The Cote D'Or - An Introduction by Stefan Cartwright

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The Cote D'Or is a collective name for Burgundy’s two most glamorous sub-regions - the Cote de Nuits and Cote de Beaune. The climate and the landscape are idyllically rural. Picturesque villages with pastoral walking and cycling routes will always attract tourists to this part of France. However, a little wine knowledge is vital to fully appreciating the region. If nothing else, I guarantee it will get you a bit further with the locals than a half forgotten French GCSE. So for anyone considering some high-end wine tourism this summer, these are my impressions and some general information on the industry of this five star wine region.

The Cote D’Or is a 40 mile strip of villages and vineyards running south/south-west of Dijon. Essentially a sun-trap for vines, the landscape is like a shallow, one-sided valley. Flat farmland and vineyards lie to the east. To the west is a plateau formed by the sloping hills of Corton (with woods on top) and Montrachet (literal translation, bald mountain). The Hautes (higher) regions on the plateau produce a generic, regional style of wine, while the most prestigious vineyards are to be found on the slopes. However some famous communes such as Pommard are entirely flat.

This ever changing topography is the key to the Cote D’Or. The slopes get steeper the higher up you go, creating variations in the sun and wind exposure of the vineyards. Furthermore, some vineyards are walled in and sheltered, others are fully exposed. Another key variable is the soil type, which is mostly clay-limestone and changes in composition with altitude. Consequently, the wine styles change dramatically from village to village and vineyard to vineyard. Nowhere can rival the Cote D’Or for its sophistication of grape expression over such a small area.

The grapes concerned, of course, are Pinot Noir for red and Chardonnay for white. It is outlawed in the Cote D’Or to grow anything else. Both these grapes are ultra-sensitive to “terroir” – the idiosyncrasies of the micro-climates in which they are grown. They are the ultimate medium by which the Cote D’Or can express its unique geography.

Pinot Noir here can be ethereal yet earthy, fruity yet formal, elegant yet powerful. Different aspects come to the fore in vineyards situated just metres apart. Chardonnay too is incredibly versatile. The Cote D’Or shows a generous and exotic style with every nuance of the terroir expressed.

Another important motivation for using these grapes is economic. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay produce the finest wines, the biggest demand and the highest prices. Why waste good vineyard space on anything else?

Historically, the most powerful merchants or "negociants" of Burgundy have bought grapes from smaller growers in the sub regions to sell under their own label. This used to be entirely dominated by a few international players. Merchants such as Latour, Bouchard and Drouhin have been exporting wine for centuries, and only a small proportion comes from their own vineyards. They buy other people’s harvests and attach their own label to the resultant wine as a seal of quality. As with all brands, you pay a premium to be guaranteed a basic standard of product, and there is better value to be found at the local level. The trouble is seeking out these hidden gems. The negociant kindly does this for you, for a price.

For centuries, this accounted for most of Burgundy’s wine exports. Times have changed though, and modern global markets have created a special demand for “provenance”. People like to see authentic, regional products in an international marketplace. Distinguished wine appellations were classified throughout France in the 20th century. Meursault AOC and Puligny-Montrachet AOC, for example, are only as recent as 1970. Effectively, the subtle differences in Cote D’Or terroir are now international brands in themselves

These days, every town and village has there own minor negociant selling wine from all over the Cote D’Or. There are also opportunities for smaller producers to command better prices and carve out their own niche. Thanks to the appellation system, even small plots of vines now carry enough demand to sustain an independent business. Major appellations are still dominated by a handful of big name exporters, but the small producers remaining offer the best value to be found in Burgundy. The highlight of my trip was finding one such producer in Volnay, my favourite red commune of the Cote de Beaune.

Domaine Glantenay has been in family hands since the 16th century. Today they own 9 acres of vineyards across 3 appellations according to the AOC lines. Their land is mostly in Volnay itself, an AOC since 1937. However they also own small plots in neighbouring Monthelie AOC (1970) and Pommard AOC (1936).

The family still live in Volnay, and the garage on their modest village house has been converted into a tasting room. We were warmly greeted here by mother and daughter, and received nothing short of a masterclass in terroir appreciation. Five exquisite and unique wines, all hailing from the same square mile or so of the Cote D’Or.

Their Volnay from the northern border with Pommard was powerful and intense. Pommard is famed for such intensity, and this borderland example amplified the typical Volnay backbone of dark cherry fruit and floral notes. Meursault lies to the south, and there is a vineyard here - “Les Santenots” - that is shared between the communes. Reds produced here are classified Volnay, whites are Meursault. The Volnay we tried was elegant, light and feminine. You could almost believe it was trying to be a Chardonnay. Their Monthelie was also outstanding, one of the Cote D’Or’s most undervalued AOCs. Samples have been forwarded to Portland Wine and we will be considering some new listings very soon.

Imagination plays a vital role in wine appreciation. When identifying flavours, someone else’s point of view can often make you taste something you missed before. Something similar happens when you become acquainted with the villages of the Cote D’Or. Meursault, with its ramshackle farm buildings, is uncompromisingly agricultural and rustic. Volnay has an old-world charm, pretty and elegant. Santenay by comparison is glossy and sophisticated, featuring its own town casino.

So not only does a week of tasting in the Cote D’Or give you a true appreciation of terroir. It also adds value every time you open a bottle in future. With prices rising all the time, this is surely a wise investment.

Stefan Cartwright - Manager at Portland Wine Macclesfield & Cote Green