On the road with my friends – reflecting about Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in central Burgundy

… One of the main attractions in Burgundy that I recall from 30 years ago: “Ici commence le Chambertin – ici finit le Chambertin”

When I was in Burgundy 30 years ago, I visited the vineyards of Gevrey-Chambertin and I remember the panels “ici commence le Chambertin” and “ici finit le Chambertin”.  I loved these merry panels and now, back in Burgundy thirty years later, I keep on looking for them. My friends do not know, what I am talking about. And I am getting more and more frustrated. I could not understand, why I could not find the panels of the Chambertin vineyard. But then, I found out. The direction départementale des territoires (DDT) of Burgundy wanted to give a common “corporate design” to their winegrowing business to become eligible for the list of Unesco World Heritage. They decided that the two Chambertin panels are disturbing that common design image and had the panels removed despite the protest of the wine growers. I was very disappointed about this act of bureaucracy, in particular because later I came across some ugly panels indicating the names of other domains. Why on earth have these charming panels been removed and what was wrong with them in the light of some common design principles? They were THE attraction, mentioned even in the former old Johnson wine atlas. What did my Russian friend Anna always say: “Bureaucrats of all countries – unify.”

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Fortunately, there is another attraction that has not been removed: The smallest vineyard Larissa has ever come across

We stop at the smallest vineyard, Domaine de Jaques Prieur, just next to Chambertin Clos de Bèze. Larissa always comes back to this tiny vineyard, when she visits Burgundy.

 

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It is now hiding in the November fog.

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Nearby we try some of the few Pinot Noir grapes that had been left – no one else will pick them, as it is mid November.

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We also enjoy seeing the rose bushes carry rose hips. Roses are often planted along the vineyards as an early indicator for diseases.

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Yes, it is autumn – mid November. We soak in the famous names such as Château de Chambertin.

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We study the old wine making equipment in Château Clos Vougeot…

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… with an old wine press and an old fountain…

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… in the November fog.

 

It is great to be here with Russian friends and exchange about our wine terminology. For instance how to put the sense of “tannin” into an image. I compare tannin to “fur” tickling and biting my palate (I call this a  “Pelzli” in Swiss German – it is not an official term). My  Russian friends also feel that tickling in their palate and describe it as a knitting woman (“вяжущая женшина”). Yes, the full bodied and sometimes tannic wines – let us look at some of the factors that have shaped Burgundy.

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Сentral Burgundy has a long history in a varied terrain following a fault line and the vineyards are split between many, many owners

The wines of Burgundy mostly grow on east and south-east facing slopes of the Saône valley, capturing the sun early in the morning and benefiting from the warm temperature retained during the day. The slopes are shaped by a fault line that brings layers of various maritime epochs to the surface. The resulting structure of the slopes is very varied and has been studied by swarms of geologists – they found calcium from defunct shellfish and a mixture of limestone and marlstone, sometimes iron. Pebbles often retain the heat (the wines are then called “Les Cras”, “Les Caillerrets” or “Les Perrières”). Already in the 12th century, monks eagerly explored the potential of the terrain to find the best places for their vines – and wines. As a matter of fact, wine growing goes back to Roman times (mentioned first around 300) and to the early Burgundy empire (in 630 the duke gave a large domain to the Abbaye de Bèze which continues to live in today’s Clos de Bèze). Around 1400 Philippe the Bold (then duke of Burgundy) ordered the Pinot Noir grape to become the only red grape in central Burgundy. After the French revolution (1790) the ground belonging to the abbeys was sold – and this is why ownership of the vineyards is split today: 4900 domains, 115 trader-wine makers (negociant-éleveur) and 19 cooperations.

The terrain shapes the quality of the wines: East/east-southward facing slopes, altitude (less foggy higher up), ascent (the steeper the better), ground (more limestone than clay, sometimes pebbles) are some of the factors. There are about 2% Grand Crus wines, about 11% 1er Crus, and the rest are either labeled AOC communales or AOC régionales. The main grapes are Pinot Noir for red (thanks to Philippe the Bold) and Chardonnay for white.

The  Côte d’Or is surrounding Beaune. To the north of Beaune there are Gevrey-Chambertin (AOC wines are all red and there are 9 Grand Crus) and Nuits St. Georges (97% red and 3% white). Then there is the terrain of Beaune (85% red and 15% white). South of Beaune there are Meursault (mostly Chardonnay – white wines with an oak influence resulting in the typical buttery taste), Puligny Montrachet /Chassagne Montrachet (also mostly Chardonnay – white, but also some red from Pinot Noir) and Santenay /Maranges (80 to 90% red and 10 to 20% white). The Meursault/Montrachet Chardonnay wines must have been the model for the oaky/smoky international Chardonnays in the US, Chile or South Africa. The fresh and crispy Chardonnay wines from Chablis were not, what the international world liked – and they made “Chablis” a synomym of “cheap wine”. As Chablis is really my prefered Chardonnay wine, I do not care that the world does not know – let Chablis wines continue to be a well-kept secret…

I also learn that “Passe-Tout-Grain” is a wine blended from Pinot and Gamay (prevailing in Beaujolais)… this is what we call “Dôle” in the Valais (Switzerland).

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Source: Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, The World Atlas of Wine, 5th edition, Beazley 2005, p. 55 (also the summary overview has been mostly extracted from Johnson and in addition from “petit guide: Les vins de Bourgogne”, Aedis éditions 03200 Vichy, Florence Kennel et alii).

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When driving home from Beaune I found out that Burgundy is only a three hours’ drive away from my hometown Basel. Well, in early medieval times Basel was even part of Burgundy*. I decide that I will not wait another thirty years to go back to Burgundy. And maybe then – they will have reinstalled the charming Chambertin panels?

* around 1000 AD, Basel was part of the kingdom of Burgundy, see “historischer Atlas der Region Basel”, Merian Verlag 2010.

 

 

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