Burgundy Bargains: Village Vineyards

The last fifteen years in Burgundy have been the finest in the history of this great wine-producing region, as the number of excellent vintages has been astounding. While the Burgundians might like to attribute this great run to Providence finally smiling down upon them, the reality is that Burgundy has been one of the big winners in this era of climate change. A generation ago, the Burgundians were lucky to get two great vintages a decade, and this would usually be balanced off with at least three washouts. But times have changed, and now it is rare that the top producers in the region do not make at least a very interesting wine in nine out of ten vintages. And it is not only that the vintages have gotten better and more consistent in the last twenty years, but the quality of the wines of Burgundy has improved up and down the quality hierarchy of the various vineyards as well. For those unfamiliar with the way that Burgundy wines are organized, a quick primer might be useful.

In the 1930s, when France adopted its current wine organization system, which is known as the Appellation Controlée, Burgundy was treated a bit differently than other wine-producing regions. For example, in Bordeaux, the top individual producers or châteaux were ranked on a scale of one to five, which are known as First Growth, Second Growth on down to Fifth Growth, with the First Growths considered to be the best. In Burgundy, rather than rank the individual producers, the officials ranked the various vineyard plots instead, many of which are owned by several different producers. For the best vineyard sites they created a three tier system, with the top parcels ranked as Grand Crus, the next tier as Premier Crus, and the third level as Village Wines- so called because they are sold by the name of the village (i.e. Gevrey-Chambertin) in which the vineyard parcel lies. Prior to global warming, there was a very significant step up in quality between each of these three levels in Burgundy, but the gap has closed dramatically in the last several years.

The reason for this is that the “Village Wines”, traditionally located at the bottom (or extreme top) of the vineyard slope, would seldom obtain optimal ripeness back when Burgundy as a whole struggled to ripen its chardonnay and pinot noir vines sufficiently in most vintages. But with climate change, these parcels now routinely produce beautiful wines- provided the producer in question is quality-oriented- and with the string of top vintages in the last couple of decades, many more domaines can afford not to cut corners and make the best wines possible at every level of their quality hierarchy. The result is an explosion of quality at the Village Wine level, with many of these wines deeper, better-balanced and more delicious than most Premier Crus were a generation ago. Oh yes, and the best part is that these are amongst Burgundy’s least expensive and most plentiful bottlings as well.

There are two villages that have led the way in pushing the quality ever higher for Village Wines, and these are Meursault for white Burgundies and Gevrey-Chambertin for red Burgundies. I am not sure of the reasons behind this phenomenon, but these two communes led the way in promoting high quality Village Wines fifteen or twenty years ago, and they remain two of the best towns to focus on for finding great wines at this level. In Meursault, producers such as Guy Roulot (who offers no less than five distinct and superlative Village Wines each year), Arnaud Ente, Coche-Dury and François Jobard have led the way. In Meursault a great many of the Village Wines will have appended onto their labels the name of the specific vineyard that the wine was grown in, and some of my favorites to look for include Tessons, Grands Charrons, Tillets and Rougeots. Other terrific white Burgundy Village Wines include the Puligny-Montrachet from Louis Carillon, Domaine Leflaive and Paul Pernot, Chassagne-Montrachets from Bernard Moreau, Ramonet and Michel Niellon and Chablis from Vincent Dauvissat and William Fèvre.

When it comes to great red Burgundy Village Wines, the place to start is Gevrey-Chambertin. In this village, rather than add the name of the vineyard to the top Village Wines (though a few do this as well), many top estates will make a special, “old vine” cuvée (Vieilles Vignes in French) for their top Village Wine. Some of the best producers of these wines are Denis Bachelet, Alain Burguet, and Jean-Marie Fourrier. In the commune of Gevrey, I also like very much the “Clos de la Justices” from Pierre Bourée, “Champs Chenys” or “La Brunelle” from Joseph Roty, and the “Evocelles” from Louis Boillot. Outside of Gevrey, look for the great Chambolle-Musigny Village Wines from Domaines Mugnier, Barthod, Dujac and Roumier; Nuits St. Georges from Chevillon or Alain Michelot; Vosne-Romanée from Georges Mugneret; Volnay from Michel Lafarge or Louis Boillot; and the Auxey-Duresses and Monthelie from Coche-Dury. Maison Joseph Drouhin also makes superb villages wines. These are all great red and white Burgundies that are being brilliantly made these days, and won’t break the bank!