The Journey Out
Trips to Burgundy in November are always cold, but this year we landed late on a Sunday evening, in snow, at Lyon airport where our hire car awaited.
Caspar was not impressed with the Fiat 500L. I tried to cheer him up by pointing out some of the good points in the car, but to no avail, as there are few. The wines would need to make up for it...
And that was why we were headed to Beaune, which would be our base for three days as we sampled the delights of the 2018 vintage. Some common themes would keep coming up – a very hot year, high sugar content, canopy cover needed and great care in timing of the harvest.
The forecast had been for gloomy grey skies, but Monday morning was bright, sunny and not as cold as we’d feared. After an early breakfast we were off south to Volnay, via Pommard and to meet with Monsieur Frédéric Lafarge.
Vignerons all have their own approach to how and where one tastes their wines. For Frédéric, it was the cool dark cellar, surrounded by countless litres of wine in oak barriques. Of the twenty-two wines we were to taste, the first four were white and we started – as we did in several tastings - with Aligoté. Previously most of this production in Burgundy went for the local ‘cremant’, but people (like me) have enjoyed this grape and now it is made with less acidity, is far more accessible, and can be rather wonderful.
Frédéric dipped his glass pipette into a chalk-marked barrel and carefully drained some into our glasses. From here on, most tastings followed a similar pattern with much slurping, swilling and note-taking, before spitting out into a jug or spittoon. Left over wine was poured back with care into the barrel... waste not, want not.
At Domaine Lafarge we sampled our way through a couple of Meursaults and a 1er Cru Clos des Aigrots before starting on the reds. First up were two of the also lesser known ‘Passetoutgrains’ (PTG for short) which are typically a blend of Gamay and Pinot Noir.
These were followed by a Bourgogne Pinot Noir and then a raft of wonderful wines from Volnay and, one of my favourites, Les Caillerets, after the small stones found in that vineyard. We finished with Beaujolais, three from Fleurie and Brouilly. And all before morning coffee.
As well as tasting the wines, Caspar and I were keen to understand more about the 2018 vintage from the winemaker’s perspective. We were interested in the weather during the season and the impact of climate change on both the wines and how the grapes are looked after.
Frédéric said growing conditions had been perfect, with dry weather followed by rain and then heat – all of which was good for the fruit. He added that vineyard management is becoming ever more important with the hydrometer in regular use, but it was still essential to taste the grapes. There really is no substitute for experience.
We were now late. We headed back north through Beaune towards Pernand Vergelesses, Corton and then left to Savigny les Beaune in the sunshine.
Here we visited Domaine Camus-Bruchon where Guillaume introduced us to a range of Savigny - all red wines except for one white. Their Bourgogne Pinot Noir is made with grapes from numerous parcels with vines up to sixty years old. The ‘Aux Grands Liards’ vines were planted in 1913 and 1922, just after Phylloxera and the ‘Les Pimentieres’ in 1929 – this is a long game! Many of these wines were full of jammy fruit, tannic and herbal, but with a silky mouth feel and a clean finish.
With alcohol levels all at 13-13.5% Guillaume said the vendage timing of 30th August (at 7.30 if you are mad for detail) was critical. One week later and the sugar content would have meant he’d have had to make jam, not fine Burgundy. This very short window to pick caused many winemakers problems, not least of which with labour, as everyone was having to pick quickly, early and at a similar time.
We had one more visit before lunch so were soon on the péage, north to Vosne Romaneé to visit Domaine Lamarche and the redoubtable Nicole. With the demeanour of an aerobics instructor who would happily inflict pain on you, Nicole pulls no punches about her approach to her wines.
Sitting in the charming salon, here we found elegance, finesse and feminine wines, more so than at any other Domaine this year. Once again this was a ‘technical harvest’, all picked in 6 days due to the high sugar content following the hot summer. I sensed restraint was needed in the winemaking for 2018, along with a clear understanding of the fruit and the impact of both the weather and individual ‘terroirs’. Nicole knows her vineyards and knows what she wants by jove.
And what wines we tasted. Vosne Romanée Villages: 1er Crus from Les Chaumes, Les Suchots and Les Malconsorts. Grands Crus from Echézeaux and Clos de Vougeot and finally La Grand Rue from a parcel between La Tache and Romanée Conti – a ‘complex and fabulous wine’ aged in 50% new oak. Oh my.
Undoubtedly, we were spoiled with such quality but by now we needed lunch, so went to the Sports Centre. Only in France would such a venue have such fabulous good value food! I can still taste the chicken oysters pie – and that was just the starter, the ‘filet de porc’ was equally excellent. La belle France.
Having eaten well, and actually been able to drink a glass of wine rather than spit it out, I was in need of a nap so, while Caspar steered the 500L north all the way to Chablis, I napped. I woke to Caspar moaning that the car was so woefully under endowed, it dropped out of cruise control at the sight of a slight incline. Chablis better deliver.
Brothers David and Arnaud now run Domaine Lavantureux and are making good impressions. Both had pursued other endeavours before returning to the family Domaine with a passion for making great wines. They manage the whole process, from vineyard to winemaking, bottling and labelling as they are keen retain control with their attention to detail ensuring consistency.
Down into the clean and bright modern cellar we sampled eight white wines, from Petit Chablis through a Vielles Vignes from sixty year old vines, to 1er Crus from Les Fourchaume, Beauroy, Vau de Vey and Les Bougros. There were some outstanding wines here – full of minerality and notes of the kimmeridgian clay on which the vineyards are planted. Despite a record high of 46C in July, providing ‘grillage’ for the grapes, alcohol levels were a sensible 12.2 – 12.8%. That’ll be the attention to detail then.
Day One done, we headed back to our base in Beaune and dinner in the small, charming and only open Monday to Friday, Le Maufoux. An excellent set menu (minus the snails for me – I just can’t eat them) with sensibly priced wine topped off our day very nicely.
Tuesday dawned clear, bright and cold again and we were picked up by Emma, whose father was the first person to ship estate-bottled burgundy to the UK and from whom she has now taken on the reins of that business. We were taken south to Puligny-Montrachet to meet Alexandra at Domaine Jean Pascal et Fils. No cellars here as the water table is too high so we tasted upstairs amidst the neat racks of already bottled wines.
This is a Domaine which has improved in quality over the past few years and we sampled some terrific wines, starting with another Bourgogne Aligoté. Each of the wines showed strong individuality and we went via Auxey Duresses through Meursault to Chassagne Montrachet to Puligny Villages. Staying in Puligny we tried a Hameau de Blagny and a Les Folatieres.
As we tasted these wines Alexandra told of late frosts in previous years where candles and hay bales were lit in the vineyards to help stop the frost freezing and ruining the young buds of fruit – a good reminder that as well as the new reality of hotter summers, this is still a very cold part of France in winter.
By now it was noon, and lunchtime, so we called at La Goute D’Or for the daily ‘plat’ and a bottle to fortify ourselves for a busy – and long – afternoon.
At the very furthest southern point of the Côte de Beaune lies Dezize les Maranges. Caspar always feels this area is unfairly overlooked and we were here to meet two more brothers, the Bachelet-Monnot’s, who now run the Domaine and are rising stars of this part of the Côte.
This farther south alcohol levels are up. 13-14.2% for the 2018’s and all bottled under the best and most expensive cork as, despite the extra cost, they prefer the seal to be more natural. Once more we heard about ripe grapes, high sugar content and early picking – from the 27th August to 3rd September. Great care was needed.
First, we tried a Bourgogne Blanc, then a Santenay before starting on the 1er Crus from Maranges, a Puligny Les Referts and a Puligny Montrachet Les Folatieres. One of Burgundies delights is trying wine from the same vineyard made by different Vignerons. The rows could be adjacent… and the wines should display the same characteristics of the terroir… and the winemaker. Fascinating stuff n’est-ce pas?
On to the reds and a simple Rouge, followed by two 1er Crus from Maranges (a Les Fussiere and a Clos de la Boutiere) before we finished with a Pommard and said our goodbye’s and fired up the 500L.
Our penultimate visit of the day was to the Château de Chamilly a little further south in the Côtes Chalonnaise. Two more brothers, Arnaud and Xavier, have taken over this ancient Château which has been in the family for five hundred years, and are gradually buying back parts that have been sold, renovating them, and expanding their wine production.
It is an idyllic setting, nestled in a quiet valley that appears not to have changed in years, until you walk into the Cave, where modern stainless-steel tanks sit between high old oak beams. Arnaud makes the reds and Xavier the whites and we sampled both, from a light and fresh Côte Chalonnaise, through Mercurey and Santenay 1er Crus before a couple of interesting Aligotés. There was then more Mercurey, a Montagny 1er Cru Les Jardins before finishing with a St. Aubin 1er Cru Derriere de chez Edouard (what a great name!) and a Puligny Montrachet 1er Cru Sous le Puit.
In contrast to nearly everywhere else wine is produced I’m always amazed at the number of disparate parcels managed by many of these Burgundian Vignerons. It really is a few rows here, a few more rows there, scattered about a large area. It can’t be efficient, but it must make them very aware of the subtle differences in each of the individual terroirs from which they pick grapes.
We were running late again – in fact so late we were not sure if we would be welcome at Domaine Rollin et Fils. It was cold and dark when we arrived, all the lights were out and we thought the worst until, just as we were about to leave a light came on, then another and finally a cellar door opened, and we were welcomed into the warmth.
René and Simon Rollin make some exceptional wines, from some of the greatest vineyards in Burgundy. Their vendage started with the Pinot Noir in late August and then the Chardonnay in Corton Charlemagne on 2nd September. By now we’d had a long day, but there were some special wines to try.
Two rich and buttery Pernand Vergelesses were followed by a fabulous luxurious Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru before we moved to red and another two Pernand Vergelesses, the latter being a 1er Cru Ile des Vergelesses. What a way to end our day.
Dinner on Day Two was in Caves Madeleine on rue du faubourg Madeleine, very close to another of my Beaune favourites, the unique Comptoir des TonTons. Great food is not hard to find here!
Our final morning started in Morey St. Denis at Georges Lignier et Fils. Founded in 1947, Georges was current winemaker Benoit’s great-grandfather; Benoit is the 5th generation to grow grapes in Burgundy. His aim is not to make ‘modern’ wines, but to make consistent ones and uses six different barrel suppliers and two different levels of ‘toast’, as he feels they give different flavours to the wines.
With 1.8ha planted to Aligoté and 1.5ha for PTG it was no surprise that we started with those before moving into Gevrey Chambertin, Chambolle Musigny and then back to Gevrey for a 1er Cru Les Combottes. Our final wine here was a Bonnes Mares Grand Cru which, while made from grapes grown just inside Chambolle, is more reminiscent of Morey St. Denis, than the more feminine and delicate wines one would expect from this appellation. A rich, full and powerful wine, this will need some ageing.
For our final visit we met with the irrepressible Mark Haisma. You’d be right in thinking he does not sound very French. Mark is an Aussie who learned to make wine at Yarra Yering and moved to France about 6 years ago. As a ‘micronegociant’ Mark does not own any vineyards, but either farms them or buys fruit from a number of suppliers across Burgundy.
A forthright Aussie, he is opinionated, direct and very, very focussed on making great wines. He selects fruit carefully, feeling Chardonnay can handle the increasingly hot summers, whereas Pinot can’t - something he clearly learned back home.
In stark contrast to the dark cool cellars of Frédéric Lafarge, we are in Mark’s industrial unit outside Vougeot, surrounded by stainless-steel tanks, and racks of bottled wine. We start with two Aligotés, one picked as late as 12th September and the other a blend with Chardonnay. After a Saint Romain and a Chassagne Montrachet Villages we sampled Mark’s playful nod to his heritage with a ‘Bogan Burgundy’ which is 30% Gamay, before raising the bar with a Les Echards from Volnay. Our final four Burgundy wines were classics from Gevrey Chambertin, a Pommard 1er Cru Clos des Arvelets, a Morey St. Denis Les Chaffots and to cap it all an Echézeaux Grand Cru. What wine on which to end our tasting tour!
It was now time to point the Fiat 500L towards Lyon for our flight home. The journey was mostly unexceptional, until a tennis ball size stone bounced up from the road and hit the windscreen right in front of me. The noise was deafening and almost as shocking as the €934 Caspar was charged by the nice people at Avis when we dropped off the car. Be prepared and get your own ‘excess cover’ insurance – thankfully Caspar was covered!
This was my second trip to Burgundy with Caspar, the first was 10 years ago, and it was fascinating to revisit the area and its wines in such detail. Things have changed; the dialogue last time was more about chauffage, choice of oak barrels, care in fruit selection and vineyard management. This year the focus was more on climate change leading to higher sugar content and alcohol levels, ‘grillage’, requiring canopy cover to be maintained and the criticality of a well time vendange.
But the wines continue to enthrall, delight and mesmerise me with their intricacy, complexity, subtlety and delicacy. The 2018 vintage will no doubt be a classic in Burgundy and I’m looking forward to being able to enjoy a bottle, without spitting any out next time.
Merci Caspar et Vive les Bourguignons!
Richard Watton, December 2019