no Grands Crus
Despite its rich history, Nuits-St-Georges has no Grand Cru vineyards. Instead, the best vineyards are classed as Premier Cru, reportedly because of the modesty of the appellation's leading winemaker, Henri Gouges, when it was created in 1936. It doesn't really matter that there are no Grands Crus - the renown and quality of Nuits-St-Georges speak for themselves - but it's still surprising that the best vineyards don't receive that official acclaim.
The appellation covers Nuits-St-Georges and the smaller village of Prémaux-Prissey to the south. The town of Nuits-St-Georges is at the base of a valley formed by the river Meuzin. To the north of the town, the vineyards are high - 300m and more - with soils full of pebbles as well as limestone and a little clay. These vineyards border Vosne-Romanée, and the wines are floral, spicy, and elegant. It's these that perhaps counter most the reputation of Nuits-St-Georges as being big and fruity. To the south of the town, the soils gradually become less stony, deeper with more clay, and the wines get denser and more tannic.
elephants, oak, planets, and famous writersI couldn't help be amused by the continued comparisons of Thibault Liger-Belair, a local winemaker, to help us understand the appellation. He first likened the wines to an elephant, partly because of the memories they hold. Taking it further, he described the south part of the appellation as being like an African elephant, big and bold, with the north more like an Indian elephant, round and gentle. He then went on to describe the wines as like an oak tree, because of their robustness but also because they require oak-ageing to give them structure and ageability. He didn't stop there. If Nuits-St-Georges were a planet, it would be the moon (sic), a comparison made I think solely because there is a crater there named after the St-Georges vineyard. There was still another comparison to be made, as he wanted to compare Nuits-St-Georges to two famous French writers: Rabelais, because of the bon vivant style of the wines, and Molière, for their more philosophical qualities. As leftfield as his comparisons were, they did enlighten the differences between this varied appellation.
the winesThe tasting covered two vintages: 2013, described as fruity with high acidity and dry tannins, and 2014, which is rounder with softer tannins. It also covered wines from the northern part of the appellation, and three from the southern part, finishing with a wine from the St-Georges vineyard, which should clearly be a Grand Cru.
Domaine Phillipe Gavignet Les Argillats 2014Situated in the northern part of the appellation a little higher than most of the surrounding Premier Cru vineyards, the Les Argillats vineyard takes its name from argile, meaning clay. It's 340m high, with the same pebble, limestone topsoils as the neighbouring vineyards. It proves that a Burgundy vineyard does not need to be a Premier Cru, let alone Grand Cru, to be high quality. It was smoky and oaky (with 15-16mths oak ageing), with ripe strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries. Pricy at $65. ✪✪✪✪✪
Domaine Frédéric Magnien Les Damodes Premier Cru 2013From the highest Premier Cru and from the 2013 vintage, this wine had firm, dry, slightly astringent tannins, but with a refreshing high acidity. Although not as ripe as the previous wine, there were still clear fruit aromas of strawberries, plums, and blackcurrants, with some spice, as well as stone and steel texture. Not as fruity as the the first wine, but a little more complex, and even pricier ($90). ✪✪✪✪✪
Domaine Faiveley Aux Claignots Premier Cru 2014This was an excellent wine, ultra-modern, with 60% new oak which I found a little too much. That oak dominated with smoke, cedar, vanilla, liquorice, and roasted almond aromas. It was intense, concentrated, and ripe, with raspberries, blackcurrants, and blackberries. If the oak had been more restrained, this would have been a truly extraordinary wine ($110). ✪✪✪✪✪
Maison Joseph Drouhin Les Procès Premier Cru 2013With this wine, we moved towards the southern part of the appellation. As a result, the tannins were more drying and gripping, but the wine was still floral, with dried roses. There was also an intense nuttiness, with walnuts and hazelnuts (the name Nuits may come from noyer, French for walnut). The wine was made through whole-bunch fermentation, which may have added to its intense tannic structure. A very interesting wine with some longevity ($110-115; N/A in USA). ✪✪✪✪✪
Domaine des Perdrix Aux Perdris Premier Cru 2013This was the only wine we tasted from the small village Prémaux-Prissey, and it was much bigger, blacker, and bolder. It was a voluptuous, ripe wine, but with a sharp acidity. The difference between this and the wines from the northern part of the appellation was marked. Perdrix means partidge in French, so naturally the label had a drawing of the bird. ✪✪✪✪✪ (€55)
Maison Chanzy Les Saint-Georges Premier Cru 2014Although the other wines were all of a very high quality, this was easily the highlight of the tasting, combining the best of the different parts of the appellation. Winemaking, though, was also key: what I particularly loved about this wine was that it spent just ten months in oak, of which only 10% was new. It was ripe yet restrained, fruity but spicy and oaky, with a layered, textured mouthfeel. ✪✪✪✪✪✪ (€79)
The overall conclusion from this tasting is that Nuits-St-Georges is not an easy appellation to pin down. There are truly great vineyards from which the best producers make amazing wine - it's definitely an appellation the consumer needs to understand to make the most deserving purchases. To underscore that observation, the wines are expensive: do some research before buying to get the best value and quality.