November 29th, 2019/ BY Michael Apstein

Burgundy is home to more than just Chardonnay

Everyone knows that white wine from Burgundy (Bourgogne in French) is made from the Chardonnay grape, while the red wines come from Pinot Noir. Well, as it turns out — as with most things French — there are exceptions.

Burgundy is also home to another white grape, Aligoté and, mon Dieu, to Sauvignon Blanc as well. On the red side, it’s common knowledge that Gamay is the Beaujolais grape. It was banished from the Côte-d’Or by Philippe le Hardi (aka, Phillip the Bold), the Duke of Burgundy, in 1395. Royal decree notwithstanding, there’s still Gamay planted in top spots in the Côte-d’Or where some highly regarded producers make a little-known, but delightful and affordable, wine called Bourgogne Passetoutgrains. Gamay also plays a major role in a new Burgundy appellation, Côteaux Bourguignons.

Let’s start with Aligoté. Jancis Robinson, the world-renowned British wine authority, noted earlier this year that Aligoté “used to be uncomfortably thin and tart.” While some still is, those produced by top producers are refreshing and balanced. Grown on about 4,500 acres throughout the Côte-d’Or and in the Chablis area (compared to 37,500 acres for Chardonnay), Aligoté has traditionally been used as the base for Kir. Also known as vin blanc cassis, Kir is a delightfully refreshing aperitif named after a mayor of Dijon. The typical mix is a dash (teaspoon or so) of cassis syrup added to a glass of Aligoté. The syrup imparts a gorgeous, pale, purplish red colour. The sweetness of the syrup balances the ferocious acidity of the grape, which is why I suspect it was invented. (A Kir Royale is made with sparkling wine.)

Maison Louis Latour, top producer in Burgundy
Maison Louis Latour

Not all Aligoté should be relegated to Kir. Indeed, one of the finest white wines from all of Burgundy — from the Côte de Nuits no less — Domaine Ponsot’s Morey St Denis Premier Cru, Clos des Monts Luisants Vieilles Vignes, is made entirely from Aligoté, although you wouldn’t know it from the label. The 2009, consumed over dinner earlier this year, was spectacular at a decade of age, showing a near-magical combination of vivacity and minerality. (The 2015, the current vintage on the market, sells for $210.)

The Domaine Ponsot website notes that in the pre-phylloxera days, Aligoté was widely planted in the best part of the slope, the top where the soil was thinnest, on the Hill of Corton, and in Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet. With replanting after phylloxera, growers opted for the more reliable and faster producing Chardonnay vines, relegating most Aligoté — though not Ponsot’s — to the flat land.

Bourgogne Aligoté is typically drunk young to capture its cutting, zesty profile. A friend of mine aptly described these wines as “dust busters.” One does not need to spend vast sums to enjoy Aligoté. Because of its down-market reputation, the prices for Bourgogne Aligoté — even from star producers — have not caught up to their quality. Look for those from Domaine Paul Pernot in Puligny-Montrachet, Domaine Marc Colin et Fils in Saint-Aubin or Domaine Goisot in the Côtes d’Auxerrois [d’Auxerre?] near Chablis. All three consistently make delightfully refreshing and balanced versions.

Bouzeron, where Chardonnay is forbidden, is the only appellation that mandates Aligoté. Located in the Côte Chalonnaise, the appellation is tiny — only about 130 acres — but the wines are worth searching for. Jasper Morris, a world authority on Burgundy, notes that the grape grown in Bouzeron, Aligoté Doré (as in “golden”), is superior to the one grown throughout the Côte-d’Or. At a tasting of the wines in Beaune last year with 20 Bouzeron producers participating, there was hardly one I would not have been happy to drink. As with other Aligoté-based wines, Bouzeron wines are typically drunk young. What really opened my eyes at this tasting was some beautiful examples of Bouzeron that had up to a decade of bottle age. Its chiselled aspect remained, balancing and, indeed, enhancing a subtle creaminess.



The Burgundy appellation of Saint-Bris, with a little over 400 acres, is a true outlier, both geographically and viticulturally, sitting in the Auxerrois just west of Chablis and mandating the use of Sauvignon Blanc. A close look at the map might explain the choice of grape. The village from which the appellation takes its name, Saint-Bris-le-Vineux, lies only 80 miles east of Pouilly-sur-Loire, home to Sauvignon Blanc-based Pouilly-Fumé, and Sancerre. Like much of Sancerre, Saint-Bris sits on a Kimmeridgian limestone and clay mixture, but then again, so does most of Chablis, where Chardonnay grows. Indeed, before phylloxera ravaged the area, the farmers of Saint-Bris-le-Vineux grew Chardonnay that could be included in, and sold as, Chablis.

Formerly, the wines were labelled Sauvignon de Sain-Bris because the area was classified as a vin délimité de qualité supérieure (VDQS), a notch below appellation d’origine controllée (AOC) status. In 2003, the area was promoted to AOC status.

It’s not clear why Sauvignon Blanc wound up in this part of Burgundy. One explanation for this viticultural aberrancy is Saint-Bris’ historic economic connection to Auxerre, a town to the west and even closer to Sancerre and an important commercial centre for those wines. Another very plausible explanation is that Sauvignon Blanc ripens better in many of the surrounding valleys compared to Chardonnay, and growers favoured it when replanting after phylloxera. Whatever the reason, I predict we’ll see more of these riveting wines as climate change aids ripening in these northern climes.

The wines from Saint-Bris are unique: a bit of a cross between Sancerre and Chablis. Racy and snappy, they are also similar to Muscadet, but with more body and density. Meant to be drunk young, the wines of Saint-Bris go brilliantly with shellfish or crustaceans, though their mineral-infused edginess also allows them to balance more substantial fare, such as a roast pork or Asian-spiced dishes. The family-run Domaine Goisot makes absolutely stellar Saint-Bris. Look also for Goisot’s superb Bourgogne Côtes d’Auxerre, made from Chardonnay, as well as their Chablis. Indeed, any of Goisot’s wines would make for wise choices, a true “no-brainer.” Easier to find and still very good are Saint-Bris from the larger Chablis producers, such as Domaine William Fèvre or Simonnet-Febvre.

Philip the Bold exiled the “bad and disloyal” Gamay from the Côte-d’Or with his edict of 1395 because he felt it diluted the quality of the region’s Pinot Noir-based wines. That Gamay grew in the Côte-d’Or should come as no surprise since its origin is likely from the hamlet of the same name near Saint-Aubin. I have no idea how successfully enforced the edict was, but knowing the French, I suspect it was likely not observed by everyone.

Gamay grows in the Côte-d’Or today and has since at least the early part of the 20th century but likely far earlier. The grape was clearly important there in the 20th century because one of the initial Bourgogne AOCs in 1937, Bourgogne Passetoutgrains (originally, and sometimes today still, written as Passe-tout-grains), mandated the inclusion of Gamay with Pinot Noir.

The regulations have changed since 1937, but the AOC still requires a minimum of 15 percent Gamay (officially known as Gamay noir à jus blanc, to distinguish it from other varieties of Gamay) while Pinot Noir must comprise at least 30 percent of the blend. Importantly, the wine is not a blend of wines made from those two grapes. Instead, the grapes must be co-fermented, which likely was a hold-over from times when they were planted in the same vineyard and harvested together. That custom likely gave rise to its name, which translated means “throw everything in.”

Many notable and well-regarded Côte de Nuits producers, such as Domaine Trapet Père et Fils and Domaine Robert Groffier Père et Fils, to name just two, bottle a Passetoutgrains. The wines can be a wallet-friendly introduction to these producers, whose other wines are generally unaffordable for most of us. The allure of Passetoutgrains for me is that it combines the charm of Gamay with the seriousness of Pinot Noir, while still transmitting the sense of place for which Burgundy is known. These wines, meant to be drunk young, are the quintessential roast chicken wines and are ideal for an informal dinner. An important plus is their price, usually less than $30 a bottle. Passetoutgrains from Domaine Michel Lafarge are consistently excellent in my experience.



Today, Gamay is mostly grown south of the Côte-d’Or, in the Mâconnais and Beaujolais, where it flourishes in granitic-based soils. Growers there, as well as throughout the Côte-d’Or and indeed the rest of Burgundy, can take advantage of a new AOC, Côteaux Bourguignons, established only in 2011. This appellation replaces Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire, which frankly, I have never seen in North America, perhaps because a “grandly ordinary” wine is a marketer’s nightmare. I’ve already tasted plenty of Côteaux Bourguignons on these shores and judging from my initial experience, look forward to trying more.

Vine at Maison Louis Latour in Burgundy

The regulations for Côteaux Bourguignons are lax and encompass red, whites and rosés. The grapes can be grown throughout Burgundy, including Beaujolais. The wines can be made from a blend of grapes or from a single variety. For the whites, the allowed grapes are Chardonnay, Aligoté, Melon de Bourgogne, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. For the reds and rosés, the allowed grapes are Pinot Noir and Gamay, and César, a lesser-known grape found in the Yvonne near Chablis. Practically speaking, this new appellation allows producers in Beaujolais to label their wines as Côteaux Bourguignons instead of Beaujolais. To what extent this occurs remains to be seen. Many Beaujolais producers to whom I’ve spoken will still use the Beaujolais appellation, preferring to rely on the newly rising reputation of Beaujolais.

The great potential of this appellation is that conscientious producers will be able to make more Passetoutgrains-type wines and have greater flexibility to experiment. Indeed, Stéphane Magnien, a top producer in Morey-Saint-Denis, has started to use Côteaux Bourguignons in place of Passetoutgrains for his alluring blend of equal parts of Pinot Noir and Gamay, which is labelled “Tradition.”  The appellation may have changed, but the wine continues to be a winner.

Maison Louis Latour, one of Burgundy’s top producers, has started making Pinot Noir-based wines in Beaujolais and bottling them under the Côteaux Bourguignons appellation. Latour took the plunge in 2012 by planting roughly 45 acres of Pinot Noir in the Pierres Dorées, an area in southern Beaujolais so-named for the golden colour of the limestone rocks. Emeric Teyssou, who oversees viticulture for Latour, explained that the soil there is a marl-y limestone mixture similar to that found in the Côte-d’Or rather than the volcanic granite that is common in the cru of Beaujolais. Interesting, Domaine du Mont Verrier, a Beaujolais producer that formerly sold Pinot Noir grapes to Latour, is bottling their own.

The thread common in these unusual wines — Aligoté, Saint-Bris, Passetoutgrains and Côteaux Bourguignons — is the upscale pleasure they can provide at down-market prices. It turns out that in Burgundy it’s very much worth straying from the well-worn Chardonnay and Pinot Noir paths.

Trapet Père et Fils A Minima 2017, Passetoutgrains ($30)

Trapet, one of the great producers in Gevrey-Chambertin, makes a wonderful Passetoutgrains. The eye-catching minimalist — almost blank — label belies the enjoyment that this wine delivers. The savoury and spicy side of this fruity, but not fruit-focused, wine is what’s so appealing. Deeply satisfying for what it is, it’s just what you want with an informal dinner of grilled sausages.

Maison Louis Latour Pinot Noir Les Pierres Dorées 2017, Côteaux Bourguignons ($26)

Louis Latour, one of Burgundy’s star producers, has been making stylish Pinot Noir-based wine outside of Burgundy in the south of France. Now, they show it can be done in Beaujolais. Subtle earthy nuances perfectly offset juicy flavours in this mid-weight wine. The barest hint of tannic bitterness in the finish is a welcome component. It’s a perfect “roast chicken” kind of wine.

William Fèvre 2018, Saint-Bris ($25)

William Fèvre, one of Chablis’ top producers, has fashioned a stunning example of Saint-Bris. Tightly wound, it conveys abundant mineral-like flavours after sitting in the glass for 15 minutes. A subtle bite of Sauvignon Blanc reminds you of the grape in this clean and cutting wine. It has remarkable depth and length.

Simonnet-Febvre 2017, Saint-Bris ($20)

Simonnet-Febvre, another superb Chablis producer, crafts a consistently balanced Saint-Bris. The initial whiff screams Sauvignon Blanc, but amazingly within minutes, aromas and then flavours of wet stone appear. Clean and cutting, this edgy wine displays plenty of depth. Where are the steamed clams?

Domaine Paul Pernot et Fils Bourgogne Aligoté 2017 ($33)

Based in Puligny-Montrachet, this family-owned and run domaine is one of Burgundy’s best for whites. Of course, their Bâtard-Montrachet and Bienvenue-Bâtard-Montrachet are stunning. But the care that goes into those Grand Crus is also seen in their Bourgogne Aligoté. Energetic, with citrus-tinged acidity, it’s a mouth-cleansing wine that has remarkable depth and purity. A true “dust buster,” to use a phrase my friend John Hayes coined.

Ponsot Morey-Saint-Denis 1er Cru Clos des Monts Luisants Vieilles Vignes 2009 ($180)

The only 1er cru white Burgundy that does not contain Chardonnay, this 100% Aligoté has the spice, energy and electricity you’d expect from that grape. But it’s coupled with the opulence of the 2009 vintage and a lanolin-like texture. It’s weightless, yet powerful. It’s deep and concentrated, yet, amazingly, not heavy. It certainly shows the heights this humble grape can achieve.

Burgundy Maison Louis Latour Pinot Noir les Pierres Dorees


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