October 14, 2012

Burgundy – exploring the Côte d’Or, the final chapter

Link to the previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4

A change in my schedule requires a modified plan. Rather than continue the hike southbound, I will take the train to Chagny (near Chassagne-Montrachet) and work my way back north on foot from there to Beaune before catching the train to Paris.

The rest in Nuits-Saint-Georges felt good and I spend the morning enjoying the architecture and history of this town while poking through many of the shops and boutiques.

South of Nuits-Saint-Georges, the axis of the escarpment takes on a more southwesterly heading.  The change of course combined with variations in the soil's composition make growing Chardonnay alongside the Pinot Noir a highly successful option.  The further south you travel along the Côte d'Or, the more pronounced the limestone component of the soil becomes until eventually the Chardonnay becomes King.   To the north in the Côte de Nuits, the limestone combines with a higher percentage of marl that caters to the success of Pinot Noir.

Chassagne-Montrachet via Chagny by train is just a short ride.  I bought two poster-sized maps in Nuits-Saint-Georges for my cellar which also come in handy on the train ride.  The maps detail every vineyard in the Côte d'Or wine region and traveling south I have a clear view of the mighty hill at Aloxe-Corton and its surrounding Pinot and Chardonnay plots.  This aggressive change in the landscape is the most pronounced feature along the Côte d'Or and I curiously watch as the trees perform a delicate balancing act at the edge of the hill. The red and white wine made here are both highly sought after for their structure and complexity but it is the grand cru Corton-Charlemagne that gets the true Chardonnay enthusiast's heart beating.  I have a bottle of '05 in the cellar at home and as I marvel at the size of this landmass, I am also working out a dinner menu to pair with the great white.

The town of Chagny is well outside the boundary of the vines that follow the Côte d’Or. Rather than walk through town, across the highway, and up the hill, I’d prefer to hire a taxi for a ride over to Chassagne-Montrachet. And so at the taxi stand outside the train station I wait... and wait... and wait some more.   There is no phone to call, no cab in sight, and no one to ask; it looks like I'm walking after all.

Fortunately a small pastry shop is open on a side street in town, and through a combination of broken language, hand signals, and a picture or two, the lovely lady behind the counter kindly arranges for a taxi to Chassagne.  I purchase two croissants - one with cheese and the other without - plus a fizzy orange drink of some description. The total is 2,25 Euros but I give her 10 for her trouble as her face lights up with a big smile. That makes my day, though I hope she realizes that not every Canadian tips like that. This one just needs to get the show on the road... 

The taxi drops me at the boundary between Santenay and Chassagne-Montrachet where I am surrounded by the vines once again.  Standing in the vineyard of la Comme, I try to envision what lies beyond the hills at the southern limit of the Côte d’Or.  Santenay la Comme is a light-bodied Pinot that hints at the complexity of the wine to the north while reflecting its own individuality.  I buy it by the case whenever it becomes available at home.  In the commune of Chassagne, I see the premier cru plots of les Chaumes, Caillerets, and la Romanée.  So many of these vineyards have filled my glass at dinner in recent years and I have enjoyed every one.  The wines of Burgundy are relatively expensive by comparison, but then I believe in the concept of drinking better wine, not necessarily great amounts of it.

Chassagne-Montrachet has a similar layout and appearance to the villages further north in the Côte de Nuits.  And though each commune does a great job of hiding it, I can't help but notice that hidden behind the historical facade and/or rustic exterior walls is a network of modern technology and winemaking equipment. I really can't say that I am surprised; even the great Burgundy must keep up with the latest trends.   Perhaps the old structures also serve as a constant reminder to maintain an equalibrium between technology and tradition.  

On the hill to the north of Chassagne the leaves reflect the midday sun.  It is the first clear sky of my trip and the uninterrupted light brightens the stonework and old buildings as I pass from the village into the vineyards beyond.

The Pinot Noir vines to the north in the Côte de Nuits are rustic, historic, and unassuming; they looked as though they did 200 years ago, I'm sure.  By comparison, I find the vineyards here in the Côte de Beaune strikingly organized.  The Chardonnay vines on the hills to the north Chassagne are flawlessly kept.  The scene reminds me of a picturesque park.  I walk slowly up the gentle incline on the outskirts of the village; I am in no hurry now. Every aspect of this particular place exudes a greater degree of perfection with each glance when suddenly a sign catches me off guard 'LE MONTRACHET'.  Wow! I knew that I was close but this is it! No wonder the surroundings look flawless, this is the place! 

If Romanée-Conti is the King of Burgundy, then le Montrachet is its white knight - fantastic to see in person, and the best part is that there was no one else here. This minute point on the face of the Earth is completely meaningless to 99.9% of the population. Yet to me, it represents so much that is good. I came looking for the soul of Burgundy and even questioned its existence.  I'm not sure if my epiphany was the sign of the great vineyard itself, the memory of tasting this wine, or the first blue sky I’d seen in Burgundy reflecting off the stark white stone. Perhaps it was a combination of all these factors, but as I pondered an array of thoughts standing on that hillside, an hour passed in what felt like a matter of minutes.  

Le Montrachet and I have met before on two separate occasions, but never in person - once long ago and again more recently.  The first time, I was dazzled but unaware of the significance; that was in '97 at a celebratory dinner for a friend.  The second opportunity was at an auction in 2008; I believe the wine acted as a stimulus causing those in attendance to spend more money in return.

Stepping into the great vineyard, I close the iron gate behind.  Am I allowed to be in here?  I'm not sure, yet as I walk up one of the rows, the level of respect could not be any higher.   Unlike the Pinot Noir vineyards, there is very little Chardonnay left on the vines.  I can't help but wonder if they have made a second pass through.  I'd like to taste the fruit but I can’t find any to tempt me.  In the next row the vines are equally bare and the one after that is the same.  I start to make my way back to the gate when a healthy cluster appears tucked just under the leaves.  Can I?  No, I shouldn't.  But the birds will get them if I don't.  I might, I must - and I do...

My constant purpose in wine is to speak about the atmosphere in which you enjoy your best bottles.  I call it 'setting up the moment'.  The synergy of the meal, the wine, and the company intermingle to create a lasting memory.  The concept of vinous perfection hit me like a freight train on December 16th 1996 in Atlantic City, then again on January 28th 2010 over a 40year old bottle from Spain, and now again here in Burgundy at le Montrachet... and this time the fruit isn't even fermented!

The great Montrachet is flanked above and below by other spectacular vineyards of note: Bâtard le Montrachet which is slightly lower on the hill and the great Chevalier-Montrachet which overlooks both from its walled clos and stone archway above.  The first two are shared between the villages of Chassagne to the south and the next village and AOC Puligny-Montrachet to the north while Chevalier exists entirely in the commune of Puligny.  I walk to the top of the next hill that separates the grand cru vines from the premier and commune plots beyond.

One of the more impressive aspects of this region is the close proximity of one village to the next. Puligny-Montrachet is literally just beyond the next hill. The style of the wine does not change drastically from one commune to the next but rather it follows a gradual transition, and this is the case all along the Côte d'Or.  Furthermore, anyone who tells you that they can taste the difference from one row of vines to the next (because these people do exist) has a vivid imagination.

Beyond the crest of the hill, the vines above Puligny-Montrachet point directly east and therefore forfeit a few precious hours of sun that the grand cru vineyards take full advantage of during the growing season.  In a region where reputation is everything, the classification of the vines unfortunately must pay the price in this situation.

The path takes me along the hillside above Puligny-Montrachet where the view of the surrounding vineyards demonstrates the incredible power of Burgundy and its ability to draw thousands of volunteers to the region each year.  They come here to become one with the land, if only for a day, to assist with the harvest, and to say that they have touched the vines and participated in the winemaking process.  The Chardonnay made in Puligny-Montrachet is generally regarded as the superior of the two villages, though having enjoyed both on many occasions; I have mixed feelings about that generalization and appreciate both for their subtle differences.

I continue toward Meursault under a sunny sky.

Both red and white wine is made throughout the Côte de Beaune and interestingly, all but one of the grand cru whites are located south of Nuits-Saint-Georges. Only le Musigny, near Vougeot in the north can boast a coveted white grand cru.  The opposite can be said of the grand cru red of Burgundy and with the exception of Corton in the south, all the best red vineyards are found well to the north in the Côte de Nuits.

The path I am following is well travelled by cyclists and the occasional car, though I'm not sure the cars are really supposed to be on this particular pathway.  Either way, a 50-metre stretch of the road ahead is flooded and I must walk along the top of the wall to find my way to the dry ground on the other side.  I leave a couple and their Citroen behind.  It's a puny little car, though I'm really not sure how he'll manage to turn it around without getting stuck up to the axles - that'll teach him to drive on the walking trails.

The span of vines here in the Côte de Beaune has a greater width than further to the north.  You can sense the magnitude of these vineyards and the amount of work involved with harvesting these plots before the hail and frost claim the fruit. That is the danger here in Burgundy. What is more incredible is that short of a few clothing articles left behind during the harvest near Chambertin and the ongoing fan club at Romanée-Conti, I have not seen any amount of litter or vandalism whatsoever. Graffiti runs ramped in Paris, but here in Burgundy, the land and architecture are truly proud elements of French heritage.  I can say with confidence that these vines mean the world to the good people who tend to this land.

Reaching the next crest in the landscape, I pause for a moment to gaze upon the village of Meursault.  I am still a few kilometres away but the cathedral stands proudly above the homes that surround the ancient church.  The leaves in the premier cru Les Genevrieres have turned a golden yellow as they cling to the vines for a few more days.  Autumn is finally here and workers are now busy inside the villages crushing and fermenting the fruit that once decorated these great vines.   

The Chardonnay from Meursault is famous to wine connoisseurs throughout the world.  Typically the most oak influenced Chardonnay in the region, the wines of Meursault remain a world away from the buttery wines of California.  Less famous but equally good is the Pinot Noir from Meursault and I'll enjoy a glass of white and a half bottle of red from Domain Pierre Matrot with dinner tonight.

The obvious question that many people ask is 'can you really taste the difference between Burgundy and wine made from the same grapes elsewhere in the world?' The short answer is a firm yes, but it is far more complicated than that.

To a degree, it is the complexity of the explanation that makes Burgundy intriguing. It has taken me almost 12,000 words over five separate posts to convey the perplexity of this land and yet I feel as though I have only given you the tip of the iceberg. The magic and uniqueness of Burgundy lies within the region's vast history and the story that unfolds when you attempt to explain it.   Of the greatest importance must be the vintage conditions in any given year.  Certainly more so here than anywhere the climate is consistent or they modify the composition of the wine by blending varieties to compensate for lesser conditions.   The land speaks to you in Burgundy; the best plots were chosen a thousand years ago and have produced the greatest wine for centuries. And while ownership may transfer, rarely does the classification of the land ever change.  You cannot make great wine with inferior fruit - that is a fact.   Modern equipment and techniques allow for mass production and the option of manipulation to appease the masses but it will never be a substitute for terrior and a sense of place.

I came to Burgundy in search of an explanation.  I found it by walking with the vines, not driving past or flying over them, but standing motionless in the wind and studying the contours of the land. I watched as clouds formed over the hills and I have held the soil in my hands.  I tasted the fruit from nearly every vineyard that I walked past and found similarities and contrasts in both texture and taste of the fruit and wines.  Terroir is the ability of the vines to absorb and express the natural environment and microclimate of each vineyard through its fruit and resultant wines. I derive my pleasure from the purity of these wines and yes, there are many other places in the world that have mastered this art as well, but like the impressionist works of Monet and Picasso, you can appreciate both, but only one will truly speak to your imagination.

As I reach the village of Meursault, I've now walked approximately 35km.  This is where my foot-tour of Burgundy will end.  I have found what I was looking for and due to a sudden change in the unpredictable world of airline travel, I must leave France tomorrow or stay for another 4 days.  In truth, I could explore this land for another month and not see the same thing twice, but there are little people at home who do not fully understand where I have gone or why I am away - it is time to go home.

As I enter the picturesque centre square at the centre of Meursault, I find it alive with couples who are wandering in and out of the shops as they wait for restaurants to open.  There is a wedding here today at the cathedral and the sun is setting just beyond the hills to the west.  It is beautiful here.  I did have a room booked in Meursault, but to catch the early morning train back to the airport tomorrow, I will need to stay in Beaune tonight instead.

I manage to stretch the ten minute cab ride to Beaune into an hour-long adventure by asking the driver who speaks perfect English (I've forgotten her name) to take me through the village of Volnay and then Pommard. We stop at several significant vineyards and landmarks along the way and she shares her thoughts with me on the perception of wine in the French culture.  Of course I sample the grapes each time we stop.  "Don't they all taste the same?" she asks. “I think they're beginning to." I laugh.  As we chat, I learn that everyone here knows someone who works with the vines, and yet very few people actually take the time to recognize the impact of this region on a greater scale.  I am convinced that my passion for Burgundy will somehow benefit others, even if only to provide them with an escape from reality for a few moments as they sip.   

As we round the next corner a gas station and its neon signs cast a reflection of the real world as Beaune quickly approaches.  Suddenly the vines cease to exist.  I close my eyes for the rest of the ride...  


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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