Elise Villiers Vezelay ‘La Chevaliere’ 2017
Pretty white floral notes and brioche. Dense and spicy, the attack is all fruit until the minerality kicks in in the mid palate. That’s where you notice the balance between richness and a fine linear acidity. Volume, intensity and elegance in the finish.
We first met Elise Villiers not long after she started making wine in Vezelay. She was a late-comer to wine making, but showed talent and flair right from the start. We were cruising the Nivernais canal with our hotel-barge ‘Papillon’ and had struck up friendships with a group of winemakers and oenologists in the Auxerrois region near Chablis.
It was 1992, I would guess. Elise got started in 1989, and was working with the oenologist, Veronique Vallenot, with whom I earned my chops in Chablis. And at a time when Vezelay was a backwater sub-category of appellation Bourgogne, her wines were getting noticed. Didier Picq, one of the great Chablis producers of this generation, raved about her. So we went to taste her wines in Precy Le Moult, up in the hills behind Vezelay.
And we were blown away. She was happy to sell us wine to serve on the barge. But she balked at the idea of exporting. She was a newbie to the wine business, and had enough on her plate. So we had to content ourselves with introducing her wines to the lucky few who were cruising with us at the time. And when we sold the Papillon, we lost direct contact with Elise.
Fast forward to 2017. On the back of Elise’s work and dedication, Vezelay is awarded its ‘village’ appellation. And that was cause to celebrate. At a professional tasting following the Saint Vincent Tournante festival, we met up again with Elise and her amazing wine.
After a nostalgic tasting at the event, we again went to Precy Le Moult to taste and talk, and we had a look at the idea of export from the vantage point of our 29 years’ experience.
Today her domain covers 4 hectares (just under 10 acres) which she works with a tractor man and a right-hand vineyard helper. She still works solo in the winery however.
The domain is planted 2/3 in Chardonnay and 1/3 in Pinot Noir. Her original vineyard, ‘Le Clos’, situated on the step east-flank of the Vezelay hill, is planted in both white and red. The soil is light and gravelly, and vine roots can dig deep yielding wines with tension and minerality. Her white Le Clos has structure and complexity, and is apt to aging. It has much in common with Chablis, but also its own individuality.
Here second vineyard, which she planted in 1990, she calls ‘La Chevaliere’. It’s away from the hillside of Vezelay in Tharoiseau on the right bank of the river Cure. It’s more clay and limestone, yielding freshness and fruit with a mineral under pinning. She makes these wines in tanks to keep the youthful vivacity.
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.
Communes of production: Vézelay, Asquins, Saint-Pere and Tharoiseau.
Vézelay produces only white wines from Chardonnay. They are pale yellow gold in color. The nose has notes of acacia flowers, fresh grapes, lemon, pear, peach, with hints of hawthorn flowers, grapefruit, brioche, almond. In the mouth, the attack is supple and fruity, relayed by a lemony tension. The length is marked by a limestone and saline minerality, to which are added fresh notes of licorice and menthol, and the wines are supple and fresh.
The Vezelay vineyard is located on both sides of the Cure, a tributary of the Yonne. The presence of vines in Vézelay dates back to the Gallo-Roman era (late 1st century). At its peak in the 18th century, the vineyard covered 500 hectares. But, the arrival of the phylloxera in 1884, almost completely wiped out the vineyards. At the end of the sixties, only one or two acres remained. Relaunched in 1973 by a dozen volunteer winegrowers, Vézelay is experiencing a renaissance.
Indeed, the Village Vezelay appellation was officially recognized in 2017, and 256 hectares have been delimited. The surface currently planted is 70 ha, which leaves a good opportunity for development of the vineyard in the coming years.
The valley of the Cure is bordered, on the west, by a hill very notched by numerous parallel valleys, characterized by a succession of broad rocky spurs dominated by that of Vézelay. The vineyard is oriented south / southeast and is between 190 and 330 m above sea level. Climate data show an average annual temperature of 10.7 ° C, with an average annual rainfall of 732 mm.
The subsoil is formed of marl and limestone deposited during 15 million years, in the Jurassic period.
TERROIRS White wines only, Chardonnay grape variety.
Area in production 74.83 ha
Average annual harvest 1 320 hl PRODUCTION in 2017