Don’t Overlook Village Burgundies

I’m just back from a week in Burgundy where I attended a spectacular week-long series of tastings, Les Grands Jours de Bourgogne, which turned out to be one of my best tasting experiences ever.  Held biannually, visitors move from Chablis in the north to Mercurey in the Côte Chalonnaise, tasting wines from a group of villages each day.  For example, a hundred-plus producers from Chablis and the surrounding Auxerrois arrange themselves under giant tents in Chablis on Monday showing samples of their recent vintages.  The next day, Tuesday, visitors hop from Gevrey-Chambertin to the Clos de Vougeot to the nearby Château de Gilly-lès-Cîteaux, tasting wines from the villages of the Côte de Nuits.  Wednesday, hundreds of Crémant de Bourgogne producers and those from the Mâconnais and Hautes Côtes gather in Beaune, allowing visitors to explore those appellations.  Unsurprisingly, I learned an enormous amount about the wines from the 2020 vintage during those tastings that I will report about in this and future columns.

Spoiler alert—the 2020 whites are consistently excellent across all appellations.  Some of 2020 reds, such as those from Marsannay’s Domaine Bart, are superb as well, but there is far more variability among them as compared to the whites.

What surprised me, but shouldn’t have, was how good and enjoyable the village wines are.  And how well they develop with bottle age.  I’m not referring just to the wines from exalted villages of the Côte d’Or, such as Gevrey-Chambertin.  I found myself raving about wines from Irancy, an obscure village near Chablis that is unknown to even many Burgundians and extolling the virtues of the often-under-priced village Chablis, not its famed Premier or Grand Crus, that have developed marvelously with a decade of age.

Village wines frequently get lost in the clamor for Premier and Grand Cru bottlings.  But those latter two categories account for only about 10 and one percent, respectively, of all Burgundy, which helps explain why their prices have gone through the roof and are unattainable for everyone except the one-percenters.  And even some of them are having trouble affording Grand Crus from top producers.  Accounting for only about 35 percent of Burgundy’s production, village wines are still in rarefied territory in terms of world-wine pricing context, but are at least more affordable.  Regional appellations, such as Bourgogne, Bourgogne Aligoté, Coteaux Bourguignons, or Mâcon-Villages, to name four of the eight, complete the Burgundy hierarchical pyramid, and account for just over half of Burgundy’s total production.

When choosing village wines, remember the first rule of Burgundy—producer, producer, producer.  It’s no coincidence that the village wines that I found so striking this trip all came from top producers.  From René et Vincent Dauvissat, certainly one of the top producers in Chablis, came a 2015 Irancy and a 2010 Chablis, both of which had developed beautifully and were mesmerizing throughout a meal.  A 2010 Gevrey-Chambertin from Trapet, with its perfect combination of brambly fruit and savory qualities, was equally beguiling.  And a 1992 Pouilly-Fuissé from Château Beauregard, again one of that appellation’s top producers, displayed nutty nuances and was splendidly mature without being tired in the least at 30 years of age — quite a feat considering the abysmal nature of the 1992 vintage in general.

Don’t forget the village bottling of négociants, either.  Many of them are forced to buy small amounts of premier cru wines they don’t really want to secure other wines from growers that they do really want.  Those barrels of unwanted premier crus are often declassified and included in the village bottlings.  For example, for years up to one-third of Jadot’s village Chassagne-Montrachet actually came from premier cru vineyards.  Similarly, Drouhin’s Gevrey-Chambertin bottling typically includes a substantial amount of wine from that village’s Premier Cru vineyards.

Another secret to selecting well-priced village wines is to find villages, such as Marsannay and the aforementioned Irancy, whose prices have not kept up with their leap in quality.  Marsannay, just south of Dijon, is the northern-most village of the Côte de Nuits.  It achieved village appellation status just over three decades ago, in 1987.  Prior to that, its wines were sold under the regional appellation of Bourgogne.  Over the last two decades, the wines of Marsannay have sky-rocketed in quality as young producers have revitalized the appellation.  The market has taken note of the stepped-up quality, and prices for some producers’ wines have already taken off, but bargains remain, at least for now.  I say “for now” because Marsannay producers have applied to French wine regulators to classify some vineyards as Premier Cru.  That classification, which will likely take at least another five years to become official, is appropriate in my mind because certain vineyards, such as Champ Salomon, St. Jacques and Langeroies, to name just three of the 14 candidates, have the potential for making distinctive and very high-quality wine.

You can be sure that once regulators officially identify Premier Cru vineyards in Marsannay, the prices of even the village wines will rise, like what’s happening in Pouilly-Fuissé.  There, and after decades of study, the French wine authorities finally approved the growers’ request to award Premier Cru status to 22 of their vineyards, starting with the 2020 vintage.  The rising tide of higher prices for the Premier Cru Pouilly-Fuissé has already increased the prices of the village wine.  So, explore the wines of Marsannay while you can.

One of my favorite Marsannay producers is Domaine Bart, who makes an extensive range of wines from lieux-dits across the village, many of which are candidates for Premier Cru status.  Bart’s impeccably balanced 2020s are terrific across the board.  They avoided the potential pitfall of the hot vintage—over ripe grapes resulting in overblown wines.  Bart’s Marsannay will give consumers an insight to the character of the wines from the Côte de Nuits and sell for between $30 and $50 depending on the lieu-dit.

Irancy, which lies just outside of Chablis and is Burgundy’s northern-most village appellation, is set to follow Marsannay’s pathway.  The wines, initially sold only under the Bourgogne application, were promoted in 1977 to Bourgogne-Irancy, still a regional designation, and finally to a village appellation in 1998.  Growers are already discussing which of Irancy’s lieux-dits might qualify for Premier Cru status, though that designation is likely to be at least a decade away.  In the meantime, look out for the notable lieux-dits of Palotte, Les Mazelots, and Veaupessiot.  But also, do remember the rule—producer, producer, producer—so look for Irancy wines from Stephanie Colinot, Christopher Ferrari’s Domaine St.  Germain, Clothilde Davenne, and Domaine Richoux, to name just a few.

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April 20, 2022

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