David 25 February 2016
Burgundy (Bourgogne if you’re French) is a region slightly east of centre in France that produces, despite its relatively small size, the world’s most remarkable Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. At its heart lies the town of Beaune, either side of which stretch the magnificent vineyards of the Côte d’Or.
Grapes have been grown in Burgundy for a long time but it was monks, particularly the Benedictines of Cluny in the 10th century and the Cistercians in the 11th century that established the region’s reputation. Diligently recording the impact of site selection on quality, they divided land into vineyards based on their findings. The knowledge accumulated over the ensuing centuries and the monks’ vineyard hierarchy eventually became the basis of the appellation system introduced to Burgundy in the 1930s. This obsessive mapping of vineyard quality means that there are more appellations in Burgundy, despite it relatively small size, than any other region in France.
Historically, most vineyards in Burgundy were owned by either the Church or nobility, but after the French Revolution, they were sold off. Unlike Bordeaux, there was no influx of outside capital with which to establish large estates, so the vineyards were often split between several local owners. This fragmentation increased under the Napoleonic Code, which guaranteed equal division of assets between heirs. Nowdays it’s common to find vineyards in Burgundy owned by dozens of individuals, each tending as little as a row or two.
The intricacy of the appellation system coupled with multiple owners, growers, producers and négociants makes Burgundy an excruciatingly difficult region to grasp. Even for those who’ve spent a lifetime here, the complexity is still overwhelming. Burgundy doyen Clive Coates MW observes; “Burgundy is an enigma. I have spent 40 years as a wine professional, first as a merchant, now as a writer… I doubt I will ever fully comprehend Burgundy.” Coates lives in Burgundy and visits around 300 growers a year!
Hype surrounding Burgundy and the correspondingly high demand is not good news for wine drinkers. It’s difficult to find good value in Burgundy, but last year I came across a domaine whose entry level wines really impressed me.
Domaine Chanson Père et Fils is one of Beaune’s oldest ‘houses’, originally founded as a négociant business by Simon Verry in 1750. Négociant is a French term for “wine merchants who buy in grapes, must, or wine, blend different lots of wine within an appellation, and bottle the result under their own label,” Oxford Companion to Wine.
Monsieur Verry’s wines sold well. Voltaire became a customer in 1777, as did King Louis XVI’s sister, Madame Elisabeth in 1788 and Louis Bonaparte, King of Holland (brother of the Emperor) in 1806. In 1850, after several years of managing the business, the Chanson family took over. They already owned vineyards in Beaune, Savigny-lès-Beaune and Pernand-Vergelesses (appellations within Burgundy) and under their guidance the business continued to expand and prosper. Most importantly they continued to acquire excellent vineyard sites during the remainder of the 19th century and into the 20th century.
Despite Chanson’s impressive portfolio of vineyards, by the 1980s the quality of their wines had diminished. With its reputation waning, the business was in need of new management and new money. Recognising the potential, the languishing domaine caught the eye of champagne icon Bollinger, who acquired it in 1999 and invested heavily to restore quality.
Bollinger installed two Burgundian heavyweights; Gilles de Courcel to run the business, and the highly respected Jean-Pierre Confuron to make wine. True to the interconnectedness of Burgundy, Confuron makes wines at Domaine Confuron-Cotetidot in Vosne-Romanée with his brother Yves, who also supervises Gilles de Courcel’s family domaine in Pommard. Jean-Pierre’s grandmother was first cousin to legendary winemaker, Henri Jayer.
The new team made considerable improvements. From 2000 they stopped using fertilisers and herbicides in the vineyards and from 2009 the domaine’s vineyards were run on organic principles (although not certified). The winery, built on the outskirts of Beaune in 1974, was heavily modernised between 2008 and 2010.
Significant vineyard purchases were made in 2006, increasing holdings from 36 to 45 hectares and Chanson is now one of the largest owners of Beaune Premier Cru vineyards.
The vineyards provide about 25% of Chanson’s needs, which is a pretty standard arrangement, however as Gilles de Courcell notes; “We’ve decided that with every single wine from our domaine we should have control over the vinification, so we’ve stopped buying finished wine from our growers… Chanson used to be an old, traditional négociant, but we wanted the word négociant to disappear from our vocabulary.” The Drink Business, Jan 2015.
Buying only grapes and not finished wine from growers is a big deal and not common practice for a négociant in Burgundy. It indicates the seriousness with which Chanson is pursuing quality. Chanson also works closely with the growers from whom they buy their grapes.
Chanson’s barrels of wine, as well as company headquarters, are housed in a unique building known as La Bastion. This imposing 4 storey stone colossus, with its 8 metre thick walls, is one of a series of defensive towers built in the 15th and 16th century to protect the town of Beaune. Chanson’s ‘Bastile de l’Oratoire’ is named after the adjoining chapel and is one of a remaining 5.
Bollinger’s hard work at Chanson has payed off. Clive Coates MW; “The land holdings are impressive, and since 2001 the quality has lived up to the potential.” At the same time as improving quality, a tight rein has been kept on prices. This is a concerted effort to rebuild Chanson’s reputation by offering outstanding value. A great strategy - but one that unfortunately for us can’t last forever.
1. Domaine Chanson Viré-Clessé 2012
South of Beaune you move into Chardonnay territory and an area known as The Mâconnais, which according to Jasper Morris MW (award winning Burgundy expert) “recently… arguably the most dynamic part of Burgundy.”
The Mâconnais was traditionally a “reliable source of fresh, crisp, inexpensive whites,” Eric Asimov, New York Times wine critic. And while it remains so, some of the more prestigious and progressive domaines of Burgundy have recently started producing their own Mâconnais wines - offering higher quality at reasonable Mâconnais prices.
Within The Mâconnais lie several appellations, most notably Mâcon and the highly regarded Pouilly-Fuissé (not to be confused with Pouilly-Fumé, which is Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire). Just north of Pouilly-Fuissé lie the towns of Viré and Clessé, whose vineyards were historically part of the Mâcon-Villages appellation. The south facing slopes here are known to produce some of the best whites in the Mâconnais - in fact in an unusual move, the area was upgraded and given its own single appellation known as Viré-Clessé in 1998. The good news for astute drinkers is that while Viré-Clessé is on par with Pouilly Fuissé, its prices are not.
Chanson has worked closely with the same group of growers in Viré-Clessé for many years - the longstanding relationship allows them to tightly control grape selection, a factor clearly reflected in the quality of this wine.
The wine is fermented in stainless steel and sees no oak. It’s pale gold in colour and offers elegant lime and floral notes on the nose and palate. It walks a nice line between crisp and zingy lime, delicate citrus blossoms and a luscious rounded butteriness. It offers more weight and complexity than I expected in an unoaked wine. Totally dry and unlike Australian Chardonnay, you’ll find more herbal notes than fruit on the finish. Unfolding flavours secured with fresh acidity give good length to each delicious mouthful.
Winemaker; “Pale gold colour. Delicate fragrances of fern and lime blossom mixed with citrus and fresh honey enhanced by a hint of minerality. Well structured. Beautiful minerality. Well integrated acidity. Generous aftertaste.”
You’ll find it at Josephine Perry’s Missy French in Potts Point for $80 a bottle.
I can offer it for $28 a bottle. 2016 vintage now available - click here
2. Domaine Chanson Le Bourgogne Pinot Noir 2013
Bourgogne Rouge AOC is at the bottom of Burgundy’s red wine appellation hierarchy and theoretically may come from anywhere within the region.
Despite the generic Bourgogne rating, the fruit for this wine is far from it. It’s sourced from select estate-owned vineyards, mainly in Santenay (south of Beaune) that include ‘Village’ and ‘Premier Cru’ vineyards. All Pinot Noir at Chanson, including the Bourgogne Rouge, is 100% whole bunch fermented and is matured in 25% new oak.
In my experience Bourgogne Rouge is often lean, weedy, acidic and over $40! But the fact that Chanson includes the varietal name Pinot Noir on the label is a clue that theirs is made in a different style. It’s much more generous.
The wine is a clear garnet colour and offers so much more than I was expecting. Juicy raspberry and cranberry notes meld with sweet tobacco and an attractive pepperiness on the finish. It’s deliciously dry, mid-weight, elegant and has a fine tannin structure, with plenty of firm acidity to give it line and length.
Winemaker; “Bright red colour. Intense aromas of ripe cherries mixed with liquorice and spice. Complex and generous. Crunchy texture and well integrated tannins. Long and refreshing aftertaste.”
Franck Moreau, one of only two Master Sommeliers in Australia and Group Sommelier for the Merivale empire, loves this wine. He’s included it on the list at several establishments, including the très Francais Felix restaurant at Ivy for $75 a bottle.
I can offer it for $30 a bottle. Click here to order new vintage.