Domaine Felix Bourgogne Cotes d'Auxerre Rouge 2016
Great Pinot fruit with strawberries and blackcurrant. Spicy and mineral. Great balance between fruit and acidity, alive. Makes you salivate.
SAINT BRIS and AUXERROIS
When Herve Felix returned home to Saint-Bris le Vineux in 1987 to take over the family vineyards, he was but one of many who had done so since the family archives first showed a winemaker in the family in 1692. The family think it’s very likely that the tradition goes back even further.
But this is not so unusual in this area of Burgundy known as the Auxerrois. This is the region of Chablis, and of Irancy, villages with a worldwide reputation for fine wine. But it was only in the past few generations that grapes became the mono-culture of the region. Although it was typical in the past for farming families to grow grapes. They grew other crops as well. Wheat and other grains, and here in the Auxerrois, famously, cherries.
So at the time that Herve came back to the farm, his parents were growing grapes, but selling them to the co-ops and negociants. Herve was a pioneer at the time, making his own wine and bottling it. Selling his wine directly to the public rather than passing through the negociants. And developing the family holdings from 11 ha to 31 today (about 75 acres).
Today they have holding in Chablis, which Herve says is easy to sell because of its reputation. But they also produce a regional appellation Bourgogne Cote d’Auxerre which is a great value in both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
But the story here is bigger than Herve and bigger than the Domaine Felix. The story of the appellation Saint-Bris is like no other in Burgundy (with the exception perhaps of appellation Bouzeron, which took a similar path).
In addition to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (and the vestigial Cesar), Saint-Bris has traditionally grown Sauvignon Blanc as a major part of its production. It’s proximity to Sancerre, 60 miles to the southwest, might be at the origin of the tradition, but Sauvignon de Saint-Bris has always been a feature in the Auxerrois wine production.
So much so that the local producers decided to take Sauvignon Blanc as their appellation grape. And in 2003, the appellation Saint-Bris was born. So now the label no longer says Sauvignon de Saint-Bris, but simply Saint-Bris. And the grape is Sauvignon.
BURGUNDY 2016 VINTAGE
If that first taste of the 2016 Burgundy vintage really grabs your attention, count yourself lucky. Lucky in the same way that wine makers in Burgundy consider themselves lucky.
The excellent 2016 vintage was a nightmare for them, running a gamut of emotions from depression to despair, then out the other side towards hope and something resembling jubilation. It’s no exaggeration to say that 2016 took its toll on the collective psyche of the region.
After a very mild winter, April was frigid, with early hail in Macon and (yet again) Chablis. Then, on the night of the 26th, a freak frost descended on much of the Cotes de Nuits and almost all of the Cote de Beaune. I say ‘freak’ because it was a winter frost, not an April frost; meaning that it hit higher up the slopes than a spring frost would, touching vineyards that almost never freeze, notably Musigny and Montrachet.
It got worse. May was cool and depressingly wet, with storms when it wasn’t drizzling. It’s then that the first corridors of mildew appeared. It hailed again in Chablis. The mood was like the weather: chilly and grey. And it continued like this until the solstice, by which time the estimates were for an overall 50% crop loss across the region. It was hard to coax a smile from even the most seasoned winemakers.
Flowering took place in mid-June and was a bit protracted. It forecast a late September harvest, 100 days away. And given what had come before, the small crop looked incredibly vulnerable.
But with the solstice came summer. A magnificent July and August, with heat enough to curb the mildew, brought exceptional conditions for grapes. Talk in the cellars turned from tales of woe to the benefits of low-yield vintages.
As always in Burgundy, September makes the wine. In 2016, the perfect amount of rain fell on September 14th, at the perfect time to counter the heat stress that the vines were starting to show. And the fruit then ripened quickly in impeccable dry and sunny conditions.
What in mid-June seemed like a doomed crop was suddenly being touted as the equivalent of 2015, and maybe even better! Low yield years give intensity and concentration. Cool vintages give good acidity and balance. 2016 was both. Not a lot of fruit; but from serious ‘vignerons’, what there was was beautiful.
The wines, both red and white, are fresh, chiseled, with balanced acidity and concentration. The whites are definitely better than the 2015s, which lacked a touch of acidity. They are cool and energetic. Maybe not to the level of the fabulous 14s, but there are many similarities.
As to the comparisons between 2015 and 2016, many commentators cite 1990 and 1991. Both 1990 and 2015 are considered among the finest red vintages in living memory. And the vintages that followed them were both low-yield vintages that suffered early frost damage. Both 1990 and 2015 were hot years; both 1991 and 2016 were relatively cool. Both 1990 and 2015 were media darlings, and still are. 1991 got lost in the blare; maybe 2016 as well. But both 1991 and 2016 are arguably much more typically Burgundian than their world-stage predecessors. Classy and classic, ‘typical’ (in the best sense of the word), the greatest fault of the 2016 vintage could be its irregularity.
Remember, this was a tough one for Burgundy. For some producers, it was the fourth consecutive year that their vineyards were damaged and their yields were low. There had not been a ‘normal’ crop since 2009, so their cellars were empty. And when we talk of 50% crop loss, that’s an average across the region. Some areas had zero crop.
So when we get excited about the quality of the 2016s, we need a little restraint as well. Not everyone did the meticulous vineyard work that was necessary to get through the horrible start. As always, if you want to find the best wines, you need to know the best producers. Another important consideration in a low-yield vintage is the shortage of grapes, which means that the big negociant houses can have trouble sourcing fruit. Be careful with negociant wines in 2016. Buy from tried-and-true producers.
Village appellation of the vineyards of Auxerrois in the department of the Yonne close to Auxerre.. This appellation is reserved exclusively for white wines produced within the demarcated area of the Saint-Bris appellation.
It was created by decree of January 10, 2003 and replaces the former appellation Sauvignon de Saint-Bris.
Communes of production : Saint-Bris-le-Vineux, Chitry, Irancy, Quenne, Vincelottes.
Area in production 133.63 haWhite wines exclusively, Sauvignon and Sauvignon Gris grape varieties.
Sauvignon is grown in Burgundy only in the region of Saint-Bris-le-Vineux. This vigorous grape gives compact clusters with small and ovoid berries, a beautiful golden yellow when ripe, with thick film and melting pulp. On this Burgundy terroir, it produces dry white wines, light, fresh and very pleasant.
It's a white Sauvignon. The robe is often pale straw, light gold. The Saint-Bris appellation has notes of citrus (grapefruit, mandarin), peach and crumpled currant leaves.
Sometimes showing exotic nuances (litchi), this complexity leads to a full fruity, floral and tender tinged with a spicy and iodized finish. With age of the Saint-Bris will go towards aromas of jams and candied fruits. But it’s best enjoyed in its youth.
In the heart of the vineyards of Auxerrois and on the banks of the Yonne, Saint-Bris-le-Vineux is based on extraordinary medieval cellars, the most amazing of Burgundy: they run under the entire town. In addition, the old quarries of Bailly (whence the stone of the Pantheon in Paris), boast a 3.5 ha cellar 60 meters underground.
The Jurassic soils are diverse, from Portlandian to Kimmeridgian. Limestones with astartes (lower kimmeridgian) at the edge of the alluvial deposits of the Yonne and at the foot of the marl-limestone slopes. The best situations are in full hillsides of north exposure which gives it an ideal maturity for its fruitiness.