2000s Archive

Wine Journal: Good Buys in Burgundy

Originally Published May 2000
The seductive white wines of Saint-Véran—fleshy, fruity, and often with as much silky complexity as wines from far grander appellations.

A friend who had the art of living down pat once said, “There is no such thing as a cheap luxury.” I sometimes remember her words when I look at the prices of the finest white Burgundies and get a feeling close to vertigo. But if luxury is never cheap, pleasure need not be expensive. As far as white Burgundies are concerned, there are, in fact, delicious and even distinguished wines out there at reasonable prices. They’re just not obvious to us because we are dazzled by Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet and distracted by the flood of wines from the various Mâcon cooperatives.


I enjoy wines from the Côte Chalonnaise—essentially Mercurey, Rully, and Montagny. The area was considered an extension of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or until revolutionary France, dividing former provinces into administrative departments at the end of the 18th century, put it in the Saône-et-Loire, on the wrong side of an arbitrary line. But the white Burgundies I drink most often are from Saint-Véran, a small appellation (covering little more than 1,200 acres) carved out of the Mâconnais in 1971. These wines are usually fleshier than other Mâcons, with a brighter aroma and more intense flavor. Depending on the age of the vines—always Chardonnay—and the grower’s attitude toward barrels, among other things, a Saint-Véran can have exuberant fruit or the silky complexity we normally associate with far grander wines. I take advantage of the differences by serving the bolder style of Saint-Véran (fermented in a steel tank) as an apéritif and, at table, with fresh and uncomplicated dishes—pasta primavera, a curried sauté of lamb, or any kind of composed salad. I like Saint-Véran best, however, when it is fermented in barrels and aged a couple of years in the bottle. It’s delicious with a creamy blanquette of veal, delicately poached fish, or chicken braised with fennel and garlic.

Although the appellation is fairly new, the special area it covers has always been recognized for the quality of its wines. The great medieval abbey of Cluny had vines at Davayé. That particular hillside is now part of the teaching and funds-generating vineyard attached to the lycée viticole—the viticultural school. Indeed, the larger part of Saint-Véran’s appellation that lies within Davayé was originally to be included within the 1936 boundary proposed for Pouilly-Fuissé. (Pouilly-Fuissé is sandwiched between Saint-Véran’s two halves.) But the whole idea of controlled appellations was new then, and many growers were still suspicious of it. To them it smelled of government regulation, limited yields, and higher taxes at a time when wine prices were at rock bottom. Many of them simply wanted to be left alone to make what they could of a difficult situation. In Davayé, at a time before widespread refrigeration, that meant producing more red wine than white—and they didn’t see how being part of the Pouilly-Fuissé appellation would be of any help to them. So they turned the proposal down.

The area I’m describing is at the southern tip of the Mâconnais, just before it merges into the granitic mass of the Beaujolais. In fact, it collides rather than merges: The bed of limestone that runs through all of Burgundy breaks asunder here into a series of abrupt escarpments of which two, Solutré and Vergisson, dominate the skyline for miles around. Vines cover their lower slopes, drawing what sustenance they can from a bleak mix of clay and limestone. Those of Pouilly-Fuissé—that appellation draws together the villages of Vergisson, Chaintré, Fuissé, and Solutré (with its dependent hamlet of Pouilly)—are on steep, well-exposed slopes where the considerable presence of clay means the wine will have body and structure. In the Saint-Véran villages, especially Davayé and Prissé, the slopes are less precipitous, and the clay, less pervasive, often gives way to solid limestone.

There are differences between the particularly supple Saint-Véran wines of Davayé and Prissé, two villages north of Pouilly-Fuissé, and those of the four villages that lie to its south—Chasselas, Leynes, Chânes, and Saint-Vérand. Because of incursions of the Beaujolais’s granitic sand, experts of the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine are said to have checked carefully which parcels in those more southerly villages were to be included in the Saint-Véran appellation and which were not (some white wines of the area have the compromise appellation of Beaujolais Blanc). But I sometimes wonder. I’ve been told often enough that the wines from that side of the appellation simply need time to come round, but to my palate they’re hard when young and not much improved as they age. Fortunately, Davayé and Prissé produce more than half the wine of the appellation, and their wines are the ones I always buy.

The name Saint-Véran comes from what is now known as Saint-Vérand, even though, ironically, it’s the village with the smallest acreage devoted to the cause. Formerly “Saint-Véran-des-Vignes,” it was obliged by the French postal service to accept a distinctive final d some years ago in return for being allowed to shorten its name. The commune had thought the “des Vignes” suffix cumbersome (and perhaps too quaint) but is now fighting the bureaucrats—so far without success—to have it restored. The battle is perhaps no more than a sign of wanting to be more closely identified with the growing reputation of the wines. Yet it’s also a symptom of the changing attitude to vines and wine in rural France. Burgundy’s Côte d’Or and Bordeaux’s Haut-Médoc enjoy an international reputation that reflects glory on their vineyards’ proprietors. But the lives of most French winegrowers have never been particularly glamorous. They are small farmers—25 acres is a fair-sized holding—with a particularly labor-intensive crop. They live in their overalls.

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