WineChap is halfway through a four-day cycling and châteaux tour of France’s exalted wine region…
Despite a taciturn weatherman indicating the day would be mostly cloudy, when we began our ride from Puligny-Montrachet to Beaune it was the very brightest of blue mornings. Cycling along the Route des Grands Crus is the perfect way to orient yourself to the region – and at a pace that allows the wine lover to appreciate each of the remarkable vineyards either side of its 60km total (this leg was about 12km) for just long enough, before eagerly pedalling on to the next.
You immediately pass between the greatest Chardonnays in the world: the Grand Cru Bâtard and Bienvenues Bâtard on your right, and Chevalier and the eponymous Montrachet itself on your left. Puligny’s premier-cru vines line up like an entourage either side, and then it’s out to their counterparts north in Meursault. Here, without such weight of expectation, they have traditionally produced more hedonistic, less focused whites, but now seem to be concentrating on greater refinement and sophistication every year. Volnay is up next, responsible for some of Burgundy’s most beguiling, silky and softly perfumed reds, and then Pommard, often more forthright and four-square but with no shortage of gruff charm and opulence.
After arriving in Beaune and enjoying a quenching Belenium (a blonde beer brewed locally), we headed for lunch at Caves Madeleine, a very hip bistro that we had booked in its entirety. On the normally communal table, simple but exquisite dishes – cabbage and lardon salad, roast cabillaud, cheeses, apricot tart – were accompanied by wines from the racks behind us (no list, of course) from new-generation biodynamic innovators. Among them were a crémant “brut nature” from Laurent Tripoz in Macon, then Athénaïs de Beru’s monopole Chablis.
We had two starkly contrasting visits after lunch. First we joined Mark Haisma, hard at work on his 2014 ferments in an unprepossessing warehouse on the outskirts of Beaune. Haisma – an Antipodean ex-pat, formerly winemaker at Yarra Yering – is a rare example of an outsider managing to work his way into Burgundy’s notoriously closed circle, but who has been accepted by dint of diligence and tenacity. A number of growers now trust him sufficiently to give him just enough fruit – or rather, the opportunity to choose and work personally on specific micro-parcels of their vines, from pruning through to harvest. An engaging host (“it takes many litres of beer to make one litre of wine”), he shows you can take the winemaker out of Australia but…
Haisma’s views on Burgundy and its Byzantine politics are refreshingly trenchant and free from the mystical pronouncements that tend to emanate from domaines and commentators alike. His wines are less straightforward – typically showing an energy and linear clarity around which the hard and challenging soils he prefers transfer their geological character. To ensure an even fermentation, Haisma is not averse to stripping down and hopping into the vats, skin being the most sensitive temperature gauge for evaluating the occurrence of chemical reactions. Sufficiently encouraged and with trouser legs rolled up, I lowered myself into some frothing 2014 Gevrey Chambertin and stomped around for a while, enjoying the opportunity to contribute more than just words to a vintage. Gevrey is Haisma’s mainstay (and a beautiful single barrel of Bonnes Mares), but his whites – a Saint Romain and now Santenay – are garnering attention, and a premier cru Morey St Denis “Chaffots” perched above Clos de la Roche is en route to become the showstopper. Increasingly rated by critics and consumers alike, the minute quantities he makes (two to three barrels each, usually) means the wines sell out immediately and are now well on their way to achieving cult status.
By comparison, the second winemaker we visited, Bernard Hervet, is almost as much of a Burgundy institution as Domaine Faiveley, which he oversees, after having been with Bouchard Père et Fils and William Fèvre for many years. Faiveley is one of the largest and oldest domaines in Burgundy, with 120 hectares spread across its length, and Hervet marshals the wines like a conductor does his orchestra (an appropriate analogy given that his passion for music led him to organise the Musique et Vin au Clos Vougeot festival, hosted annually in the Château de Clos du Vougeot and now in its seventh season). “Chardonnay is like Mozart,” mused Hervet as we tasted Faiveley’s grand-cru whites Bâtard-Montrachet and Corton-Charlemagne, “too difficult for children, but too simple for adults.” He continued saying that, while it is easy to make a good Chardonnay in Burgundy but hard to make a great one, for reds the situation is reversed: “The challenge is to craft a decent, balanced Pinot Noir, whereas the top premiers and grands crus fashion themselves.”
Comparing the deceptively drinkable but resonant 2012 Chambertin-Clos de Bèze (chalk and linctus swirling around a red and black fruit-pastille core) with the more monolithic Corton (“the Bordeaux-lover’s Burgundy”, because of its tannic structure), we discussed the most significant change Hervet had instituted at Faiveley – the oak used to age the wines. On the much-debated subject, he suggested wryly that “of course, the best barrels are new oak… and so are the worst”. One thing that has remained steady is value for money, for while yields have been significantly reduced in recent years (2009 was the last decent-sized crop), Faiveley, by dint of its size, has been better able to weather the various storms, and this has allowed the domaine to retain relatively consistent pricing, where much of the competition is getting increasingly expensive. Rather more exclusive is the club for the world’s elite Burgundy collectors, 1243 Bourgogne Society, that Hervet set up last year with the owner of Château de Meursault, Olivier Halley, in an exquisitely restored monastery next to the Hospices de Beaune. Here, the highly select members (currently numbering just 35) can store their vinous treasures and gather in the various private rooms for dinners, recitals and other functions or, in the private garden, enjoy viewing the famous patterned roof of neighbouring Hôtel-Dieu, its junior by 200 years.
The 65km cycle ride next day from Beaune to Gevrey and back in glorious autumn sunshine was a good antidote to the prodigious quantities of Armagnac consumed after our dinner the previous evening at La Comédie du Vin, where, under the tutelage of chef Anna-Marina Pagnotta, we prepared classic Burgundian dishes – gougères, escargots, poulet “a la Gaston Gérard” and poire au vin partnered by various magnums (as had become de rigueur).
After stopping for much-needed coffees and pastries in Nuits-Saint-Georges, we proceeded to cycle past the most expensive vineyards in the world, clustered north of the village of Vosne-Romanée. Zooming past La Tâche and La Grande Rue, we paused for the obligatory photograph sitting on the walls of Romanée Conti, working out that, with current bottle prices on release around €10,000, each grape in this iconic 1.8-hectare plot is worth around €4.
Richebourg, Romanée-Saint-Vivant and then Echezeaux followed before we arrived at the famous Château du Clos de Vougeot, set in the 50-hectare vineyard of Vougeot – the largest grand cru, with more than 80 owners. It was here in the 12th century that the Cistercian monks began to lay the seeds for Burgundy’s greatness, experimenting with different clones and new viticulture techniques. The higher part of the vineyard, nearest the château, is considered the choicest terroirs and although it was once said the wines from the upper section were for popes, those from the middle for bishops and those at the base, for monks, the château’s motto “jamais en vain, toujours en vin” should be recalled gratefully, whomsoever’s bottle you are opening.
Passing the grand cru Le Musigny and then the majority of Bonnes Mares in Chambolle-Musigny, we cycled into the village of Morey-Saint-Denis, arguably the least regarded but most satisfying of Nuits’ serious reds, and arrived thirsty at Domaine des Lambrays, our first appointment of the day. Clos de Lambrays, the first grand cru I ever tasted, remains a longstanding favourite, and although I have bottles from every vintage since 1998, I had not visited the domaine previously. Purchased last year by LVMH boss Bernard Arnault, Lambrays remains in the capable hands of the laconic and diffident regisseur Thierry Brouin, who has been at the domaine for 35 years. The wine, like the best crus from the appellation, combines the best qualities of its neighbours: the feminine grace and soft perfume of Chambolle-Musigny’s grand crus with the power and intensity of those from Gevrey-Chambertin. In the cellar, we tried the pre-assemblage but highly promising middleweight 2013, the structured and rich 2012, and the superlative 2010. When asked to explain the different character of each vintage, Brouin suggested: “It’s because I’m lazy, I prefer to let the vines do the work.”
The final 2km to lunch took us past another stable of the most venerable grands crus – the Chambertins, with the finest sites hugging the western side of the track – Latricières, Clos de Bèze and in the middle the eponymous Chambertin itself, of which Hilaire Belloc famously wrote: “J'ai oublié le nom du lieu, le nom de la fille, mais le vin… était du Chambertin”. Christine Drouhin (of Drouhin-Laroze, who with her husband, Philippe, runs one of the most successful domaines in the region) was our gracious hostess, chef and sommelier, treating us to her legendary cooking and uncorking some more grand-cru wines. Our palates refreshed by her daughter’s commendable Bourgogne Chardonnay, Drouhin opened two vintages of her negociant label Charmes-Chambertin to enjoy with Burgundian staple Jambon Persillé (pressed pork terrine). Although these were a little too chilled and a trifle underwhelming for our now-spoiled palates, next up with a boeuf bourguignon and dauphinoise were the Domaine’s 2011 and 2008 Clos de Bèze – benchmark examples of this magnificent wine. Finishing the bottles with a board of local cheeses, and then ruefully watching my lycra cycling gear expand as I tackled a family portion of rich chocolate mousse, the 35km cycle back to Beaune was an essential digestif.
Our final dinner took us to the house of Remoissenet for a fittingly extravagant finale to our trip. This 14th-century building houses a cellar of more than a million bottles of premier and grand cru reds dating back to the 1950s, perilously layered on stacks of fragile-looking, unsupported wooden slats that could one day lead to the most expensive game of dominoes ever. Our host was Terry Price – a charming, garrulous, professional Welshman, Harvey’s Burgundy veteran and long-time expat – who afforded us an alternative view of Burgundy, which is too little expounded today. Our philosophical (and in part aesthetic) tendency to prefer the artisan over the commercial, the independent over the corporate, and the grower over the grape buyer has blinded us, suggested Price, to the simple fact that much (if not most) of the wine produced in Burgundy between the 1950s and 1970s was unrewarding at best, awful at most honest. He argued that negociants like Remoissenet maintained higher standards (for commercial reasons) and kept the small growers from going belly up by guaranteeing an annual income.
A controversial view perhaps, but one that bears more consideration – though not right now, when I want to move on to mentioning the world’s most depraved hors d’oeuvres: chocolate and foie-gras macarons. The bike ride back from Gevrey would have to have been many miles longer to have allowed me to enjoy these sinful temptations free from remorse – luckily I have a high self-recrimination tolerance. Magnum followed magnum over dinner – Corton-Charlemagne and Puligny premier cru Les Folatières with more foie gras, then a jeroboam of premier cru Chambolle with truffled veal and a magnum of 1978 Charmes-Chambertin in reserve. This latter might have been the star wine of the trip, had Price not nipped down to the cellar and returned with a cobweb-strewn bottle of 1967 Volnay premier cru, which demonstrated how convincingly Burgundy can age, especially with a little help from Algeria (perhaps). There followed dancing, and then more Armagnac back at Hôtel Le Cep, where I bumped into a client who was touring Burgundy – but not in the same style, I slurringly admonished.
A painfully early car to Dijon train station and I returned back to the UK, where for 48 hours I existed on a diet of crispbreads and sparkling water – before I recalled a worldly fellow had promoted “everything in moderation, including moderation”, and began planning my return to Beaune…