Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Exploring Burgundy: Irancy

Irancy is a small hamlet, with little over 300 inhabitants, situated roughly equidistant from Auxerre and Chablis, within the viticultural heart of the Auxerrois district of the Yonne Department. As in the neighboring wine villages of Chitry and Saint-Bris, the wines of Irancy make relatively rare appearances on the export market but can be extremely characterful when at their best. Formerly labeled as Bourgogne Irancy, the village was granted full communal AOC status, only for red wines, in 1998, its titular subjugation to Bourgogne thenceforth becoming unnecessary.

At latitude 47° 43' North – similar in position to Seattle, Washington or St. Johns, Newfoundland – Irancy is situated at such a northerly location that the wines can vary significantly from one year to the next, reflecting changes in vintage character even more obviously than the reds of the Côte d’Or. What really sets Irancy apart, though, is the autochthonous vine César, originally planted by the Romans.

The amphitheater-like lay of the Irancy landscape helps protect the vines from frost and ensures enough sunlight for fruit to ripen in this otherwise peripheral location.

Jancis Robinson, in her typically phlegmatic fashion, dismisses César with a quick wave of a hand in her tome, Vines, Grapes & Wines. Nonetheless, I am indebted to her for a thorough cataloging of César’s synonyms, which include Céear, Célar, Romain, Ronçain, Picargneau, Gros Monsieur and Gros Noir. And here’s a little more Césarian trivia for you. To my knowledge, Irancy is the only site specific AOC in Burgundy where the inclusion of a variety aside from Pinot Noir is considered traditional (though it’s still not required). It’s allowed – essentially as a seasoning variety – only up to 10% but, when used, offers enough of a peppering to make its personality known.

Irancy “Vieilles Vignes,” Domaine Anita, Jean-Pierre & Stéphanie Colinot 2004
Jean-Pierre Colinot should appear on just about every short list of the top producers in Irancy, not that there are many such lists given the relative obscurity of the AOC. He, his wife Anita and their daughter Stéphanie tend 12.5 hectares of vines, producing roughly 5,000 cases of wine per year. There’s a lovely profile of his estate in the Fodor’s Rivages volume, Wines and Vineyards of Character and Charm in France. The authors describe Jean-Pierre as “A magnificent raconteur who tells you about his village… and champions the César, ‘the archaeological grape variety of Irancy’…. Like the man, the red wines here have character and they talk back.” As I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting M. Colinot, I can’t speak to his garrulousness; however, having drunk his wines over the years, I can vouch for the character of his wines and his championing of César.

Colinot’s Irancy are always more deeply colored than most other reds of the Yonne, no doubt due to the inclusion of the dark fleshed César in most if not all of his cuvées. The César also tends to lend a rustic, spicy character to the more delicate inclinations of Auxerrois Pinot Noir. It shows in the estate’s 2004 Irancy “Vieilles Vignes” via immediate aromas of black pepper, burnt rubber and rhubarb. This is not your silky, sexy rendition of red Burgundy but it does deliver plenty of character, as promised. After about 15 minutes of aeration, its reductive tendencies subside and a sweet and sour, glazed red fruit element emerges which, with further air, develops into more clearly focused aromas and flavors of sweet red raspberries. Firm grip and tensile acidity, along with relatively lean fruit and those initially wild aromas, add a foreboding character to the wine as a stand-alone sipper but help it to really come alive in the presence of food. It is still showing plenty of freshness and should develop positively for another three-to-five years and continue to hold its own for up to ten. $18 on release. 13% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Wine Traditions, Falls Church, VA.

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For those whose French is passable, or for those like me who are in dire need of practice, the Syndicat des Viticulteurs d’Irancy maintains a well designed and informative website, including a neat profile of Domaine Colinot. I’m indebted to the Syndicat for most of the photos used here, save that of the bottle with le chien qui s’appelle Luc, which is my own.

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