comte Lafon and Leflaive.  The latter two give the consumer an opportunity to sample the talents of prestigious Côte d’Or producers at a price that is easy to swallow.  And don’t forget the Mâconnais wines from the leading Burgundy négociants listed above and a very good cooperative, Cave de Lugny, all of which are extremely satisfying for the price. 

Viré-Clessé and St. Véran

Despite breaking away from the more generic Mâcon appellation, the wines from Viré-Clessé still fly under the radar.  The growers in Mâcon-Viré and Mâcon-Clessé convinced the authorities in 1999 that their Chardonnay-based wines were distinctive, different from the rest of those in the Mâconnais and thus deserved their own appellation.  They are a boon for consumers because their name recognition remains even lower than some of the Republican candidates for president, which means that their prices have not kept pace with their quality.  Ones from Domaine Sainte Barbe, which is sometimes seen under the label Domaine de Chazelles ($24) and Bret Brothers ($34) are outstanding, while the ones from Maison Louis Latour offer spectacular value ($12).

St. Véran, created in 1971, is comprised of two small areas, one on each side of Pouilly-Fuissé, which together is about the same size (1,700 acres) as its better-known neighbor.  Wines from St. Véran can offer a similar creamy minerality at a lower price compared to Pouilly-Fuissé because the area is less well known.  In addition to the producers listed above, Roger Lassarat and Château Beauregard both make stunning wines from various plots in St. Véran.

The Côte Chalonnaise

The Côte Chalonnaise, with its villages of Montagny and Rully, is another one of my favorite places to find white Burgundies that deliver far more than you’d expect from their prices.  The wines from Montagny frequently have a mouth-watering briny flintiness, while those from Rully have a rounder profile, though in 2012 both are focused and convey unusual richness. 

Although there are good small producers in Montagny, such as Domaine Michel-Andreotti, the wines are dominated by the Burgundy négociants, all of whom frankly do an excellent job.  Pick up a bottle of Domaine Faiveley’s 2012 Montagny ($25), a village wine that’s overt upfront and fruity with a firm stony spine.  Or try Maison Latour’s 2012 Montagny Premier Cru “La Grande Roche,” ($25), with wonderful ripeness balanced by enormous energy and verve.  And then there’s Drouhin’s racy 2012 Rully ($20), which expands in the glass displaying both richness and finesse.  I’d be happy with any of these during this summer to drink with my grilled swordfish.  I suspect you will be too.

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E-mail me your thoughts about Burgundy’s hidden jewels at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

June 3, 2015