The Côte de Nuits is known for world-class Pinot Noir wines – it’s a cornucopia of superb reds (and a few very great whites), a jewel in the Burgundian crown, and many other superlatives – but in case you are practicing your French, it’s got nothing to do with the night-time. In fact, there is some debate as to where the name of the picturesque town of Nuits-St-Georges (after which the Côte de Nuits is named) actually comes from. It may be a corruption of the Celtic ‘un win’, meaning a valley stream, though others claim it refers to the walnut trees in the area, known in Latin as nutium. The more general word for nuts, nux, may therefore be an influence.
Whatever the etymology, the quality and renown of this hallowed
terroir – the northern half of the Côte d’Or – is beyond question. The tourist
who is lucky enough to be driving south from Dijon can expect to pass through a
veritable wine list of famous place names, each with their own world-beating
wines. To name just a few, there’s Marsannay, Fixin, Gevrey-Chambertin,
Morey-St-Denis, Vougeot, Vosne-Romanée, and Nuits-St-Georges. There is
also a separate region, known as ‘Hautes-Côtes de Nuits’, which produces both red
and white wines from slopes a little higher up (as the name suggests), above
the escarpment of the Côte de Nuits.
95% of the wines from this region are red, but there are exceptional white wines too. And of course, the Hautes Cotes whites are stunning. Take the wines from Julien Cruchandeau – he makes both Hautes Cotes de Nuits white and Aligoté, each a model of what these higher altitude whites can be, reasonably priced, floral and rich, fresh and open.
Sometimes known as the Champs-Elysées of the Bourgogne, the narrow strip of Côte de Nuits hillside can be just 200 meters
wide in some places, though it stretches for over 20 kilometers. The producers
on this vein of rock are specialists in red wines. You can probably guess why –
drainage, climate and soil. It really is all about the terroir. As you go up
the slopes of the Côte de Nuits, a mixture of scree and silt begin to enrich
the marl. Add to this a confluence of exposition and shelter, and you get a
stretch of more than 20 grand cru vineyards.
This is the most northerly region in Europe to make such
high-quality red wines – often challenging, as rain and damaging hail can
threaten the delicate crop. The fact that the quantities made are relatively
small can also mean high prices – that is, unless you know where the great
value and quality is to be found (hint – it’s often in the cellars of
the smaller producers).
It helps to do your homework when looking at the Cotes de Nuits,
as it is one of the most complex and fragmented wine growing regions in the
world. Clos de Vougeot, to take just one example, is a walled-in vineyard of120
acres, but it is divided among more than 90 growers. Gevrey-Chambertin has more
famous individual vineyards than any other commune in Burgundy.
While the producers impart their own personality on their wines, the
land plays a major role as well. In Gevrey-Chambertin, Nuits-St-Georges and
Vougeot, you’re likely to find robust, muscular wines – contrasting with
Chambolle-Musigny and Vosne-Romanée where you can expect wines with more
elegance and finesse.
That, in a nutshell, is why the Côte de Nuits holds pride of place
in the hierarchy of the world’s great wines. And it proves time and again that
size isn’t everything. The best wines often come from the smallest vineyards
and the tiny domains that work them.