About The Wine
Furthest to the north in his roster of star village climats is Clair’s Morey-Saint-Denis “En la Rue de Vergy”. This sits on a very steep slope directly above the grand cru, Bonnes Mares, and what many consider to have the greatest in potential of all the grand crus from this commune, Clos de Tart—for me a regular disappointment due to what I consider a result of misdirected good intentions, not faulty terroir. The altitude of En la Rue de Vergy rises quickly, and further up, it’s Chardonnay territory. Somehow this wine embodies that middle ground between Gevrey-Chambertin and Chambolle-Musigny, as one might expect. Some contest this idea of describing wines from Morey as such, but it clearly fits on many levels, most of all due to its geography.
A Short Essay: High Altitude Vineyards & A Consideration On The 1930s Classification
The hierarchy established in the Côte d’Or for its vineyards in the 1930s is based on the resulting balance of the wines a given climat, or plot, typically renders. For the case of the grand crus, a vineyard’s combined elements must lead to wines with a certain level of consistent ripeness and strength in each vintage compared to other wines on the Côte, while maintaining a certain level of nuance and complex trimmings. To achieve this, a site must first have preferable exposure and altitude in order to consistently achieve optimal ripeness, which in the past, before climate change kicked in, was more difficult to attain. Second is the composition and depth of soil before the roots come into contact with the limestone bedrock. While these elements seem relatively consistent from one grand cru to the next (especially concerning exposition, save a total outlier like the sections of Corton and Corton-Charlemagne that face directly south and west), and the soil in particular needs to have the right mix. It must combine a deep enough clay topsoil to strengthen the wine’s body and richness, along with a nicely balanced rock mixture to ensure good drainage for wet years. And there must be plenty of bedrock access to etch out some finer lines to go along with the power.
I suspect that these elements in the distant past weren’t measured as diligently as they are today. The classification was born out of the appraisal by expert tasters and winegrowers of the region who separated and ultimately classified them based on their balance. But today we do actually know the depth of topsoil in vineyards and more often than not, it’s neither shallow nor excessively deep within most grand crus.
To risk further generalization, I think it could be fair to say that the grand crus had to at least be a bigger, fuller wine, without tipping the scales too far in either direction, veering toward being overweight or with less definitive characteristics, like some wines in the sections further downslope in heavier soils, or the converse of more angularity and a lighter body, which typically comes from wines grown in vineyards further upslope with shallower topsoil above the bedrock.
Much has changed since the Burgundy classification of the 1930s. The most obvious and relevant today is the change of weather, but just as consequential is what’s going on behind the scenes. Precision agriculture has changed the game, making it possible for vineyards with lower classifications to be worked in ways customized for their particularities, techniques that can optimize results beyond what was expected in the past. This is why we now see, more than ever, geologists and precision agriculture experts taking to the fields with the growers to help them navigate their terroirs and better understand each plot’s unique circumstances below the surface.
Innovations in cellar techniques and technology are moving just as fast as those of the vineyard. Science constantly improves our understanding of the processes involved, and extends into the minutest details that can benefit even the most natural winemaking practices. It might be useful for naturalists to see that a scientific approach to winegrowing might not necessarily be an unnatural intruder, but can be used to the advantage of nature as a winegrower crafts their wines. To name a few examples, consider our improved understanding of using sulfur in wines (not only how, how much and when, but also from where it’s sourced) as well as fermentation science to get the desired results while maintaining as much of a natural approach as possible. The reality may be that the advances in new scientific understanding of nature along with climate change may soon test the merits of the Côte d’Or’s nearly century old classification.
But what’s even more relevant today is less about classifications and science and more about how global drinkers are changing, especially on an increasingly warmer planet. With the world of wine at everyone’s fingertips today (literally a few keyboard clicks and a delivery truck away), with every shape, size and oddity available, there is a different calibration for each individual wine drinker and what constitutes their personal grand cru and premier cru wines. As far as preferences go, what one considers today to be perfectly balanced seems far less unanimous than it was in the past.
So, why should you care what the classifications are when you can make your own judgments, and when what some consider grand, per se, you may actually consider overdone?
The classification system of Burgundy is extremely useful and if you know how to navigate it along with a little detective work, there’s a Burgundy style for everyone who likes Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. For example, if one is not a fan of new oak in young wines, they should avoid drinking and judging grand cru wines when they’re young, because I have yet to find one that doesn’t wear at least a bit of new wood in the smell and taste, if not far more than I want or think the wine needs. If you like more power and suppleness in your Burgs and a grand cru isn’t a regular old weekday option for you, maybe lower altitude premier crus and village wines are a good place to look. If you like more savory characteristics and are on a more modest budget (at least for Burgundy), you’re in luck, because those are often the more affordable wines on the Côte; you can find them everywhere in the Côte de Beaune off the main slope—like Saint-Romain, Monthelie, Auxey-Duresses, and the Hautes-Côtes de Beaune wines. And in the Côte de Nuits there’s Marsannay and Fixin as well as fabulous Hautes-Côtes de Nuits wines there too. And if you just love a delicious Pinot Noir and don’t want to concern yourself with all the hubbub of terroir this and terroir that, there’s always exceptional Bourgogne-level wines. Lastly, if you are like me, and you love the sensation of serious wines without a requirement of gobs of fruit and girth but rather led by natural vinous textures, mineralic impressions and lovely and pure aromatics, perhaps you might look higher upslope, just above some of the grand crus and premier crus.
High up toward the top of the Côte, topsoil is typically spare thanks to gravity, while rock and bedrock access for the vine roots are abundant. Also, at higher altitudes the alcohol is generally lower by the time the fruit is ripe compared to those lower on the slope. Its fruit characteristics tend to be more taut and fresh (if the vintage didn’t suffer hydric stress), its bones hard, and its flesh without slack.
Clay is sticky stuff, so thankfully it’s able to remain on the slopes better than loose sands, silts or rocks, while helping to keep those different soil grain elements still in their clay mixture. Clay keeps it all together and makes it possible for special wines like those from higher altitudes to really perform. High altitude village wines are usually my version of premier crus, and high altitude premier crus tend to be my personal grand crus. It may seem strange, but I feel sometimes many of the grand crus can be so supple and well-balanced that they’re actually boring; they’re in a way kind of inhuman. And imperfections in something extraordinary are as compelling as something considered perfect—they give the wine an interesting personality.
Bruno Clair has some seriously special high altitude village climats, like Morey-Saint-Denis “En la Rue de Vergy”, Chambolle-Musigny “Les Veroilles” and the Vosne-Romanée “Les Champs Perdrix”. I suggest exploring all of them if you can because this trio offers an experience notably above what their classification may indicate.
What’s more is that many of the higher altitude spots along the Côte were not replanted (or planted to begin with) until well after the time of phylloxera—including two of Clair’s wines: Chambolle-Musigny “Les Veroilles” and Morey-Saint-Denis “En la Rue de Vergy,” which he replanted in the 1989 and 1980, respectively. His parcel of Vosne-Romanée “Les Champs Perdrix” was planted in the late 1940s and may not have been lost to phylloxera for long. Perhaps if these vines were replanted or planted before the 1930s classification their classifications would be different today.
What should pique one’s interest in Clair’s trio of high altitude village wines is they all sit directly above grand crus. And that is a rare and privileged position for a village wine in the Côte d’Or. -TV