The Wars and Myths of Burgundy's Climats
Over the weekend, I finally read Wine and War, published way back in 2001 and a history of French wine during the Second World War recounting the uneasy relationship French winemakers had with the Germans, involving collaboration, resistance, subterfuge, fraud, and unlikely friendships. The book is well worth reading, demonstrating just how integral wine is to French culture (as well as how much Germans love French wine).
I was reminded to read the book after attending a tasting in San Francisco centred around the climats and lieux-dits of Burgundy. A climat is a vineyard that has over many centuries distinguished itself for its particular style and unique identity. The very best climats in the Côte d'Or were designated Grand Cru in 1937 when the appellation system was introduced in France. The Premier Cru designation was created in the early 1940s as a way of warding the Germans off the wines, as they weren't allowed to confiscate the "first growths." The ways in which the French resisted the German occupation were cunning, mischievous, and risky.
Although the vineyards awarded Premier Cru status during the war were deserving of the recognition, it shows that official acclaim is often a result of chance as much as merit. For the first few years of the Second World War, France was split between Occupied France and Unoccupied France, which was governed by an increasingly fascist French regime from Vichy but nominally free from German control. Burgundy was split: the Côte d'Or and the northern part of the Côte Chalonnaise occupied by the Germans; the southern part of the Chalonnaise and all of Mâconnais was part of the zone libre. As a result, all the Premier Cru vineyards were in the Côte d'Or and in northern/central Chalonnaise villages such as Mercurey and Givry.
Such wartime necessities have led to distinctions which still determine a wine's reputation. Pouilly-Fuissé, the furthest south of Burgundy's winemaking regions, is held in less regard than it should be, in part because its wines are sometimes fuller-bodied and richer than the Chardonnay made in the Côte d'Or but also because there are no Premier Cru vineyards. If the Germans had occupied as far south as this distinctive part of Burgundy, the appellation structure would be completely different.
Not all climats have names, but those that do are called lieux-dits ("named places" - sometimes there are several lieux-dit in one climat). These names can express a lot about the nature of the vineyard, as long as you speak French: the names come from the soil (Les Perrières refers to its pebbles), from local geographical conditions (Les Bois Gautiers refers to the trees surrounding the vineyard), or from past owners (La Romanée-Conti).
The origins of other names are lost in time or immersed in myth. The most famous vineyard for Chardonnay is Montrachet. At the tasting, a Burgundy winemaker explained the origins of Montrachet's name and of its surrounding vineyards. Montrachet, the story goes, was a nobleman who rode off to the crusades back in the twelfth century. He left behind his virgin daughter (pucelle), whose protection he entrusted to a knight (chevalier). They, of course, had an affair which resulted in an illegitimate child (bâtard). The nobleman returned, discovered the affair, but eventually welcomed (bienvenue) the child into his family. Hence the names of the famous series of vineyards that produce some of the world's greatest Chardonnay: Montrachet, Chevalier-Montrachet, Bâtard-Montrachet, and Bienvenue-Bâtard-Montrachet, as well as the Premier Cru Les Pucelles. There are variants of this story, but it most likely isn't true: Bâtard-Montrachet probably comes from the fact growers used the vineyard for young, experimental vines. Still, there's nothing like drinking some expensive, bastard Montrachet.
We tasted six wines to demonstrate the different styles found in Burgundy.
Domaine Auvigue Pouilly-Fuissé Les Chailloux 2015 ($40)
Pouilly-Fuissé still has no Premiers Crus, although it is likely to be awarded some soon. This is the warmest part of Burgundy, so the wines are richer and fuller-bodied with stone and tropical fruit aromas. The wine we tasted was a very good example of Pouilly-Fuissé, expressive and inviting. This is the one area of Burgundy that could be confused for the New World, but the high, refreshing acidity was noticeable. The name of the climat is Les Chailloux, which comes from the French word chaille for flint. ✪✪✪✪✪
Domaine Pinson Montmains Chablis Premier Cru 2013 ($40)
The most northern and coolest part of Burgundy, Chablis is the opposite of Pouilly-Fuissé. Aspect is key in the cool climate, and the best vineyards are on slopes which soak up the sun to give the grapes an extra ripeness. The name of the climat, Montmains, refers to its location on a small hill between two larger ones. I wasn't a huge fan of this wine, finding it a little too acidic and tart. Nevertheless, a white wine in its fourth year shows how Chablis retains its acidity and structure. ✪✪✪✪
Domaine Latour-Giraud Les Genevrières Meursault Premier Cru 2014 ($120)
Some of the richest Chardonnay comes from Meursault in the heart of the Côte de Beaune. Oak and malolactic fermentation add even more richness, and this wine almost had a tannic structure. Les Genevrières refers to the juniper trees grown around the vineyard and it's particularly known for its rich wines. This wine was wonderful: very concentrated and powerful, with a refreshing acidity. ✪✪✪✪✪✪
Domaine Michel Sarrazin & Fils Les Bois Gautiers Givry Premier Cru 2014 ($45)
Givry is in the Côte Chalonnaise region, just south of the more famous Côte d'Or. Here the land is more arable and there are fewer vineyards but those are planted on limestone soils similar to the Côte d'Or. Les Bois Gautiers refers to the woods that surround the vineyard, cooling and sheltering it from the wind. Despite that cooling effect, the red and black fruit aromas were quite ripe, although held together with a gripping tannic structure. ✪✪✪✪
Maison Chanzy Les Gravières Santenay Premier Cru 2014 (€35)
The more I learn about Burgundy, the more convinced I am that Santenay is my favourite village. It's the furthest south in the Côte d'Or, so there's a warmth, richness, and a certain meatiness to the wines. At the same time, they're not as full-on, dark, and intense as the more famous wines further north in the Côte de Nuits. I have also learnt that the best climat in Santenay is Les Gravières, whose name refers to its gravelly soils. ✪✪✪✪✪✪
Domaine des Beaumont Aux Combottes Gevry-Chambertin Premier Cru 2015 (c.$125)
Not only did I learn quite a few new French words at the tasting, I learnt a new English word too. Aux Combottes refers to the combe in which the vineyard sits - a combe being a hollow in a valley, or, in geological terms which apply to the Côte d'Or, "a dry valley in a limestone or chalk escarpment." Aux Combottes, which has a deep, pebbly soil, is a Premier Cru vineyard, though in essence it is considered Grand Cru: the initial rules created in 1937 stated that a vineyard within the village of Gevry-Chambertin could only be Grand Cru if it touched either Chambertin or Clos de Bèze, both of which Aux Combottes is close to but not touching. Such distinctions do nothing to aid the accessibility of Burgundy's wines. Aged in 60% new oak barrels, this was a deep, rich wine, with ripe black fruits, liquorice, and vanilla, and quite tannic. The power and tannic structure of Burgundy's Pinot Noirs, especially from the Côte de Nuits, can often be overlooked. ✪✪✪✪✪
Does it matter if a wine is a climat, a Premier Cru, or a Grand Cru? A Grand Cru may not be better than a Premier Cru which may not be better than a named climat. The designation certainly changes the price of a wine, but more importantly the name on the label can tell you a lot about the style of a wine, the village it comes from, and where in that village the grapes were grown. And, what's such an integral part of Burgundy's appeal, the name expresses the history (and the myths) of a vineyard.