ourgogne Côte-du-Couchois is a small appellation, rarely seen, or talked about, outside the region. Despite being spread out across six communes – Couches, Dracy-les-Couches, Saint-Jean-de-Trezy, Saint-Maurice-les-Couches, Saint-Pierre-de-Varennes and Saint-Sernin-du-Plain – the vines only cover about 25 hectares. The appellation itself is close to ten times that, but at this point only ten per cent is planted. The annual output is between 1000 hectolitres and 1500 hectolitres, 130 000 to 200 000 bottles.
– The main problem for the Burgundian marketers is the marketing of a new appellation, explains Jean-Claude Dessendre at Domaine de la Tour Bajole in Saint-Maurice-les-Couches. The négociants in Beaune are not looking for yet another appellation to promote. There are already more than 100 in Burgundy. In the Couchois area many winegrowers only sell a small part of their production in bottles and a large part en vrac. There is no demand from the négociants so they don't increase their production. Apart from that bottle sales work very well, and the customers are very receptive.
The centre of the appellation is the village of Couches, a village with some 1500 souls 15 kilometres northwest of Mercurey and just southwest of Sampigny-lès-Maranges. In the past Couches and the surrounding villages were considered to be a part of the Hautes-Côtes, but without the right to put that on the labels. Instead of the Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes de Beaune appellation the winegrowers here were to make do with the Bourgogne appellation.
Work for a new appellation began in 1957, but it was not until 2000 that the efforts paid off and the appellation Bourgogne Côte-du-Couchois was created. Today there are about 25 winegrowers producing Bourgogne Côte-du-Couchois.
– The soil varies very little between the different Couchois slopes, says Jean-Claude Dessendre. The top of the slopes are on layers from the Triassic and Jurassic periods and marlstone with iridescent red, blue and white tones. The lower parts of the slopes are on Bajocian soil with stone scree. The altitude is between 225 and 400 metres, like in neighbouring Maranges. And if the winegrower does a good job the wines can be similar as well.
In 1993 Jean Gadant wrote: "These vines are the nobility of farming. Their pleasant character contrasts with the grasslands without fantasy of the Morvan and the monotony of the plain of the Saone. Unfortunately the Couchois vineyards are in trouble today and are steadily in decline.
This is still very much the case. The surface area under production is still decreasing. The Couchois reached its peak before the invasion of the phylloxera, at the middle of the 19th century. Back then the vines covered 650 hectares. That of course was before the appellation system and included all four grape varieties – pinot noir, chardonnay, gamay and aligoté. It is only the pinot noir that is entitled to have Bourgogne Côte-du-Couchois on the label, that is if the vines are within the appellation limits. Outside the appellation the pinot noir is used together with the gamay to make Bourgogne Passetoutgrain. There is no white Bourgogne Côte-du-Couchois. The chardonnay in the Couchois is simply bottled as Bourgogne. All appellations included, the Couchois vignoble now covers 420 hectares.
Prices are only just around six euros a bottle. Both Domaine Royet and Domaine de la Tour Bajole produce very nice examples of Bourgogne Côte-du-Couchois.
Couches is stretched out along the high street that runs halfway up the hillside overlooking the little valley below. As you enter the village coming from Mercurey the first thing you see is the Château de Couches, a castle that looks as if it has been taken from a fairytale by Disney. The oldest parts – the high fortifications and the square great tower – stem from the eleventh century. After that changes and additions have been made all the way up until the 19th century.
The Couchois valleys are a blend of vineyards, other crops and cattle, giving a whole different impression than the slopes packed with rows of vines just a little bit further north. In the past the winegrowers were, out of necessity, producing a mix of various crops. The horse had to be fed. The family needed food on the table. In addition to this there was always the risk of having a bad harvest, so being dependant on grapes only was not particularly wise. Back then the winegrowers did not have the techniques of today in case the conditions were less favourable.
Couches is also part of the mining history of Burgundy. A royal foundry was established in nearby Le Creusot in 1782. Three years later its annual production of cast iron was 5000 tons. Things then really took off in 1836 with the arrival of the Schneider brothers. The following year they bought the mine in Chalencey just outside Couches. a mine that a decade later would qualify as the most productive in the departement. Between 50 and 60 miners worked there and the ore was transported to Le Creusot in wagons pulled by oxen. It was around this time that Couches became Couche-les-Mines. Other mines were developped in Mazenay, Change and Nolay. Le Creusot grew considerably during this time, but in 1871 the mine in Chalencey was closed down and around 1920 all mining activities in the Couchois area had been shut down, all because of competition from the Lorraine where the ore could be extracted more easily and at a lower price.
© 2013 Ola Bergman