This week finds us in Burgundy once more, moving south through the home of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir into the dead-centre of not only the Côte Chalonnaise, but of the whole Burgundian region. The Mercurey appellation is a key cog in the makeup of the Côte Chalonnaise, so much so that the whole section was known as the ‘Region de Mercurey’ several decades ago, until it was named after the main regional town Chalon-Sur-Saône. Mercurey is quoted by wine author Jancis Robinson MW as the “most important village in the Côte Chalonnaise district of Burgundy”- so what makes it so special?
Well the first is the Terrior; the relationship between temperature, slope, orientation, soil and several other factors. This appellation is classified as having a most definitely Continental climate seeing as it is so far inland and away from moderating bodies of water, meaning the summers are hot and the winters are cold. However being further south than the Pinot Noir centres of the Côte de Nuits and the Chardonnay havens of the Côte de Beaune means Mercurey has an even warmer summer and a colder winter than both. The rains here fall over the winter and spring, leaving a dry, even summer and autumn- perfect conditions for quality grapes. Another key factor is the elevation of the region. All of Mercurey sits at an altitude between 230-320 above sea level, meaning that while days are hot, nights are cold, and this high diurnal temperature variation retains the much-needed acid structure integral to Burgundian Pinot Noir. Finally, the soil across the majority of the region is a subsoil layer of dense limestone, covered over by red clay and gravel- exceptional soils for quality wines. The resulting reds (which make up about 75% of annual production) are rich, meaty and solid, with aromas of strawberry, raspberry, and cherry. Age brings in notes of underbrush, spicy tobacco notes and cocoa beans. The tannins are firm and heavy, and the acid brisk. The whites, which make up the other 25%, are usually a deeper golden colour when compared to other Côte Chalonnaise wines, with aromas of white flowers, hazelnut, almond, and spices (cinnamon & pepper most notably). CLICK FOR LARGER MAP
The next significant point about Mercurey is its size. As you would imagine in Burgundy, many of the high-quality classification (Premier or Grand Cru) regions consist of very small, precise plots of land, representing the coming together of a specific combination of slope, orientation, microclimate, soil, and grape variety to produce an unique wine style. The perfect example of this is just to the north, where the average-size of a Grand Cru plot in the Montrachets (Puligny and Chassagne) is 6.3 hectares; unsurprisingly tiny. Comparatively, for a region that is considered to make wines of very good quality, Mercurey has a whopping 650 hectares under vine! Being this big is rare, but being this big and producing half-decent wine is very rare! Mercurey produces an average of 30,000 hectolitres of wine a year. This works out to a whopping 4 million bottles. This means it produces almost as much wine as the other principal Côte Chalonnaise appellations Givry, Rully and Montagny combined!
It’s not all fun and games here though- there are still risks associated with grape-growing. The biggest danger to this region is not disease like in to the north which develops after the rains, but the harsh winters, which hit fast and hard. If they hit earlier than expected, they will freeze the leaves off the vines, meaning the entire photosynthesis process grinds to a halt. If there are still slightly unripe berries on these now-defunct vines, that’s how they will stay- vines in this late stage of the season will not have a chance to grow their leaves back. At this stage, it is up to the winemaker to use every trick in their bag to salvage the vintage.
And yet in the good years, the quality of Mercurey is clear; 32 Premier Cru vineyards exist within the appellation, making up just over 20% of the total area. To guarantee this level of quality, Mercurey has several restrictions placed on it, such as vine yield limits, higher minimum alcohol requirements and higher minimum ripeness levels at harvest, making it more like a quality Côte de Nuits region than a Côte Chalonnaise vineyard. The reality is though, that despite their deeper colour, fuller body and increased age-ability, the wines made here exist in a region that is less-respected for quality wine production. Therefore the prices of Mercurey wines will never achieve the same heights of Premier Cru wines from Gevrey Chambertin or Aloxe-Corton.
Perhaps this is the reason for its success though. The coming together of a favourable terrior, prolific production and reasonable pricing has produced a rare style of Burgundy; approachable, age-worthy yet affordable. This wine is a favourite of the French themselves- a go-to wine which is reliable even in wetter years. This of course leaves little for the rest of the world, including Down Under, which may be why you haven’t seen much of this appellation around.
Wine Sales Manager