Santenay got a bad rap.
Just a modest jog away from the legendary Burgundy vineyards of Montrachet, the wine village was long considered a backwater.
“It was not fair,” says Jean-Marc Vincent, 50, president of the 30-plus-member Santenay producers association and part of a striving generation that has helped revive the appellation’s image.
Though stereotypes and habits don’t die easily, good Santenay is good Burgundy. Change that to good value Burgundy. In the 21st century, Santenay has produced more than 50 wines rated 90 points or higher in Wine Spectator blind tastings, with retail prices from $20 to safely under three figures for its top crus.
I visited the exuberant Vincent in Santenay, at the southern end of the Côte de Beaune, for the first time in late summer. A whirl of energy, Vincent walked me through the appellation’s dynamic quilt of soils and slopes.
“Santenay has 17 types of terroirs,” Vincent enthuses as he jumps from his SUV to lead me through his vineyards, planted on soils composed of different mixes of limestone, clay and marl that resemble more famous parts of Burgundy to the north. “You can find terroirs that resemble the Côte de Nuits and others that resemble Meursault or Volnay.”
“Most of the time we prefer to have the perfect balance for Pinot Noir—middle slope with middle-depth soils,” he says. “Chardonnay is much more adaptable.”
Nearly a decade ago, the appellation’s image got a big boost when Domaine de la Romanée-Conti co-owner and director Aubert de Villaine bought a vineyard plot in Santenay’s Passetemps premier cru to produce an ageworthy red for his Domaine de Villaine in nearby Bouzeron. Another boost came in 2015 when Ken and Grace Evenstad, founding owners of Domaine Serene in Oregon, bought Santenay’s opulent, historic Château de la Crée. They are now renovating the big antique winery on the village’s main square for their new négociant house.
Though Santenay has no elite grand cru vineyards, it has a dozen noteworthy vineyards in the next Burgundy quality tier of premier cru.
So how did Santenay become a pejorative? Blame the decades after World War II when growers focused on highly productive clones and filling cases of cheaper wines.
“After the war, the focus was on quantity. It was not the best period for Burgundy,” Vincent says. “And some big producing families were happy to have some wines from lesser-known villages to sell for less.”
“Now we make good wines,” he says of his generation. “We can do better.”
A tireless worker, Vincent makes more than a dozen wines—half of them either premier cru reds or whites. Six of his 11 wines tasted by Wine Spectator have scored 90 or 91 points. While his wife, Anne-Marie, runs administration and sales, he farms 18 parcels of vines on 16 acres, including more than 2 acres in Auxey-Duresses and less than an acre in Puligny-Montrachet.
Vincent was born in Lyon and grew up in Alsace. He was drawn to winemaking by his maternal grandfather, André Bardollet-Bravard, from Santenay, who retired in 1970—Vincent’s birth year—after a career of bottling wines sold in Paris and Switzerland.
“My grandfather was like a Frenchman from the Middle Ages,” Vincent says of the rugged, traditionalist Bardollet-Bravard. “I was educated by his old vintages—that’s my idea of Burgundy.”
For nearly three decades, Vincent says, the domaine “slept” as renters farmed the family vineyards under long-term leases.
In 1998, Vincent inherited nearly all the vineyards he works today, along with the family’s village house and medieval cellars. One of the main vineyard tenants stopped work after falling ill, and Vincent stepped in—eventually taking over all the vineyards.
“When we started, every vine post was rotten, every wire was rusted,” he says. “For 20 years, we had no salary—just enough for food for us and our daughters and for a small car. I’m not complaining: It’s a choice.”
“But I’m lucky,” he adds, grinning, “to have a wife who is not interested in money.”
Early on, Vincent stopped using the heavy, soil-compacting, straddling tractors common in Burgundy, instead adopting light tractors, and began trimming and deleafing vines by hand during the growing season. He follows organic farming practices, except for the occasional use of chemical fungicide to treat mildew.
He often credits his mentors, two of them from his generation. Olivier Lamy of St.-Aubin’s Domaine Hubert Lamy taught him to avoid vine stress in Pinot Noir by braiding lanky vine shoots rather than trimming them. Bruno Lorenzon of Domaine Lorenzon in Mercurey convinced him to manage taller vine canopies to boost both photosynthesis and ground shade.
“In every industry, you have genius artists and you have the craftsmen,” he says. “I am just a craftsman. I copy everything when it works.”
One thing that seems to be working is Santenay itself.
“People are losing their complexes about it,” Vincent says. “We will see the results of our work in 15 years, at the end of our careers.”
Ask Vincent about the future, and the answer is surprising.
“Aligoté,” he says unequivocally.
A historic Burgundy white, Aligoté has been overshadowed by Chardonnay and is now often used in more common wines (as well as to make the traditional Kir cocktail). But Aligoté is having something of a small renaissance, with examples produced by de Villaine and other famous Burgundy names such as Ramonet, Lafarge and Ponsot. Vincent has begun to experiment with vine selection and winemaking, and he plans to blend several vintages for an Aligoté to be released as early as 2022.
“Aligoté expresses the terroir, and its flavors and aromas increase with aging,” Vincent says. “The problem with Aligoté is that it’s usually planted in bad terroirs. It’s like Pinot Noir: It needs a good terroir, or it’s not worth it.”
Ironically, Vincent is looking for those good terroirs in Santenay.