Edges of Burgundy: Savigny-les-Beaune
This is the next installment in a series of blog posts called Edges of Burgundy that explores some of the under-appreciated villages of Burgundy. We have already covered St. Aubin and Santenay.
Today we look at Savigny-les-Beaune.
Of the villages I've covered so far, Savigny-les-Beaune is the most puzzling. I kind of understand why St. Aubin is off the radar, as it occupies a separate valley from the classic villages of the Cote d'Or. And it's no surprise that Santenay isn't anywhere near as famous as villages further north, which benefit from super star producers and terroir that is superior to all but the most northerly corners of Santenay. But Savigny? This is a village that boasts well known producers like Pavelot, Chandon de Briailles and Simon Bize. The premier crus are some of the best in the Cote de Beaune for red wine. So why no love?
The best explanation I've seen is historical. It is in this northern part of the Cote de Beaune that red and white vines are mixed up the most (we're not so far here from the hill of Corton, the one part of Burgundy where you get both Grand Cru red and Grand Cru white). A couple of generations ago, Savigny was no exception, with plenty of vines planted to both colors. And the color white here doesn't just mean Chardonnay. Plenty of Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris were planted here as well.
The thing is, in Savigny, until pretty recently, the red and white grapes were often vinified together. Yes, plenty of those "red" Savignys also had some percentage -- 15% say -- of Chardonnay or Pinot Blanc or Pinot Gris or some mixture of the three. So the wine was lighter, and therefore less prized.
Although Chardonnay is still grown in Savigny-les-Beaune -- as well as a tiny amount of the other white grames -- those grapes are now used to produce white wine (although the AOC still allows up to 15% white wine grapes). And the whites can be very good. The Pinot Noir today almost always remains pure and the wine is often excellent. But reputations have a way of lingering, and, thanks to this history, Savigny-les-Beaune is still very much treated as second tier.
And that, for me, is why Savigny-les-Beaune is such a fruitful village for finding value. Let me say something unequivocal: at this moment in time, Savigny-les-Beaune provides the very best bang for your buck in all of Burgundy. And with 1.8 million bottles of wine in a normal year, you will find something to drink.
Where it is
That "les" in the middle of the name is an old local word for "near". Savigny is near Beaune. Just to the north of it, and just a little west of the main north south corridor. It's other neighbors, just to the northeast, are Aloxe Corton and Pernand Vergelesses. Across the main north south road from Savigny lies Chorey-les-Beaune (Chorey "near" Beaune).
Here's a map:
Here's the key thing to know about Savigny's geography: there is a river, called Rhoin, that dissects the AOC into two halves, north and south, and each half has its own grouping of premier crus to the east of the village itself. Village level vineyards cluster around the river and on the west side of the village. The premier crus are slightly upslope from the river. There are excellent premier crus on both the north and south sides, though in general they are better on the north.
There are two key facts about terroir here that are important, especially in terms of how the northern half is distinct from the southern: orientation, and soil.
First, orientation. If you're on the north side of the Rhoin, you will be facing south. You might also face a little to the east, especially Aux Vergelesses, which is fully southeast oriented. On the opposite, southern, side of the river, you'll face eastward, and maybe a little to the north. These things are all very important. Remember, east is good because you get the gentle morning sun. South is good because you get more overall sunshine. North is cooler -- this is nice only when the vintage is otherwise a warm one. Down by the river, the vineyards are pretty flat -- that's why it's village level.
Second, soil. Down by the river, the soils, as you might expect, are alluvial and pebbly. This is Savigny village. Up both slopes you have, of course, plenty of limestone. On the north side, this is mostly mixed with clay. On the south side, there's more sand.
What does all this mean? Look to the north for elegance and fruit purity. Look south for power, structure and earthiness.
Not everyone agrees on this but Aux Vergelesses is probably the best spot in all of Savigny. It's on the north side of the river, at the east end where the AOC borders the great Pernand Vergelesses premier cru of "Ile de Vergelesse". It is the only vineyard with perfect southeast exposure. The wine here is full bodied and complete. It is the signature wine in Simon Bize's portfolio -- possibly the greatest $50 Burgundy you can find.
From Aux Vergelesses, the premier cru vineyards stretch to the west along the northern side of the river: Aux Fourneaux, Les Lavieres, Aux Gravains, Aux Serpentieres, Aux Clous, Aux Guettes. It's hard to go wrong with any of these sites. Les Lavieres, Aux Gravains and Aux Serpentieres are the best. They may not be quite as "fine" as a great Aux Vergelesses, but they make up for it by being more representatively "Savigny" in character -- both lie in the heart of these great premier crus. To drink these wines is to taste the soul of the village.
Some crus across the river on the south side are also top tier. Some people consider La Dominode, part of Jarrons, to be the best in the village. It certainly gives the best wine: Bruno Clair's Dominode from his vines planted in 1902! Narbantons also receives praise, probably in part because it gives the the village's most expensive wine: Domaine Leroy's Narbantons. From this side of the river, Bize makes a great Marconnets. All these crus make wines of structure and they need time in the bottle.
When I wrote up St. Aubin and Santenay I didn't talk much about the wines that don't qualify for premier cru status. Frankly, the premier crus are really only a little more expensive and it's there that you find the great deals in Burgundy that this series is all about. That simply isn't true of Savigny. Village level Savigny can be delicious, and in fact there are some important lieu dits (i.e., named plots) located in straight AC Savigny. There are two groupings of village vineyards: those that at the bottom of the Rhoin valley, bordering the river, and those that lie up the valley to the west of the village. In the western portion, the vines have the same situation as the northern premier crus facing south, but you are further up the valley and these are definitely cooler sites. It's a great place for village Chardonnay. You also find great Savignys in the lieu dits of Aux Grands Liards -- just below Lavieres -- and one of my favorites is the Grand Picotins from Pierre Guillemot. Grand Picotin is at the exact opposite end of the village and borders Chorey-les-Beaune. I guess those 50-year old vines help.
There are some big names in this village. If you had to pick a top dog, it would be Domaine Simon Bize, where Patrick Bize made the wines until his tragic early death last year. As mentioned aboove, his Aux Vergelesses is the signature wine in their line-up, and is one of a handful of Burgundies I make a point of putting in my cellar every year, as the quality is extremely high and the price very fair.
Another great is Chandon de Briailles, who makes a terrific Lavieres, as well as an always-delicious village-level Savigny.
The third big name would be Pavelot, who makes wines in a slightly more polished style than either Chandon de Briailles and Bize (both of whom are ardent traditionalists and proponents of whole cluster fermentation). He makes a great Dominode that is beautiful -- but only after many years of patience.
Outside of these big names there is still lots of good quality to be found. Two personal favorites are Camus Bruchon and Pierre Guillemot. Camus Bruchon has an incredible collection of old vine holdings in a number of the top crus: Lavieres, Gravains, and Narbantons. He also makes terrific village wine, including in the lieu-dits of Pimentiers (vines planted in 1929!) and Aux Grands Liards (vines planted in 1916 and 1922). Both these producers would be famous if they worked in just about any other village of the Cote d'Or. And I would not be surprised if they become famous soon.
There is one more sad thing that you need to know about Savigny. It has suffered for three years in a row from terrible hail. Production has been way down, and it's been financially difficult for a number of producers. It will be harder than usual to find the good wines and prices will probably climb. We'll have to see. For at least the next few years, though, this will continue to be my top pick of village for finding bargains.