Côte Chalonnaise

There is a much less well-known limestone escarpment in Burgundy, aside from the Côte d’Or. Known as Côte Chalonnaise, it lies directly south of the Côte de Beaune and thus has inferior weather conditions for wine production, if only by the slightest degree. Wines here are often looked down on as “baby” versions of the Côte d’Or masterpieces. Nevertheless, there are four great villages here as well as a lesser-known one called Bouzeron.

Coverage of Burgundy tends to gloss over the Côte Chalonnaise and quickly move on to the more prestigious appellations. This may be righteous in the mind of perfectionistic wine critics, but for the consumer the gigantic difference in price between many good Givrys and Montagnys and wines from more prestigious appellations, may make up for the difference in quality. After all, this difference is only minor anyway, and much of the Côte d’Or stuff can be inconsistent and overrated.

History

Originally planted with vines by the Romans, Côte Chalonnaise was long thought of as inferior to the perfectly placed vineyards of the Côte d’Or, and this perceived quality difference has continued throughout history.

But when collectors and all buyers realized that the Côte d’Or’s wines were overpriced and the Côte Chalonnaise could make wines of similar quality at the lower levels, a greater market arose for these alternative wines. Towards the end of the 20th century, they reached new peaks of popularity, and many of the wines are now sold in stores right alongside Côte d’Or gems.

Climate and Viticulture

So how significant is the difference in quality? Very significant, according to most critics. The difference is slight to the untrained palate, but there is little doubt among the wine in-crowd that the slightly warmer climate with less rain and less finely honed production methods make less sophisticated wine.

As usual, though, a great difference lies in the soil. There’s plenty of limestone, but its concentration is far from perfect and even in the best appellations, there’s rarely a good balance of limestone and the more clayey, chalky elements of soil. Iron-rich marl is present in some of the white wine Premiers Crus, but once again it’s a far cry from the Côte d’Or’s best. Also, altitude is a factor, since even the highest peaks of the Côte Chalonnaise are still hundreds of feet below the Côte d’Or.

Grape Varieties

With that being said, to the average person, rather than a highly discerning critic, there may not be much of a difference between entry-level Côte d’Or wines and entry-level Côte Chalonnaise wines. In fact, at the same price point the Côte Chalonnaise examples may even be better! The reds, made exclusively from Pinot Noir except for low-quality blends, are like reds from many of the Côte d’Or’s less prestigious appellations, such as Santenay in the south and Fixin in the north. Red fruit combines with plums and more soil-toned, earthy aromas. Some styles are elegant, while others are firmly tannic.

But for generic Bourgogne Aligoté and the curious wines of the Bouzeron appellation, Chardonnay is the main white grape of the Côte Chalonnaise. Leanness and overripeness is prevented mainly by oak aging, lending the wine a bit more character than it would have without barrel enhancement. Smoky and often nutty and buttery, these wines are unlikely to rival their Côte de Beaune counterparts on technical merits but to the average palate the difference may be slight.

Major Producers

There is plenty of overlap between the Côte Chalonnaise and the Côte d’Or producers, as many of them can get cheaper land and make less expensive wine but still sell it well due to their name. These are generally the bigger producers and négociants; the same is true of the Mâconnais appellations. These producers include Bouchard, Faiveley, and Boillot–familiar names for readers of the preceding Côte d’Or section. Quality varies but at their best these wines are excellent “babies” of the producers’ more high-fly cuvées.

Also look for wines from Domaine de Villaine. This domaine is owned by Aubert de Villaine, famous for heading up Domaine de la Romanée-Conti since 1953. As well as producing an interesting Aligoté in Bouzeron, the domaine has plenty of property across the Côte Chalonnaise and almost always makes wine of competitive quality here.

Subregions

Wines here that do not fit into one of the five village appellations, must be sold as either a generic Bourgogne appellation (Bourgogne Aligoté is common for those Aligotés not grown in Bouzeron), or under the region’s basic AOC, Bourgogne-Côte Chalonnaise. These wines are generally of low quality and are not much lower-priced than the village wines.

There are five villages here. This seems like a high number compared to Côte de Nuits’ nine, indicating that Côte Chalonnaise may make half as many wines. However, there is a big quality difference, since the villages themselves don’t have the same land that, say, Gevrey-Chambertin, lays claim to. Here is a list of the five, four of which we have separate pages for.

  • Bouzeron: The wines here, which must be Aligoté, make up the only appellation for Aligoté in Burgundy but for the generic Bourgogne Aligoté AOC. Created in 1998, this appellation has quickly turned productive, its 116.3 acres now making almost 30,000 cases of Aligoté each year. Light and spicy, the wines aren’t too unusual, but offer the peak of Aligoté expression. Look for Domaine de Villaine for some of the top wines, as co-owner Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti owns and utilizes some of Bouzeron’s best land.
  • Givry: There are 541 acres of vineyards here, producing about 90% Pinot Noir but a small component of white wine as well. Light and earthy, the Pinot Noirs rarely are too complex, but show good ageability and actually can last 10 years or more and still develop their flavors. The white wines are spicy due to their oak influence and also aren’t too substantial, but offer good-value Chardonnay (for Burgundy).
  • Mercurey: Mercurey is without a doubt the most important village of the Côte Chalonnaise, making mostly red wine. Although about 1/5 of production is white Chardonnay, these wines are rather uncomplex with yellow fruit outshone by powerful minerals. The reds are far better, with some depth and a less obvious earthiness than some of their competitors from other villages. Spicy with flavors of red fruit, most profoundly cherry, these wines are complex enough and usually display good ageability. They are often better than wines from less prestigious Côte de Beaune villages such as Santenay, and nonetheless still cost less. There are 32 Premiers Crus; not all are really worthy of the designation, but this still says quite a bit about Mercurey’s viticultural significance.
  • Montagny: Most vineyards here are Premier Cru, rendering the designation largely useless, but even village wines are usually of a consistent quality. Made only from Chardonnay, they exhibit the purest and clearest definition of the Chardonnay grape that can be found in the Côte Chalonnaise. Vibrant and acidic with zesty notes of citrus and yellow fruit, they are made in a simple, upfront style that is rarely rich or heavy and can be drunk early. The most substantial wines tend to be made by Côte d’Or producers.
  • Rully: Rully is rather more obscure than anything else but Bouzeron in terms of quality, although there are quite a high number of wines made here. With over 750 acres in the appellation, much of the land is Premier Cru, so quality is hardly a guaranteed here. But there is some wine of a good value. The whites are lean but have good acidity and balance, while the reds are made in the Côte Chalonnaise’s typical light, earthy style.