For devoted Pinot Noir fans, all roads ultimately lead to the Côte de Nuits region of Burgundy, in France. Located between the historic city of Dijon to the north and the border with the Côte de Beaune to the south, this region is the birthplace of the noble Pinot Noir grape that is now grown in regions around the world.
The history of winegrowing in the region dates back to 400 B.C. and the first formal viticultural practices were introduced to the area by the Romans in the 3rd century AD. Around the same time, the larger region was named for the Baltic tribe known as the Burgundians who came to the area to defend against the Germanic tribes moving south.
After earning a reputation for making high-quality red wines with Pinot Noir grapes indigenous to the area; the big turning point came when the physician for Louis XIV proclaimed that wines from Côte de Nuits offered health benefits to those who could get their hands on bottles from the region. Needless to say, the growing popularity of the wines from this region have made Côte de Nuits one of the most famous wine areas in the world.
In comparison to the 18 villages in the Côte de Beaune winegrowing region to the south; there are only 9 villages in Côte de Nuits. But on the flipside, the 24 Grand Crus in the smaller sub-appellations inside its borders are triple the amount found in Côte du Beaune.
Geographically, the region is very small. Running from village to village, the long strip of vineyards running from the hills to the villages and rivers range from 1.5 miles wide to only a ¼ mile at its most narrow points. With the exception of a small batch of white grapes grown in the hamlet of Musigny and a few other tiny sites; Pinot Noir is the exclusive grape of the entire region.
Each site has its own variation of soils. With that in mind, the best grapes are grown on slopes ranging from 800 to 1,000 feet, where the highest concentration of Marl (a combination of clay and limestone with smaller portions of sand and gravel) can be found. For this reason, the term terroir was ultimately defined by the vineyards of Cote de Nuits, especially at the famous grand cru sites that include: Romanée-Conti, La Tache, Richebourg, La Romanée, Romanée-St. Vivant and La Grand Rue around the village of Vosne-Romanée; Echézeaux and Grand Echézeaux around the hamlet of Flagey- Echézeaux; and the small monopole of Clos de Vougeot.
Granted, the limited releases from the grand cru sites of Côte de Nuits are often among the most expensive wines of the world. With these thoughts in mind, the latest study of the Sawyer-Casale series was focused premiers cru wines from the small AOCs of Chambolle-Musigny, Gevrey-Chambertin and Morey-St-Denis that make up the cooler northern section of the region.
Each of these small winegrowing areas have their own special strengths. Chambolle-Musigny, for example, is home to 24 premiers crus vineyards and a mixture of soils that create wines known for their floral aromas, concentrated flavors, a subtle layers of spice. Down the road, Gevrey-Chambertin is home to 26 Premiers Crus and 9 Grand Crus, the most of any village in Burgundy. In general, the wines from the region are elegant with plenty of depth and complex flavors. And although it is smaller and overlapped by the Bonnes-Mares region, Morey-St-Denis is home to 20 premiers cru and 4 grand crus. In general, the profiles of wines from this region tend to be more graceful and feminine with more emphasis on texture, acidity, and flavors of red fruits, forest, and earth. In general, high-quality wines from these three regions run from $65-$150, which makes them ideal for sommeliers, retailers and consumers looking to build a collection of ultra-premium wines from Côte de Nuits that give them more bang for the buck.
Tasting is Believing
To investigate these profiles in more detail, the Sawyer-Casale Wine Education Series invited a group of talented winemakers from Sonoma County and Napa Valley to a special tasting focused on the 2010, 2012 and 2013 vintages from the revered regions of Gervey-Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny and Morey-St-Denis, as well as a hidden gem from Oregon’s Willamette Valley provided by our host Don Sebastiani of Sonoma. All wines from Cote de Nuits were provided by our good friends at Aabalat Fine and Rare Wines in Petaluma, www.aabalat.com.
The special guest participating on the panel included winemakers Ana Moller-Racke of The Donum Estate, Steve MacRostie of MacRostie Winery, TJ Evans of Domaine Carneros, Kurt Beitler of Boheme Wines, Sean Foster of Starmont Wines, David Jelinek of The Prisoner Wine Co., Mike Cox of Schug Winery, David Marchesi of Madrone Vineyards Estate, Michael Scorsone of Emmitt Scorsone Wines, Alex Beloz of Tricycle Wine Co, Don Sebastiani, my colleague Keith Casale and myself.
All the wines were tasted blind and ranked on a 1-7 scale. #1 being the highest ranked of the bunch, #7 being the lowest. Here are summaries and rankings of the wines organized in the order we tasted the wines blind:
Theirry Mortet 2010 Clos Prieur, Gevrey-Chambertin
Details: As children, Theirry Mortet and his brother Denis grew up farming grapes at the Charles Mortet et Fils, a small domaine owned by their father. When the brand was splint in 1991, the brothers went off to start their own wineries. Today, Thierry works with 4.5 hectars he owns, including Clos Prieur, a special block located in the Gevrey-Chambertin AOC.
Panel descriptors: Dark red hue with a hint of purple with attractive aromas of dried cherry, ripe berries, black tea, wild mushrooms, violet, leather, and crushed rock. In the glass, the entry is tart at first, but opened up during the tasting. Highlights included vibrant notes of raspberry, red plum, stewed cherry, pomegranate, delicate herbs and mineral. Overall, a well-crafted medium-bodied wine, with generous mouthfeel, chalky tannins, bright acidity, and a long, clean finish.
Group discussion: Granted, this is the oldest wine in the tasting. But with that said, the tasting team thought there was a disconnection between the nose and the palate. While much of this was due to the tart flavors which eventually blew off with more time in the glass, the other quirky part was the hard tannins which covered the true flavors of the grapes. Evans, for instance, thought the ripe fruit aromas on the nose were very engaging, but was surprised that the palate was quite sharp, young, and fairly lean. Whereas, Scorsone liked the way that the oak was nicely integrated, but questioned the use of grapeseed tannins to make the wine more powerful than it needed to be. And Cox simply though the tart flavors took away from the balance. Overall, a good wine from Gevrey-Chambertin but not a show stopper.
Group Ranking: #6 of 7 / Price: $86.95
Robert Groffier et Fils 2013 Seuvrees, Gevrey-Chambertin
Details: Robert Groffier and his son Serge have earned a reputation for making impact wines with deep flavors that are balanced with the minimal use of fine French oak to express the flavors of the site where the grapes are grown. This is one of those beauties that proves that point and then some.
Panel descriptors: Classic pale red hue. Lovely mixture of earthy and floral aromas highlighted by black and blue fruits, rose petals, pie crust, ruby grapefruit peels, anise, moist soil, and a touch of French cellar funk. On the palate, the flavors are deep and sensual with notes of blueberry, wild strawberry, fresh sage, cocoa, savory spices, and toasty oak. Overall, a very well-structured wine that dazzles the mouth with dense tannins, layers of flavors and admirable length.
Group discussion: Led by layers of earthy notes, there is no doubt this is a classic Burgundy style. With a relatively low pH and high acidity, the wine kept changing in the glass. For that reason, it was a learning experience in liquid form. This process was helped along by the fact that the tannins became more resolved as the wine opened up once it got some air in the glass. In the end the wine was intriguing, complex and generous but not sweet. At under $100/bottle, it’s a great wine to age or explore after decanting for an hour before serving.
Group Ranking: #2 of 7 / Price: $88.95
Drouhin Laroze 2013 “Les Rosette” Chambolle-Musigny
Panel descriptors: Pale ruby hue with fragrant scents of red berries, blue fruits, wet stone, wild herbs, leather and oak spice. In the mouth, the wine offers a nice textured entry with delicate flavors of ripe raspberry; plum, blueberry, sour cherry, cardamom, lavender and baking spices; a soft, velvety texture; moderate to low acidity; firm tannins; and great length at the end.
Group discussion: Another wine that smelled like a classic Pinot Noir-based wine from Burgundy. Besides the generous flavors, the team was also impressed by the great structure and balanced tannins that make it a very food-friendly wine. At under $80, its a great value too.
Group Ranking: #3 of 7 / Price: 73.95
Domaine Dujac 2012 Chambolle-Musigny
Details: Founded by Parisian Jacques Seysses in 1968, Dujac has quickly become one the most respected brands in Côte de Nuits. The fruit they get from Chambolle-Musigny is from some of the top vineyards and the finished wines are consistently delicious.
Panel descriptors: Light ruby red hue with hints of purple and strong aromas of a fresh fruit basket, sweet cherry tarts, cola, orange peel, earth, potpourri, wet stone, and spice. Firm entry with rich, ripe and savory flavors of raspberry, cranberry, rhubarb, wild mushrooms, cinnamon, mint Indian spices, and an intriguing hint of roasted green bell pepper on the end. These components were further accentuated by the supple texture, dry tannins, and medium length.
Group discussion: Although the wine was initially reduced, many of the tasters were impressed how this medium-bodied wine opened up in the glass. The group agreed that the strength of the wine was at the front of the palate. For that reason, the flavors start to fade at the mid-point of each sip but compensates for it with wet stone/mineral notes on the finish. In the end, a relatively light wine on its feet but definitely a great example from Chambolle-Musigny and a nice crowd-pleaser to serve to people with a wide range of palates.
Group Ranking: #4 of 7 / Price: $106.65
Lucien Le Moine 2013 Clos des Ormes, Morey-St-Denis
Details: Based in Beaune, Lucien Le Moine is a high profile negotiant that sources fruit from the finest regions in Burgundy. In Robert Parker’s Buyers Guide, the wines produced by the company are in the high-ranked category of “excellent.”
Panel descriptors: Enchanting crimson hue and lofty aromas of ripe brambly fruits, roasted coffee, dried herbs, smoked bacon, and heavy use of sweet oak. Bright entry with rich flavors of high tone fruits, dark cherry, blackberry, cranberry, smoked meats, soy sauce, earth, firm tannins, and a touch of bitterness on the edges.
Group discussion: There was no doubt about this being a wine about the winemaker not the vineyard. For starters, the wine was reductive, but got better as the wine opened up. But once you started getting more into the profile, the smoky oak profile overshadowed the core notes of sweet fruit and green olive. On top of that, there was a slight case of volatile acid, which did not balance with the flavor profile or how the wine works on the palate. On the brighter side, the tasting team liked the savory notes of fresh herbs and forest floor that opened up with more sips..
Group Ranking: #7 of 7 / Price: $89.95
Domaine Dujac 2013 Morey-St-Denis
Details: Started from scratch by visionary Jacques Seysses in 1968, Dujac has become one of the special young brands that has helped put the Morey-St-Denis AOC on the map to stay. Meticulous with their use of oak on their premiere crus wines, their signature style from Morey-St-Denis typically has fragrant aromas and lifted fruit flavors that result in wines that get much better with more time in the cellar.
Panel descriptors: Crimson red with perfumed sniffs of fresh rose petals, red fruits, fresh herbs and spice. On the palate, delicate flavors of ripe raspberry, plum, cherry, mineral, chalky palate bright acidity, supple tannins, and great length. Luxury in a glass.
Group discussion: Extremely complex, elegant and refined. Scorsone thought it was soft, seamless, and commented that he enjoyed the wine’s “beautiful breathe of life and vitality in each sip.” Foster loves the elegant appeal of the wine and balance of flavors, mouthfeel, structure, and finish. His conclusion in two words: “seamless” and “yum!” Overall, a dazzling wine and a great example from Morey-St-Denis and the accessible gems Cote de Nuits has to offer in the US market.
Group Ranking: #1 of 7 / Price: $124.95
Domaine Drouhin 2014 Pinot Noir, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley
Details: What’s a Sawyer-Casale Brown Bag tasting without a little something special thrown into the mix? With that in mind, our fantastic host Don Sebastiani supplied the group with a special treat of the Domaine Drouhin 2014 Pinot Noir from the Dundee Hills region in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The Drouhin family has been making fantastic wines in Burgundy since the 1880s. For that reason, the establishment of Domaine Drouhin project with 225-acres of vineyards and a cutting-edge gravity flow system on the Dundee Hills in Oregon brought immediate attention to the Willamette Valley in the 1990s. And thanks to the French-Willamette Valley connection, the attention on world-class Pinot Noir has only increased from that point onwards on the West Coast as a whole!
Panel descriptors: Dark red hue with deep aromas of red and black fruits, brown sugar, vanillin, and integrated oak. On the palate, the entry is sweet and assertive with dynamic flavors of fresh raspberry jam, ripe boysenberry and light herbs. Overall, the wine is young, smooth, balanced and coats the mouth with ripe, juicy flavors that lead to a long finish that makes you want to investigate more in the next sip.
Group discussion: From the beginning, the riper fruit was an early clue that this was a New World wine. While the panel felt the weight of the wine was fantastic, there were a few references to confectionary sweetness on the palate caused by the very ripe fruit profile. Theses factors also provided more firmness in the mid-palate but not much acidity. For those reasons, the group felt the wine was more “jammy” and “hedonistic” than the offering from the Cote de Nuits.
Group Ranking: #5 of 7 / Price: $45 (Available at www.domainedrouhin.com)
Conclusion: Overall, a terrific showing from the northern AOCs of the Côte de Nuits region of Burgundy. All the wines involved in the tasting (including Domaine Drouhin) showed why the unique characteristics of the sites where the grapes are grown determines the complexity of flavors profiles and the ageworthiness of the finished wines from these special cooler climate regions.
Next up: Exploring the unique flavors and aromas of high-profile the unique Albarino grapes grown in the Rias Baixas region of Spain. Just one of the many new reports from the Sawyer-Casale Wine Education Series to close out the year in style!