Outstanding values are emanating from this enclave just south of the Côte d’Or.
Nestled between the white-collar Côte de Beaune and the working-class Mâconnais in southern Burgundy, the Côte Chalonnaise is an often-overlooked treasure trove of delicious, earthy, and seductive Pinot Noirs; well-priced Chardonnays; and the unique and refreshing Aligoté. Named after the nearby river port Chalon-sur-Saône, this petite appellation—measuring a scant 4 by 15 miles—is also known as the Région de Mercurey in deference to its most important district.
The Côte Chalonnaise enjoys a continental climate; here, the Côte d’Or’s famous "golden slope" of limestone and marl breaks down into small hills interspersed with orchards, pastures, forests, and meadows. Chalonnaise’s sedimentary soils are among the oldest in Burgundy. Its best vineyards are on the east- and south-facing slopes, which are slightly higher in elevation than the rest. The climate is drier and the growing season is slightly cooler than in the Côte d’Or, giving the wines here a slightly tauter, racier expression than that of their voluptuous neighbors to the north. The wines in general are light- to medium-bodied, gently if at all oaked, subtle, understated, and elegant; their complex minerality pairs well with even the most sophisticated dishes. Sommeliers who are not digging deep into this appellation are missing out on some brilliant wines at bargain prices.
Two-thirds of the Côte Chalonnaise is planted to Pinot Noir, one-third to Gamay, Aligoté, and Chardonnay. Reds dominate at 62% of the total production, the most notable being those made with Pinot Noir. Gamay serves as a key blending grape in the Appellations d’Origine Contrôlée of Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire (soon to become Côteaux Bourguignon) and Passe-Tout-Grains, but it really begins to shine farther south in the granite soils of Beaujolais. The flowery, fresh Aligoté is produced exclusively in Bouzeron, the northernmost AOC of the Côte Chalonnaise, while Chardonnay is used throughout the appellation for everyday still wines and the sparkling Crémant de Bourgogne. Other village-level AOCs are, from north to south, Rully, Mercurey, Givry, and Montagny.
Part of the hierarchy of the Côte d’Or comes into play here. The Côte Chalonnaise contains 130 premiers crus, 49 of which (in Montagny) are granted simply for reaching a minimum alcohol level of 11.5%, not necessarily for the pedigree of the vineyards. As in the rest of Burgundy, négociants abound, and they have been responsible for a substantial boost in quality throughout the region. Many 20- and 30-year-olds who are now in charge are bottling their own wine rather than selling their fruit in bulk to the co-ops, so we are seeing a huge artisanal movement here as well. Among these young producers are the Desfontaines, the current generation of the du Besset family at Château de Cary Potet; Didier Erker of the eponymous domaine, who is focusing on vineyard plots rather than regional blends; and Pascal Danjean of Domaine Danjean-Berthoux, whose parents were growers and who is now being compared to the legendary Emmanuel Rouget.
On the sunny slopes of Bouzeron, the perfumed Aligoté grape ripens beautifully. The monks of Cluny began planting here in the Middle Ages and singled out the wines made from Aligoté as early as 1730. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s Aubert de Villaine has focused on the grape more recently, and his Domaine A. et P. de Villaine now produces the best representative of the area, giving Aligoté a higher profile than anyone could have imagined in modern times. Lemony and honeyed, the variety is traditionally paired with jambon persillé, a cooked ham terrine with garlic, peppercorns, shallots, thyme, tarragon, and parsley.
Just to the south of Bouzeron is Rully, an area that produces reds and especially interesting whites, but is perhaps most significant as a supplier of Crémant de Bourgogne—a sparkling wine made by the méthode traditionnelle, with a second fermentation in bottle. Although Rully has 23 premiers crus, it is generally overshadowed by the other regions in terms of quality.
Mercurey, the largest and most noteworthy commune, offers up firm, structured, earthy reds that can serve as suitable stand-ins for Côte de Nuits Pinot Noirs when price is a consideration. The best of the area’s 32 premiers crus include Clos des Barraults, Les Champs Martin, and Les Croichots, as well as Domaine Faiveley’s monopole, Clos des Myglands. (Faiveley has just announced plans to build a new winery, designed by Swiss architect Jean-Frédéric Luscher—who also designed Napa Valley’s Dominus—adjacent to its Clos l’Évêque in Mercurey.)
Like those of Mercurey, Givry’s 17 premiers crus are renowned for their reds; in fact, 90% of the area’s production consists of Pinot Noir. Although these wines tend to be relatively light and simple, and thus less likely to catch the attention of New World palates, they are also well priced and amazingly useful as subtle background wines for showcasing delicate food.
The same may be said of the wines of Montagny, but Chardonnay is the big deal here. In fact, the commune produces only whites (hint, hint: this makes a good exam question).
In the Côte Chalonnaise, as in the rest of Burgundy, 2009 was a spectacular vintage, yielding beautifully clean, pristine fruit. The 2008s are leaner and crisper, and 2007s are outstanding if hard to find. Since the warmer climate here in southern Burgundy yields lower acidity, these wines, even from the top vintages, have only a fraction of the aging potential of those of the Côte d’Or. Their beauty is that they are ready to drink now—at a fraction of the price.