When it comes to white wine recommendations and the common old question of ‘what’s a better value alternative to Puligny or Meursault?‘ my toes curl and my teeth grind when people, with an assured air of superior knowledge, authoritatively boom – ‘Oh you should look at St.Aubin!‘
Save for a couple of high-value producers – such as Larue and Bouton – this a horse that bolted the stable at least 20 years ago. Let me state clearly; ‘St.Aubin produces great wine in today’s more benevolent climate (weather), but you have to pay for it, don’t expect it to be the bargain that it once was.‘
The same weather that more consistently ripens St.Aubin than was the case 15 years ago, is equally beneficial to St.Romain – this appellation has been one of the shooting stars of white wine in the last 5+ years – and so it should be, it is delicious and still well priced – though appreciating.
That you have to drive through Auxey-Duresses to get to St.Romain, yet nobody thinks of the very well priced whites of Auxey continues to amaze me. Let us not forget that Auxey shares its longest border with Meursault, some adjoining climats even wearing similar names – like Meursault Vireuils and Auxey-Duresses Les Vireux. This is a secret that the French consumers clearly seem unwilling to share – because the greatest part of the production of this village is sold in France – it’s not like that for any of the other villages of the Côte d’Or – save, perhaps, Maranges – and you may argue amongst yourselves whether Maranges is actually a part of the Côte d’Or! Vigneron(ne)s in Auxey tell me that Auxey-Duresses is hard for people outside of France to pronounce, and because of that, so little is exported. My automatic response is ‘then why does Pernand-Vergelesses export so much?‘
The production of Auxey-Duresses is also, overwhelmingly, with the domaines of the village rather than outsiders and négociants. Auxey displays the solidarity of old agricultural families, there are no superstars here but the average quality is good – there are just 35 growers in the syndicate, 4 of whom are based in Melin. Whilst I have always found the reds quite variable, I have long enjoyed the white Auxey-Duresses of Louis Jadot and more recently those of Benjamin Leroux – but there are few producers from outside of the village. I asked Benjamin for his thoughts on the subject:
“Yes I agree that St.Aubin is not the bargain that it once was. For the second tier of whites, for people who buy St.Romain, Auxey really should also be the in front of their minds, but for whatever reason that’s not the case. Whilst it’s a village dominated by one family name it’s also a dynamic village; they had the first harvesting machines, the first lyre-trained vines – they are always looking for new solutions. The vines are both compartmentalised and largely owned by the vignerons of Auxey – there is much cohesion there.
“I started my négoce Auxey because I always loved both the area and the results we achieved with these wines at Comte Armand – I started in 2001 with 3 barrels, and today I make about 8,000 bottles – and not all white. I could sell double that, but it’s not easy to find. My experience is that this wine sells very well in Asia…”
I decided that it would be interesting to delve deeper into this appellation.
Auxey-Duresses in numbers…
The grapes of Auxey-Duresses could wear the following labels:
- Auxey-Duresses (red and white)
- Auxey-Duresses 1er Cru (red and white – plus 1er cru climat names)
- Côte de Beaune Villages
Whilst all the climates are allowed in both colours, in practice, many climats choose a single colour. Given the location between Meursault, St.Romain and Monthelie, it’s almost a surprise that only 35% of production (5 year average) is white:
- From 38 different lieu-dits there are 137.9 hectares of villages-level Auxey-Duresses, and all are allowed to be red or white.
- From 11 different climats (and lieu-dits) are 31.8 hectares of vines that are allowed to wear the label Auxey-Duresses 1er Cru, and all are allowed to be red or white.
The geography of Auxey-Duresses
The village of Auxey sits about 10km south-west of Beaune and has roughly 350 residents. At one time called Auxey Le Grand, it later appended the name of its most famous cru – Les Duresses – which it shares with Monthélie. The village is bisected by a sinuous main-road that runs through the village with much heavy traffic. There is the usual mix of the (apparently) abandoned and fine houses, but the dwellings are clearly more modest than you will find in its near neighbour – Meursault. Given the very modest amount of export from here, it’s no surprise that few enthusiasts could name more than a couple of the local producers – with one exception, Maison Leroy. This year the skyline of Auxey has been dominated by a large crane, used in the construction/extension of the cellars at Leroy – it is a very big new hole indeed! Because there is very little possibility for expanding the housing, over generations the producers often have multiple locations for storage and wine-making, as no one space is sufficient. The only direction for expansion has been the road out of town, travelling west towards Melin – here are some newer, ‘all-in-one’ facilities.
Dominated to the south by the woods of the Montagne de Savoie, to the north by the Montagne de Bourdon and the west by the cliff-face above St.Romain, the valley opens out in the direction of Meursault and the Saone plain to the east. Auxey is essentially the meeting-point of three other appellations – Meursault, Monthélie and St.Romain – sitting in an east-west valley (the Avant Dheune) below St.Romain and Monthélie but above Meursault. Follow the road through the village to Melin and you head in the direction of Le Rochepot, you must take the right turn through Petit Auxey if you wish to visit St.Romain.
You can split the vines of Auxey-Duresses into three distinct sections, though the majority of Auxey’s vines sit on either side of the village: The southern vines form the continuation of those from Meursault – many of these slopes are gently east, or north-east facing, and mainly planted with chardonnay, but it’s relatively flat here so missing no sun – indeed it’s a warm soil so is usually harvested before the Meursault vines above.
Then comes a much larger band of south-facing vines, including all of the 1er crus of Auxey that sit on the northern side of the village and touch the vines of Monthélie at the eastern end of the band, and St.Romain at the western end of the band. There is also a line of Auxey blanc planted above the 1er crus. In the middle of this Monthélie to St.Romain band of vines sits the old hamlet (hameau) of Petit Auxey and it’s small but ancient 12th century church with foundations from 696. The vines of the hillside heading towards St.Romain (after Petit Auxey) are still generally red, but parts are beginning to turn white!
The third section of vines form a 42 hectare satellite above the village of Melin which have commanding views towards Auxey and the Saone plain beyond. I have never seen any of these climat names on bottles. On the opposite side of Melin there are some other vines, but they have no communal appellation, only generic, they sit at the foot of the slope of the Montagne de Savoie – on the other side of this hill lies St.Aubin. The villages plots of Melin can reach almost 375 metres of altitude, and here at the head of the valley can be about 7 days later maturing than lower down in Auxey – so later vintages, like 2013, can be difficult for ripening. The hill of Melin sees some terracing. It’s a mix of red and white with no obvious geological differences here save that the top of the hill here is a whiter soil, slowly deepening in colour as you reach the bottom of the hill. It’s a nice slope of hill, well ventilated and mixed with vines in lyre. Follow the road to Le Rochepot and you will find Hautes Côtes vines mixed with general agriculture.
The vines and wines of Auxey-Duresses
In the main, you won’t find old bottles of Auxey-Duresses because of course they were labelled as Meursault and Volnay before AOC – and possibly for some time after!
The style of the reds is more Pommard than Volnay, the difference is more structural – I find Monthélie can be very close to Volnay in style, but Auxey is certainly a wine with a little more tannin and herb. The crunchy tannins need more work but domaines are getting there – the reds are far more refined today than 20 years ago – perhaps the climate is contributing to this. The whites vary from slightly nondescript to fine and fresh, indeed vibrant wines that are neither St.Romain nor Meursault – yet somehow redolent of both – no bad thing!
Prunier is the name most often observed in this village, Estelle Prunier explains some of their shared history:
“It was my grandfather, Jean, who with 6 children, 4 sons and 2 daughters, that began the proliferation of the Prunier name for the domaines of Auxey. All six children got 1 hectare of vines each. One of the 6 left the village but 5 stayed, 3 of which became vignerons. Each of Jean’s sons also had sons and they also took over the domaines of their fathers. Prunier-Damy added the name of the daughter and Michel Prunier, my father, added ‘fille.’ Today there are 5 domaines with Prunier in their name, including one in Meursault.”
You can find some great images of the the family of the old Jean Prunier domaine on the Prunier-Damy website.
Then there are the lyre-trained vines of Auxey-Duresses:
The lyre-training of vines was a system developed by Professor Alain Carbonneau of Montpellier University. Domaines Henri Latour, Labry and Roy are the main exponents of this system in Auxey-Duresses – the only communal appellation allowed to use the system – though it is also allowed in the Hautes Côtes. About 20% of Auxey is in lyre today despite the expiry of the testing period that was authorised by the INAO. Some high-trained lyre vines were actually converted from old vines – they weren’t planted that way.
Vines trained this way may remain so, for as long as the vines live, but any vines replanted in lyre would become Vin de France – except that some climats STILL DO allow lyre planting – there are at least two in Melin! The rules are certainly a mess as replanting neighbouring vines in lyre would produce Auxey-Villages from one row and VdF from the next. It’s certain that there is one significant advantage with lyre-training; the grass band between the rows of vines prevents erosion in heavy storms…
A selection of Climat names that you may find on bottles:
- Les Bréterins 1er – Not many produce this. There’s Christophe Diconne and Jean-Marc Vincent. Comte Armand has some, Boisson-Vadot too, Château Citeaux also have a few rows.
- La Chapelle 1er – a climat that incorporates parts of both Bréterins and Reugne – both 1ers. Gilles Lafouge and Henri Latour bottle one.
- Climat du Val 1er – the last 1er cru vines in the direction of St.Romain. South-facing and quite steep towards the top, but it doesn’t get the first morning sun, so that’s why its a little later ripening. Roblet-Monnot and Gilles Lafouge
- Clos du Val 1er – on the eastern edge of Climat du Val is a narrow strip of land from the bottom to the top of Climat du Val – it’s a true clos that’s shared between Prunier-Damy and Michel Prunier – the wall pre-dates phylloxera but as to who built it – that’s a good question! There is a change of strata below Climat du Val / Clos du Val, hence the change from 1er to village classifications below, despite identical slope and exposure to the sun.
- Les Duresses 1er – shared with Monthélie. Above are murgers and this area was cultivated with vines before phylloxera, no longer now. Here the slope turns from south to east-facing, the east-facing part looking towards Monthélie itself – these are the only 1er cru vines of Auxey that face towards Monthélie. The soil here with some marne blanche and clay at the bottom, the clay giving the power. Cuvée Boillot of the Hospices comes from this climat. Gilles Lafouge has planted a little white at the top, but they are young vines – this would be the only white from an Auxey producer here, but Changarnier in Monthélie have also planted some white.
- Bas des Duresses 1er – vines at the foot of Les Duresses but separated by the vineyard road that runs into Monthélie Les Duresses – a little redder soil colour here and below that the land is flat and rated for Bourgogne – before a football field!
- Les Ecussaux 1er is the only 1er of Auxey that is on the other side of the road – and only half is rated as 1er cru – this vineyard is relatively flat at the bottom of the slope – the lowest part is that which is classed as villages. Here you might find labels from producers outside the village; Ampeau, Boyer-Martenot, H&G Buisson, and some of the Coche family.
- Les Grands Champs 1er – less stony than ‘Val,’ south-facing, next to the main road through Auxey. There are also villages and 1er cru sections. Diconne, Latour and Taupenot-Merme
- Reugne 1er – sits between Bréterins and Les Duresses. these three all slope from the rock face high up to Les Grands Champs below.
Common Villages Climats – often seen with ‘VV’ on the label:
- Les Boutonniers – On the Meursault border next to the Clos Meix Chavaux of Gaunoux. Known labels from d’Auvenay and Gilles Lafouge.
- Les Closeaux – Limit of appellation on the Meursault side of the village. It’s cooler here, the vines have a little altitude so are later harvesting – always losing the afternoon sun – some limestone here. The name closeaux, unsurprisingly means multiple small clos so it’s no surprise that the landscape is far from homogenous. Bordered by he woods means that there is also wildlife here, there can be some competition with the wild boar for the grapes…
- Les Cloux – Vines on the Petit Auxey side of the road, in the direction of St.Romain, so more white than red is seen with this climat on the label – d’Auvenay and Boyer-Martenot
- Les Crais – On the same side of the road on the other (Monthélie) side of Petit Auxey. Despite the name, there is also red planted here – it makes a contribution the the villages of Gilles Lafouge.
- Les Hautés – adjoining Meursault Vireuils (Dessous), some of Benjamin Leroux’s wine comes from here and a label from Gilles Lafouge too. There is also red planted here despite the ‘white soil’ – Gilles Lafouge saying because at one time it wasn’t easy to sell the whites of Auxey – or indeed Meursault in the 1960s “Many domaines had multiple vintages still in barrel. Blagny and Santenots kept them going with reds.“