“… all the winegrower is trying to do is to put the land in the glass” – Joy Pygott
It is one thing to write about wine made in different parts of the world. It is an entirely different matter all together when one can actually visit the places where great wine is created. In June of 2014, my wife and I had the opportunity to travel to France and visit the Beaune region of Bourgogne, or as we like to say, Burgundy. I have written previously on several regions that I have visited, but I must admit, visiting Burgundy was like coming home. Burgundy as a wine region has had a profound effect on manywine lovers as being the place in the world where arguably the best and most complex wine, and most difficult grape varietal (Pinot Noir) to grow comes from. To finally be able to put names together with places, and to taste these wines in the actual place they are created is an experience not soon forgotten. This is a two part wine blog (travelogue) , the first part highlighting the regional and village wines from the Cotes du Beaune, and the second part geared towards 1er Cru and Grand Cru.
The days tour in Beaune was capably led by Joy Pygott,, of Burgundy discovery tours (www.burgundydiscovery.com). Joy and her husband Robert are expatriots from the UK who love Burgundy so much that they retired early, moved to Beaune, and took over the premiere Bourgogne touring company in the region. We had three major tastings from the Cote de Nuits, Cote de Beaune, Cote Chalonnaise. Some wines were pretty good, and some were astronomically exceptional. I will try to give a brief synopsis on some of the highlights.
First some information on Burgundy that helps with orientation. Burgundy has five appellations (Les Vignobles) that are similar in arrangement to Napa. At the top (actually northwest about an hour) is Chablis. It specializes in bright, minerally, unoaked Chardonnay. Moving south just below Dijon is Cote de Nuits, which is where the most noble red Burgundy (Aloxe Corton, Domaine de la Romanee Conti, Gervrey Charmbertin, and all of the Vosne Romanee), and Nuits St George is located. Below that is Cote de Beaune, which is where the vast majority of red Burgundy comes from, and also some of the whites. Some significant regions here are Pommard, Volnay, and Mersault. Additionally, the first important white Burgundy region (Puligny Montrachet) is located here. Farther south is Cote Chalonanaise (all mostly whites) where Bouzeron, Rully (great whites from here!), Mercury and Givry are located. Still farther south is the Maconnais, and much of the lesser quality but easy drinking whites are from. Too many sub regions here to note, except for Pouilly and Fuisse’. Finally, in the most southern part is Beaujolais, the region known for Gamay and the popular Beaujolais Nouveau, but is not really considered Burgundy. The valley along the road RN74, is where most of the village Burgundy is grown. I have a new appreciation for village wines from this region. The village wines we tasted were complex, and extremely expressive of the local terroir. The 1er cru and Grand Cru vineyards are predominantly found along the western side of the valley along the slope that makes up the Cote d’ Or (golden slope),
There is one particular hill at the border between Beaune and Nuits called the Corton Hill that was very important to the 8th century emperor, Charlemagne when he ruled here, that is known for producing great 1er and Grand Cru wines. This is where we concentrated our efforts (sorry, no DRC for us today!). My favorite quote of the day was, “… All the winegrower is trying to do is to put the land in the glass.”
The vines and grapes are really second fiddle, and all the designations come from the quality of the land’s subsoil, which was loosely organized by Charlemagne, but made official only in 1936, when the appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) designated which regions were suitable for growing regional, village, 1er Cru or Grand Cru wines. The type and age of the vine only influences the yield, and to a smaller extent, the end structure of the wine. The French inheritance laws caused much of the vineyards to be divided up between siblings over the years. Often the small farmers don’t have enough acreage to produce a large enough quantity of wine to sell under its own label to any significant extent, without the ability to combine efforts into regional or village wines. It does not mean that the quality is not excellent. As previously mentioned, much of the regional wines and most of the village wines have bright flavors and balance that appropriately reflect the terroir of the Bourgogne. Lastly, most of the vines in Burgundy are only about 60 years old! Most we’re torn out and replaced after WW 2, because they were too damaged.
Our first tasting was at Domaine Marcellet, a small family run Cote de Beaune operation that specializes in wines from the Hautes Cote de Beaune highlands, or wines from the higher elevations found in the slight mountains above the Cote d’ Or, and from the Savigny region, also in Beaune. The other white varietal allowed to be grown in Burgundy, besides Chardonnay, is Aligote. This grape tastes a lot like Sauvignon Blanc, and is a really great summer wine for the patio. The Hautes Cotes de Beaune are regional, and inexpensive ($12ish), but very tasty (fruit forward, strawberries), and a good bet if you can find them. They sell out very quickly locally. The Savigny Les Beaune wine we had was much darker in color, with slight, round tannins and more finesse than the Hautes wines. Also not too expensive ($15-20ish). This mountain area is also where the best Creme de Cassis Bourgogne comes from, and it is simply amazing. Real Kir cocktails are made from this Creme de Cassis and Aligote. Really fabulous!
This first half of the blog on the regional and village wines is important because the bulk of the wine actually made and consumed from Burgundy is made at these levels. Because of the expense that the great wines of burgundy have achieved over the past thirty years, the Grand Crus and many of the 1er Crus have become unattainable for all but the very few. The reputation of Burgundy may be made from the Grand Cru, but the enjoyment of these remarkable wines comes from the regional and village offerings. I will send the second half of this note on Burgundy at a later date. That is all for now.