There are two ways to Santenay – at least if you come from the north, and I expect that the majority of you will…
The most well-trodden route of wine tourists is likely to be the road through the vines from Chassagne-Montrachet; as you travel southwards the vines rising on your right and falling-away to your left. Save for the sign signifying that you have entered Santenay, there’s nothing to suggest so from the look of the land. However, on the crest of the hill you will eventually see a windmill – no you are not in Beaujolais, but you are looking at the premier cru of Santenay-Beauregard.
The windmill actually only crests a small hill; behind it the ground falls away for a short time before rising again – and much higher this time. If the rock and soil of northern Santenay looks much the same as in Chassagne, the aspects and the hills are becoming more complex. From this larger hill you can look across to Santenay as it sits in it little depression, the land rising around it on two sides – the town nestles in its own valley – though a picnic by the windmill is just as good!
The second route into the village is by sticking longer with the Route Nationale, a route which also has much to commend it. You approach the village by crossing an old bridge – set almost perpendicular to the road – and then over a small rail crossing. Although for much of the year this is the less pretty route into town, during the summer it comes into its own with a great flower display, but more important to those with appointments to keep, it does save seconds if you are a little behind schedule! I’d recommend coming in by via the bridge and leaving by the vineyard road to Chassagne.
Sitting about 20km to the south of Beaune, Santenay seems, on average, a relatively successful and quite large place – though there are only around 1,000 inhabitants. Apparently similar in size to Meursault and with houses of a similar grandeur – though despite two restaurants, a pharmacy and numerous wine-shops, don’t expect to find somewhere for a coffee on a cold December afternoon! The Chateau is worth a short detour, with its massive, now dry, moat and two plane trees that are said to be the oldest in France – one of them you can get inside the trunk – oh, and it is also a domaine.
Looking at the well-organised signposts to the domaines that sit on most street corners, we have clearly moved from Chassagne’s land of the Moreys into the land of the Bellands and Clairs.
If you follow one route out of the village, past the domain of Roger Belland (roughly west) you actually note that Santeny has a slightly split personality as you are on the road to Santenay-le-Haut – the main village being ‘le-Bas’ though it long-since seems to have stopped using the name. There’s not much reason for going to ‘le-Haut’ other than to say you’ve done it! More south-west of Santenay is even a large camp-site which could come in handy if you plan to over-indulge.
Santenay (le-Bas) has nestled between the hills for a long time; like many towns of the Côte d’Or it has Roman origins. Perhaps it was the waters of Santenay that initially attracted the Romans; for generations, Santenay was a spa town – though the baths have been closed for years. The water is too salty to have made Santenay better-known for mineral water than for wine.
The vines and wines of Santenay
Santenay is one of the most important villages of the Côte d’Or – at least if the area under vine is your yardstick – with 407 hectares, of which 140 are 1er cru rated, it lags behind only Gevrey, Beaune and Meursault. Writing in 1924, H.Warner Allen notes that ‘there are no red wines south of Pommard and Volnay that need detain us‘, but Morton P.Shand, writing in 1960 at least acknowledges that the vines of Santenay were first noted in 1285 and that Santenay Les Gravières, today a premier cru, was mentioned in despatches as early as 1626. One last author (Harry Yoxall in 1968) at least manages to suggest ‘It is undistinguished but attractive – the sort of drink that you call a nice wine.‘ With such a rate of critical progress, I’d better check to see if Jasper says ‘excellent’ – hmm, the words classy and stylish are used, but only in the context of Santenay – some might still describe that as progress!
Many of the vineyards are composed of marl and Oxfordian limestone soils, also mixed with dolomitic limestone, the quantity of clay usually being higher towards the bottom of the slopes. Like parts of Chassagne, the same Bajocian limestone type that’s found in the Côte de Nuits crops up in Santenay, perhaps that’s why there is less elegance found here – not beating about the bush, some might simply say rustic, I might add ‘soupy’.
There is both red and white wine to be found in the village, in-fact only a generation ago reds accounted for almost 99% of all the wine produced; fast-forward to the generous 2009 vintage and whites account for 15% of the total. Those whites made from the vines close to Chassagne-Montrachet do have a strong family resemblance – particularly the aromas – you will find the Santenay labels less expensive though. Were it not for Pousse d’Or’s Santenay Clos Tavannes, some people might not be able to name any of the local vineyards, but good quality can be found in many of the village’s crus and with personalities that are far removed from the full but relatively soupy blends that, sadly, have been much easier to find in the last years.
But what about producers?
[EDIT – 2017]The renaissance of Santenay wine began a little over 25 years ago, and if you can point the finger at anyone, then it was the domaine of Denis Clair that kicked it off. Before that you could find occasional great Santenays, but only from producers outside of Santenay – the Pousse d’Or wines of Gérard Potel in Volnay are, perhaps, the greatest example of that. But it was Denis Clair (the domaine today called Françoise et Denis Clair) who was the first to convince Michel Bettane that it was worth his time to visit a producer in Santenay.
You really had to wait for the Muzard brothers for the next good address to visit – who I’d say for a little more than a dozen years now have been making great wine. But today they are not alone; now you have a number of great addresses, first and foremost, perhaps that of Anne-Marie & Jean-Marc Vincent, but you also have David Moreau and Antone Olivier. Today I’d add the name of Jessiaume to that, still modest, but growing list.
A quick, alphabetical tour of the most important vines of Santenay:
There are 10 premier crus, though some – yes I’m mainly looking at you Clos Rousseau – can have multiple sub-divisions e.g. Le Chainey, Les Fourneaux, Grand Clos Rousseau and even Petit Clos Rousseau despite it being bigger than the ‘Grand’!
- Beauregard: 22.86 hectares of mainly limestone soils that produce both red and white wine. Beauregard also includes 0.55 hectares that can take the Santenay 1er cru label of Clos des Mouches. Beauregard additionally encloses the 0.05 hectare Santenay 1er Cru of Comme Dessus, which to make life easier can simply take the label of Beauregard(!) – Vincent Giradin even bottles a Clos du Beauregard. Lucien Muzard makes a good version, as does Roger Belland in both red and white, There is a villages classified part of Beauregard.
I often like the fine aromatic expression which distinguishes it (Beauregard) so clearly from its nearest neighbour Maladière which is often more angular and austere, especially in its lower, less exposed on the hillside.
- Beaurepaire: 15.49 hectares that again produce both red and white wine. The soil here has a similar limestone base to Beauregard but this time with a higher content of clay, and slopes relatively steeply into the top of the village. I’ve had good bottles from Joseph Drouhin, Jean-Marc Vincent, Château de la Crée and recent offers from JC Boisset.
- La Comme: 21.61 hectares that border Chassagne which includes a 0.45 hectare chunk of Santenay 1er Cru Les Gravières. Again, the ground is a mix of clay and limestone that delivers both red and white wine. Good bottles have come my way from Roger Belland in red and white (Comme Dessus – Villages), and Marc Colin. There is a villages classified part of La Comme.
- Clos Faubard: 3.93 hectares, which in the context of Santenay is a small vineyard. Again reds and whites from a mix of clay and limestone soils, but here surrounded by piles of stones (not quite a clos) the clay content is lower. Clos Faubard can also take the 1er Cru label of Clos des Mouches.
- Les Gravières: 29.17 hectares and a hotch-potch of possibilities as Gravières also potentially encompasses Clos des Tavannes and part of La Comme. There even remains the possibility of Clos des Gravières and Gravières-Clos de Tavannes, an old label no-longer seen. This vineyard follows the line of the road to Chassagne, with only the Clos des Tavannes separating it from the sub-divisions of Chassagne 1er Cru Morgeot. The ground here is often much lighter than La Comme or Beauregard which Gravières lies directly below. Historically this was thought of as the best vineyard in Santenay, today look out for bottles from Lucien Muzard, Roger Belland and Pousse d’Or.
- La Maladière: 13.58 hectares of vines that slope down into the town of Santenay and sits next-dor to Beaurepaire. You would expect Maladière to be associated to a hospital of some kind, there’s no trace of one today, but the vines do have a commanding view of the Château. For me the benchmark wine comes from Lucien Muzard.
- Clos des Mouches: 2.78 hecatares is a small vineyard for Santenay, and further complicated because within Clos des Mouches is 1.21 hectares which can also take the name Clos Faubard, plus another 0.55 hectares which could be labelled as Santenay-Beauregard. Once again I think Lucien Muzard make a benchmark wine.
- Passetemps: 11.47 hectares with a south-east exposure, the vines run from the town of Santenay towards Chassagne. By the road the soil is a little deeper and more obviously red in colour than the other 1er crus, but above where it touches on the Clos des Mouches you wouldn’t notice. I have rarely been overwhelmed by bottles with this label, perhaps with the single exception of Jean-Marc Vincent.
- Clos Rousseau: 23.84 hectares is the totality of ‘the Rousseaus’ but you might find three possible ‘Rousseau’ labels: First there is 7.93 hectares of the Grand Clos Rousseau which itself encloses the (potential) 1er Cru of Le Chainey; second is 9.48 hectares of the Petit Clos Rousseau which may and in practice usually does take the ‘Clos Rousseau’ label; lastly there is the 15.91 hectares of Clos Rousseau which includes not just the 9.48 hectares of the ‘Petit’ but also 6.06 hectares of the (potential) 1er Cru of Les Fourneaux. Effectively the Clos Rousseau is the most common of the labels – Camille Giroud offer a very good version, as does Thomas Morey, JC Boisset and Antonin Rodet.
- Clos de Tavannes: 5.32 hectares which can also take the labels of Santenay Clos de-Gravières Tavannes or Les Gravières. There is the same limestone and clay of the other 1ers except that there is is also a little sand in soil. Tavannes, almost single-handedly due to the ‘works’ of La Pousse d’Or is the one named vineyard that people are likely to remember from Santenay, but don’t overlook the wines of Muzard or Jean-Noël Gagnard. Clos Tavannes can age very well indeed and a producer must work quite hard to deliver rusticity – whilst not typical of the village, or Chassagne Morgeot which it borders, it is the best vineyard of Santenay; despite some chardonnay in the vines, its zenith is clearly as a red wine. Pousse d’Or is likely the reference bottle, but Lucien Muzard and Jean-Noël Gagnard are clearly ‘worthy’ too. Note, there is one white Santenay Clos de Tavannes and at the time of editing  it is Remoissenet who produce it – vines formerly from Vincent Girardin.