October 15, 2012

Burgundy – exploring the Côte d’Or, part four


Link to the previous posts:  Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3


The sound of a passing rain shower wakes me at 4:30 in Vougeot.  It is forecast to be wet here all week, though thankfully the saturated sky has managed to keep to itself through the daylight hours. As I lay awake, the tranquility of the rain against the clay-tiled roof is a peaceful reminder of what has drawn me to the Côte d'Or in the first place.

Deep in the heart of Burgundy, I am in search of an explanation for why so much has been written about this land and the wine that it produces.  There are many great regions that both fascinate and captivate the imaginations of wine drinkers around the world: Loire, Napa, Bordeaux, and the Mosel to name a few, but there is also a common understanding among wine professionals and enthusiasts that Burgundy and its Côte d'Or represent the very soul of this vast subject. 


Breakfast is a selection of breads and preserves along with a pitcher of orange juice as I spend a few minutes chatting with the inn's owner about which direction my hike will proceed from Vougeot.


Château Clos de Vougeot sits at the top of what is arguably the most historically important vineyard in all of Burgundy.  I am marvelled by the 13th century split-stone wall. It took the Cistercian monks over one hundred years to construct the barricade that surrounds and isolates the vines within.  Along the road to the gates of Château Clos de Vougeot I am somewhat discouraged by the tour bus that passes me.  I suppose that I am a tourist as well, though I have no interest in a guided tour at any point during this trip. The bus barrels-on past a set of thousand-year-old iron gates that open into the great vineyard beyond.  I stop to grasp the handle as if it were my place to step into the vineyard and assess the quality and ripeness of the fruit – it is not my place.  Instead, I imagine how many times over history this land has erupted with activity at a moment’s notice. The harvest is delayed as long as possible to maximize the sugar content in the grapes, but hail and frost can wipe-out a year's worth of hard work in a single night.    

Only a portion of the original 12th century Château Clos de Vougeot structure exists today and a great deal of time and money has been spent to restore the great building and its cellars below.  The Château is a true marvel of architectural significance crafted by the hands of the abbey of Cîteaux.  The monks who relocated here renamed themselves the Cistercian and populated the hillside with vines.  The Clos de Vougeot represents only one of the many vineyards in this commune that produces both red and white wine.  I won’t spend any time on the history or interior of this building – numerous websites will provide you with that information.  It is interesting to note that wine is no longer made in this great building.  It serves only as a national landmark and headquarters for the Chevalier du Tastevin who gather here monthly for their grand-scale dinners and tasting functions.


Inside the Château, I ask about an alternate route to Vosne-Romanée and an employee speaks of an old vineyard road that runs across the hills behind the Château. "The path is in very bad condition Monsieur, full of pot holes”, she says in good English. “Really it is only used by vineyard workers.  You’ll need some good walking shoes if you plan to go that way. Just keep walking toward the cathedral in Vosne,” she advises. “The road will take you there eventually and please be careful along the way.”

Behind the Château on the hillside is the great vineyard Le Musigny with les Armoureuses below it to the north. Chambolle is just beyond my view though I can still see the old stone cross that marks its boundary.  I can’t help but wonder if someone else will stand beside it today and reflect on these fields the same way that I did yesterday.


The condition of the road to Vosne-Romanée is not as poor as I envisioned and but for a few areas that have washed out recently, I can easily make my way safely. Much has been written about the incredible roofline of Château Clos de Vougeot.  From the front of the building you sense the magnitude but only from behind can you fully understand the complexity and the surface area.  Standing at the western most extreme of the wall with a handful of grapes, I stare out over the vines at the great building.  The tour group climb back aboard the bus, having spent their money in the souvenir shop at the château and the vehicle eventually disappears onto the highway at Vougeot.  They've missed the magic completely, I think to myself - it's really too bad.


The path veers off in a number of directions as you approach the boundary between the communes of Vougeot, Flagey-Échézeaux, and Vosne-Romanée.  Somewhat afraid that I might miss something along the way, I choose my route carefully and make my way along and the narrow path toward the vineyards of Grands Échézeaux, Clos St. Denis, and les Suchots.  The wine of Échézeaux has befallen to the same fate as many complex German labels – you can’t sell a wine to North Americans with a label that they can’t pronounce.  I happen to love the sound of this name Échézeaux [Eh-shez-ow] and plan to capitalize on the purchasing opportunity provided by its unfamiliarity.

The beauty of this route is that I can stop wherever I want and stare at the scenery for as long as I like.  There is literally no one else here, that is until a car suddenly appears at the top of the next hill zigzagging its way toward me around the endless divots and potholes. They stop at the edge of le Richebourg without a second glance at the grand cru vines and ask if this road will take them to Chambolle-Musigny.  I happily point them in the right direction while warning about the washed out shoulders ahead.   As they pull away leaving the air filled with diesel exhaust, a lady in the back seat shouts “You're almost there; it’s just over the next hill.”  

While I am well aware of the cause of her excitement, I am certainly not prepared for the imminent truths that lie waiting beyond the crest of the next hill.


Romanée-Conti is the vineyard source for the most expensive and rumoured greatest wine in the world.  I have yet to try it; perhaps some day the opportunity will present itself, but I can't even begin to express the mixed feelings that begin to unfold as this great vineyard appears before me.  The roadside is littered with people, cars, the occasional empty wine bottle, and various other items left behind by the waves of daily visitors.  It looks like a country market (I have a picture but I've decided not to post it).  A group is toasting each other with a bottle of sparkling wine.  They clink their glasses as though they have just conquered Everest. As I approach, another group asks if I will take their picture as they stand on the wall.  Of course I oblige and they thank me while exclaiming, "The greatest wine in the world – ya!"  I don’t have the courage to ask if they have actually tried it.  It dawns on me that I’ve just found the equivalent of Niagara Falls in Burgundy.  Indeed, this location may be a wonder of the world, in terms of wine, but the obvious over popularity has stipped an element of the magic from the grand cru to the point where they need to place signs asking visitors to respect the vineyard.     

Slightly further up the hillside and of no interest to the masses is a very heavy and almost gothic style crucifix that marks the vineyard of aux Raignots.  I head for that point to escape the people and wait for the air to clear.  From here one can see Vougeot to the north and Nuits-Saint-Georges beyond the crest to the south. The clouds break for a moment and the sun shines on the sacred hillside as I watch a worker who is replacing the older wooden stakes that support the training wires for the vines in the great vineyard below. He seems immune to the people that flock to his site.  Romanée-Conti is actually rather understated and but for the signs asking visitors not to enter the vineyard, the wall that surrounds this plot really bares no difference to any other that I have passed to this point.  After a few minutes the crowd begins to dissipate and I make my way back down the hill.



A much older stone cross marks this site and I sit on the wall for a while to watch the wind as it pushes the scattering clouds across the top the Côte.  The air descends upon the leaves of the vines creating a gentle rustling sound that reminds me of my children at home.  It feels good to sit here and just as I am about to keep moving toward the village, the gentleman working in the field pauses his task and walks toward me.  


"I saw you yesterday walking from Morey-Saint-Denis." he states in good English.  
“Yes, I'm working my way from Fixin to Santenay.  I spent last night Vougeot." I respond.
"That's a long way”, he smiles. “It's a good thing you are young."  
"Sadly not as young as I once was", I laugh.  

Having noticed the Canadian flag on my backpack the day before, he explains that he has family in Montreal.  We chat for a while about the difference in French culture between the two countries and what reasons have led me to Burgundy

“Can I ask if this wine really lives up to its reputation?”  
He pauses for a moment, reaches into the vines, and then from across the old stone wall, he hands me a cluster of the most exalted fruit in the world.  “Here young man," he says, "now you can say that you have tried Romanée-Conti in its purest form.” 
We laugh and I thank him for his time.  
“Bon voyage!” he shouts as he makes his way back into the vineyard.  




The vines here are the source of both great wealth and prosperity.  It is widely recognized that the village Vosne-Romanée would not exist without them; but then I suppose that conclusion could be drawn about many of these tiny communes along the Côte d'Or.  This fact seems rather obvious though as I walk through the narrow walled streets here in Vosne.  Each building is marked with a plaque stating the name of the domaine within.  Everything here is related to wine and as with the vineyards that surround, its building are somewhat understated as well.  

Heading south from Vosne-Romanée, the great la Tache walks along beside me for a few acres.  I know people who claim to have held back tears at the sight of these legendary vines.  It is certainly something to see in person and I can’t help but smile knowing where I have been this morning.

The terrain as you leave Vosne-Romanée rises gently to a point where the old church steeples in Nuits-Saint-Georges become visible in the distance.  There are a surprising and somewhat bizarre number of snails scattered across the roadway as I walk. In the 20 plus kilometres that I have covered so far, I have not seen a single snail (not that I was looking for them either), yet suddenly there are hundreds.  The soil structure and composition is changing and the minerals that feed the vines also attract other members of nature’s small miracle here in Burgundy.  If the wine of Vosne-Romanée is delicate and complex, Nuits-Saint-Georges is known for it power and structure.  The soil in Burgundy combined with the exposure of the land determines the style of these wines.

Across the country, winemakers in Bordeaux blend multiple grape varieties from various plots to compensate for varying vintage conditions. But here in Burgundy, while they are legally allowed to blend with up to 15 percent of other varieties, blending is generally not practiced and therefore red Burgundy is truly a solo performance by the Pinot Noir.  The purity of Burgundy, both red and white, and its relative transparency is what has captured the attention of enthusiasts for years. You may doubt its greatness as you stand in the wine shop staring at the shelves and elevated price tags, but walk amongst the vines and you begin to understand how such a relatively small place can have such a profound impact on the wine drinking population.




I wonder if the person who owns the modern pink low-rise apartment building on the north side of Nuits-Saint-George is aware that his or her gaudy paint scheme is the first thing that people like me see after they brush with greatness and history in the valley before. The sight leaves a sour taste in my mouth, as do the grapes as I stop to taste.  Far too much fruit still clings to the vines here.  Have they not harvested yet?  I can't imagine. Perhaps they accidentally missed a few rows.  I've looked at least a million vines by this point and I will dare to say that the vineyards as I approach Nuits-Saint-George are not as well kept.




While the pink apartment complex continues to stare at me, I hear the sound of children playing in the community ahead.  My hotel is another 2km further up the road, tucked into the trees of the Côte d’Or.  As I make the first turn into French suburbia, mud from my shoes leaves a trail of terroir on the clean sidewalk behind as I pass by one new home after the next.  In a matter of footsteps everything has suddenly changed and I literally laugh out loud at the thought of it all… I've seen far too much today; it's time for a hot shower and a good meal. 

mixed greens salad

seared duck breast confit

black chocolate of Venezuela - OMG!

I have only one more day to complete this incredible journey. In my next and final post, I catch the train to the bottom of the Cote d'Or and work my way back up to beautiful Meursault and then to on Beaune where this adventure comes to an end.  

Cheers and thank you kindly for following along.  

~> Read Burgundy Part Five

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Tyler is a member of the Wine Writers' Circle of Canada and the Guild of Sommeliers. He writes about and reviews wine both online and via a variety of circulating publications. In 2009 Tyler founded North of 9 Fine Wine, a free public wine education resource where he publishes his Thoughts, Theory, and Recommendations. For additional vinous related information and learning, follow on Twitter @TylerOnWine