The wines of the Grand Auxerrois: Chablis’ Northern Neighbors
Chablis is certainly the Queen in the North. But many other names -- Bourgogne Tonnerre and Saint Bris for white wines, and Bourgogne Epineuille and Irancy for red -- are well worth discovering.
Chablis is a unique white wine, famous for its minerality, freshness and, especially with a little bit of age, complexity. And Chablis’ white-wine neighbors offer delicious and great-value variations on the theme.
But red wine may be the most fascinating thing about the Grand Auxerrois, especially for Chablis lovers who remain uninitiated into the region as a whole. The reds, here, are red burgundies through and through, but with a delicious twist: you might call them Chablisien Pinot Noirs.
They are worth getting to know both for the delicious values they offer today and for what they promise in the future.
Chablis is practically a household name in America. Not so, “Grand Auxerrois.” But we’re hoping to change that with this guide! So there’s no time to waste, let’s dig in...
What is the Grand Auxerrois? And why do we care?
“Grand Auxerrois” covers the most northerly region of Bourgogne, a region centered on Chablis but with much more besides to recommend it. We’re so far north here that we’re much closer to Champagne than to Beaune or the famous vineyards of the Cote d’Or.
But this is still, unmistakably, Bourgogne. Its geology remains one of clay and limestone, with an emphasis on Kimmeridgian limestone marls. And its history is deeply entwined with the rest of Bourgogne’s. While there may have been some pre-Roman grape growing in the region, viticulture expanded in a big way when the Cistercean monks (the monks whose home base was right by the Cote d’Or and who are most famous for having laid groundwork for its winemaking) opened sister abbeys in the region.
Perhaps most importantly, the Burgundian passion for terroir is equally present. Just as Bourgogne’s more southerly reaches have sub-regions and appellations with distinct terroir and personalities, so too does the Grand Auxerrois.
In short: It’s a land of fresh and vibrant wines with all the telltales of classic bourgogne wine: limestone- and clay-rich soils; varied expositions; and interesting local traditions, which all come together to make fascinating wines of incredible personality.
Location, Location, Location
The Grand Auxerrois’ geography is key to understanding the region along at least two dimensions. First, it tells us a lot about the wines. The cool northerly climate means the vines will struggle to get ripe. At harvest the grapes will have reasonable levels of sugar, guaranteeing finished wines with fine, light bodies and alcohol levels well in check. It also means the grapes will retain a lot of acidity, giving the wines beautiful freshness.
The Grand Auxerrois is also located on the famous band of limestone that stretches all the way from the White Cliffs of Dover, through Champagne and Chablis, past Burgundy and into Sancerre and the Loire Valley. The vibrancy you find in classic limestone and clay-based wines from across these regions are very much to be found in many of the Grand Auxerrois’ gems.
And just as variations in soils and subsoils across Champagne can give the wines different personalities, the Grand Auxerrois’ patchwork of clay-limestone soils give the wines a range of textures, mineral and fruit flavors.
The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of the Grand Auxerrois
The Grand Auxerrois’ northern location is key to the region’s history for one very simple reason: it is close to Paris.
In the days before highways and trains, the Grand Auxerrois could ship its produce directly to Paris by riverboat, which gave it a near monopoly on selling quality wine to the capital. While wine’s early development in the Grand Auxerrois was -- as in most of Bourgogne -- largely driven by the monasteries, grape-growing and winemaking also developed a large commercial side very early on.
With access to that very thirsty population, a large viticultural region emerged in the 12th and 13th centuries. Where, not long before, there had only been scattered plots, now an agricultural industry blossomed. The winegrowers must have loved the capital!
The capital certainly loved the Auxerrois’ wines! Old books are full of praise -- though not without dissenting voices (there have been people ready to say “well, actually” for a long time, it turns out).
The End of an Era
Before phylloxera destroyed the vines, the Grand Auxerrois had nearly 40,000 hectares under vine -- more than the Cote d’Or. In 1980 it was barely more than 3,000. What happened?
The three horsemen of the vinous apocalypse: disease, war, and the train.
The diseases you may have heard about before, especially phylloxera, a vine-destroying louse that came to France from America and ravaged the vineyards while scientists searched for a cure.
Tragically for local fortunes, by the time the cure was finally discovered (grafting French vines onto resistant American rootstocks) a new problem had emerged. Train lines had connected Paris to France’s south, where plentiful sunshine made grape growing cheap and easy. The Grand Auxerrois no longer had a monopoly on the Parisian market. In fact, it could no longer compete on price alone.
That competitive pressure meant there was limited economic incentive to replant. But worse was yet to come when (tragically, for the entire world) the First World War emptied the villages out to provide men to fight and die. When the war was finally over, a generation had been decimated and many of the survivors went to the cities rather than go home to replant vines and take up family winemaking legacies.
A region reborn...
Today Chablis and the Grand Auxerrois are bouncing back. Plantings are way up (more than half way back to their peak). Quality has probably never been higher. And today the region’s best wines have markets in all of Paris’ most fashionable wine bars and restaurants. Better yet, they no longer depend on just that one local market; they have strong followings around the world, from London, to here in America, to Tokyo, to Sydney.
Somms and other insiders everywhere want these northerly Bourgogne wines to enjoy the sense of place they communicate and, always key in a restaurant setting, to have them elevate the local cuisines.
… With a still brighter future
Success breeds success and that will surely be the case in the Grand Auxerrois. As the wines find a following in the marketplace, it will become easier to finance replantings and investment in better growing and winemaking. Which in turn should make the wines better still -- and the market even larger.
The proposition of settling down and working these northerly vines will become more attractive to more young potential vignerons. We expect more and more dynamic young winemakers to emerge from the region.
It may even be the case that, as global warming continues to make for hotter vintages, the Grand Auxerrois’ northerly address will allow it more easily to retain the freshness that makes wine feel alive, at the same time as the heat allows more regular and complete ripening that promotes flavor development.
Chablis and the Grand Auxerrois’ sub-regions, appellations, and wines
Wines from the Grand Auxerrois can, like almost all wines in Burgundy, be labelled with the usual regional appellations (these “AOC Régionales,” as they say in French, being Bourgogne, Bourgogne Aligoté, Bourgogne Passe-tout-grains, Coteaux Bourguignons and Crémant de Bourgogne).
But many of its wines are labelled with names that show they come from the Grand Auxerrois. Some of those are appellations in their own right (like Irancy and St. Bris) and some of them are Appellations Régionales, which add a local name to one of the more common regional appellations like “Bourgogne Chitry.” (Technically these are Appellations Régionales with a Dénomination Géographique Complémentaire, or regional appellations with a complementary geographic denomination; but don’t worry, this won’t be on the test.)
Chablis and the Grand Auxerrois is generally considered as being made up of five terroirs.
- Chablis. First and foremost Chablis. It’s the star and will get its own series of posts, but for starters we can note that it’s the motherland of minerally whites thanks to the climate and Kimmeridgian limestone soils.
Then there are the terroirs of the Grand Auxerrois:
- The Auxerrois. OK, it’s a little confusing, but we’re referring here to that agglomeration of vineyards you can see on the map hovering to the south and east of the town of Auxerre. This is the home of old favorites like Saint Bris (famous as the only Sauvignon Blanc Bourgogne appellation) and Irancy, which remains a tremendous value.
- The Tonnerrois (around Tonnerre to the east of Chablis) is a valley of minerally soils being rediscovered by some of our favorite Chablis producers. Home to Bourgogne Tonnerre and Bourgogne Epineuile.
- In the south there is the village of Vézelay and the neighboring Vézelaian region, home to some of our favorite off-the-beaten-path wines.
- The Jovinien with the tiny vineyard of Bourgogne Côte Saint Jacques. Unfortunately we haven’t come across any of these wines in the United States -- but we’re keeping our eyes peeled!
Chablis is white wine made from the Chardonnay grape grown around the village of Chablis. The wines are practically defined by their limestone soils, most importantly Kimmeridgian limestone, which is a white soil full of tiny, ancient, fossilized shellfish. There are other limestone soils (notably the younger Portlandian limestone which is most common in Petit Chablis).
There are four Chablis appellations (Petit Chablis, Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru and Chablis Grand Cru), and the distinctions are important. But any wine with the name Chablis on it will be crisp, it should be minerally, it should have pretty fruit (apple and citrus). It will be great with a whole range of foods depending on what level of Chablis and how mature it is.
Chablis is one of the great white wines of the world so we are posting a standalone Guide to Chablis. Check in on the regular as new posts drop!
It’s a little confusing, but within the larger area of the “Grand Auxerrois” (in English that’s “Greater Auxerrois”) there is a region called simply “The Auxerrois.” Just west of Chablis, this area is home to some of our go-to value wines, both red and white.
- Bourgogne Côtes d’Auxerre just happens to be one of those regions. Yes, this is the russian nesting dolls of wine: Bourgogne Côtes d’Auxerre goes in the Auxerrois which goes in the Grand Auxerrois.
The naming could be a little less confusing, but the wines couldn’t be better values. Bourgogne Côtes d’Auxerre wines are worth knowing! With limestone soils (including some Chablisien Kimmeridgian marl) it's no surprise that they are zippy, fresh charmers.
The whites are made with Chardonnay and are classic, crisp northern wines: high toned fruit and stony minerality balanced on a knife’s edge.
Red Bourgogne Côtes d’Auxerre are likewise fresh and light but also surprisingly complex -- especially for what is usually a very reasonable price. They offer a classic burgundian aromatic profile, with red berries and minerality, and a palate that is similarly-flavored, silky feeling and great with foods from light meals up to roast fowl.
Bourgogne Côtes d’Auxerre rosé is permitted but we have never seen one in America.
- Irancy is a small village-level appellation about 15 short minutes from Chablis, with limestone soils -- largely Kimmeridgian with some brown limestones in the mix.
But Irancy makes red wine: lithe, fresh and minerally red wine. That may be exactly the style you’d expect from one of France’s most northern red wine regions, especially one with Chablis-like soils. But it’s worth emphasizing: the combination of climate and soil means that when a bottle of Irancy sings, the aromatics are high toned and classic, and the fruit tastes so bright it’s practically neon.
Irancy is home to some of our favorite value Burgundies. While its reputation is on the rise (especially in France), prices have yet to take off in America. It has some great young winemakers working hard to re-establish the appellation, and it is always worth popping a bottle to see what they are up to.
Irancy also stands out for being a home to the César grape, an ancient variety that roman legionnaires probably brought to the region. It’s a hearty grape and is sometimes blended into Irancy to give it a little backbone.
- Saint Bris is the only appellation in Bourgogne devoted to the Sauvignon Blanc grape. That may sound strange, but if you consider that many of the very best Sancerres are Sauvignon Blanc grown on Kimmeridgian limestone soils (like the famous Monts Damnés vineyard), you’ll start to get the point of growing Sauvignon Blanc in limestone soils just a few miles from Chablis’ motherlode of Kimmeridgian dirt.
And Saint Bris is, in fact, fantastic. Sauvignon Blanc with a burgundian soul! The aromatics are very Sauvignon Blanc. But on the palate the Sauvignon’s fruit is complemented by something of a Chablisien vibe. It’s a bit of a mindbender... but a delicious one.
This is a secret weapon of a wine to pull out when you want something interesting to pair with food (oysters are a classic). But it’s also great when you want to bridge the gap between a friend who only drinks, for instance, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and other friends with more adventurous pallets. Fascinating to wine geeks but delicious to all: What could be better?
Saint Bris’ village also has one of the best names in wine: Saint-Bris-le-Vineuse -- “Saint Bris the Vinous.” But for better or worse they named this village-level appellation just straight “Sain Bris.”
- Chitry is another white wine area right next to Chablis -- you could almost sidearm a small piece of Kimmeridgian limestone from one into the other. And afterward, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell where the rock had come from, since so many of Chitry’s sites are full of the same limestone as the much more famous Chablis.
We don’t see very many wines from Chitry in the United States, but we have come across some very special ones. One of our favorite Chablis producers, Alice et Olivier de Moor, also makes a little bit of Bourgogne Chitry. And some of our favorite importers have found very good small family domaines in Chitry that we are able to offer to our [mailing list] from time to time.
Bourgogne Chitry from a great producer will be like “Baby Chablis” -- same wet stone aromas, same racy, lemony freshness on the palate.
Labelling: the wine is called “Bourgogne Chitry” and not simply “Chitry” because it is an Appellation Régionale.
- Bourgogne Coulanges-La-Vineuse is the last Auxerrois appellation you hit travelling west from Chablis, and it’s the rarest in America. It is planted to Pinot Noir (about 100 ha) and Chardonnay (only about 20) and is reputed for its very fine and earlier drinking whites, and red wines with beautiful fruit to be enjoyed over the first few years of life. If you’re travelling in France and taste some example you love, please send us an email.
A few miles to the east of Chablis there is a town called Tonnerre in the valley of Armançon, which has given its name to the surrounding region. The Tonnerrois is home to two more regional appellations spread out over the hillsides and uplands of areas valleys: Bourgogne Tonnerre and Bourgogne Epineuil.
- Bourgogne Tonnerre is a white wine appellation for Chardonnay grown on a mix of Kimmeridgian and Portlandian limestone soils. Some of the sites are exceptionally steep, facilitating full ripening in even the coolest vintages. These appear to be fairly long-lived wines. Other sites are flatter with Portlandian limestone and may make less long-lived wines.
- Bourgogne Tonnerre is another appellation often described as “Baby Chablis,” and a fair number of domaines that produce Bourgogne Tonnerre also make at least a little bit of Chablis.
Like Bourgogne Tonnerre, Bourgogne Epineuil enjoys significant terroir and producer overlap with Chablis. Many of our favorite Epineuil-based producers also make some Chablis, and the soils are also very heavily Kimmeridgian.
Reds from the very best sites can be stunning. Like all the Grand Auxerrois’ Pinots, they are distinctly northern: vibrant and high toned. But Bourgogne Epineuil has some exceptionally steep sites that make wines that have a degree of complexity you only expect from more renowned appellations. They can start off assertive, with what the French like to call “acidulated fruit” and a minerally mid-palate. The fruit will come back in a broader way on a chalky finish. Give the wine some time to breathe (or cellar it for a while) and you’ll see the fruit blossom and round out a bit, and the minerality become a little subtler. The whole thing feels like a sexy dance.
The rosés are very rare but the ones we have tasted are excellent and well worth trying.
Vézelay’s history encapsulates the Grand Auxerrois’. With a history going back to Roman times, Vézelay was one of France’s important wine regions. It had over 500 hectares planted before phylloxera, but by 1970 just a few hectares were still under vine. Since then, young growers have come back and the terroir is being rediscovered by vignerons and wine-lovers alike.
Vézelay’s vineyards are mostly planted on south-facing slopes around a small tributary of the Yonne river. Even with those moderating influences the wines are steely with tons of drive. The soils are limestone and clay, but we are about 45 minutes south of Chablis here and the Kimmeridgian influence is less obvious.
While the Vézelay appellation only permits Chardonnay, vignerons do grow some outliers. There’s a little of the red César. And there’s also some of the white Melon de Bourgogne -- all but banished from Bourgogne but famous for the delicious wines of Muscadet. The Melon is sold as a Vin de France and the César is generally blended into Bourgogne Rouge.
Although there is very, very little of these fascinating outliers, one of our favorite under-the-radar producers, Domaine de la Cadette, makes both. We pick them up whenever we have the chance! We expect to see more of these wines in the future given their sheer quality and the fact that they were recently upgraded from a regional appellation (Bourgogne Vézelay) and granted village appellation status (labels after 2017 read “Vézelay” -- no Bourgogne).
This is the tiniest and most northerly sub-region of the Grand Auxerrois and unfortunately not one we’ve ever seen in America even though pre-phylloxera there were over 500 hectares of vines. It has one appellation:
- Bourgogne Côte Saint Jacques is an appellation of hillside vineyards making red (Pinot Noir) white (Chardonnay) and gris (Pinot Gris) wines. The sites are sheltered from the north wind by a forest and have the Yonne river at their feet to protect them from spring frosts, making this a very promising little appellation. Unfortunately we haven’t come across any of these wines in the United States -- but we’re keeping our eyes peeled!
A Final Word on the Grand Auxerrois
If you’ve made it this far you clearly love Bourgogne wines -- and in particular, the fascinating, off-the-beaten-path wines from [The Edges of Burgundy.]
We do too!
They’re the wines that show us Bourgogne is still a land in evolution, a land to be discovered.
And if you want to discover more of these amazing wines, you can sign up for our Newsletter. Or search our collections of Auxerrois wines on both coasts.
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