Notes from my trip to Burgundy in March-April 2011.
In early April this year, as much of the wine world headed to Bordeaux for the annual en primeur rituals, I decided to head instead to Burgundy where no such hoopla was taking place. I arrived in Dijon in the early evening and headed to Beaune, where I was to be based for the duration of the trip. Though my formal itinerary did not start till the next day, I decided to drive down Route N74 to get a glimpse of the famous Côte d’Or. The Côte d’Or is probably one of the best-documented, most written about and frequently dissected stretches of land the world. There’s very little else for me to add by way of description – except perhaps my first impressions. Surprise and reverence is what I felt in equal measure as I drove by the Côte. Surprise at how small the Côte d’Or was – vertically no more than the size of a hillock. And reverence because this relatively small stretch of land is steeped in history and produces some of the most sought-after wines in the world.
What the Côte makes visually clear is its diversity. In the glistening light of the setting evening sun, the diversity of the land was clearly visible. Patches of green mixed with barren patches of mud, some pieces of land tilled, others not. The Côte’s soils are diverse – proportions of limestone and clay varying from place to place – and, at the right time of the year, this is apparent to the eye. But the diversity is also the man-made – coming from the highly-fragmented ownership of the vineyards, a result of inheritance laws. Famously, some growers own no more than a row or two of vines.
Commercially, the wines of Burgundy are sold either by Négociants (Merchants) or directly by the Domaines (smaller single estates). The Négociants traditional role in Burgundy has been to buy wines from different growers and blend them to produce significant quantities of wines of a particular appellation. They also often buy wine from across Burgundy to blend and bottle as basic AOC Bourgogne. These days, Négociants often have large vineyard holdings of their own – which they use to produce single-vineyard wines (often from designated Premier Cru or Grand Cru) alongside their blended AOC Village or generic AOC Burgundy offerings. Négociants remain hugely important in Burgundy. In India, as in many other countries around the world, Négociants are the dominant suppliers of Burgundy wines. Louis Jadot, Louis Latour, Albert Bichot and Joseph Drouhin – all present in India – are important Négociants. On the other hand – Burgundy’s Domaine wines, made from estate-owned vineyards, are barely represented in India.
If diversity is one of the main strengths of Burgundy, then wines of the smaller Domaines are the best way to experience it. I’m referring here not just to the diversity of terroir, but also to the difference in philosophy that each Domaine has towards growing grapes and making wine. Domaines tend to be small (holdings of 7 to 11 hectares are very common), family-run and often full of passion and personality. If there’s a downside – it has to do with sheer numbers. There are hundreds of Domaines in Burgundy and figuring out which the good one’s are can be a daunting task. During my three-day visit, I decided to concentrate exclusively on visiting smaller Domaines and tasting their wines. Over three days of tasting, I tried about 75 wines from at least 10 different Domaines.
The wines I tasted were mostly from the 2008 and 2009 vintages, with a smattering of older vintages. For lovers of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Burgundy is about as close as it gets to paradise. The reds and the whites are different in personality from each other – the reds coming from the hard-to-handle and finicky Pinot Noir, the whites mostly from the hardier Chardonnay. I have a personal fondness for Pinot Noir from many places (California Central Coast, Oregon, Tasmania, Otago, Martinborough) – but especially if it comes from Burgundy. I’m also drawn to Chardonnay if it comes from Burgundy (from elsewhere I can be a little bit ambivalent about it – especially if it is overoaked and lacks minerality – two shortcomings not commonly associated with Burgundy).
Pinot Noir from Burgundy is not for everyone. Especially it is not for those who vehemently declare their fondness for big, full-bodied, fruity wines of the New World (and this might be part of the challenge that Burgundy reds will face in India). If Burgundy’s Pinot’s lack anything – it is immediacy. They do not make their presence felt on the palate immediately and forcefully, but in a kind of gentler, subtler way. This is one reason that these are wines for true connoisseurs. Taste, especially for subtlety, and an open-mind is what helps the palate discover the layers of fruit, flavour and minerality in these wines.
Part of the delight of visiting the Domaines, apart from the wines themselves, was learning about the Domaine owners and winemakers (often the same). These small growers and Domaine owners are lucky enough to own some of the choicest agricultural real-estate in the world. This makes them wealthy – at least on paper. However, you would not know it simply by looking at them – because above all these people are vignerons who actually work in the vineyards.
For the first day of the visit, I was accompanied by Chris McIndoe, a fluent French-speaking Englishman who has worked with Louis Latour in the past and now runs Vinspiration Wines – a Beaune based company that works with several quality Domaines to market their wines.
We started the tour in Chambolle-Musigny at Domaine Amiot-Servelle. The Domaine owns 7.5 hectares of vineyard lands (in different plots and villages) and produces 35,000 bottles a year. Certified Organic, they have a non-interventionist philosophy – letting the vineyards and the grapes play the major role in the kind of wine produced. All grapes are hand-harvested. An architect by training, Christian has been making wine for 30 years. He manages the vineyard work with 3 full-time and some seasonal staff. Clad in jeans and working boots when we met, Christian represents the kind of Domaine owner who literally gets his hands dirty in the vineyard. This is the type of owner that I was to encounter at every Domaine that I visited – without exception. Most Amiot-Servelle wines come in at 12.5-13% abv – Christian does not like his wines to go over the 13% alcohol. Out of curiousity I asked Christian about his impression of New World Pinot’s. He thought California Pinot’s to be overblown, and though he felt that there were some interesting wines from Oregon – he did not think that they reach the heights of complexity that come easily in Chambolle-Musigny. He had never tried any Pinot’s from Australia or New Zealand. If anything can be faulted (and this is common among Burgundy’s small growers) – it is a sense of insularity, of being ensconced in the finest region for Pinot Noir in the world and not wanting to look outwards.
Domaine Amiot-Servelle AOC Bourgogne red and white are both very good introductions to the range that includes Commune, Village and Premier Cru wines as well. Their red Chambolle-Musigny Premier Cru Les Charmes is particularly good, as is the Premier Cru Les Amoureuses. Both these wines exhibit very judicious use of oak and offer up complexity with wonderful notes of strawberry, cherry, truffle, earth and tobacco – with a mineral, savoury edge on the finish. Of all these wines, the 2009’s had the more opulent fruit, concentration and immediacy, though the 2008’s were excellent as well. Despite their concentration the 2009’s were light on their feet, and full of finesse.
The next stop was at Domaine Humbert Frères in Gevrey-Chambertin. The Domaine is run by brothers Emmanuel and Frédéric. I met with Emmanuel – who at 45 years old has already worked on 30 vintages, having started working in the Domaine at the age of 16! Emmanuel tries to create a modern style of Burgundy (rich and dense) – using low-yields and cold maceration to extract more colour, and fruity robustness. Even the AOC Bourgogne 2009 red is very concentrated, spicy and delicious. Emmanuel explains that grapes for AOC Bourgogne wine come from parcels that were fruit orchards 70-80 years back but sit right next to parcels classified at Gevrey-Chambertin Village. As a result of being fruit orchards, they were never classified – and now offer grapes that are Gevrey-Chambertin Village quality, but only a third the price. We tried a succession of wines – Village and Premier Cru from a number of vintages: 2008, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2001 and 1999. The wines were uniformly excellent – offering concentration and robustness but at the same time finesse and elegance. My favourites were Gevrey-Chambertin Estournelles Saint-Jacques Premier Cru 2004 and the Premier Cru Poissenot 2005. The latter wine is the flagship wine of the Domaine (though there are only 15 barrels of it annually) and is Emmanuel’s pride and joy. I could see why: the wine was dark, with a very harmonious nose of strawberry and cherries. On the palate, it was evocative, layered and complex – delicious mouth-filling fruit intermingling with earthy minerality.
Next we headed to white wine territory – Meursault. The first stop here was at Domaine François Gaunoux. The Domaine is co-managed by a father a daughter pair, François and Claudine, though Claudine handles the main responsibilities. We were received in a large hall of a stone building with a fire crackling in the fireplace and the wines set on a large wooden table. We decided to take a tour of the premises first, with Claudine showing us around. We ran into François – 79 years old still hard at physical work in the winery – cleaning the hoses, moving stuff around. This is as perfect an example of Burgundian earthiness as you will find – something that is no-doubt reflected in the wines. Claudine herself was an example of a vigneron with her feet firmly on the ground – she rarely travels she told us, because she has to be in the vineyard everyday. She likes to have her vineyard looking like a garden – and that takes hard work. Between managing the affairs of the Domaine, working in the vineyards and taking care of the kids – she has no time for anything
else. So travel to fancy trade shows is definitely out! The Domaine has very extensive underground cellars – dug into the ground these stone cellars are perfect storage for wine. This Domaine (and this is in no way the norm in Burgundy) maintains an extensive stock of older wines. Among the wines we tried at the Domaine, I really enjoyed the Meursault 2009, from Le Clos de Tavaux which is a monopole vineyard just behind the winery building. It had a floral nose with opulent peach and stone fruit, a hint of honey with refreshing acidity and balance. Among the reds, the Pommard Premier Cru, Les Grand Epenots 2009 stood out for its light body, nose of raspberry with floral hints and a savoury, spicy finish – delicious!
The next estate we visited was Domaine Bernard-Bonin, also in Meursault, which is run with an organic and biodynamic philosophy (though not certified yet). Another estate with a highly non-interventionist philosophy – the wines are neither fined nor filtered. We tried eighth white wines – which were uniformly excellent – with some really stunning wines. Concentration, balance and loads of stony minerality were a uniform feature across the wines. With such consistence it is hard to pick favourites, but the three wines that I would classify as stunning were Meursault Premier Cru Les Charmes 2009, Meursault Premier Cru Genevrieres 2009, Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru La Garenne 2009. These are all wines that I would love to have in my cellar and to keep for at least 10 years, during which time I’m sure they will rise to a honeyed magnificence that Burgundy whites are so capable of.
We finished our day with a visit to Domaine Philippe Chavy in Puligny-Montrachet – another estate with several excellent and some stunning whites. Philippe Chavy was our host and is of the 5th generation to run the family Domaine that now has 8 hectares of vineyards in Puligny-Montrachet and Meursault. Charming and affable, Philippe was a picture of enthusiasm about his wines (which was well justified). Once again we were joined by his elderly father in the tasting, another reminder (if any were needed) that ‘family-run’ is not just a superficial label at these Domaines. We tried 10 wines here, of which the three stunning stand-out’s were Puligny-Montrachet Rue Rousseau 2008 (felt like Grand Cru quality from a Village wine), Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru Les Pucelles 2009 (aromatically subtle but opening beautifully in the mouth to reveal layered complexity and minerality), and finally, Puligny-Montrachet Corvees des Vignes 1998. This last wine was a nice pale gold colour, a complex nose of honey, stone, flint and smoke – and on the palate, showing beautiful complexity that comes with age.
Day 2 and 3 notes to follow in due course!