Burgundy’s Hautes-Côtes Region Takes Center Stage

Hautes-Cotes de Bourgogne
Gettting a well-deserved break: the Hautes-Cotes de Bourgogne Flickr-Getty Images

Burgundy vineyard land costs an average of $1 million an acre. It gives birth to wines that the world lusts for. And so the Côte d’Or, the stretch of land that starts at Dijon and heads south for 56 kilometers, is congested with vineyards. Land for sale is rare. The hum of the tractor replaces the sounds of birds, and the roads are riddled with wine tourists paying homage to their favorite vineyards, like Richebourg or La Tâche.

The desire for Burgundian pinot noir and chardonnay is so fierce that fraud is rampant. Case in point: in early June, Labouré-Roi was brought up on charges of putting non-Burgundy wines into their Burgundy bottles. (The case is still pending, but the company has said that it has since corrected any “errors.”)

But such imitation-as-flattery is not the problem of the Hautes-Côtes, that bucolic region just to the west of the Côte d’Or. Historically its issues were more basic—geology and temperature. Pretty as it is, it is not blessed with its neighbor’s magical mix of generous amounts of limestone and clay. There is some limestone, but you have to seek it out. In the past the wines of the Hautes-Côtes were ignored both by the literature and collectors; they went for cheap. Farmers couldn’t get decent prices, so they worked as inexpensively as possible, utilizing chemicals and machines to economize.

Yet a push from an erratic Mother Nature, coupled with the public’s desire for less expensive Burgundy, means that the Hautes-Côtes might be getting a well-deserved break.

Like an understudy who suddenly gets to take the stage, the Hautes-Côtes de Beaune and Hautes-Côtes de Nuits first showed themselves off in 2003. That was the super-hot vintage when many Burgundy vintners blew it. Wines that should have been elegant tasted cloddy and hot. But the same grapes from the cooler Hautes-Côtes? The best were cheaper, fresher, lower in alcohol, and delicious. They began to get some support from fancy names, too, including some of the most respected labels in the business, such as Domaine de la Romanée Conti, Domaine Faiveley, and Jayer-Gilles. David Duband, a winemaker on the move, also invested heavily.

Previously the wines were the butt of jokes, but since then the bottles have shown up in Paris, Japan, England, and, more recently, the United States. Favorably priced but not dirt cheap, they generally fall between $18 and $60. While there’s not exactly a land grab going on in the region, Duband noted a growing “craze for Hautes-Côtes because there has been better weather for 10 years, so we have a better maturity and we get wines with more tannins, and silkier. By working well with vines, the wines have better balance and fruit.” Duband wines are now sold out for this vintage, but the 2010 is on the way.

Domaine Faiveley, based in the Côte de Nuits town of Nuits-Saint-Georges, has long made a wine from the limestone-rich Dames Huguettes. When they were offered some Hautes-Côtes land to purchase, they jumped at the opportunity. The man in charge, Erwan Faiveley, said he thought the appellation was well situated for the future: “With global warming, maybe it will become a prime location for vineyards.”

While some winemakers are now opportunistically eyeing a land they previously ignored, others who had been there long before it became chic are enjoying a heightened reputation for their pinot noir, chardonnay, and lesser-known but worthy aligoté and gamay grapes.

The best of these wineries, according to Duband, do the right thing with farming. They hand-pick the grapes and work the soil as if farming in higher-rent districts. One of the first to manifest this love for the land was Jean-Claude Rateau in the southern Hautes-Côtes de Beaune. In 1979 he started to farm using über-organic biodynamics viticulture. “I no longer have a problem reaching ripeness,” Rateau said. Neither does Jean-Yves Devevey, who has gorgeous vineyards and produces fabulously long-lived white wines that can outperform many Meursaults, all for under $25. Claire Naudin of Domaine Naudin-Ferrand is another local who is working the land seriously, after taking over from her father in 1994. Of note are her stunning aligoté and pinot noir. These people are not giving away their hard work for pennies as in the past. Their wines are worthy examples of a different side of Burgundy—and now drinkers are willing to pay the price.

burgundy-wine-OV30-secondary An erratic climate has pummeled Burgundy yet favored the Hautes-Côtes. Jeff Pachoud / AFP-Getty Images

Emblematic of the change is Yann Durieux and his wines, which go by the name Recru des Sens. Not exactly a newcomer, he was born in the area, went away to apprentice, and returned. Like a violinist yearning for a Stradivarius, he longs to make wine down below in the holy of holies, Vosne-Romanée. But with no millions available to purchase land, he’s pushing the envelope in his neighborhood—not only with his wine prices but also with his farming. All around him the status quo is visible. Soil dead from bad farming is still the norm. But his work is the future. His vineyards are bursting with life. Taking a moment to pause among his pinot noir vines and the musical birds in the trees, he noted, “It is beautiful to work in the Hautes-Côtes. You don’t hear a car all the day.” With waist-length dreadlocks, Durieux looks as if he would be more at home in New York City’s East Village than in one of the more conservative and rural outposts of Burgundy. Yet he is a sign of a new and positive energy infusing this land that will surely be churning out more delicious wines to notice.

2009 Jean-Yves Devevey
Hautes-Côtes de Beaune Les Champs Perdrix
A full-bodied wine from chardonnay, where luscious apple meets saffron.

2009 Domaine Henri Naudin-Ferrand
Hautes-Côtes de Nuits Orchis Mascula
An aromatic pinot noir full of rich rose and cinnamon.

2009 Domaine Faiveley
Hautes-Côtes de Nuits ‘Dames Huguettes’
A stony, earthy, and tangy pinot noir.

Jean-Claude Rateau
Hautes-Côtes de Beaune Rouge
A shockingly delicious, sultry pinot noir with a classic strawberry-tea note.

2010 Didier Montchovet
Grand Vin Ordinaire Rouge
While it says “ordinaire,” there’s nothing ordinary about this cheerful gamay.

2010 Emmanuel Giboulot
Hautes-Côtes de Nuits en Gregoire
Pretty pinot! Fragrant, spicy, unapologetic, with a touch of smoked strawberry.

Alice Feiring is the author of Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally.