Côte Chalonnaise for wine lovers

Collecting grapes for Verjus in the Cote Chalonnaise

Côte d’Or specialist photographer Jon Wyand is finally convinced it’s worth trekking south of Santenay by a book* commission. See this guide to all the entries in our travel writing competition that have been published so far.

Thirty years of photographing vineyards and winemakers professionally might seem to make it hard to chose a single location to recommend. But, when you have a book coming out in two months, the decision becomes easier…

So that’s the puff, CV and confession out of the way in three lines. Perhaps the rest will be less succinct.

Before making recommendations to others, perhaps it is best to ask a few questions. There are those who will go nowhere but France, preferably Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne. We all have a drinking and holidaying tendency, should we stick with where we know or break out and explore? California, Croatia, China even, will no doubt show us a good time.

Do we want to focus solely on wine or take in a bit of culture? Czech Republic, Austria, Italy perhaps?

I would suggest that to break out and explore is a good idea; life is short and the wine world is larger than we might think. If we are not born risk-takers perhaps a new region we don’t know in a country that we do, with a language that permits a useful level of communication, is a good idea. All this assumes we are not looking for a guided trip which might be a very good first exploratory experience, but when curiosity takes over, independence is freedom.

I’m going to stick my neck out and suggest my current favourite, Burgundy. The Côte d’Or is glistening in front of you, its gourmet delights and Grand Crus with names one can drop impressively even if a bottle is beyond our reach.

I can hear the groans. Hold on, I haven’t finished. I am trying to break a long-lived and very sturdy mould. 

No, another Burgundy. The Côte Chalonnaise.  

I went there once, 20 years ago. I stopped to taste in Mercurey and left, bottleless and disappointed. Assignments apart (and not many of them), I have hardly been back since. Who needed pictures from the Chalonnais?

Out of the blue in 2017 I was invited to join two French photographers to exhibit at the annual wine photography show in Chalon-sur-Saône. Coincidentally it followed a very enlightening visit to a winemaker in Montagny. They say things come in threes and after the exhibition, along came number three, an invitation to make a photographic book on the region for the winemakers and mayor of Chalon-sur-Saône. So began a 13-month cycle of week-long visits that was one of my greatest vinous experiences.

To quote Leonardo d Vinci, ‘I believe that great happiness awaits those men (sic) who are born where good wines are to found.’

It is also the land where smiles and serendipity are frequently encountered.

Clos de Chenoves in the Cote Chalonnaise
The grapes from the ancient Clos de Chenôves are vinified by the Vignerons de Buxy

The region boasts an excellent one-star restaurant in Chalon-sur Saône, L’Amaryllis. As elsewhere in France there are plenty of good restaurants around if that is a concern. What my time there has shown me, after 20 years disinclined to venture south from Santenay, is that wine-inspired travel can be more memorable during the day than the reputation of the bottle and the chef encountered in the evening…

South of Chagny, quiet roads and enticing countryside, welcoming vignerons and conversations are to be found practically anywhere at the drop of a hat. Fancy a game of pétanque, try Aluze at the weekend. Bring a bottle of local Crémant (under 10 euros) and you will be welcomed with open arms and no doubt meet a local winemaker or two. There are many small estates and villages where you will find yourself a friendly welcome. You may not be tasting a premier cru every time, but if you are after more of a grass roots than Grand Cru experience and a relaxing time in a more open and spontaneous atmosphere then you are in the right place.

I confess I must refer you to your Michelin guide or Gîtes de France for accommodation as I mostly slept in winemakers’ spare rooms or above the winery. The important thing is that there is plenty to choose from at reasonable prices. If you want to enjoy the luxury of a Michelin three-star, Chagny is a good, if busy, base. The Sunday market is great fun and less tourist-populated than Saturday in Beaune.

Down the road in its own little valley is Bouzeron, the home of Aligoté and the highly recommendable eponymous restaurant, Le Bouzeron. You can’t miss Domaine Chanzy but de Villaine’s is less obvious. Chanzy has a shop to drop in on.

Further up the road you climb out of the valley to drop down into Rully. On an early morning you might catch sight of Mont Blanc on the way. Rully is the home of several top-class estates and Crémant producers and is in fact often talked of as its birthplace, thanks to one Joseph Fortuné Petiot-Groffier in 1822. Historically Rully has had good reviews from the French monarchy, as has Givry (see below). Leaving one of Burgundy’s greatest landmarks, Château de Rully, across the valley to your right a narrow road will take you up past a mass of Faiveley premiers crus towards Mercurey.

The village of Mercurey in the Cote Chalonnaise

Arriving in Mercurey (above) you meet the long, straight Roman road from Chalon to Autun. Across the road Château de Chamirey has a tasting room and small restaurant with views over the Vallée de Vaux and its villages. Look out for the church of Touches, a little gem that has recently been cleaned up. Almost opposite on the northern side of the valley is Mercurey’s own church where pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago can stamp their passports. Below it you will find a pleasant bakery with tearoom and opposite a rather good pizzeria if you fancy a change. Beware, both, inconveniently, close on Mondays and Tuesdays. Mercurey has its own restaurant further along the road back towards Chalon.

I would recommend a tour of the delightful Vallée de Vaux where each village has at least one winery. You are entering mixed farming country here. The Charolais cattle, wheat, rapeseed and vines show you that the inhabitants are possibly different characters to the monoculturalists of the Côte d’Or.

Here you have another perspective on wine, and life, feeling hidden from the stresses of the world and the clamour of the Côte d’Or. Below is a shop in Russilly being decorated for its Fête du Pain (see below).

Shop in Russilly in the Cote Chalonnaise

At the head of the valley you can drop down into Jambles and then to Givry. If you are a fan of goats’ cheese take a detour to Russilly. It sits in a delightful amphitheatre and supports one winery. Most of the vines you’ll see belong to growers in Givry. The fromagerie lies up the hill from the village and when the road runs out, you’ve arrived. Russilly has its own annual Fête du Pain in late July, selling bread made by local bakers in the village’s bread oven. The day finishes with a meal for 300 and a jolly good knees-up to a live band in fields beneath the vines.

Russilly's village bread over in the Cote Chalonnaise

Givry is a wonderful wine to discover and the town is not short of winemakers. There is an array of places to refresh yourself as well as accommodation. Domaine Thénard is based here with a winery you might be lucky enough to be able to visit but, as in Mercurey, there is plenty of good wine wherever you look. It’s a lively local hub with its own music festival, Musicaves, in June with a variety of international musicians and lubricated by the local winemakers.

Travelling further south you’ll find Buxy, a town with a mediaeval history, with an extremely good wine co-operative that covers most of the Chalonnais appellations. Just south is Montagny, the fifth of the region’s village appellations. It’s very much a wine village with its well-kept houses sitting in another, this time Chardonnay-lined, amphitheatre. Why Montagny is not more famous and revered I cannot say, but let’s keep it like that. The residents seem to be doing fine. There is no catering for tourists, nowhere to eat, get a coffee or buy a loaf. I guess the local bread van comes along with the cheese and meat vans. But you are only five minutes by car from Buxy.

Fancy a walk? Montagny offers you as many as anywhere in the Chalonnais. Just out of the Chalonnais, St Gengoux le Nationale further south is perfect for those needing a real tourism hit. It has a wine co-op with a shop just out of town.

The villages to the west of this north/south axis are all worth a visit. Find more goats’ cheese, honey and snails, as well as glorious views in all sorts of places no one ever visits.

Finally Chalon-sur-Saône itself has much to offer those in need of retail therapy, a wonderful cathedral, rue Strasbourg with its ribbon of restaurants, or is simply somewhere a bit bigger to explore. The ballooning weekend in May is great fun along with ‘Chalon dans la rue’, a fringe festival in July and the winemakers’ Paulée weekend in October.

Suremain Paulee in the Cote Chalonnaise

*Four Seasons in the Côte Chalonnaise by Jon Wyand and Emmanuel Mère, 2019. Buy from Amazon.com