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Back to France Part 5 – Intro to Burgundy, Chablis and the Wines of Domaine Vrignaud

romanee conti vineyard sign closeupIt’s time to continue our look at the great wines of France, or at least some of them, and now we move to one of the greatest and most famous wine making regions in the world – Burgundy.  They have been making celebrated wines here for centuries, and many consider this to be the home of the top red and white wines available on the planet.  When we were just starting to learn about wine I remember reading many testimonials from celebrities in the wine world describing how they had tried them all, and eventually ended up liking Burgundy the best.  Many describe their ‘aha!’ moment with wine as involving a Grand Cru red or white wine, usually with some age on it, and from one of the storied vineyards of the Côte d’Or.  We’ve had some great wines from Burgundy ourselves, but haven’t had that defining moment….yet.  Of course, we can’t afford to drink the legends, so maybe that is the reason.  Opening Domaine de la Romanée Conti on a Friday night is not happening anytime soon in our house.

Not to worry, as there are plenty of excellent wines available for more reasonable prices, and we’ll look at some of them.  Burgundy is complex, and the levels of wine can be confusing.  One thing at least is easy however, and that is you only have to remember two grape varietals.  Almost without exception, the white wines of Burgundy are made from Chardonnay, and the reds are made with Pinot Noir.  That’s it.  The rest of the story gets vastly more intricate, and we are far from versed in the vineyards and wines from this region.  There is so much to know.  Let’s take a look at where this region is, and the different vineyard areas which make up the entirety of what is known as “Burgundy”.  You can learn more about Burgundian wines, and wines of France in general, at www.bounjourlafrance.com.  Also, Wine Folly has an excellent primer on Burgundy you can visit at http://winefolly.com/review/guide-to-burgundy-wine-with-maps/.  What follows here is a very short intro to the region, and barely scratches the surface.

French Wine Regions: from www.bonjourlafrance.com

French Wine Regions: from www.bonjourlafrance.com

East of the Loire Valley, where we have been focused thus far, Burgundy starts with Chablis and then continues south along the general line of the Saone River.  Chablis is actually a bit closer to parts of Champagne than to Burgundy proper, but none the less it is part of the Burgundian classifications, and an important one.  From Chablis the regions progress south, starting with the Côte de Nuits, home of Pinot Noir, the Côte de Beaune, home of Chardonnay, and then the Côte Chalonnaise and Maconnaise.  While the Côte de Nuits is very focused on Pinot Noir, the grape becomes less prevalent as you move south.  The Côte de Beaune produces almost as much red wine as white, but they are known for their white wines.  This is the case in Côte Chalonnaise as well, although there is more white than red.  In Chablis it’s all about the Chardonnay grape.   Burgundy ends with the Maconnais, as just a bit further south the region of Beaujolais begins, the Gamay grape takes over and everything changes.

The hierarchy of wine quality in France can be confusing.  There are designations for basic table wine, or vin de table, which can come from anywhere in France.  Next are the vin de pays, or country wine, which can also carry an IGP or PGI designation (we’ll save the definitions for another time).  These must have at least 85% of their contents come from one of the 152 designated vin de pays regions.  At the highest level of the quality pyramid are the AOC wines, or appelation d’origin controlee.  These designations come with rules and regulations and include the great wines of France, but even within the AOC designations things can get somewhat muddled.  There can be AOCs nested within other AOCs.  Some are regional and some apply to a specific vineyard.  In all there are more than 300 AOCs within France.

This system applies to Burgundy, where there are 100 AOCs.  Regional designations account for 23 of those, with village, or commune, level designations making up another 44 (that leaves 33 unaccounted for – we’ll get to that in a bit).  When you are considering wines in most of the major regions in France, you have to also consider their local hierarchy, or ranking if you will, of their wines and producers.  For quality in Burgundy, the highest level are the Grand Cru vineyard wines, which are legendary.  Within this group names like Romanée Conti, Richebourg, La Tache and Montrachet reside.  Production is low, especially when compared to the great estates of its cousin, Bordeaux, and prices tend to be astronomical.  Wines like Domaine de la Romanée Conti (frequently referred to as simply DRC) bring many thousands of dollars per bottle.  This is the pinnacle of the wine world from a price perspective.  Keep in mind that it is the vineyard itself which carries the Grand Cru designation.

France-Burgundy-SWE-Map-2016-795x1024Each of the 33 Grand Cru vineyards is also given an AOC designation, and taken together with those previously mentioned you get to 100.  The second level of quality is where things get even more confusing.  These wines, the Premier Crus, do not have an AOC designation.  There are over 600 of them, and they carry the name of their Premier Cru vineyard and their commune (or village) AOC, as well as a Premier Cru, or 1er Cru designation.  Beneath this level the village, or commune AOCs produce wine, and finally some of the AOCs are more regional as noted previously.  You can buy a bottle of red labeled simply as Borgogne wine, meaning it comes from somewhere in the Burgundy region.  Not everything is clearly labeled, and you would have to be an expert to know some wines are actually Grand Cru.

Too make things even more convoluted, the vineyards over the generations have become splintered into some very small, individually owned parcels.  Since the vineyards carry the designation, you can find wines labeled as Grand Cru, or Premier Cru from a certain vineyard from many different producers.  Some of these producers own parcels of the vineyards, some buy the grapes.  It’s a mad jumble at first glance, but they have it all figured out and somehow it works.  We certainly are far from experts, are learning more, and really still neophytes on this complex wine growing region.  Some people make it their life’s work.

Of the 33 Grand Cru AOCs, 24 are in the Côte de Nuits and all of these are for red wine, with only a tiny amount of Chardonnay produced in Musigny.  In the Côte de Beaune there are 8 Grand Crus, 7 of which are white with only Corton being the exception (it is closest to the Côte de Nuits and mostly red).  The final Grand Cru designation is in Chablis, and is only white.

If one is seeking reasonably priced wines from Burgundy, then the Chalonnaise and Maconnais are great places to look.  We’ve had great red wines from Mercurey, home to 30 Premier Cru vineyards in the Côte Chalonnaise.  In the Maconnaise white dominates and regions such as Pouilly-Fuse and St. Veran are known worldwide.  We’ll look at those a bit later.

Our investigation into Burgundian wine starts in Chablis, and the wines of Domaine Vrignaud.

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Domaine Vrignaud (http://www.domaine-vrignaud.com/)

Vineyards of Domaine Vrignaud

Vineyards of Domaine Vrignaud

Domaine Vrignaud today consists of about 60 acres of vineyards in and around the village of Fontenay-Pres-Chablis.  The Vrignauds have been growing wine grapes in Chablis for five generations, however they only began selling the wines in 1991.  The oldest vines provide the material for their premier cru Chablis Fourchame Vielles Vignes, which we were privileged to try and which will be part of this review.  The current proprietor is Guillaume Vrignaud, who studied winemaking before returning to the family estate in 1999.

Chablis is famous for its ‘Kimmeridgian’ soils, formed from limestone and containing the fossilized remains of shellfish who inhabited this region eons ago when it was under water.  Minerality is a defining characteristic of most Chablis, and Domaine

Vineyard Areas of Chablis

Vineyard Areas of Chablis

Vrignaud manages its vineyards in ways to bring that out.  Everything here is farmed organically, and they haven’t used fertilizers or any chemicals in 18 years.  Healthy soil is encouraged through a natural habitat of flora and fauna.

In Chablis there is a single Grand Cru designated vineyard, along with 79 Premier Crus.  That Grand Cru vineyard comprises 254 acres and is broken into seven parcels.  The name of the individual parcel is likely what will appear on the label.  Around the outside of the Chablis AOC zones (Chablis Grand Cru, Chablis Premier Cru and Chablis),  the appellation of Petite Chablis forms a wider circle and produces wines from vineyards in less desirable locations.  We have tasted some very good Petite Chablis however, so don’t discount them out of hand.

This is Chablis, so this is also Chardonnay.  The climate is cooler, with cold winters and cool summers.  Most of the vineyards are on south facing slopes though, and this provides better sun and some protection from the northerly winds.  Let’s see what we have.

2014 Domaine Vrignaud Chablis – this is sourced from various plots that bring different characteristics to the wine.  The vineyards here average about 29 years in age, and are planted on northeast slopes in chalky clay.  This particular vintage saw an early drought give way to a wet summer and a hot September, and an excellent resulting crop.  The different plots are fermented separately, and aged on the lees for 8-12 months in stainless.  Bottling took place on March 15, 2015.  Our impressions?

The wine presents a nose of tropical fruits, including apricot.  On the palate some distinct minerality shows through, along IMG_2050with lush fruit and a lemon snap at the end.  Throughout the wine is clean.  It also shows some bright acid and excellent balance.  It would go beautifully with some spicy Asian or Tex Mex and, of course, shellfish and seafood.  A very high quality wine that that will find its way onto our Value List at about $25.

2014 Domaine Vrignaud Chablis les Champreaux – the Domaine’s wine comes from vineyards around the village of Fontenay-Pres-Chablis, and this single vineyard bottling is all from the renowned Les Champreaux, a seven acre plot with an average age of 27 years.  The same growing season as described above yielded a perfectly ripened crop. Here the aging took place in both stainless and oak barrels (30%) for twelve months, all on the lees.  What did we think?

The wine is a light straw color with some greenish tinges. There is an underlying core of fruit on the nose, with apricot andIMG_2051 maybe some lychee.  The oak is noticeable, and accents the wine nicely without taking center stage.  It has a very fresh acidity, some texture from the lees and a long, clean finish.  This is an excellent food wine, and really well done.  About $30.

2012 Domaine Vrignaud Chablis 1er Cru Fourchaume Vielles Vignes – here the grapes come from the Cotes de Fontenay, a three acre vineyard with a strong southeast influence.  These are the oldest vines in the Domaine, planted as far back as 1955.  Yields in 2012 were low following spring frosts and a rainy July.  Only the beautiful September allowed the grapes to ripen fully. The wine was aged for 14 to 18 months in stainless prior to bottling.  Our thoughts:

A lighter color, but still a rich golden hue.  On the nose lychee and black currant bud.  There is good texture on the palate, IMG_2049and richness from the lengthy time on the lees.  This is another beautifully balanced wine, with nice acid and a clean, long finish.  It plays off the hints of tropical fruit and citrus with the richness and creates a very elegant overall impression.  Really well done.  Just under $50.

We’ve had some excellent wines from Chablis.  If you like world class Chardonnay this is an area you have to consider.  Domaine Vrignaud certainly is on top of its game, and we heartily recommend the wines reviewed here.

Next we are going to move to the spiritual heart of Burgundy, and the Côte d’Or.  Most of the examples are likely to come from our romanee conti bottlecellar, and from various wines we have tried along the way over the last six months or so,  as for some reason review samples are much harder to come by from this particular area.  (It’s really not that hard to understand as many of these wines are expensive and scarce)  Certainly Domaine de la Romanée Conti hasn’t answered any of our inquiries (but we are open to them at any time!).  We will somehow persevere.

You can read the previous article in this series by clicking here.

The next installment, on the Maconnais, is available by clicking here.  If you get an urge to travel to Burgundy, you can learn a lot about the region at http://www.burgundy-tourism.com/.

We need to acknowledge the great people at Cape Classics for supplying the wines from Domaine Vrignaud for review.  You can see more about their portfolio at www.capeclassics.com.

A votre santé!

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