Everyone knows by heart that Bourgogne is all about Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Hawk-eyed oenophiles may add Gamay, Aligoté, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc to the list, whereas studious connoisseurs can name the likes of César, Melon de Bourgogne, Sacy and Sauvignon Blanc. Admittedly, these varieties are exceptions to the rule, but exceptions are there not so much to undermine as to strengthen the rule. Throughout the glorious and indivisible hexagon, there is in fact not a single wine region which permits merely two grape varieties; most have approximately 10 (e.g. Alsace and Bordeaux), some as many as 25 (e.g. Sud-Ouest and Vallée du Rhône).
The whimsically exotic Sauvignon Blanc is seemingly confined to the western half of France, stretching along the Atlantic coast from Loire to Bordeaux and onto Sud-Ouest. Sauvignon Blanc’s easternmost frontier is probably also its northernmost, and certainly Bourgogne’s westernmost. At the confluence of such divergent forces is Saint- Bris, the only AOC in Bourgogne that permits Sauvignon.
A tiny AOC with merely 133ha under vine (source: Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bourgogne), Saint-Bris is geographically closer to the Sauvignon Blanc quartet of Menetou-Salon, Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and Coteaux-du-Giennois in northeastern Vallée de la Loire than Côte-de- Nuits or Côte-de-Beaune of Bourgogne. To qualify for the said label, vines and wines must come from the five communes south of Auxerre, capital of Yonne département, namely Saint-Bris-le-Vineux, Quenne, Chitry, Irancy and Vincelottes, whereas some of them can produce conventional Burgundian wines with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Until the second half of the 19th century, Yonne used to be an important wine region, thanks to its relative proximity and accessibility to the vital Parisian market. Subsequent to the construction of railways to Languedoc-Roussillon, which began to supply a huge amount of wine to the industrial north, Yonne’s advantages were gradually eroded. The phylloxera plague was the final nail in the coffin, having virtually wiped out viticulture from the surface of Yonne, and indeed France.
Yonne was almost vitis vinifera-free post-phylloxera plague, and Sauvignon was introduced thereto at the turn of the 20th century, thereby finally acquiring a precious little foothold in the eastern half of France. Back then, without DNA testing, Sauvignon Blanc and its clonal mutation Sauvignon Gris were often mistaken as one and the same; it is more likely than not that both were introduced to Saint-Bris. To this day, Saint-Bris permits only Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris. Saint-Bris went on to become a VDQS (Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure) in 1974, and finally achieved AOC status in 2003.
Sauvignon from Saint-Bris is by no means as potently flavoured as those from Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé, but it embodies a lean, cool climate style with a certain Chablisien poise and focus. It is, in any case, an exception to the rule, an oft-overlooked facet of the Burgundian kaleidoscope.
Special thanks to Terence S.C. Chan for supplying the sample via the Hong Kong Football Club.
A single-varietal Sauvignon Blanc entirely from the commune of Saint-Bris-le-Vineux between Auxerre and Chablis, vineyard’s soil composition is rich in Kimmeridgian and Portlandian limestone. Crystalline citrine with shimmering golden reflex, the subtly tropical nose reveals gooseberry, lime, blackcurrant leaf and saltpeter. Anchored by vivacious acidity and clean minerality, the discreetly playful palate unveils green apple, guava, tomato vine and rock salt. Medium-bodied at 12 percent, the jocular entry continues through a saline mid-palate, leading to a focused finish. Best consumed young.
Jacky I.F. Cheong is a legal professional by day and columnist by night. Having spent his formative years in Britain, France,
and Germany, he regularly writes about wine, fine arts, classical music, and politics in several languages