Beyond Pinot Noir and Chardonnay: The “other” grapes of Burgundy
Origins of the Big Two: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir
Today, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir dominate Burgundy’s landscape. All of the region’s most famous white wines are made with Chardonnay, and all of its most famous reds with Pinot Noir.
But it wasn’t always that way. True, Pinot Noir has been around for a long time. Some researchers even believe it comes from a selection of wild vines thousands of years ago. But as “recently” as the middle ages, Pinot Noir was just one of many grapes battling for supremacy. The Duke of Burgundy banned Gamay, for instance, in 1395 because it was giving too much competition to the “noble” Pinot.
And Chardonnay didn’t even exist for much of Bourgogne’s early history, The most common white grape among the peasantry was probably Gouais Blanc, a relatively neutral grape which is grown almost nowhere today. Gouais became important, however, as the parent of many of our favorite contemporary grapes.
Gouais crossed regularly with other grapes and made beautiful babies, including many of Bourgogne’s leading “other grapes” (like Gamay, Aligote and Melon). But most important of all, Gouais and Pinot crossed to create Chardonnay, the grape that is now practically synonymous with white wines from Burgundy.
No: Bourgogne is not a one-(or two-, or three-)trick pony. Let’s take a look at Burgundy’s under-the-radar treasures.
Out of all of Bourgogne’s "other" grapes, Aligoté is probably the best known.
Many of the region's top winemakers — producers like Leroy, Roulot, d'Angerville, Pierre Yves Colin Morey, and Lafarge — make excellent, ageworthy versions of this grape. These wines tend to be bright, herbal and minerally.
It has been grown in the region for a long time, though it’s perhaps best known as the base of the Kir cocktail: Aligoté sweetened by a splash of crème de cassis. Aligoté is naturally a high-acid grape, and the casis was a good match for Aligoté grown in marginal sites that didn’t get fully ripe. Without the cassis the Aligoté’s acidity could be searing.
But today, top growers plant their Aligoté in great sites and farm it with the same care they give their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The result is complete wines that are delicious on their own — no mixer needed.
Some believe that Aligoté is Burgundy’s greatest beneficiary of global warming; as temperatures rise and the grapes are able to ripen more easily Aligoté’s inherent acidity is moderated.
There could be some truth to that. And it is a fact that winemakers and consortiums everywhere are looking for grapes that will adapt to a warmer climate, including Aligoté.
But it vastly overstates the case. The fact is, when great winemakers harvest Aligoté from good sites that have been farmed well, they will make good or even great wines. Aligoté is, quite simply, a worthy grape.
There's even a village AOC devoted solely to the Aligoté. Bouzeron, in the Côte Chalonnaise, requires all wines to be made 100% with Aligoté.
The AOC’s champion is Aubert de Villaine, famous for his role as co-owner and co-director at Domaine de la Romanée Conti, home to some of Burgundy’s most sought-after and expensive wines. With his wife, he also owns and runs a small domaine in Bouzeron where he produces one of Bourgogne’s finest Aligotés.
There are two clones of Aligoté: the common one (sometimes called "Aligoté Vert”, or "Green Aligoté") and an ancient, lower-yielding version known as "Aligoté Doré," the "Golden Aligoté.” The finest versions of this wine are often made from Aligoté Doré, with its intensity, concentration and elegance.
However, some excellent vignerons will insist (after a glass or two) that what matters isn’t which clone a winemaker uses. What matters is all the usual things that matter with wine: Were the vines planted on a good site? Was the farming careful and the harvesting timely? Did the winemaker do things right? For now we’ll just have to agree that there are very good wines made with both clones.
Perhaps Bourgogne’s most famous Aligoté is Domaine Ponsot’s Morey-Saint-Denis ‘Clos des Monts Luisants,’ a 100% old-vine Aligoté cuvée. The wine hails from a climat that also happens to be a monopole -- meaning the Ponsot family is the sole proprietor of the site. It is consistently highly rated by critics and wine drinkers alike, both for its unique cépage as well as its energy, texture and minerality.
Saint-Bris, located just outside of Chablis in the Auxerrois, is a most peculiar Burgundian Village AOC. It’s the only AOC where Sauvignon Blanc is the approved variety. The grape is much more commonly perceived as belonging to the Loire Valley or even Bordeaux, but here it is accepted, alongside the pinkish mutation, Sauvignon gris.
There’s much debate about why Sauvignon Blanc is planted here.
One expert claims it’s because the more delicate Chardonnay would freeze in this cooler northern section of Bourgogne, though the region is not much warmer (if at all) than its Chablisien neighbors.
Jean-Hugues Goisot of Domaine Goisot (one of our favorite Saint-Bris producers) thinks it’s a matter as simple as trade. The vignerons of this village just happened to have a high degree of trade with Sancerre, so the Sancerrois’ trademark grape found unique popularity there.
Saint-Bris’ soils (like Chablis’) are dominated by Kimmeridgian limestone — the ancient seabed full of tiny fossilized mollusks that is abundant in much of Sancerre. But here, the expression of Sauvignon Blanc tends to be distinct and closer to the flavor, texture and minerality of Chablis than anything from the Loire. With racy acidity and pure minerality, Saint-Bris has a finesse that we typically only find in top Sancerre from excellent terroir.
It can be mind-bending to taste a wine that reminds you so distinctly of two different wines: the Chabilisien Kimmeridgian terroir and the Sancerre-like Sauvignon Blanc. But mind-bending in the tastiest way possible!
Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris
Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris are both mutations of Pinot Noir, but with white and pink skins, respectively. So, it’s not surprising they are both found with some frequency in the region. Even still, they are not common.
Pinot Gris was first noted in Chassagne-Montrachet, though a similar grey mutation occurred concurrently in various regions of Germany. The possible first mention was made in the late 13th century. In Bourgogne, it is ancestrally referred to as Pinot Beurot, though Pinot Gris was used as well.
Its skin ranges in color from mauve to dark purple, nearly as dark as Pinot Noir. It can be blended into various red wines, from Bourgogne Rouge to Bonnes Mares. But, it’s rarely employed and almost never to the 10% maximum allowed by law.
While producers like Simon Bize have long incorporated a bit of Pinot Gris into their Bourgogne Blanc (a mere 5%), innovators like Chisa Bize, Simon’s widow, have recently crafted varietal wines of 100% Pinot Beurot.
Chateau de Beru in Chablis has begun experimenting with a range of “unconventional” varieties, including Syrah and Grenache. In that kind of company the [Pinot Gris Rose] seems positively traditional and… it kind of is! The wine absolutely tastes like Burgundy, with a fine line of minerality from the clay-limestone soils. It’s a very limited wine though, and sells out almost immediately when it lands.
Pinot Blanc is also an accepted blending grape in Bourgogne Blanc. It's yet another color mutation of Pinot Gris. This time the grape has pale yellow-green skins.
For much of its history in Bourgogne, it was mistaken for Chardonnay, a grape with similar coloring. Mildly aromatic, with high acid and notes of white fruit and flowers, Pinot Blanc is quite rare in and around Bourgogne.
Perhaps the most famous purveyor of Pinot Blanc in Burgundy is Henri Gouges, who has several cuvées designated as such… though there is some debate as to whether these are actual Pinot Blanc grapes, or Pinot Noir that has mutated and somehow lost its tint.
Perhaps Pinot is just too mutable, or perhaps Monsieur Gouges wanted a reason to put his name on a potential new clone. Whatever the case, if you have the opportunity to taste a Bourgogne Blanc from Gouge you should take it: like the Saint Bris which tastes both familiar and different at the same time, these wines have the distinct feeling of being Bourgogne, at the same time as something altogether étrange.
But there are other great examples of Pinot Blanc-based white Burgundy wines, such as Jean Fournier’s “Origines”, which is ⅔ Pinot Blanc and ⅓ Pinot Gris.
Melon (de Bourgogne)
Melon is best known as the grape of Muscadet, where it is called “Melon de Bourgogne” -- “Melon of Burgundy.” DNA studies suggest that the variety is a love child of Gouais Blanc and Pinot Blanc.
There was a time that Melon was planted reasonably widely in Bourgogne, but the same dukes that banished Gamay banished Melon. Today it is permitted in Crémant de Bourgogne but is incredibly rare. We only know of one still wine made from Melon, Domaine de la Cadette’s “Melon La Soeur Cadette.” It’s a wine we bring in whenever we can — which isn’t nearly often enough!
Sacy is another ancient variety that once thrived in the Auxerrois region, just outside of Chablis.
Recent DNA testing has shown that, like many of Bourgogne’s ‘other’ grapes, Sacy is the descendant of Pinot and that ancient Burgundian variety, Gouais Blanc.
Known as Tressalier in the Loire, it’s best known as a blending grape in Saint-Pourcain blanc, but it’s not found very often in Bourgogne. Though it is an accepted accessory grape in the AOC of Bourgogne Chitry, as well as in Crémant de Bourgogne, a decade ago there were just 12 hectares planted. It is incredibly rare.
By the medieval period, Gamay and Melon de Bourgogne were famously banished from the region by the reigning Dukes of Burgundy.
Interestingly enough, Gamay was displaced because of its high productivity. In the late 14th century, for instance, Philip the Bold wanted his region to be known for fine wine, so he focused on the more prestigious — but also more finicky — Pinot Noir.
Landholders were banned from growing Gamay (though the grape didn't have too far to travel to find a home: to this day it thrives in Beaujolais, just south of the Mâcon).
Some surreptitious plantings of Gamay remained, especially in the Mâcon, a region abutting Beaujolais. These wines are often blends of Gamay and Pinot Noir, though there are also monovarietal cuvées of both grapes.
In 2011, the Coteaux Bourguignons AOC replaced Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire, an AOC which previously allowed Gamay as a varietal wine or as part of a blend. There are also 100% Gamay-based rosés, such as Louis Jadot’s Coteaux Bourgignons.
Throughout Bourgogne, passetoutgrains — a blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay that must contain at least 30% Pinot and 15% Gamay — remains an important style of wine.
Again, we see top producers (Lafarge, Hubert Lignier and the Marquis d’Angerville) making exemplary passetoutgrains. At their best, the wines combine the freshness and juiciness of Gamay with the substance of Pinot Noir in a way that is fully Burgundian if manifestly distinct from the typical Bourgogne Rouge.
The wines tend to be inexpensive by today’s standards, and yet they attract the very greatest winemakers.
Even the legendary Lalou Bize Leroy, whose eponymous domaine is home to wines in the four-figure price range, has gotten into the Bourgogne Gamay game.
In the 2019 vintage Maison Leroy produced its first 100% Gamay wine, (relatively) democratically priced and delicious.
César is an ancient grape that may have come to France with Roman soldiers. Maybe that’s why it’s named after Caesar.
It was an important grape in the north and is still blended with Pinot Noir (at a maximum of [10%]), especially in the northern village of Irancy, where it adds color and tannin to wines that tend to be lighter and thinner in style than the wines of the Côte d’Or further south. In 2008 there were just 10 hectares planted to César.
Attack of the Clones
We’ve described how Pinot Noir mutates spontaneously from time to time to make new grapes like Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc.
But Pinot can mutate in subtler ways, to make a variety that, while still Pinot Noir, is different enough that it is often called a “clone.” (This language doesn’t follow the technical, scientific nomenclature, but it’s what people say and it gets the meaning across.)
Pinot Fin is by far the most common and most important of these “clones” in Bourgogne. It shows us a different side of Pinot Noir.
It’s a low-yielding mutation with smaller, more concentrated berries. It’s planted mostly in the Côte d’Or, much of it specifically in Vosne-Romanée. And, it’s even more finicky than regular Pinot Noir. Its thin-skinned, closely-bunched berries are even more prone to disease and infections, so many winemakers have grubbed up their vines in favor of the larger-berried type. But those who persevere can make some beautiful, effortlessly concentrated wines from it.
While Chardonnay is more genetically stable than Pinot Noir, mutating less, there are two noteworthy Chardonnay clones: Chardonnay Rose and Chardonnay Musqué.
The first, Chardonnay Rose, is a rare pink-berried variation, with origins in either the Mâconnais village of Chardonnay or the Côte de Nuits village of Marsannay, depending on who you ask.
It’s rare and there aren’t many bottles labeled with the name. But in Marsannay, both Sylvain Pataille and Bruno Clair produce excellent versions of a Marsannay Blanc with Chardonnay Rose. Some claim that the darker grape attains a higher sugar content than regular white Chardonnay.
Chardonnay Musqué is much more noticeably different. Highly aromatic, musqué refers to Muscat-like aromas of spice and grape-y fruit.
It’s also rare. But, there’s a notable example from Montagny’s Stéphane Aladame, whose premier cru site, ‘Les Burnins,’ was planted with Chardonnay Musqué in 1923. Just 90 cases of this succulent, rare and exotically perfumed wine are produced in an average vintage. Whenever we can get some we do, and offer it to our Newsletter Subscribers.
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