We explore Burgundy and find it’s much smaller than we imagined, with pretty villages and famous vineyards around every corner.
Bruce asked the men in our party not to wear short trousers as it would be considered impolite. It was July 14th and we had been invited by the Mayor to their Fete Nationale, better known to us Brits as ‘Bastille Day’ – the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille in 1789 which proved a turning point in the French Revolution. Since then it has been celebrated throughout France as a public holiday and the reason for much celebration.
We had met Bruce a few days before when we arrived at his large 19th-century house where, with his wife, he run a wonderful bed and breakfast. Bruce had played cricket for New Zealand but had retired to France and bought this classical French property surrounded by several acres of parkland. We had chosen Chaudenay both for its elegant accommodation and for its central location allowing us to venture out each day and explore Burgundy’s vineyards.
As instructed, several couples (all smartly dressed in spite of the heat) waited for Bruce who appeared promptly, and soon we were on our way to the town hall a few minutes’ walk away. As we approached through the deserted street we could hear the incongruous sound of a steel band. Arriving, we were soon ushered into the large village hall where on a stage stood the Mayor wearing ludicrously skimpy shorts and about to formally open festivities. In fact, the men in our party were the only ones wearing long trousers, the source of much amusement amongst the French once wine started to flow! We were made to feel very welcome with everyone very friendly – a contrast indeed to the cut and thrust of Paris or any other capital city for that matter. It was obvious that Bruce was held in great esteem, perhaps because his classy B&B had placed Chaudenay on the tourist map. The day turned out to be hugely enjoyable and gave us a great opportunity to discuss the region’s wine, as most people there were involved in its production. I noted that the wine, which flowed too freely perhaps, was of excellent quality, though it never occurred to me to ask who the producer was. I suspect it was probably a cooperative wine.
Burgundy is small and complex with its vineyards classified long ago into Village Wines, Premier Cru or Grand Cru. Each supposedly step up in quality from the previous level. I say supposedly because, like chefs, some winemakers are better than others, and when a great wine maker dies his son or daughter – assuming they have managed to hold on to the vineyards in spite of France inheritance taxes – may just not be as good as the old man or woman was. Or perhaps not as hard working or committed. Of course, it can go the other way around and offspring, full of optimism, new ideas from wine college and ambition could well turn out better wines than their parents ever did. To add to the complexity, Burgundy is roughly split two areas: Cote de Beaune, primarily producing white wines, and Cote du Nuit where reds are the order of the day (but not always). There are hundreds of vineyards in Burgundy, mostly small, some tiny. Some vineyards have as many as 40 owners yet the quality and price from each producer can vary enormously. If there is something simple about Burgundy is that for all intents and purposes reds are made from Pinot Noir and whites from Chardonnay. Perhaps the best way of understanding Burgundy is small producers making small amounts of wine. It’s no wonder that wines, once released, disappear into private cellars never to be heard of again.
I like to think of Burgundy as the finest expressions of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay anywhere. Ethereal wines that after one’s palate is trained one never looks back. (Their whites are much easier to understand than their reds.) To acquire a taste for Burgundy can be regretful because good Burgundy can never be cheap, as yields, by necessity, need to be kept small or the wines will lack character and complexity.
We decide to drive the whole length of Burgundy on our first day simply to get a feel for the area. This is easy to do as the drive takes less than an hour. After a satisfying breakfast – served by Bruce on a wonderful wrought iron and glass terrace – we set out taking the lesser D974 with the intention of making our first stop at Beaune twenty minutes away. Shortly and to our right we pass the villages of Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet and their vineyards. Here, fine Premier Cru and Village Chardonnay wines are made. Some of the best in the world. The star of the area is however the Montrachet vineyard itself which should not be confused with the two above mentioned appellations as both Puligny and Chassagne added Montrachet to their names long ago, and have been profiting from the association ever since. Montrachet itself is a Grand Cru vineyard. By wine-geek standards both Puligny and Chassagne can be relatively affordable. Montrachet is never affordable. Claude Arnoux writing in 1728 said that he could find no words in French or Latin to describe its qualities but that it was very expensive and had to be reserved a year in advance.
A few minutes on and we see the Meursault vineyards typically rising from the road up the escarpment, stopped only be dense woodland. This is mostly a white wine appellation making glorious, rich wines and is associated with converting more wine drinkers into Burgundy lovers than any other. There are several Premier Cru vineyards here including Perriers, Genevrieres and Les Charmes. A typical label from this area would simply say Meursault Les Genevrieres. Sometimes 1r Cru will also appear on the label, but not always.
The villages of Volnay and Pommard come next. Both known for the reds neither having any Grand Cru vineyards but several Premier Crus. Look out for Volnay Cailleret or Pommard Rugiens. Pommards tend to be more powerful and tannic than its neighbour.
We leave the D974 as I had particularly wanted to visit a producer in Monthelie one of Burgundy’s lesser know appellations. We had not made an appointment but we were well received by the producer’s widow. It turns out that unbeknown to us the winemaker had died some years before. She showed us his cups and medals won in wine competitions now sadly tarnished. It was sad and we felt rather sorry for the poor woman who seemed lost without her husband. The wines we tasted were well past their best but we bought some bottles anyway.
Back on the D974 we arrive at Beaune the vinous capital of Burgundy. It’s main tourist attraction is the Hospice de Beaune a former charitable alms house founded in 1443. Here in the third Sunday in November the produce of vineyards from all over Burgundy, donated by benefactors over centuries, are auctioned off with all its proceeds going to charitable foundations. The prices fetched are normally in excess of commercial values. Many of the wines will be bottled under the Hospice de Beaune label. The wine appellation of Beaune itself is considered good but not excellent and more red than white is produced here.
Beaune has an interesting market in its centre and here we buy one of their famous blue legged chickens. Later that evening tired but happy we make a Coq au Vin as Bruce has made available an ample kitchen for the use of guests.
Next month we complete our brief journey from Beaun to Fixin visiting the other half of the Burgundy escarpment known as the Cote du Nuit and its famous vineyards including Nuit St Georges, Gevrey- Chambertin and Vosne-Romanee.