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.

 

 

On the road – visiting wine growers around Beaune

In November 2014 I was in Beaune to participate in the Beaune wine festivals. I was with friends from Russia. Besides the events in Beaune, we visited wine growers around Beaune – to the north and to the south. My personal highlights around Beaune were the Château Pommard (great wines and welcoming staff) and René Lamy (very welcoming atmosphere). I also liked Henri de Villamont in Savigny (under Swiss management – great cellar tour) and La Veuve Henri Moroni in Puligny-Montrachet (charming, though I prefer her red wines). I felt a little less comfortable at Château Meursault (beautiful cellar, but snobbish staff), Leclerc in Gevrey-Chambertin (a kitchy restaurant, wines okay) and Domaine Bertagna next to Clos Vougeot (wines okay, atmosphere was a little cool).

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Château Pommard

Château Pommard is a beautiful estate south of Beaune. The gate invites visitors to enter.

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The garden is well cultivated with carefully trimmed bushes.

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According to the rules of the château, the ticket for a tasting plus the Pomm’Art Gallery costs 20 Euro per person. We frown – we are not really interested in the gallery right now. The staff is very friendly and lets us in to just have the tasting. The assistant guiding us through the wines is full of enthusiasm. Pommard is the largest private monopole of Burgundy. His enthusiasm is contagious, and we buy some wines. Result: Now the tasting is free, and in addition we can visit the Pomm’Art Gallery for free.

  • Auxey-Duresses 2010: Good, nutty nose, some taste of lemon
  • Pommard 2010: Flowery (geranium), tannin well integrated
  • Pommard 2008: Smoky, spicy, tannin well integrated
  • Pommard 2007: well balanced
  • Monthélie 1er cru les Riottes,  2011: Cherry, little tannin. We buy a bottle for our dinner.

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René Lamy-Pillot

When traveling to Chassagne-Montrachet, we find the winegrower René Lamy-Pillot. A sign indicates “open”. We are kindly welcomed by Florence, the daughter of the house. The cellar is very clean and full of eye twinklings like this stair rail – a perfect match for this wine cellar. Their Website is charming.

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Florence works with her parents, while her husband, Sebastian, buys grapes from various winegrowers and runs his own innovative business under the name “Lamy&Caillat”. Florence’s father, René Lamy, has some 1er Crus, but he also has some vineyards that are a little off the main climats – St. Aubin and Appelations Villages / Régionales – and some are a good value for money!

While we have delved into our tastings, the door opens. Three guys enter in a rush, an Englishman, a Dutchman and a man whose English and French accent identify him clearly as being from Zurich (they just cannot hide their accent). Of course, he immediately notices that I am from Basel (I cannot hide my accent either) and we exchange our impressions. They regularly buy wines in Burgundy and come to see René Lamy every year. He has prepared boxes ordered by them, and they just stay for a short moment to have a glass of wine and say hello.

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These were some of the wines we tasted:

  • Saint-Aubin Les Pucelles 2013: Lemon, well balanced
  • Chassagne-Montrachet Pot Bois 2009: Well balanced, some oak, flowery
  • Chassagne-Montrachet Morgeot 1er Cru 2011: Toasted bread, nutty, harmonious taste
  • Chassagne-Montrachet La Boudriotte 1er Cru 2012: Almost sweet with cherry taste. Aljoscha feels the leather boots of his father.
  • Chassagne-Montrachet Les Caillerets 1er Cru (Lamy&Caillat , produced by Sebastian): Nose of peach, nutty

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I will surely also come back to this friendly house!

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Leclerc in Gevrey-Chambertin, Rue des Halles 15

Coming from Chablis we enter the Côte de Nuits via road D31 crossing a romantic canyon. Our first village is Gevrey-Chambertin. This charming pig welcomes us.

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In La Rue des Halles we visit Leclerc, a winegrower that also owns a restaurant. In my opinion, the vaults are a somewhat kitschy with the stuffed animals and horns hanging on the walls.

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We are offered the following wines for tasting – I can see my Russian friends frown from time to time.

  • Bourgogne 2007: Starter wine “for every day”, a little thin
  • Chambolle-Musigny 2008: Dried prunes, mushrooms
  • Gevrey-Chambertin Appelation Village 2010: Griottes with a toffee twist, somewhat thin
  • Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Les Champeaux 2007: Prune, well integrated tannin
  • Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru La Combe aux Moines 2008: Denser, griotte, after taste short
  • Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Les Cazetiers 2010: Dense, fruity (griotte), tannin (he says that the ground is tough and the roots dig 6m down)
  • Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Champonnet 2010: I do not like the nose, but the taste is dense.

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Domaine Bertagna

The Domaine Bertagna is a neighbor of Clos Vougeot. We visit them spontanteously. We are welcomed, though a little bit cool. We taste the following wines:

  • Chambolle -Musigny Les Plantes 1er Cru 2012: Too much biting tannin for me, but it may mature
  • Vougeot Clos de la Perrière 2012: Raspberry, well-integrated tannin – I bought half a bottle
  • Vosne Romanée les Beaux Monts 2012: Licorice, toffee, well integrated tannin
  • Nuits St Georges Aux Murgers 2008: Fruity (dried prunes), after taste a little bitter

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Château de Meursault

At Château de Meursault we do not feel very welcome. They have their fixed procedures and stick to them. We have to walk through the never ending cellar vaults all alone to find the tasting room. We have to taste red before white. From the red wines, we had two 1er Crus, Beaune Grèves (mushroom, cassis) and Volnay Clos de Chênes (fruity, leather note and spicy, very balanced).  The white wines were Clos de Château Meursault 2011 (nutty, little after taste), Meursault Villages (nutty, toasted bred, mushrooms – chanterelles, little after taste) and Château de Meursault Les Perrières 1er Cru (dry, sweet nose, perhaps butter or honey melon). I will not return to Château Meursault.

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Veuve Henri Moroni, Puligny-Montrachet

Larissa had recommended La Veuve Moroni. We find her in Puligny-Montrachet. She welcomes us in her plain tasting room and tells us that she has hosted a tasting of her wines with Coquilles Saint Jacques yesterday. She is a dynamic person full of entuhsiasm – her husband has died 30 years ago and she has continued the winegrowing business on her own. When I drink her wines at home, I prefer the red to the white.

  • Meursault les Tillets 2008 : Peach – bought a bottle
  • Puligny –Montrachet la Perrière 1er Cru 2007: Mushrooms, citrus fruit, clean- bought a bottle
  • Auxey-Duresses 2010: Very young and tannin not yet integrated, has potential.
  • Pommard les Noizons 2008: Taste of blackberry, tannin, my friends frown at this wine
  • Beaune les Vignes Franches 1er Cru 2006 / 2007: Soft and spicy
  • Without having tasted it, I bought a Crèmant de Bourgogne brut and a bottle of Clos Saint Denis Grand Cru 2001. The Clos St. Denis was a wonderful match with my beef meat pie Provence style.

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Henri de Villamont at Savigny (Rue du Docteur Guyot)

Henry de Villamont’s highlight is the tour through the cellar. Villamont is under Swiss management. They have renovated the estate. The cellar is spotlessly clean. Our guide is very proud of his estate. He takes us first into the cellar for white wines: 4000 barrels of French oak à 228l mature at a temperature of 14-15 degrees. The cellar for red wine is cooler. We are 12m under the earth. Behind a locked gate they keep old treasures… the oldest wine is from 1911.

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To accompany the wine tasting, we are offered gougères – like in other places. I will have to look for the recipe – they go so well with the wines.

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White wines

  • Savigny-les-Beaunes 2012: Plain, smoky Chardonnay.
  • Chassagne-Montrachet 2010: Nutty (Pistache ), dry-sour, almost too sour.
  • Meursault les Caillerets 2008: Quince, smoky.

Red wines

  • Savigny-les Beaunes-Le Village  2011: Cherry, tannin not yet integrated
  • Volnay le Ronceret 1er Cru 2008: Less nose than Villages, tastes flowery and has “furry” tannin
  • Chambolle-Musigny les Groseilles 1er Cru  2007: Pronounced flowery nose, roses, cherry, tannin – very harmonic
  • Pommard les Epenots 1 er Cru 1990: Light mold in the nose, something is wrong in  the palate – bitter and rotten prune. Obviously too old.
  • Nuits-Saint-Georges 1982: Leather, damp rose, caramel, dried prunes and mushrooms.

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Visiting Burgundy with my friends from Russia was a great experience.We visited so many wine growers in Chablis and around Beaune. We shared so many tastings and exchanged our feelings. I was impressed, how careful my friends tasted the wines. I would love to go back to Burgundy to share more tastings – and also culture – with friends… now that I know that Beaune is only three hours’ car drive away from Basel and Chablis is not far from Beaune…