Published: 4th January 2024
Mark Pardoe MW, Wine Director
Volnay is one of the most evocative names in Burgundy, says Mark Pardoe MW. Here, our Wine Director takes a stroll through this little village and its delicate, ethereal red wines
On my free weekends in Burgundy, I have taken to walking the vineyards of Volnay. The red wines here are among the most delicate and ethereal of the Côte d’Or, famed for their aromas of violet and rose and their gentle, seductive tannins.
The commune, which lies south of the town of Beaune between Pommard and Meursault, covers only 242 hectares of vines. Of these, 29 hectares extend across the border into Meursault, the resulting wines having the option to be bottled as Volnay-Santenots. This makes Volnay one of the smallest red-wine communes of the Côte d’Or, with production in a good year of about 1.5 million bottles – not a lot more than a good-sized Bordeaux château.
“I believe you can now drink Volnay with more confidence than ever before”
From the main road, you can see Volnay’s hill taper distinctively as its southern slopes open up to a valley to the west – incorporating Auxey-Duresses, Monthélie and St Romain. It is on this haunch that Volnay’s greatest vineyards are found: Clos des Chênes and, lying just below, Caillerets; Taillepieds is tucked below the tree-line against the southern end of the village.
The delicacy of Volnay’s wines can probably be attributed to the fact that its soils are transitional: between the heavier and, in places, iron-rich soils of Pommard; and the white wine-favouring limestone soils of Meursault. Indeed, the Santenots vineyard is called Volnay when planted with Pinot Noir, but Meursault when with Chardonnay. These lighter soils play an important role in producing fragrant, less powerfully structured reds.
01: A small flock of chickens at Domaine Michel Lafarge
02: Volnay is Pinot Noir country
03: Barrels ageing at the Lafarge cellar
The essence of Volnay is best found among the vineyards that surround the village. Many of them carry the name of a clos, courtesy of the days when the Duchy of Burgundy built an important château here in the 11th century. There is a plethora of these walled sites, including some with confusingly similar-sounding names: Clos des Ducs, Clos de la Caves des Ducs and Clos du Château des Ducs.
Other interesting sites are Clos de la Bousse d’Or, Clos de la Chapelle and Clos de la Rougeotte. Many of these are monopoles, vineyards belonging to (or managed by) a single producer. They, along with nearby vineyards like En L’Ormeau and La Carelle sous la Chapelle, can produce filigree, scented and ineffably graceful wines. While they don’t have the weight or complexity of the village’s more southerly sites, they still perfectly capture the charm of Volnay.
The commune’s longer-lived wines come from where the slopes open out to the south of the village. Here, the vineyards are more exposed to the sun. In addition to Clos des Chênes, Caillerets and Taillpieds, En Champans and En Chevret can produce notable, age-worthy and complex wines.
There are no Grands Crus in Volnay. Nor are there any in neighbouring Pommard, for that matter, though there are moves to have a part of its Les Rugiens vineyard recognised. There appear to be no such ambitions in Volnay. Indeed, with typical Burgundian complexity, it would probably be too politically charged to do so – given that the very best sites are, for example, at the bottom of Clos des Chênes and the top of Caillerets. Not recognising the top of the former and the bottom of the latter as well would be problematic, and probably self-defeating.
Volnay is home to some very highly regarded producers. Arguably, the domaines of Michel Lafarge and Marquis d’Angerville sit at the top of the table and are the hardest to find. Marc-Olivier Buffet’s wines (Domaine François Buffet) run them very close. François Bitouzet (Domaine Bitouzet-Prieur) has made great strides since moving to his new winery (which is, admittedly, now based in Meursault).
04: The many walled vineyards here are a piece of Volnay’s history
05: One of Volnay's many Premier Cru bottlings worth seeking out
But there are plenty of other excellent producers based elsewhere with holdings in Volnay: De Montille has an excellent Taillepieds and En Champans; Benjamin Leroux has the exclusive distribution for Clos de la Cave des Ducs, and also farms some vines in Santenots; and there are more lovely examples from Dominique Lafon, Comte Armand and Sébastien Magnien. Even Louis Boillot, based up in Chambolle-Musigny, makes a worthy Volnay from his Les Grands Poisots vineyard.
The challenge for Volnay in this era of climate change is how to preserve its subtle grace and poise while vintages become hotter, drier and earlier. Delicacy does not come easily when paired with 14% alcohol.
In this, Lafarge seems to have led the way. With great foresight, Michel and his son Frédéric began to convert their whole estate to biodynamics in the mid-1990s. This was not followed as dogma, but more as a way of restoring vitality to the vineyard soils. This principle was further enhanced by allowing chickens to roam the vineyards, picking off insects and fertilising at the same time.
The result chez Lafarge is a vineyard environment that allows the vines to almost self-regulate, to manage the extremes of Burgundy’s modern climate with minimal human intervention. The proof is in the wines, which rarely exceed 13% alcohol and are usually lower, and as beguiling in their aromas as ever. They now also have the succulence that comes from a riper vintage, previously an event encountered maybe two or three times in a decade.
This warming has also brought other, previously less well-regarded, vineyards into play. Just above the D974 road, there is a run of vineyards classified as Premier Cru in their higher parts and as village-level lower down: Robardelle, Les Lurets, Les Aussy, La Gigotte and Les Brouillards, among others. You might find these as standalone Premiers Crus or as part of village blends. Either way, these once slightly skinny expressions of Volnay are now capable of producing delightful and rewarding wines. They are worth looking out for.
After a period when Volnay seemed to be hit by hail every summer, it is now gratifying to find the commune enjoying such a purple patch. Climatic conditions which could have been antithetical to these wines’ intrinsic style do currently seem to be beneficial – in the right hands. I believe you can now drink Volnay with more confidence than ever before, and at a wider range of levels.
If you park up the hill in Blagny, in Meursault, and then walk to Volnay, you will find the countryside surprisingly wild. There are expansive views to enjoy, and you will walk right through the middle of Volnay’s greatest vineyards, where their topographical diversity becomes especially clear.
After a hearty lunch in the arched Cellier Volnaysien restaurant and a return walk to the car, you will have covered about 10 miles – and had a day fully immersed in the magic of the region.