Thursday, July 17, 2008

Exploring Burgundy: Saint-Bris

It’s facile enough to think of all White Burgundy as being produced from the Chardonnay vine. However, all it takes is a little probing curiosity, as with any comfortable generalization, to reveal exceptions. The most obvious – and most widely planted – exception in the context of White Burgundy certainly must be Aligoté. Much less frequently encountered and much less widely planted, Pinot Blanc is permitted in several of Burgundy’s AOCs and is still farmed and vinified in small quantities by a number of producers. The variety which lays claim to the distinction of the smallest radius within the Burgundian landscape, though, must be Sauvignon Blanc. For it is only in the vineyards surrounding the town of Saint-Bris-le-Vineux, situated in the Auxerrois district of the Yonne, just south and west of Chablis, that Sauvignon finds its enclave.

Sauvignon first gained its foothold in Saint Bris during the region’s recovery from the devastation and “devinification” wrought by the phylloxera epidemic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Even if the decision to plant Sauvignon in the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay-centric world of Burgundy seems odd, it actually made a lot of sense. The chalk and limestone rich soil in the Yonne Department bears much more in common to the terrain of the Upper Loire towns of Sancerre and Pouilly-sur-Loire, where Sauvignon reigns, than to the terroir of Chardonnay’s heartland on the Côte de Beaune. Saint-Bris-le-Vineux is also closer, at just under 100 kilometers, to Sancerre than it is to Meursault, which lies 150k to the southeast. The plantation of Sauvignon in the region was first granted legitimacy with the 1974 establishment of a VDQS denomination under the name Sauvignon de Saint-Bris. In January 2003, Saint-Bris was granted full AOC status, with use of the Saint-Bris appellation made retroactive to include wines from the 2001 vintage onwards. Since then, inclusion of the word Sauvignon on Saint-Bris labels has been at the discretion of the producer.

In spite of the parallels drawn between Sauvignon in the Auxerrois and in the Upper Loire, the most meaningful relationship for Saint-Bris is its proximity to Chablis. The demand for the best wines of Chablis has drawn interest from outside the region to Chablis’ kissing cousins such as Saint-Bris, Chitry and Irancy. Most of the Domaines in Saint-Bris also own holdings in and produce Chablis.

Saint-Bris “Domaine Sainte Claire,” Jean-Marc Brocard 2005
Jean-Marc Brocard's business is a text book example, albeit a large-scale one, of the common ties between Saint-Bris and Chablis. His career in wine began with the inheritance of a single hectare of vines in Saint-Bris-le-Vineux. He has since grown his estate holdings to 180 hectares, spread throughout Chablis and the Auxerrois. Brocard is both an estate bottler and a négociant, so it is important to pay attention to the wording on his labels if you care to differentiate.

Brocard’s Saint-Bris “Domaine Sainte Claire” is estate bottled, varietal Sauvignon Blanc. As with all of his wines, vinification and aging occur only in stainless steel. It captures some of the typical characteristics of Sauvignon, with a touch of grassiness and a strong aromatic presence of citrus oils. However, there’s also a clear resemblance to Chablis in the wine’s mineral pungency, like wet rocks with a background hint of sharp cheese. Crisp and full of lively acidity, this is fairly light on its feet though certainly carries enough substance to be relatively versatile on the table. A younger bottle would make for a nice aperitif. Going on three years from the vintage, though, this was Saint-Bris toward the end of its positive evolution. The fact that I bought it in January and didn’t drink it until July didn’t help matters. Most of the 2005’s primary fruit has faded, giving way to stonier, slightly diesel characteristics and an overall sense that, while there’s still some good material, it’s beginning to come apart at the seams. If you’d like to explore, keep an eye out for the 2007, which should now be on the market. If the price hasn’t gone too crazy, it represents a good value. $13. 12.5% alcohol. Stelvin. Importer: Lauber Imports, Somerville, NJ.


Joe Manekin said...

I had a really interesting bottle of the '02 Brocard about a year ago. Real chablis minerality, edgy acidity and even some crazy mature SB fruit pungency. Though the wine was in a clear state of decline I kinda liked it. The '05 is in my fridge and I must say I'm not a fan. It is coming across as super one-dimensional, boring SB. Not enough mineral for my taste. Much better: 2004 Alice & Olivier De Moor Sauvignon de Saint-Bris.

David McDuff said...

Seems like we're tasting in parallel of late, Joe. As per my notes, I did find some minerality in the '05 Brocard, just not terribly attractive minerality. I've yet to try the DeMoor's Saint-Bris, though I just wrote up their Chitry Blanc a couple of days ago. The nice thing about the Brocard, at least when it's young, is that it's about half the price of the DeMoor.

Blog Widget by LinkWithin