While most producers in Burgundy use one or two grape varieties Domaine Bersan in Saint-Bris le Vineux is different. On their 20 hectares of vines Jean-Louis and Jean-Christophe Bersan, father and son, have six different grape varieties.
– It's great for us, says Jean-Christophe Bersan. With six grape varieties and slopes facing in different directions it means that all the grapes do not ripen at the same time. Depending on the vintage there is ten to 14 days between when we start to harvest the chardonnay and the pinot noir on the south-facing Côtes d'Auxerre slopes and the sauvignon on the Saint-Bris slopes.
Saint-Bris le Vineux in the departement of Yonne, just a 20-minute-drive southwest of Chablis, is one of Burgundy's peculiarities. While the rest of Burgundy is focused on pinot noir and chardonnay, and to some extent aligoté and gamay, the Saint-Bris appellation is only about the sauvignon blanc, the very same grape found in Sancerre, Bordeaux and many other places across world. In Burgundy, the only place where it is allowed is in Saint-Bris.
Domaine Bersan covers it all. Since they are located in Saint-Bris le Vineux the sauvignon blanc is obviously an important part of their production. Then there is the Burgundian quartet – pinot noir, chardonnay, aligoté and gamay. The sixth is the césar, a variety allowed for the Irancy wines.
– The sauvignon grape was brought here before the phylloxera, during the 19th century, says Jean-Christophe Bersan. The chardonnay and the pinot noir do not give any flavour to the wine, they translate the aromas of the soil into the wine and they do it well. The sauvignon is different, it adds its own aromas to the wine.
There has been Bersans in Saint-Bris le Vineux for a long time. Jean-Christophe Bersan is the fifth generation carrying the name, but the domaine has been in the family since the French Revolution. Before that it was the monks; the cellar at the domaine dates back to the 11th century. Today there are two Domaine Bersan in Saint-Bris le Vineux, a result of Jean-Louis Bersan and his brother splitting the domaine in two a few years ago.
– My father takes care of the commercial side of the domaine, says Jean-Christophe Bersan. I deal with the vineyards and the winery. And we taste together. We also have another winemaker coming in every now and then for some additional input.
Compared to its well-known neighbour Chablis, Saint-Bris is a tiny appellation. While Chablis has close to 5000 hectares under vines Saint-Bris has only 133 hectares. Around Saint-Bris le Vineux most sauvignon vines are planted at the top of the east and west facing slopes.
– Having sauvignon on the south facing slopes would mean too ripe grapes, explains Jean-Christophe Bersan, and would have to stop the malolactic fermentation like they do in Sancerre. On the west and east facing slopes you get a slower maturity rate, which means you keep the fruity flavours.
The soil in Saint-Bris is a blend of clay and limestone; the higher up the slope you get the more limestone.
– We want the wine to reflect the soil. The soil gives minerality. We don't pick all the sauvignon grapes on the same day. Compared to the chardonnay it is much more important when you pick. If it's varietal aromas you're after you pick earlier. If it's roundness you pick later.
Domaine Jean-Louis and Jean-Christophe Bersan produces a total of 15 different wines, from regional appellations such as Bourgogne Aligoté and Bourgogne Bourgogne Côtes d'Auxerre, via village appellations like Irancy and Saint-Bris, to Chablis premier cru Montmains.
Two are Saint-Bris cuvées – one basic Saint-Bris, a blend of several climats, and one from the climat Mont Embrasé.
– The Mont Embrasé is not at the top of the slope, says Jean-Christophe Bersan. It's midslope, facing west. The vines are old and there is more limestone than clay. Mont Embrasé means "burnt hill"; it has the sun during the end of the day. It never gets to hot and you get a slow maturity.
– The wine sees some oak. 20 per cent in demi-muids, 600-litre-barrels, which adds roundness.
The lower parts of the slopes are planted with chardonnay and pinot noir, producing Bourgogne Côtes d'Auxerre, an appellation which comes in all three colours – red, white and rosé – and covers an even smaller area than the Saint-Bris appellation.
– It is a regional appellation created in 1992, says Jean-Christophe Bersan. Most of the vineyards are in Saint-Bris le Vineux, but also in some villages between Saint-Bris le Vineux and Auxerre. The style of the wines is more typical Burgundian. The soil contains more clay. It's just 10 km from Chablis, but the soil is totally different. It's a different kind of minerality, less fresh than Chablis. 100 per cent oak is not a problem for these wines. But you have to be careful with new oak.
Jean-Christophe Bersan produces a very small amount of Chablis premier cru Montmains. The village level Chablis comes from a parcel called Les Ouches, not very far from Saint-Bris le Vineux.
– My grandfather didn't want to plant in Chablis, says Jean-Christophe Bersan. It's an old appellation, but during the 1970's and the 1980's the appellation was extended to cover more land. It was my father who began planting in Chablis. Today 25 per cent of our production comes from Chablis.
From the 2012 vintage they will be certified organic. It is a long process that began already in 2002 with a few experiments.
– For the old vines, the vines 50 years and older, it was not that much of a change, because their roots were already deep down, says Jean-Christophe Bersan. They were planted before all the chemicals and fertilisers came in to use. For the young vines it was whole different thing. Their roots only reached 50 to 100 centimetres down. That was all. When you use fertilisers the vines become "lazy" and you end up producing wine from the fruit, not from the soil.
© 2012 Ola Bergman