Domaine Felix Saint Bris 'Cuvee Sainte Claire' 2017
Discreet Sauvignon notes throughout. Grassy and slightly herbal of thyme. Biscuity. The famous gooseberry, but also lime peel, pear and green apple. Smoky minerality, slightly saline. Along mineral finish on fruit and spice. Nice one.
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 2017 VINTAGE
If 2016 tested the faith and resolve of wine makers in Burgundy, 2017 has to be seen as recompense, and as a miracle of sorts. While the rest of wine-growing Europe suffered crippling late-spring frosts in 2017, Burgundy for the most part (for once!) survived.
A mild winter and an accelerated spring left the Burgundy vineyards in a vulnerable position when, in the second half of April, temperatures across France barely rose above freezing for two weeks.
Three hard-frost nights pretty much did in Right Bank Chablis once again. But as the rest of Burgundy survived the first week, the growers found the will to fight back. And on the night of April 27th, a year and a day after the 2016 frost that took 80% of the 2016 harvest, a severe frost was forecast for the length of the Cote d’Or.
It’s now a part of local legend how, on the following morning, we awoke in a thick cloud of smoke. In the early hours, from north to south, the vignerons had mobilized to set alight dampened bales of hay, sending up a cloud cover to filter the first burning rays of dawn. And it worked.
The air was thick, and driving was tricky. A customer at the butcher shop in Meursault jokingly asked for a smoked chicken. And, of course, the authorities were up in arms over the pollution risks. But the crop was saved, and there has been ever since a spirit of cooperation and solidarity not often seen in farming communities.
After the freeze, May brought in an extended period of warm dry weather. No mildew or oidium to speak of, no thunderstorms or hail. Sunny periods, but no lack of rain. And the vines went in to flower at a very-normal first week of June. Pretty much ideal.
July had a couple of heat spikes, and a hailstorm hit the fancy vineyards in Morey St Denis on the 10th. But nothing worse. August was warm; the lead up to the harvest at the end of the month, hot and dry.
The first grapes were picked in the Cote de Beaune in the last few days of August. And most everyone was out picking in the first week of September.
There was (as there often is in Burgundy) serious disagreement in 2017 about when to pick. Do you pick early to preserve the acid-sugar balance and freshness? Or do you hang in there and wait for a little rain to kick-start a stalled photosynthesis, and thereby achieve the holy grail of phenolic maturity?
It’s hard to say who was right. There are very good wines coming from both camps. But there are iffy wines too. And that’s the key to understanding 2017.
Picked early, the best wines, both red and white, are fresh, fruit-driven and floral with long minerality. The iffy wines seem not have adjusted for the solid levels of tartaric acid which left them tart rather than bright, dry and tannic rather than juicy.
Picking late did not seem to have an effect on the balance between alcohol and acidity. But then, there was no ‘over maturity’ in 2017. The extra phenolic maturity seems to mean more density and riper tannins, with no sign of flabbiness.
The whites shine, particularly in hard-done Chablis (where there is better balance even than the marvelous 2014s). In the rest of Burgundy, the whites have the tension of 2014 but the open flattery of 2015.
The reds are juicy and crisp and open, and the regional appellations will be ready to drink soon. More serious appellations will be considered ‘typical’, in the best sense of the word: classic wines from a vintage that Burgundians will love. They are likely to be lost in the hub-bub that the 2018s will bring. But the yields were good in 2017, so you will be able to find them for a while. And you’ll do well to seek them out.
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.