The white wines of Burgundy’s Côte de Beaune are considered by many to be the greatest whites in the world. The most famous of these come from the villages of Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet, and Meursault. Worldwide demand makes these wines very expensive; any entry-level village Puligny from a famous maker will sell for more than a hundred dollars, and the grand crus can cost five or 10 times as much.
But there are less exalted villages in Burgundy producing excellent chardonnays. (Don’t call them chardonnays in Burgundy or you’ll get dirty looks. Place trumps grape in France. Grapes are just delivery systems for the taste of a specific site—what the French call terroir.) My favorite of these villages is Saint-Aubin, which in recent years has been emerging from obscurity thanks to the efforts of some of Burgundy’s top white winemakers. It is one of 70 villages in France named after a 6th-century bishop known for his generosity to widows and orphans, but it’s the only one that wine lovers need to know about. And while this may not be relevant to the quality of the wines, Saint-Aubin is one of the prettiest villages in Burgundy, with steeper hillsides than its neighbors; it also boasts a 13th-century fortress rising from a base of solid rock.
Saint-Aubin is not located directly on the so-called Côte d’Or, the east-facing escarpment along which the legendary villages of Burgundy are strung like pearls, but in a separate valley that begins just around the backside of the hill of Montrachet. The appellation has two distinct zones, with the best vineyards located on the southwest-facing slopes behind the hill. Unlike neighboring Chassagne and Puligny, Saint-Aubin has no grand crus—the highest category in the Burgundy hierarchy—in part because its vineyards are higher in elevation and cooler than those of the Côte d’Or, but it is blessed with 30 premier crus, all of them on the eastern side of the valley and all sharing the limestone and marl soils of their posh neighbors on the Côte.
Because of the slightly lower temperatures, Saint-Aubin tends to excel in the warmer vintages, when the whites of Chassagne and Puligny can seem a little overblown. And indeed there’s no doubt that global warming is partly responsible for the rising prominence of Saint-Aubin’s whites. Thirty years ago the vines here struggled to ripen grapes. The current year on retail shelves, 2018, is a good example—a very warm vintage that produced a bumper crop of delicious, well-balanced wines.
Olivier Lamy of Domaine Hubert Lamy has been as responsible as anyone for Saint-Aubin’s soaring reputation in recent years. His family has been in Saint-Aubin since the 17th century; Olivier took over the domaine from his father after putting in an apprenticeship at Méo-Camuzet in Vosne-Romanée. “When my father started, the production was 80 percent red wine,” Olivier says. “White wine was difficult to sell.” (Two hundred years before, Thomas Jefferson noted that growers of white grapes ate rye bread, whereas red wine growers were able to afford white bread.) But fashions change, and most observers believe that the limestone and marl here is much better suited to chardonnay than pinot noir. Under Olivier’s guidance the production has shifted largely to whites, and his meticulous work in the vineyard and cellar has made these some of the most sought-after wines in Burgundy.
The other young star of Saint-Aubin is Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey, who was born in the village and started his career at the family domaine, Marc Colin, before launching his own estate, with six acres of vineyards in Chassagne-Montrachet and Saint-Aubin. His wines rapidly gained a following in Europe and the United States. Those at the top of the range sell for hundreds of dollars; his Saint- Aubins are relative bargains, and they are wines close to his heart. Tall and rangy and perpetually tanned from his work in the vineyard, Pierre-Yves usually chugs up on a tractor when we meet at his winery in Chassagne-Montrachet. “Saint-Aubin is cooler compared to Chassagne and Puligny or Meursault,” he told me at our last meeting. “The terroir of Saint-Aubin is more exposed to the north wind, which was inconvenient in the past but became an advantage with the warmer summers we have now. To me Saint-Aubin wines have something very special. They are maybe a bit less ‘serious’ than their neighbors, but much more sexy. They can age very well when the vintage is in balance, but they are more approachable when young. They have a lot of quality from the beginning, and something more spontaneous. The fruit may be a little less ripe, but they have more freshness and energy than the wines of their three neighbors.”
The premier crus of Saint-Aubin tend to sell for a fraction of the cost of the premiers of Puligny and Chassagne, and they represent tremendous value. The most famous of these not quite famous vineyards is En Remilly; just a stone’s throw from Chevalier-Montrachet, it produces crisp, bright wines that have the piercing character that wine buffs call minerality, a quality also found in the wines of Murgers des Dents de Chien, the highest-altitude vineyard in the appellation. La Chatenière, just down the slope, gets the hotter afternoon sun and tends to be richer and more opulent than En Remilly.
Among the producers I would recommend, besides Lamy and Colin-Morey, are two Chassagne-based domaines, Paul Pillot and Bernard Moreau, as well as Vincent Latour, who is based in Meursault, and Saint-Aubin specialist Henri Prudhon. The warm 2018 vintage provides an excellent introduction to these vibrant whites—whereas 2017 was undoubtedly better in nearby warmer terroirs. I suspect the village also excelled in 2019, though I haven’t tasted the wines yet.
If you’re a white Burgundy fan who is suffering sticker shock from the escalating prices of the various Montrachets, Saint-Aubin offers a nice respite. If you haven’t yet been converted to the incomparable pleasures of Puligny-Montrachet or Meursault, this might be a perfect place to start your education—the gateway drug to addictive pleasures far more sublime than you might have imagined the chardonnay grape was capable of delivering.
Standout wines from the village include 2019 Domaine Hubert Lamy Saint-Aubin Premier Cru En Remilly ($90, klwines.com), 2018 Domaine Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey Saint-Aubin Premier Cru Les Champlots ($84, vervewine.com), and 2019 Domaine Paul Pillot Saint-Aubin Premier Cru Les Charmois ($65, klwines.com).
This story appears in the May 2021 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW
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