Edges of Burgundy: Saint-Aubin
Today we start exploring the Edges of Burgundy with Saint-Aubin. This is a series that focuses on villages of Burgundy that are less heralded despite producing world class and age-worthy Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. You can read the introductory blog post here.
Saint-Aubin is all about Chardonnay
Pinot Noir from Saint-Aubin is OK. Don't get me wrong. I mean, if suddenly New York State starting producing Pinot as good as the finer reds that you can get from Saint-Aubin, it would be hugely celebrated and pronouncements would be made declaring New York State to be the new Burgundy (with very high prices of course). But really, the red wines from the village are on the simple side and in the context of Burgundy really can't be considered world class. In fact, much red Saint-Aubin is simply sold as Cote de Beaune-Village.
The story is entirely different with Chardonnay. For anyone who has walked along the Route des Grands Cru in the Cote d'Or, this shouldn't be very surprising. At one point the road follows Batard Montrachet. Look up the slope and you see Montrachet itself slightly beyond. Higher up still you see Chevalier Montrachet. It is just beyond Chevalier Montrachet, just around the corner of the hill known as Montrachet, that the vineyards of Saint-Aubin begin. Here, the hill of Montrachet takes on the name of Roche du May.
Saint-Aubin is a separate valley
The vineyards of Saint-Aubin are not directly on the Cote in the line-up of east or southeast facing crus with famous names (which perhaps explains why Saint-Aubin is rarely mentioned in the same breath as Puligny, Meursault or Chassagne). Instead, the vines begin in a separate valley that lies on the other side of the hill of Montrachet, just around the corner from Chevalier Montrachet. From there, the contours of the valley go northwest until the hamlet of Gamay, where the valley joins another hill, called Montagne de Ban, which heads southwest towards the village of Saint-Aubin itself. Of course, you should just look at a map. Basically, the AOC of Saint-Aubin is one valley over from the main one.
What the map makes clear is that you can think of Saint-Aubin as being divided in two parts by Gamay (the village, not the grape). There's the Saint-Aubin that lies on the hill of Montrachet, just to the east of Gamay. These vineyards -- running from their border with Chassagne Montrachet on the south side all the way up to Gamay -- face the valley with a southwest exposure. Then there are the vineyards on the other side of Gamay -- and the other side of the valley -- facing southeast.
Speaking in very general terms -- and this should not be surprising given the proximity to Puligny and Chassagne -- it is the first set of vineyards, on the eastern half of the AOC, that are better. In fact, all of them are premier crus, and all of them produce Chardonnay. In the half of Saint-Aubin that is to the west of Gamay, a mixture of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are produced, and it is here that the village level wines are found, in addition to several premier crus.
The always important terroir
On both sides of the valley you find limestone soils. On the western side the limestone is from the Callovian era and there is more clay. On the Montrachet side, the limestone is from the slightly later era, Argovian, and there is more marl and less clay. Argovian soils tend to be whiter and chalkier -- closer to what you might find in Chablis -- and this may partly account for the extra minerality that you get in the wines from this side. The marl also helps -- it's the same strain of marl that runs through the famous vineyards of Puligny.
Here's another very important thing to remember about the terroir of Saint-Aubin: the vineyards are higher then elsewhere in the Cote. They range from 300 to 350 meters (around 1000 feet) high, with the highest vineyards lying on the Montrachet side. This means the temperature is lower year round, and Saint-Aubin is therefore an excellent source of value in warmer vintages. The 2009 Saint-Aubins, for example, were sensational. Saint-Aubin is one area of Burgundy that promises to benefit from global warming.
Here's a good question that you're probably asking: If the eastern vineyards of Saint-Aubin are so close to Chevalier Montrachet and have the same soils, why are the wines inferior to the Grand Crus? The answer is orientation. Montrachet faces southeastward, and ripens in the gentle morning sun. Vines on the St. Aubin side face more to the west, so they get the harsher afternoon sunshine. These little things make a difference.
The Crus of Saint-Aubin
But Saint-Aubin, in its best vineyards, still manages to make white wines of world class quality. Here are the top sites:
This is the most famous premier cru of Saint-Aubin. It is the closest to Chevalier Montrachet. Very minerally wines here that can age magnificently. The wines here can be as good as serious examples of Puligny.
Here, the vines are lower down the slope compared to En Remilly. As a result, they are in shade during the morning sun, and all their ripening comes from that harsh afternoon sun. The result is wine that emphasizes opulence rather than minerality, and a wine that you can drink earlier. If I see this and En Remilly on the same wine list, and both are from a recent vintage, I choose this one.
Here you're higher up the hill, with some vineyards as high as 400 m. The wines from here need time in the cellar. A great choice from the warmer vintages.
LES MURGERS DES DENTS DE CHIEN
This one shares the peak of Saint-Aubin's vines with Sur Gamay, but here we are sitting right above En Remilly and are closer to Chevalier Montrachet. This is a very good source for long-lived, mineral-driven whites, and is another excellent choice for warmer vintages.
All of the above vineyards are on the east side of the Saint-Aubin valley, where I mentioned the best Chardonnay is grown. But on the west side there is a portion that you shouldn't ignore. In between the villages of St. Aubin and Gamay the soils are actually quite similar to the eastern side, with plenty of light-colored marly limestone. That's Chardonnay soil. And unlike the eastern half of the valley, the vineyards here have a southeast orientation -- exactly the same as the Grand Crus of Puligny Montrachet.
So, in theory these should produce excellent wine, and I've had more than a few bottles that confirms this hypothesis! I am thinking here in particular of Les Perrierres, an intensely stony vineyard, and Sur le Sentier du Clou, just above it. Closer to Gamay, in the Cru of Champs, you start to get a little too down-slope for world class wines. You might also come across bottles of Frionnes, another premier cru in these parts. Henri Prudhon makes a delicious red wine here that is really an excellent value.
On the other side of Saint-Aubin you find exclusively village wine, much of it red as well as white. Don't scoff: you can find plenty of delicious bottles!
The Producers of Saint-Aubin
Right now, we're working with two producers in Saint-Aubin. I love them both. The first is Henri Prudhon, a small domaine imported by Neal Rosenthal with great holdings in all the famous crus on both sides of the valley. Prudhon makes red wine, but as you might guess he's really a white wine specialist and his Chardonnays are great. The second is Pierre Yves Colin-Morey. I've written about PYCM here. The important point here is that his core holdings are here in Saint-Aubin. Again, many of the top crus mentioned above are represented. He also has nice holdings in Le Banc, a stretch of village-level vines to the southwest of Saint-Aubin. The white wine he makes there is remarkably good! PYCM makes only white wines from Saint-Aubin.
There are other producers in the village that are excellent but that we don't (yet) work with. At the top of this list would be Hubert Lamy. Maybe we'll start with the 2013s?