Misfits of Burgundy

Semur-en-Auxois

Semur-en-Auxois

Burgundy…for many novice wine enthusiasts, it is among the most complicated and confusing of French wines. When teaching intro classes on Burgundy, I try to de-mystify the region by admitting that while Burgundy is one of the most complicated wine regions in terms of the ground (100 AOCs and a diversity of soils), when it comes to the grapes it is fairly simple: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Of course, that pronouncement needs to be followed-up by a bit more explanation, to wit: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are by far the most widely planted grapes in Burgundy and you can expect, for the most part, that your glass of white Burgundy is 100% Chardonnay–although in fact a bit of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc or Aligoté may have crept in. Your red Burgundy is in all likelihood 100% Pinot Noir–although most AOCs allow for up to 15% (combined) Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris. A few oddball AOCs even allow for a splash of Gamay. Perhaps the grapes of Burgundy are not quite so simple after all–but it certainly can be stated that for the most part, your white Burgundy is Chardonnay and your red Burgundy is Pinot Noir.

However, in the world of wine there are always exceptions, and if you’ve been reading our Misfit Series, you know that we’ll stop at nothing to uncover those oddballs–even those hidden deep within Burgundy. Read on to get to know some of the loveable misfits of Burgundy.

Auxerre Cathedral

Auxerre Cathedral

Bouzeron: Bouzeron, a small village in the Côte Chalonnaise is the only commune-level appellation of Burgundy approved for white wines made from 100% Aligoté. Bouzeron, along with the neighboring village of Chassey-le-Camp, has produced Aligoté-based wines for generations under the regional Bourgogne Aligoté AOC, but were granted a separate AOC in 1998. There are currently approximately 250 acres (100 ha) of vines planted to Aligoté within the boundaries of the AOC.

Bouzeron AOC wines have been described as light- to medium-bodied with pear, apple, vanilla, and floral aromas. These wines are typically stainless-steel fermented and produced in the crisp, dry, and refreshing style, but barrel-fermented and barrel-aged versions are produced as well.

Morey-Saint-Denis Premier Cru Monts Luisants: Speaking of Aligoté, here is an obscurity if ever there was one: The commune of Morey-Saint-Denis, in the Côte de Nuits, is famous for many things, including five Grands Crus (Clos de Tart, Clos des Lambrays, Clos Saint-Denis, Clos de la Roche and part of Bonnes Mares), and 20 Premiers Crus. One of the Premier Cru vineyards, Monts Luisants, is approved for white wines produced using 100% Aligoté. As far as I can tell, this is the only Burgundy Premier Cru approved to produce 100% Aligoté wines. It is, of course, also approved for Chardonnay.

Bronze statue by Paul Beckrich, Clos Marey-Monge

Bronze statue by Paul Beckrich, Clos Marey-Monge

Marsannay: Marsannay is a village in the Côte de Nuits (the northernmost wine-producing village at that), and while it might not be among the most exalted (we’ll leave those awards to Gevrey-Chambertin and Vosne-Romanée) it is unique in that it is one of the 5 villages in the Côte de Nuits that produces AOC white wine in addition to red, and it is the only village-level AOC in all of Burgundy that is approved to produce white, red, and rosé wines all at the AOC level. The only other appellations in Burgundy granted this particular dispensation are the regional AOCs of Bourgogne, Bourgogne Passe-Tout-Grains, Coteaux Bourguignons, and Crémant de Bourgogne.

The red wines of Marsannay tend to the light and fruity style, and the whites are crisp and medium-bodied with aromas of citrus, acacia and pear. The rosés are permitted to be produced using the Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris grape varieties and may include a maximum of 15% (combined) Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay. I’ve found Marsannay rosé to be fairly widely distributed in the US. Outstanding producers include Domaine Bruno Clair, Regis Bouvier, and Domaine de Coillot. I’ve had Marsannay rosés in a wide range of colors from pale pink to rosy salmon. Typical aromas and flavors include strawberry, peaches, and orange peel with a good zing of lemony acidity. A good choice for hot summer nights.

Saint Bris: The Saint-Bris AOC, located in the in the far northwest corner of Burgundy (in the Yonne Department), is a white wine-only appellation approved for Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris–a true misfit in the land of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. However, it makes a bit more sense if you look at a political map of France (leave the wine maps alone just this once)–you’ll see that the commune of Saint-Bris-le-Vineux is only about 60 miles to the west of Sancerre, while it is at least 90 miles away from either Dijon or Beaune.  In other words, the commune itself is closer to the vineyards of the Loire Valley than it is to Burgundy (in terms of sheer geography, at least). The wines of Saint-Bris AOC tend to be crisply acidic and light- to medium-bodied with aromas of grapefruit, tangerine, lime, green plum, and peach; with a hint of the green grass/freshly-picked herb scent so beloved of Sauvignon Blanc.

Photo via: eldenwines-uat.ewinerysolutions.com

Photo via: eldenwines-uat.ewinerysolutions.com

César Noir: The César grape variety is truly a Burgundy misfit if ever there was one. It is only allowed in a few AOCs–which include the regional Bourgogne, Bourgogne Mousseux, Coteaux Bourguignon, and Irancy AOCs. Even in these AOCs there are limitations. It may only be 10% of the blend in Irancy AOC. In the regional AOCs of “basic” Bourgogne and Coteaux Bourguignon, it is also limited to a maximum of 10% of the blend AND may only be grown in the Yonne Département. Only in the Bourgogne Mousseux AOC is it considered a principal variety–but only if it is grown in the Yonne Département. By any standards, that is a LOT of limitation.

The César grape variety (technically, César Noir) is an ancient red grape, thought to be a natural cross of Pinot Noir with Argant. Argant, sometimes known as Gänsfüsser (“goose feet,” in reference to the shape of the leaves) is a small, thick-skinned red grape variety that might be native to Rheinland-Pfalz in Germany. There are those that believe that Argant is native to Spain, so perhaps the genesis of Argant will remain a viticultural mystery.

However, it is a proven fact that Argant begat César, in a natural cross with Pinot Noir. It is thought that this first occurred somewhere between the Yonne Département of France and Germany in north/northeast France, which dispels the legend (which led to the name) that the grape was introduced to France by Julius Cesar.

Louhans, Saone-et-Loire, Burgundy, France

Louhans, Saone-et-Loire, Burgundy, France

César is a highly productive grape variety that tends to produce dark and tannic wines. If this strikes you as odd due to the fact that one-half of its parentage is Pinot Noir, I urge you to consider Pinotage–another well-known grape produced via a cross of Pinot Noir and a robust red variety. This might help make sense of the fact that the César grape is most often used, in small amounts, to add deep red color and flavors of red and black fruit to wines that might be otherwise lighter in color and flavor. When produced in a varietal wine, it is often fermented (at least partially) using carbonic maceration.

According to the book “Wine Grapes” (Robinson, et al), there are only about 10 acres (25 ha) of César left in France, most of these in the Yonne. You may, if you look extremely hard and are extremely lucky, find a Yonne-grown, varietal César bottled under the Bourgogne AOC. César’s downfall in Burgundy is its tendency to early-budding, which makes it vulnerable to the cool temperatures and frequent spring frosts of the region.

As for the rest of the world, there are smatterings of plantings in Chile, but few other regions claim César. Such is the life of a loveable misfit.

References/for further information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

About bubblyprof
Wine Writer and Educator...a 20-year journey from Bristol Hotels to Le Cordon Bleu Schools and the Society of Wine Educators

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