By Celia Strong
It’s true. Even wines can get promoted. Not all of them of course, but, in countries where there are legal levels and such of wines, every once in a while a wine is declared to be better than its legal level and gets elevated, promoted, to a higher level. Our wine this week is one of those rare promoted wines.
Let’s back up a bit though and see what and why. We’re in France this week, where two main concepts determine their upper level of wine. One is the federal and regional laws that determine the name of the wine. The top level is the “Appellation d’Origine Controllee” wines which is where the wines are named for their place of origin, where the grapes are grown. These laws include the second concept, “terroir’” which is a French term for soil, but in the world of wine is expanded to mean not only soil, but the soil content, the climate where the soil sits and the weather on the soil in each vintage. Since certain soil types enhance the flavors in certain grapes only authorized grapes are grown on any given “terroir.” This means that at the AC level (also called AOC) Chardonnay is grown in the Burgundy region but never in the Bordeaux region. And Syrah is grown in the Cotes du Rhone region but never in Alsace. France is the source of many grape varieties, just every region and every winery only makes wines from varieties that their land is allowed to grow.
The AC laws were enacted in 1935 so that consumers would be guaranteed that the name of a wine on a bottle was in fact what was in the bottle. (For history buffs, there were French wine laws going back several decades earlier, but all that information is more than I figured we needed today.) After World War I, many American soldiers came home with a new understanding and desire for French wines – in particular those of the Rhone city of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. To the horror of producers in Chateauneuf, many “copies” of their wines flooded the market, often at lower prices than they could charge for the real wines. It was the producers in Chateauneuf that banded together, wrote codes for their wines and lobbied the government to establish national wine laws. After the Rhone region, all the others followed and the French wine laws became the standard for other European countries’ wine laws. In addition to controlling what grapes are grown where, the AC laws also control how much is grown per acre, how many gallons are produced be acre of vines, pruning, trellising and wine making practices. Because each region has its own varieties, the particulars of each region’s laws are designed to enable their best wines to be made.
As a sort of sub-level to the AC, there is another category known as VDQS (Vin Delimite de Qualite Superieure). This was always a very small percentage of the total wine production of France, about .9 percent. Wines in this category were kind of like red- haired step children – not quite as good as the AC wines of their regions, sometimes because of lesser or different soil, sometimes because of different grape varieties. Many referred to the VDQS wines as AC wines-in-waiting. Waiting to be upgraded to full AC status, but usually not getting there. With the status AC wines have in France, and around the world, these poor red-haired step children were almost unknown and not available, unless you were in their town. Interestingly, as of the end of 2011, VDQS ceased to exist as a wine category in France.
I have forced you through all this legal mumbo jumbo because our wine this week used to be a VDQS. In the Burgundy region, the main white grape variety is Chardonnay. (There are bits of Aligote in certain spots and a tad of Pinot Blanc, although that is fading.) So main, in fact, that most of us don’t go beyond Chardonnay. White Burgundies are Chardonnay. Period! Except for one little village just southwest of the town of Chablis. And that gets us to this week’s wine. Saint-Bris, or more correctly Saint-Bris-le-Vineux, is this village. Currently, there are about 100 hectares (250 acres) of vines planted here. Until the late 19th century, though, there were close to 40,000 hectares of vines. Paris, being close by with just a carriage or horse ride, was the main market for wine from Saint-Bris, made from the now-extinct Roublot grape. Since this was before any of the French wine laws, many of these wines were called “Chablis” even though they came from different soil and grapes. At the turn of the century, vineyard diseases and stiff competition from more southern vineyards knocked out most of the Saint-Bris wine business. At some later point, Sauvignon Blanc grapes were introduced into Saint-Bris. If you look at a map, the village is very close to the western end of the Loire River and the appellations of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume. Both of these were, and still are, producers of wonderful Sauvignon Blanc wines. Geologically, even though it was not known then, the soil in Saint-Bris is close to that near Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume. So, a town in Burgundy, where Chardonnay is the reigning white grape, is growing a non-Burgundy variety. This was the oddity of Saint-Bris and the reason their wines were designated as VDQS rather than AC. It was 1974, when these Sauvignon-based wines were considered good enough for VDQS status under the name “Sauvignon de Saint-Bris. And what’s this about a promotion? In January 2003, these wines were elevated to AC level with their new name “Saint-Bris.” At the same time, their VDQS designation was repealed.
So, our wine this week is a Saint-Bris, AC wine from Burgundy, made from Sauvignon Blanc. Its producer is Simmonet-Febvre, a Chablis company that was founded in 1840 by Joel Febvre, a barrel maker. The company is known for their fine Chablis wines and a really delicious Cremant de Bourgogne (sparkling white Burgundy) as well. Currently, they are owned by the large Louis Latour firm. The Saint-Bris is made from 100% Sauvignon Blanc grown on limestone and clay soil. It is fermented in stainless steel and all of it goes through a malo-lactic fermentation. It is fresh and zesty with lemon notes and subtle hints of green herbs. It has a creamy texture, thanks to the malo-lactic fermentation, that makes it different from all the other Sauvignon Blanc wines we’ve been drinking. One time, in the mid-1980’s, I spent a rainy couple of hours in a small cafe in this village waiting for some stragglers in my group to catch up with us. And what do you do on a rainy day in a tiny town in France? Drink the local wine, of course. And, ever since then, I’ve had a soft spot for this wine, bought it the few times it came into South Carolina as a VDQS and celebrated when it got its promotion to AC status. This month five cases came into South Carolina. And, now, for $9.99, you can try some too. Rain or shine. Enjoy!
By Celia Strong