elcome to the home of white Santenay. In an appellation mainly known for its reds Domaine Olivier in Santenay has a history of focusing on the whites. About one fifth of all white Santenay produced each year comes from these cellars.
– We have always been the largest producer of white Santenay, says Antoine Olivier at Domaine Olivier. Depending on the vintage we produce between 40 000 and 45 000 bottles of white Santenay, both premier cru and village level.
There are two reasons why this happened - Dr Lavalle and the wine made for private use in the 1970's.
– In 1973 my father planted some chardonnay vines in the lieu-dit Bievaux here in Santenay, explains Antoine Olivier. Less than 500 vines. This was for the family wine. I remember making this wine as a kid. We would harvest just after the regular harvest and we were using only one barrel. It was a wine without any technique involved. We would just put the juice in a barrel, do some stirring, check the fermentation and that was it. And every year it was the same thing; when it was time for the next harvest it was like "Oh, we've forgotten the white wine".
– Basically it was a natural wine. There was no fining. No filtration. Nothing. Some years the wine would be clear, some years there would be a lot of sediment in the wine. But it was always a very good wine. Our friends would ask if they could buy some, but we only made some 250 bottles per year.
With good results, even with little effort it was obvious to the Olivier family that white Santenay had potential. In addition to that Dr Lavalle had mentioned Bievaux when he published his well-known book on the wines of the Côte d'Or in 1855, Histoire et Statistiques de la Vigne et des Grand Vins de la Côte d'Or. For Santenay the only lieu-dit he mentioned for white wine was Bievaux. He also noted ”unfortunately most of this parcel is planted with the wrong vines”.
– We started in Bievaux, says Antoine Olivier. Then we continued with Sous la Roche, Clos des Champs Carafe etc. When my father retired in 2002 we had more than six hectares of white Santenay.
The domaine was originally created by Antoine's father. Antoine's grandparents worked for other winegrowers and only had less than a hectare of vines themselves that they looked after during the weekends.
– My father was a chemical engineer, says Antoine Olivier. The vines were only his hobby. But he was buying new parcels every now and then, so eventually he had become a real wine producer. His first vintage was in the late 1960's. For almost twenty years he worked both as a chemical engineer and as a wine producer.
In 1986 Antoine's sister decided to return home and work at the domaine. At the same time Antoine himself had also joined his father. When the three started they had between six and seven hectares of vines. Ten years later the domaine had grown to 17 hectares.
The focus has always been on Santenay, but slowly other appellations have been added to the portfolio as well – Savigny-lès-Beaune, Nuits-Saint-Georges etc. When Antoine's father retired the domaine was split in two between Antoine and his sister. The first vintage for Domaine Olivier as we know it today was 2003. Since most of the chardonnay vines were Antoine's own the focus on white Santenay remained intact.
– There are some parts of Santenay that are really interesting for white wine, he says. But there are also some parts that are really bad for white. There is the importance of finding the right grape variety for the right terroir. This certainly goes for Romanée-Conti and Montrachet, but it is equally important for lesser-known appellations such as Santenay.
To illustrate this he takes Bievaux in Santenay as an example. Some 30 years ago Antoine's father planted pinot noir there, right in the middle of the what is considered as the perfect parcel for chardonnay. This during a period when white Burgundy didn't sell particularly well, so going for chardonnay was not really an option.
– I worked hard to improve the quality of these grapes, says Antoine Olivier. I kept the yield very low; it was the lowest of all my parcels in Santenay. But in terms of quality it was still the worst. It was very good in 2003. But that year the yield was 14 hl/ha… Simply not financially viable (maximum yield for Santenay is 58 hl/ha).
Antoine Olivier does not believe that white Santenay will dominate the appellation in the future. Nothing like Chassagne-Montrachet, where white wine has gone from a quarter of the total production in the early 20th century to 65 per cent today. In Santenay there is not simply not enough land suitable for chardonnay.
– 20 or 30 years ago the Santenay wines were known to be very powerful wines with lots of tannins, destined for long ageing and a bit rustic. Things changed with the generation of winegrowers that are 50-60 years old today. Quality began to improve and my generation has continued this work. At tastings I have noticed that the overall quality of the Santenay wines has gone up over the years. It is a development you can see in many of Burgundy's lesser appellations.
– Santenay is a large appellation. The third on Côte d'Or after Gevrey-Chambertin and Meursault. This means you have different types of terroir and different styles in terms of winemaking. From the Maranges side to the Chassagne-Montrachet side things can be completely different. To the west, the Maranges side, the wines are usually full-bodied, tannic and rich wines. In the middle you have premier crus such as Maladière, Beaurepaire and Clos Faubard. Here I find the wines more interesting. They are not as full-bodied; it is more about elegant pinot noir. I like this style of pinot a lot. Then on the east side of Santenay you have the best premier crus, like Gravières and Clos de Tavannes.
© 2012 Ola Bergman