“…Good company, good wine, good welcome, can make good people…” Such sentiments from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII sum up my last trip to Burgundy – if the final “good” can translate as happy, inspired, grateful, replete, slightly saddle-sore and mildly hungover. The latter quality I blame entirely on unnecessary quantities of 1960s Calvados from the bar at Le Pic in Beaune, and not on the array of fine wines enjoyed throughout.
I’d intended to meet my guests in Paris at Thierry Breton’s quiveringly hip La Pointe du Grouin – an establishment that takes no reservations (of course), uses its own currency, serves magnums, most things on the succulent menu are less than €12, and where there are more beards than a Socialist Workers’ theme party. However, it was a Sunday/public holiday/strike day or some such, so was closed and we ended up dining at the most contrasting restaurant imaginable – Paris’s oldest and arguably most tourist-beloved – Le Procope, where Napoleon would leave his hat in lieu of payment. Still, I enjoyed the fleshy langoustines and a Sorbe Quincy of respectable age, thankfully the last Sauvignon Blanc I would have to drink all week.
We were met the following afternoon in slight drizzle at Le Creusot Montceau by our host Geoff Sandquist, a Canadian travel-business veteran and Burgundy resident for nearly 30 years, and transferred to Puligny-Montrachet, base camp for the first leg of our tour. Fuelled by a lean, nutty Guy Amiot 07 Vergers (Premier Cru Chassagne Montrachet) with charcuterie, then fleshy, inky Château Pommard 2006 with cheeses at Le Montrachet, we set off on a warm-up 25km bike ride along the canals of Puligny and up into the vineyards, passing various hallowed hectares and dreamt-about domaines as the weather cleared into a cloudless dusk. We paused for refreshment at the Caveau de Chassagne, trying a selection of recent vintages and crus from the appellation’s respected growers and those in neighbouring Puligny and Saint-Aubin – the latter once a sweet spot for better-value premier-cru whites but whose prices are now rising with their reputation. Emptying the remnants of Vincent Girardin’s 2007 Grand Cru Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet into my water bottle, I freewheeled back down the hill to Puligny and dinner back at Le Montrachet.
Someone had written it into the rules that during our four nights in Burgundy we were only to drink magnums (or larger formats) at dinner, an eminently sensible precaution that recalled the chalked witticism on the bare walls of La Pointe du Grouin that “a magnum is the perfect size for you and your wife, so long as she isn’t drinking”. We started with a jaunty and undemanding St Aubin Cru 2011 from Marc Colin, which was put firmly in its place by Sylvain Bzikot’s uncompromising 2007 Puligny-Montrachet – all marzipan, ear wax and talc-dusted apple pie. Our red selection began with Rapet’s 2009 Premier Cru Pernand Vergelesses – an appellation appreciated by critics and connoisseurs for its tricky pronunciation. Sometimes herbaceous and angular in leaner years, the 2009 was plumper, with rich and supple fruit wrapped around a steely core. A vertical of Grand Cru Corton Bressandes from Tollot-Beaut followed, a producer who, if not absolutely in the very first tier of Burgundy’s top growers, has a deserved and loyal following among those who appreciate classic, unmanipulated Burgundies that are always a pleasure to drink and never a pain to purchase. The year 2008 was lissom, delicate, a little tense but charming and graceful; 2005 had darker and deeper pools of colour and was five to 10 years off drinking, all cut branches and edges but opening eventually with sweeter fruits. Meanwhile, 1993, a generous donation from Sandquist’s own cellar, had wafts of sweet hay, rhubarb compote and compost on the nose, was soft and perfumed on the palate but not fading, in fact amplifying the longer it breathed – like a dapper, reserved senior at a gathering of youths whose absorbing anecdotes command more attention as the evening wears on… Lovely with volaille de Bresse and sufficiently engaging to ignore the surrounding honeymooners and elderly local couples who, following the noble precepts of all grand French restaurants, clearly preferred the sound of cutlery to conversation.
The next morning, clad in my Timothy Everest three-piece wool Prince of Wales-check cycling suit, inspired by the gentleman riders of the 1930s and complete with storm collar, action back, shoulder pleats, turn-down cuffs and buttonable bottoms, I was ready for the hard miles up over the côtes to Saint-Romain, whose vines are among the highest and latest harvested in Burgundy. After a fairly long climb (for someone who was last on a bike for any distance when Jordy’s Dur dur d’être bébé! was no 1 in France), a gourmet picnic lunch and several bottles of the local brew overlooking the vineyards were well deserved. Refuelled, we pedalled down to Pommard to visit the village’s grandest domaine, Comte Armand, to taste with newly installed winemaker Paul Zinetti. His first vintage was 2014, when he took over from the talented Ben Leroux. He must have been hoping that lightning would not strike twice – or more accurately that hail would not strike three times. Unfortunately, it did, and dramatically reduced the crop – a five-hectare monopole – which yielded less than 15 per cent of the normal harvest. Indeed, the cellar was looking depressingly bare and I could see Zinetti wince as I spat out my thimbleful of surprisingly deeply extracted yet fresh 2013 Volnay Premier Cru (from one of only two barrels made). Diminished in quantity over the years but never in stature, Clos des Epeneaux is like a universe in a glass, the 2012 exploding exponentially in all directions at once. It has great intensity and a weight of rich fruit and impressively structured tannins but only 25 per cent new oak is used, and like good Barolo, it shows lively floral notes, elegance and purity too. As long-lived as many of the Côtes de Nuits’ most renowned wines, it has long been contended that if ever one Côte de Beaune wine deserves elevation to Grand Cru, this is it…
Riding back to Puligny-Montrachet, I considered the considerable mental and financial resolve of those Burgundy growers worst affected by the terrible hailstorms and how complaining about vintage price increases is not a fair reflection of the maths involved. A 30 per cent increase in bottle price cannot compensate a 70 per cent reduction in production. The Burgundians will just have to shrink their bottles and convince us we have grown – not hard given that the first samples are always released for tasting in early January, post festive-gorging…
Dinner that evening was at the beautiful Château de Puligny-Montrachet (first picture) with Etienne de Montille, a former corporate lawyer from whose legal savvy more growers could benefit, given France’s punitive estate-inheritance laws. His well-respected father, Hubert, passed away last year but the domaine is in very safe hands with the son overseeing the reds (their Volnays set the benchmark for the appellation) and daughter Alix taking care of the excellent whites. Briefly touring the winery beforehand, de Montille, explaining his preference for natural yeasts in a region in which 95 per cent are cultivated, argued that “if you do not take risks you can never make a great wine, merely a very good one”. This was a more sage observation than my own comment that the fizzing sound of wine fermenting in vats was presciently similar to that of soluble aspirin in a water glass.
Over dinner de Montille said he enjoyed “dramatic music, good wines and great company”, and to the accompaniment of Puccini arias, subjected us to a challenging blind tasting of premier crus (from magnums, of course). Two of the wines – Puligny-Montrachet Le Cailleret and Pommard Les Rugiens Bas – were both from 2003, which is considered to have produced hot, alcoholic, rapidly maturing wines lacking in depth or complexity. The other two – Meursault Perrières and Volnay Les Taillepieds – were from 2010 and 1990 respectively, both highly esteemed vintages. The point that was cleverly proven before their identities were revealed is an essential one for understanding Burgundy’s unique polarity: wines at once ethereal and ephemeral and yet firmly rooted in soil and rock. The two 03s were delicious, rich and evolved yet fresh and with good acidity. These were from the better vineyards and emphatically showed how “the quality of the terroirs has healed the vintage”. The 2010 and 1990 showed equally, however, when it doesn’t have to. We then moved on to a curiosity, a non-standard cuvée (“everything illegal tastes better”) – de Montille’s 1999 Vendange Tardive, a late-harvest Chardonnay that was almost as much of a pleasure as a privilege – before finishing with some rare 1969 Marc de Bourgogne, the preferred regional digestif and a fine way to conclude an illuminating evening.
For the final instalment of Wine Chap’s vines and velos tour, check back on January 26.