Last month, one of our most distinguished vignerons, Pierre de Benoist of Domaine de Villaine, joined us in New York to host a retrospective tasting in honor of 20 years of the Bouzeron AOC, a milestone marked by the freshly minted 2017 vintage. It’s no easy feat to restore the misplaced reputation of Aligoté from that of a high-yielding, workhorse grape to one of integrity and prestige, but with every sip we took back in time, Pierre’s wines did just that. Lean and linear in its youth, the 2010 vintage, a notably cool year, discovered its warmer side with notes of summery tarragon and toasty hazelnut. The 2005, a sun-soaked vintage, smelled seductively of cloves and ginger, yet packed a pithy punch. And finally, the 1989 vintage–still labeled as Bourgogne Aligoté de Bouzeron–was a showstopper with the intensity of sticky citrus and savory sous-bois. Often ignored in favor of fleshier, earlier-ripening Chardonnay, small-berried, thick-skinned Aligoté–with its balanced ratio of alcohol to acidity–may actually be an even more precise conduit for Burgundian terroir. When asked how he makes wine with so little sulfur, Pierre, whose passion for biodynamics recalls the enthusiasm of a zany, erudite biology professor, theorizes that like humans, young wine thinks it is immortal. Wine holds an eternity’s worth of souvenirs, he says. When we drink wine we are not eating a fruit salad of grapes! We are tasting the memory of fruit, water, soil, and savoir-faire. If this is true, pay close attention to the 2017 vintage–a bright white with a bitter-almond bite and tonic energy–it may be able to tell us everything we need to know about the great Bouzeron AOC.
Pierre de Benoist (right) with his uncle Aubert de Villaine
In the 1970s, Aubert de Villaine, co-director of Domaine de la Romanée Conti, and his American wife, Pamela, settled in the village of Bouzeron. Upon planting his root in this small village, Aubert made himself a champion of the grape variety that reigns supreme in Bouzeron today—Aligoté Doré. Although the grape was overlooked until 1979 when it first earned the appellation Bourgogne Aligoté de Bouzeron, the I.N.A.O. finally upgraded the appellation to A.O.C. Bouzeron in 1997, largely due to Aubert’s advocacy over the years. Pierre de Benoist, Aubert’s nephew, currently directs the domaine, upholding the sense of tradition, excellence, and standards for which it has become so well-known.
In eastern central France, Burgundy is nestled between the wine regions of Champagne to the north, the Jura to the east, the Loire to the west, and the Rhône to the south. This is the terroir par excellence for producing world-class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
The southeast-facing hillside between Dijon in the north and Maranges in the south is known as the Côte d’Or or “golden slope.” The Côte d’Or comprises two main sections, both composed of limestone and clay soils: the Côte de Nuits in the northern sector, and the Côte de Beaune in the south. Both areas produce magnificent whites and reds, although the Côte de Beaune produces more white wine and the Côte de Nuits more red.
Chablis is Burgundy’s northern outpost, known for its flinty and age-worthy Chardonnays planted in Kimmeridgian limestone on an ancient seabed. Vézelay is a smaller area south of Chablis with similar qualities, although the limestone there is not Kimmeridgian.
To the south of the Côte de Beaune, the Côte Chalonnaise extends from Chagny on its northern end, down past Chalon-sur-Saône and encompasses the appellations of Bouzeron in the north, followed by Rully, Mercurey, Givry, and Montagny.
Directly south of the Chalonnaise begins the Côte Mâconnais, which extends south past Mâcon to the hamlets of Fuissé, Vinzelles, Chaintré, and Saint-Véran. The Mâconnais is prime Chardonnay country and contains an incredible diversity of soils.
Trust the great winemakers, trust the great vineyards. Your wine merchant might even be trustworthy. In the long run, that vintage strip may be the least important guide to quality on your bottle of wine.—Kermit Lynch
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