The vineyards of the Côte de Beaune spill off the limestone cliffs that mark the eastern edge of the region like a blanket that has slipped off the edge of a bed. Most of the vineyards that everyone knows lie puddled on the floor or in the crease between them. But a bit of vineyards still cling to the edges of the escarpments, cooler and higher than the rest of the Côte de Beaune.
Perhaps one of the most important of these nooks and crannies in the cliffs above Beaune, and certainly the most picturesque, is the little village of Saint Romain. From the moment that I wound my way into the village on the twisty road out of Meursault, I was in love.
Perched on the edge of a limestone cliff that no doubt yielded the stone for most of the village’s buildings, this compact little town and its meager 240 acres of vineyards have a charm that is impossible to deny, and a view of the valley below that, even on the cold rainy day that I was there, elicited contemplative sighs.
In addition to its stony wines, from grapes scrabbling their roots down through clay into solid rock, this little village is quite famous for being the home of the François Frères cooperage, perhaps the most well known barrel producer in the world.
But long before Joseph François founded his cooperage in 1910, vignerons in Saint Romain had been making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. And for a long time, at least one of them has had the last name of “Gras.”
Domaine Alain Gras was created in 1979 by one of the younger men in the town to bear that name, who took fruit from his family’s hillside vineyards and bottled them. Situated at the very highest point on the hill, the family’s 28 acres of vineyards cascade off a steep slope down into a little valley on the back side of the town. If you want an “accidental” tour of these vineyards, all you need to do is use a standard GPS and punch in the address of Domaine Alain Gras. Thanks to the miracles of GIS mapping, and a road that was planned but never built, you’ll find yourself bumping up a steep, windy, unpaved, and very rocky road through the heart of Gras’ vineyards. It’s the best way to arrive.
Though it is a mere 30 years old (the first vintage was 1982), Domaine Alain Gras has quickly established itself as the preeminent producer of the village. The domain makes both a white and red Saint Romain appellation wines, a white and a red Auxey-Duresses (the appellation farther down the valley towards Meursault), and a Meursault. The red Auxey-Duresses, in addition to being excellent, is most notable for being made from some truly ancient Pinot Noir vines, some of which are 100 years old.
The estate produces about 5300 cases of wine per year.
This particular wine comes from some of the highest and coldest vineyards in the whole of the Côte d’Or. In difficult years, the grapes struggle to get ripe, but in good years, they make excellent wines, as they did in the brilliant vintage of 2009. Made from 40-year-old Pinot Noir vines grown in a combination of clay and solid limestone, this wine was 100% destemmed and fermented in temperature controlled steel before being moved to French oak barrels (from the local cooperage, of course) for 12 months of aging. Only about 15% of the barrels are new each year.
Saint Romain wines are the “poor man’s Burgundies.” When they are good, as Alain Gras’ wines are, they offer perhaps not the profound complexities of the Premiere and Grand Cru wines of lower elevations but certainly the wonderful expression of soil, stone, and fruit that makes Burgundy so compelling.
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of incredibly bright and sweet raspberry and mulberry aromas. In the mouth, electric raspberry and briar flavors mix with mulberry and plum and cherry. A wonderful forest floor pineyness creeps up from the bass notes of the wine in a striking way and linger through the finish. Very well balanced and very mineral driven, as if the whole wine had been filtered through wet granite. Lip smacking good. 12.5% alcohol.
Want to be adventurous and have red wine with fish? This would be a prime candidate — from grilled salmon to swordfish steak, the fantastic acidity, low alcohol and lean stony profile makes this a very versatile food wine.
Overall Score: around 9
How Much?: $25
This wine is available for purchase on the Internet.
Some views of Saint Romain: