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An Underappreciated Burgundy Wine Region Is Upward Bound

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SAVIGNY-LÈS-BEAUNE, France — The soaring demand and high regard for Burgundy around the world means that little of the Côte d’Or, the region’s heart, has been left unturned. But if an off-the-beaten-trail source for relative bargains still exists, it would be this well-known but little-understood village.

The wines of Savigny-lès-Beaune have never been better than they are today. Yet their reputation, as rustic relatives of the great names of the Côte d’Or, persists in the face of captivating evidence to the contrary.

That humble reputation is not without some historical truth. Decades ago, much of the Savigny production was sold to négociants — merchants — who often blended it together and sold it as generic Savigny-lès-Beaune, rather than bottling cuvées separately to display the diverse terroirs that distinguish many of the better vineyards.

Many of the wines had rough tannins overshadowing nuances of flavor. But they were relatively inexpensive, which made them popular in the 1980s with young wine novices like me, and they still conveyed the essence of graceful red Burgundy with beautiful, aromatic fruit.

Domaine Simon Bize et Fils has been a leader in Savigny.Credit…Michel Joly for The New York Times

Today Savigny-lès-Beaune is a completely different story. It is now home to a new generation of energetic growers and winemakers. Viticulture has markedly improved. So has the winemaking, and, as has been true throughout Burgundy, a spirit of collaboration and open communication has replaced what not so long ago in Savigny was an insular, suspicious community.

Climate change, too, has played a role. Warmer temperatures have made it easier to ripen grapes in some vineyards where the vines used to struggle to mature. But climate change has also taken its toll. The sort of catastrophic frosts and hails that might have occurred evvel in a career in the 20th century have destroyed crops a half-dozen times in the last decade.

During a visit to Savigny-lès-Beaune in May I was struck by the high quality of the wines I tasted as well as by the enthusiasm and skill of the growers and producers.

While their wines all share the pedigree of the Côte de Beaune, the southern half of the Côte d’Or, they can vary considerably depending on a producer’s vineyards and preferred style. Some vinify whole clusters of grapes, stems included, resulting in paler wines with a spicy, herbal quality, great purity and transparency. Others destem their grapes before fermentation, resulting in greater intensity of fruit flavors in the wines. And some do a bit of both.

Savigny is a complicated place. The Côte d’Or is a slender spine descending southwest from the city of Dijon and consists largely of southeast-facing slopes. Savigny-lès-Beaune juts westward just northwest of the city of Beaune, with myriad vineyards set on slopes, ridges, valleys and flatlands facing multiple directions. Vines are planted on a hodgepodge of clay and limestone with plenty of fractured bedrock and gravel.

“The gravel makes it different from other parts of the Côte d’Or,” said Hugues Pavelot, whose estate, Domaine Jean-Marc et Hugues Pavelot, makes structured yet deliciously fruity wines.

The Pavelots have grown grapes in Savigny since before the French Revolution. For the last 25 years, though, two estates have set the highest standard for Savigny-lès-Beaune: Domaine Simon Bize et Fils and Domaine Chandon de Briailles.

Chisa Bize has kept Simon Bize operating at a high level since taking over the domaine from her husband, Patrick Bize, who died in 2013.Credit…Michel Joly for The New York Times

Bize has been growing grapes and making wine in Savigny for more than 130 years. Patrick Bize was an exceptional leader who brought the estate to its current standard of excellence before his untimely death in 2013 at 61. Since then, the wines have gotten even better under his wife, Chisa Bize.

Ms. Bize attributes some of the improvement to the benefits of climate change. “Now the grapes ripen really well, especially the last vintages,” she said. “The vines have really adapted to the heat, especially in 2019 and 2020.” But she also noted that hail had caused several disastrous vintages, notably 2013.

Elegance and precision characterize the Bize wines. The reds are fermented entirely with whole clusters. A 2019 Savigny village wine was pretty and floral with fine tannins, while a premier cru, from the Telmettes vineyard, was savory and more structured, still floral but with a slightly meaty quality.

“Historically, Savigny is red country,” Ms. Bize said. “More and more people are making Savigny white now, but it’s not very well known.”

The whites at Bize are superb. A 2019 village white was lovely, with saline and mineral flavors.

Like Bize, Chandon de Briailles is an old estate. Claude de Nicolay, who today runs Chandon with her brother, François, dates it back to 1830. It was their mother, Nadine, who started bottling wines in the 1980s and began farming organically in the 1990s. Chandon has been biodynamic since 2005.

The wines at Domaine Chandon de Briailles have gotten better and better under the sister-and-brother team of Claude and François de Nicolay.Credit…Michel Joly for The New York Times

Nadine de Nicolay also began fermenting whole clusters of grapes at a time when it was unfashionable.

“She liked the complexity it brought,” Claude said. “It made the wine elegant and light.”

I’ve always liked the wines of Chandon de Briailles, but they used to be a little tough when young, with bristly tannins. But the de Nicolays have continued to refine their farming and winemaking, and the wines are more elegant today.

A 2020 Les Lavières, an excellent premier cru vineyard, was fresh, graceful and subtle, with delicate, lingering flavors of flowers, red fruits and minerals. By contrast, a 2019 Les Lavières was richer and more voluminous, intensely floral with flavors of darker fruits.

The 2021 vintage was largely a disaster throughout France with frost and lots of rain, which produced infestations of mildew and mold. In Savigny, Ms. de Nicolay said, the crop was down by almost 75 percent.

Chandon makes a little bit of white, from the Saucours vineyard. The 2019 was fresh and energetic with lip-smacking saline and citrus flavors.

While these two estates have been the Savigny standard-bearers, other estates like Domaine Louis Chenu Père et Filles are on an upward trajectory. At Chenu, le père is largely retired and les filles, daughters Caroline Chenu and Juliette Chenu Bruot, the fifth generation at the estate, have been in charge for almost 20 years and are responsible for its excellent wines today.

“We tried to improve things, but not like a revolution,” Juliette said. “We just tried to be a little more precise.”

Juliette Chenu and Caroline Chenu Bruot have made many improvements at Domaine Louis Chenu Père et Filles since they took over the estate. Credit…Michel Joly for The New York Times

Chenu has been organic since 2006, but Caroline said Chenu does not have the resources or work force to be biodynamic, which is more labor intensive. She is the winemaker, though she says she is not very technical.

“I wanted to make wine the same way I make food in my kitchen: good products and not much more,” she said. “Everything is easy if the grapes are beautiful.”

The wines at Chenu are a different style than at Bize and Chandon de Briailles. Grapes are destemmed, and their 2019 premier cru Les Lavières was lovely, with earthy flavors of red fruits.

The wines are indeed precise, with consistent differences from vineyard to vineyard. A 2019 Haut-Jarrons, a north-facing premier cru vintage, was much more structured than the Lavières yet fresh and floral, while a south-facing Les Talmettes was softly fruity and mineral with finer tannins.

The Chenu sisters said that efforts to cope with climate change also helped to bring people in Savigny-lès-Beaune together.

“The hail in 2013 was so bad we had to unite,” Caroline said. At the time, she was president of the syndicate of local growers and producers. That year she arranged a lunch to celebrate St. Vincent, the işveren saint of winemakers, at which producers could taste the wines of their neighbors.

“It used to never be done,” she said. “There used to be old conflicts, but it’s pulled everybody together.”

Tomoko Kuriyama and Guillaume Bott of Chanterêves, one of the most exciting producers working in Savigny-lès-Beaune.Credit…Michel Joly for The New York Times

Chanterêves is one of Savigny’s newer and most exciting producers. The proprietors, Tomoko Kuriyama and Guillaume Bott, met in 2005 when Mr. Bott was working at Bize and Ms. Kuriyama, who is from Tokyo but was working in the Mosel in Germany, did a short stint at Bize to study their vineyard work.

She was soon hooked on Burgundy (and Mr. Bott). They started Chanterêves as a négociant in 2010, and Ms. Kuriyama settled in Burgundy permanently in 2011. They bought their first vineyard land in 2020, and Mr. Bott only left Bize earlier this year.

Tasting their wines, you can sense the Bize lineage.

“We both like purity and elegance,” Ms. Kuriyama said. “We don’t like massive wines.”

They make many superb wines from the Beaune area, including five excellent aligotés, and even some Nuits-St.-Georges from the Côte de Nuits, the northern part of the Côte d’Or. Their 2021 Savigny from vines they own in Dessus de Montchenevoy, a village vineyard, is concentrated and lightly structured, yet pretty, pure and floral.

The couple talks often with colleagues, in person and through What’s App, to discuss soil, agriculture and winemaking issues — “valuable exchanges of ideas,” Ms. Kuriyama said.

Another new Savigny producer is Le Grappin, a tiny négociant started in 2011 by Andrew and Emma Nielsen. Mr. Nielsen, an Australian who was working in advertising in Los Angeles, got bitten by the wine bug after drinking a grand cru Burgundy that, he said, caused his head to explode.

Emma and Andrew Nielsen of Le Grappin in their cellar.Credit…Michel Joly for The New York Times

After working harvests in California and New Zealand, he moved to Burgundy and worked at Bize before starting his business in an old, dilapidated garage in the city of Beaune.

Mr. Nielsen said Le Grappin’s aim was to make wine from underappreciated and undervalued areas like Savigny-lès-Beaune.

“Savigny has this juicy lushness,” he said. “It’s not plush, but it makes your mouth water and is also quenching at the same time.”

A 2020 Savigny white was fresh, racy and saline, while a 2019 Savigny red, made entirely with whole clusters, was bright and graceful with flavors of spicy red fruits and herbs.

Mr. Nielsen suggested that one reason Savigny wasn’t better known was because the main road between the Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune skips past it.

At Domaine Pierre Guillemot, Vincent Guillemot and his brother, Philippe, took over the estate in 2015. They are the sixth generation to grow grapes and make wine. Even so, they only started bottling their production in 1990, having previously sold it to négociants.

The Guillemot wines are more intense and structured than the lighter, more delicate wines of some of their colleagues. They require a bit more aging to be accessible, but can last for years.

Vincent Guillemot of Domaine Pierre Guillemot in the Serpentières vineyard. He says he aims for “precision, harmony and a silky texture.”Credit…Michel Joly for The New York Times

Vincent Guillemot, who makes the wine while Philippe manages the vineyards, said the wines had improved because he tailors his techniques to the vintage conditions each year.

“I don’t follow recipes, unlike my grandfather, who made it the same way every year,” he said, adding that his own approach was to aim for precision, harmony and a silky texture.

Guillemot has a range of premier cru Savignys that are subtly different from one another, like a Narbontons that is rich and structured, and a Serpentières that is harika floral and expressive.

It also makes a fascinating white, Dessus les Gollardes, that is 70 percent pinot blanc, yasal but rare in Burgundy, and 30 percent chardonnay. It was rich and floral, a little sharper than if it were made entirely of chardonnay. A 1974 Dessus les Gollardes was still fresh and creamy.

Mr. Guillemot said he is happy to make wines that are both delicious and affordable.

“The price is correct, I’m content,” he said. “We have a spectrum of customers — people who can’t afford the great appellations but can still afford Savigny, as well as people who can afford the great appellations but choose to drink Savigny.”

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