The word Bourgogne elicits images of the Côte d’Or containing centuries old climats with famous names producing globally coveted wines. Almost halfway between Paris and Beaune sits the village of Chablis, with the village of Auxerre to its west. While considered part of Bourgogne, the larger regions of Chablis and Grand Auxerrois are located northwest of the Côte d’Or—close, yet distinctly different.
These two appellations are often referred to as regional values. “I never speak about quality of wine in Bourgogne, it’s all quality. The pyramid represents quality at all different prices,” says Jean-Francois Bersan, owner of Domaine Jean-Francoise et Pierre-Louis Bersan in Saint-Bris-le-Vineux.
Beyond the high-quality to price ratio, Chablis and Grand Auxerrois offer multi-generational wine producing families dedicated to excellence. And, with the next general stepping up, the future is bright for wine lovers.
Chablis – A Modern Classic
Famous for its mineral-driven, fresh, and complex Chardonnay, Chablis is a well-known appellation in the United States. It’s production area of over 5,000 hectares sits on stony, clay-limestone soil, called Kimmeridgeon, dating back to the Jurassic period. Once an ancient sea bed, the marl subsoil is rich in fossils imparting unique character in the wines.
A seventh-generation vigneron, Charly Nicolle sees himself as part of “the age-old Chablis countryside risen from the ancient earth folds where the ocean hid shells and fossil treasures for me to find under my plough when laboring in the spring.”
After learning the ropes from his father, in 2002, he went out on his own with 4 hectares of vines. His partner, Lucie Thieblemont, joined him in 2012. They now have 40 hectares surrounding the village of Fleys, where they live in the house Charly was born with their children.
They are commitment to low-intervention, sustainable farming, with a focus on organic, a challenge in Chablis. “Organic is hard with the climate here, wet and hot, but I’m enthusiastic. Organic increases the quality of the wine. It’s much harder in Chablis than Languedoc, but it’s important we do it.” They are learning organic farming on their smaller plots in hopes of expanding to the larger parcels. “It’s ambitious but we have to start somewhere,” he says.
Charly’s reputation of being one of the appellations best winemakers plays out in his labels Domaine Charly Nicolle, Domaine Paul Nicolle and in his Brut Zero Crémant de Bourgogne partnership with Lucie, called Domaine Lucie Thieblemont.
Ten years ago, fourth-generation winemaker, Alain Besson, turned over the daily operations of Domaine Besson to his two adult children, Adrien and Camille. The two have made adjustments in effort to “maintain freshness and expression of the terroir in the wine,” says Camille Besson.
Historically the winery sold much of the juice from their 21 hectares of vines spanning four appellations to negotiants. In five years, Camille ended bulk sales, taking production from ten-thousand bottles to over one-hundred annually. “It’s not my goal to bottle all our production, but recently frost and hail is keeping each vintage about the same size,” she says.
Modernizing equipment and increasing aging while incorporating more traditional farming practices in the vineyard, (hay between rows, ceasing tilling, planting fruit trees around vineyards to increase biodiversity and encourage beneficial insects to aid in pest control) result in award-winning wines. “The goal is to have the best grapes possible for producing top Chablis,” she says. From appellation to Grand Cru, Domaine Besson is achieving this goal.
Grand Auxerrois – Bourgogne’s Dynamic Gem
While Chablis may be a household name, Grand Auxerrois is not. Hard to spell, even harder to pronounce. Yet this appellation, and its villages, are worth getting to know.
The Bersan family has been making wine in Saint-Bris-le-Vineux since 1453. Today, father Jean-Francois and his son Pierre-Louis are managing 20 hectares of vines (13 white, 7 red) and making wines from Chablis and Saint Bris appellations. “We seek to make wine that gives pleasure,” says Jean-Francois.
Lying atop the famous limestone strip that begins at the White Cliffs of Dover running through Champagne, Chablis, and into Sancerre, it stands to reason Saint-Bris is the only appellation in Bourgogne devoted to Sauvignon Blanc. Domaine Jean-Francoise et Pierre-Louis Bersan crafts Sauvignon Blanc with a Bourgogne soul. Joined by Aligoté, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cesar, and Sauvignon Gris there is lots to love here.
The Bourgogne Cote d’Auxerre Blanc Cuvee Marianne named after Jean-Francois’s daughter, who passed away in 2008. “It is not sad because we speak of her through this wine every day. She is here with us,” says Jean-Francois.
Irancy is one of Bourgogne’s secret weapons. This far northern village appellation with Chablis soil produces unique and special red wines. While Pinot Noir reigns, Cesar, an ancient grape to the region, is still produced here.
Brothers Felix and Gabin Richoux, co-owners of Domaine Félix et Gabin Richoux, are experimenting with a 100% Cesar wine. “Cesar can be vegetative. Its big clusters produce more tannins. It needs warmer weather to do well,” Richoux says.
Hailing from a legacy of farmers pre-dating the French Revolution, the brothers took over the parent’s winery a few years ago. Their dad, Thierry, said since the winery is now there’s the name must be changed to reflect their ownership.
Together the brothers achieved organic certification in 2013. They are fully committed to biodynamic farming, but explained they cannot afford the steep fees Demeter charges annual for certification. They enjoy working together and have made a lot of changes to the production process.
“Our father worked alone so he had automatic tanks. Now, we work together so we use manual tanks to increase our control. We also love long age. For example, our 2022 stays 3 years in barrels, we blend in tank, put in bottles and hold 1 more year prior to release,” Richoux says.
The have moved from harvesting in large bins to smaller bins to preserve freshness, pushed harvest as late as possible, and eased extractions in search of a gentler style wine. “Our parents are open to our changes. Father is cool with let us try what we want. We try to think, be clever and adapt, work less at times for better results. We are preparing for future generations,” he says.
Bourgogne is known for its age and tradition. With history dating back to the Romans, in many Vézelay encapsulates this. Yet, as the region’s newest village appellation, here hides something dynamic and exciting. This appellation only permits Chardonnay, but many, like Domaine de la Croix Montjoie, also produce Pinot Noir under the AOC Bourgogne Rouge appellation. Occasionally, Cesar and Melon de Bourgogne can be spotted here as well.
Domaine de la Croxi Montjoie was once a traditional farm raising hay to feed cattle. In 2009, Sophie and Matthieu Woillez bought the farm along and 25 hectares. “The price was low for Bourgogne and the vines were like…wow. It worked out by chance and we are very happy to be a part of Bourgogne,” Sophie Woillez says. They named the domaine after the cross in the road between Vézelay and Tharoiseau.
The old vines grow next to the forest and brim with freshness. Blended with the young vines gives the wines expression and depth. The winery has been certified organic since 2021. Sophie explains about half of Vézelay is either certified or converting to organic farming. “It is such a beautiful region; everyone wants to honor this place. It’s easier to convince people here than in the Cote d’Or,” she says. However, weather poses challenges here too. They lost 80% of the 2021 vintage due to frost.
“Our appellation is not a star, but people like our wine and the price is good,” Woillez says. “I like producing wine people can drink immediately and enjoy.”