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Burgundy – The Angels Share
Our stay in Beaune as the centre point of our introduction to Burgundy was at the Hôtel Henry II Rue du Faubourg Saint-Nicolas, 21200 Beaune and a fine place to stay it proved to be. Beaune centre was a short stroll away and this would become a town that not only would we become very familiar with but immediately it would become a favourite ville in France. Once settled in the hotel we struck out on our own to explore the ancient streets of the wine town but never as yet finding the confidence to go into the many shops filled with the wines of the region. Especially intriguing are the bottles originating from the Hospices de Beaune with their hefty price tags – we still had a great deal to learn and we needed assistance. The ancient town of Beaune is the hub of the wine trade of Burgundy. Beaune as an appellation is an excellent one in its own right but of course is surrounded by many very famous village and commune names. Beaune is a beautiful town, full of attractive and interesting architecture and you need to explore inside the ancient walls of the town. Take time to walk along the many cobbled side streets, taking slim entrance ways to seek out the numerous fascinating narrow passageways before concentrating on the main event in the centre of the town – L’Hôtel Dieu.
This charitable hospital was founded in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, chancellor of Philippe le Bon. Rolin is a name you will still see associated with winemaking in the Côte d’Or vineyards. This building is of high gothic architecture, it reflects the strong bond between Burgundy and Flanders. Its multi coloured polychrome roofs along with the golden colours of the Last Judgement altarpiece by Rogier Van der Weyden have made this standout building famous. This medieval hospital also contains a multitude of other treasures including the great “Salle des Pôvres” with its highly sculpted and decorated ceiling, a gothic chapel, the pharmacy housing a collection of pewter and earthenware, the kitchen boasting an automated rotisserie. The Hospices de Beaune charity wine auction has taken place annually here at the Hôtel since 1859, and falls on the third Sunday in November as part of a three-day festival purely devoted to the food and wines of Burgundy – a festival known as Les Trois Glorieuses. The parcels of land relating to the hospital itself are owned as a non-profit venture and the wine auction can set high prices that go to charity but also become the benchmark guide as to the prices expected for that particular year’s vintage. The three days are a joyous but highly prestigious occasion and to partake in the bidding would not be for the fainthearted. We would be wined and dined in Beaune on these next few days and also on other occasions in the future when we revisit but although I have been inside the Hospital I have not as yet had a table at the November festivities.
Around the hospital are many fine wine retailers and the bottles in the window displays are a who’s who of famous names. One unusual one is the label on a bottle from a piece of land on one of the best vineyards, that of Grèves. A small parcel of that land is called L’Enfant Jesus and you will see bottles of that name in the shops. This rather colourful name came from the early wine producing monks and apparently it is derived from the expression that the wine ‘goes down like little Jesus in velvet trousers’. I can only assume that was thought up after one too many late-night drinking sessions in the local taverns or the crypt in the abbey.
On this visit our party group would be an eclectic one and we were to enjoy some interesting and stimulating company for the most part, but there were other parts also, believe me.
There was an older couple called John and Sylvia who were stimulating company. They have an equally interesting son who is familiar as a resident expert on the Antiques Roadshow on the BBC.
Jack and Hilary were from California and had made the long trip over to France especially to be on this tour. He was the epitome of a Silicon Valley executive and she a lady of many charitable causes, but they were easy company and Jack did not talk about computers once on the trip.
There was Roger who was undoubtedly a man that engaged in espionage in a former life, such a John le Carre character, a loner who must have had tales to tell but they remained discreetly hidden. The few words he offered were always interesting although they would never lead to a conversation, but he savoured his wine with a knowledgeable air of contentment.
Alistair was also a loner, very public school, highly educated but with an undeveloped personality that made it painful for him to engage with people. So, you wondered why he had put himself through this ordeal of a socialising group experience. He was a harmless, good natured soul, extremely polite and impeccably mannered. He latched onto me from the start and was always by my side but I didn’t mind as it eased him into the tour and he loosened up a little as time went on. He did love his wine and if you could prise it out of him had an extensive knowledge of French wines, far ahead of my limited scope.
Frank and Angela were elderly, in fact in their mid to late 80’s – a more mismatched couple it would be hard to find. I felt so sad watching this pair who had been together for so long and even at this late stage of their lives were in total torment at being bound together. Well, that is not quite true as it was Frank that was in torment. I have rarely seen a man so mentally battered and beaten by this most obnoxious of women. She was oblivious to him as she did whatever she required without any consideration for him. He meekly accepted his non-role in the relationship and took the abuse, as it has to be said did the tour guide. The poor man also latched onto me to a degree if she was not around. He thoroughly enjoyed one day of touring when his wife stayed behind, for which he and everyone else was truly thankful. His joy that day seemed to say it was the happiest of his life which was dreadfully sad to think he had probably hated the previous fifty or sixty years.
Then there was Emma and Richard and they were so memorable that I have given them a chapter to themselves later on in the book, I promise I will not refer to them again in this chapter but they were shall we say – special. There were of course many others but most kept a discreet distance with only brief interaction, it was never going to be party time for most but in the main it was a friendly collection of people that in a lot of ways had only a love of wine in common. Barriers were constantly broken down as the tour progressed although my Northern accent prevented full interaction on many occasions.
Here also were two people on the tour who stood out from the rest of the party as they were clearly not as concerned about the tastings but more focused on the technical aspects of the production and the viniculture. They were also the only people on the tour that we had encountered previously and that meeting was in fact only a few weeks earlier. On a visit to Cornwall just prior to the tour we had paid a visit to – Camel Valley Vineyards, Nanstallon, Bodmin, Cornwall, PL30 5LG. We had heard about this English vineyard (Oh, and nobody laughs anymore when you say that) from a feature on television by Rick Stein. Rick was a friend and supporter of this vineyard which is located close to his empire in Padstow. The tasting and welcome we received was a real unexpected pleasure. The wines and especially the Champagne style sparkling wines including a gorgeous rosé were as fine as any we would taste in France. The vineyards are on a gently sloping hillside, very reminiscent of France. A perfect location to attempt what most people thought impossible – produce quality wine in cold, wet England. We were more than happy to purchase a couple of cases and it was not just in sympathy to try to support an English venture. These wines were genuinely superb and could hold their own in any blind tasting, which in fact we did around our dining table with some knowledgeable friends – Camel Valley won that night.
As we were leaving the Cornish vineyard, carrying a couple of cases, walking back to our car, a man drove away from the house in an open topped sports car giving a cheery wave to us both. This was the owner, Bob Lindo, an ex-RAF pilot whose career came to a dramatic end when he was seriously injured ejecting from a mid-air collision close to Helmsley in North Yorkshire, the recovery from which he modestly downplays. Bob started the Camel Valley vineyard about three years later with his wife Annie and the success of this venture is taken forward by his son Sam and the awards have continued to flow – even from the French. On the ferry over to France at the start of the tour I was in the same queue for a cup of tea as Bob. I said to Niamh that I knew this man, perhaps I had come across him in my career, maybe someone in IT that I had used in the past. It was not until we had got well into France that I realised who he was and in fact we had only ‘met’ him very recently. At the autoroute services he and his wife Annie were walking around outside, so I intercepted them and said that I knew who he was. After explaining how we saw each other in Cornwall he remembered the day we had visited. He was also I think a little taken aback that he had been recognised as I believe that he would rather have remained incognito as a man on a mission to spy on the French. Later, on the coach the wine guide announced that we had a couple of famous wine makers on the tour and his occupation was well and truly out in the open, but I can assure him that it was not me that informed the party in any way, I appreciated what he was trying to achieve on this visit.
Bob, on each domaine visit would ask quite technical questions and was always, as was Annie, keenly interested in walking into the vineyards and examining the soil, the terroir, learning all the time something new to put into practice if possible in English conditions. I recall one particular occasion when Bob had asked a producer something that no layman could possibly have needed to know and was met with total silence. French secrets were for the French and years of tradition and expertise were not going to be proffered easily to the cunning English. Time for a tasting as he quickly moved on, ignoring the question.
Bob and Annie were an incredibly interesting couple as well as being the most delightful company although obviously Bob was lost in his own thoughts at times as he pondered on something he had seen or discovered. The vineyard back at Camel Valley has gone from strength to strength as we have seen when returning many times over the years. Surely something of the French know how has seeped back into the English terroir from his visit to Burgundy.
The Cote D’or is the most stunning of landscapes, gently sloping rolling countryside that leads up from the plain that heads south. Miles upon miles of fertile vineyards stretch up these slopes and the higher they go, the closer to the sun, the more these parcels of land are valued and the price of the finished bottle reflects its location of birth. It is also a region that for the novice is extremely difficult to understand and purchase wine with confidence. The appellations here are fixed in time and no one is going to allow a change to the way things are done here, tradition and terroir are paramount and that includes the labelling of the bottles. Back home we are now so used to a bottle in the supermarket being labelled – chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, merlot etc… that to arrive here and be confronted by bottles that only have the name of the village and possibly the grower or négociant is to say the least very confusing. To observe the array of bottles in a shop, sorry boutique, window with some carrying astonishing prices makes any purchasing decision a leap of faith. The first visit today puts us right in the centre of that minefield, to a producer that is right at the top end of quality and one that does not need to advertise, in fact there is not even a sign outside the door.
In the small but internationally famous wine village of Gevrey-Chambertin we are guided discreetly along the narrow streets to an unprepossessing house and taken to a side door. I sense that really we should have been blindfolded as well but an exception has been made for les Anglais. We have arrived at – Domaine Boillot Lucien & Fils, 1 Rue Docteur Pujo, 21220 Gevrey-Chambertin but please don’t turn up without an appointment and in fact as far as I can tell they don’t even bother to have a website.
We will be shown around with great pride by a younger member of the family, Pierre Boillot, a very knowledgeable wine maker who knows intimately the parcels of land in the villages providing the grapes for his high quality wine. Villages whose names are a famous roll call of French wine such as Volnay, Pommard, Fixin, Nuits Saint Georges, Beaune and of course Gevrey Chambertin. These are all names famous around the world and all on the easy-to-follow Route des Vins that takes you around these gentle slopes. The wines for tasting here are chiefly reds, much deeper, fruitier, more complex and richer than the reds of Northern Burgundy. We have a generous and fascinating tasting, encountering wines that are at the high end of the possibilities of production from these famous lands. They taste expensive, they are not wines that will be offered on some ‘25% mix six bottles’ reduction back in a supermarket in England; these stand on their own and are sought after by connoisseurs around the world and they hold a high price. Pierre is a generous man as he makes his wine affordable to our party although the downside of that is in having to purchase younger wines that will need to be kept for some time before drinking to allow them to taste close to the very fine samples provided by Pierre in this ancient cellar deep in the village of Gevrey. I still have a bottle of his Pommard 1st Cru Les Fremiers (1999) and probably by now I should have drunk it. Not only is it a reminder of a wonderful visit but I just don’t know if it is at perfection, there is a danger it is past peak perfection so I must open it soon. Pommard is one of the best known appellations in Burgundy and you find the vineyards themselves just south of Beaune going on to Autun.
The tiny village of Pommard is a place you will drive through in the blink of an eye. This is a pleasant spot with vineyards either side of the road, lovely stone walls of the region surrounding the fields. There are some character properties to view and also the large Château de Pommard, a magnificent domaine dating from 1726. Wine tasting and other experiences are available here but it is not a degustation establishment for a simple call in when you are passing. We bid a reluctant farewell to Pierre, another step in our wine education is complete and we are learning fast. I for one have learnt that you must never go into a wine shop in Beaune unaccompanied, try and keep an expert close by you in this region. Our second visit of the day would lead us nicely into our evening meal also. The domaine we were visiting is in the village of Santenay, south west of Beaune. The journey takes you through the Montrachet villages of Puligny and Chassagne, beautiful gently unspoilt landscape and architecture.
Here we stopped at – Domaine Prieur Brunet, Ch. Perruchot rue de Narosse, 21590 Santenay. It is worth pointing out that if you are following some of the addresses in the book that Prieur Brunet has been acquired by the négociant Louis Jadot and tastings and purchase at this domaine may no longer be possible. On this day the tasting was generous and long with a tour of the vineyard itself as part of the treats on offer. At the side of the domaine property there is a huge mural on the gable end of a building showing the extent of the domaine and a view into the cellar where a tasting is being enjoyed. We too would now enjoy such a tasting in a characterful exposed stone walled room with old wooden barrels providing a backdrop. We are seated at a long oak table and provided with information about the domaine and the wines on offer but it is the tasting we are interested in and it soon gets underway. The Santenay reds are a little lighter than the Gevrey Chambertin examples of the morning and it is here that we first get a real sense of what the whites of Burgundy have to offer and their chardonnay white Burgundy is honey rich and mellow. The presentation of the tasting is a little technical in structure, there is a desire to help you to appreciate how the wine is produced, an explanation of the inevitable terroir and certainly a sense once more of the family tradition. We are learning a lot and the confidence this type of visit will give us holds us in good stead in the years to come.
It was here that Bob made his first serious attempt to interrogate the owners with some searching questions that obviously were not coming from any casual drinker of Burgundy. He got a reluctant answer to a couple of them but they got increasingly technical and the owner became protective and defensive and the subject was changed to something a little more simple like the bouquet of the wine. Bob was not to be discouraged and headed off into the fields to make a study of the vines and the soil. He is a very enthusiastic wine producer and eager to keep learning and I am sure he took a lot away from his visit to Burgundy and his wines now stand shoulder to shoulder with excellent wines from France.
We have not yet finished with Prieur Brunet as tonight we are to dine at their restaurant in Santenay – Restaurant Le Terroir en Côte d’Or, 19, Place du Jet d’eau 21590 Santenay. The restaurant today perhaps has no actual connection with the domaine especially after the Jadot takeover but on our visit the food was a showcase for the wines of Prieur Brunet and would be long remembered, although for Niamh it was an evening of discovery she would rather forget. The restaurant is housed in a fine old stone building in the village and very attractive it is, immaculately furnished inside with crisp white tablecloths and shining cutlery and glasses. Outside there is a tempting terrace that looks out onto the village square with a large fountain dominating the space. You can look through the spray of water to the vineyards gently sloping on the hillside beyond. As Jane Austen would say: ‘It is happily situated’. I can be quite specific about our menu tonight as it was so enjoyable I have kept a record of it:
Salade de saumon cru marine a l’huile d’olive
Filet de loup de mer son lit de fin legumes, sauce chardonnay (Prieur Brunet)
Assiette de fromage: delice de Bourgogne, epoisse, citeaux
Parfait glace au marc de Bourgogne
The Prieur Brunet wines complemented the meal superbly and it was a lovely, relaxed evening in a setting that enhanced the whole occasion, a real taste of Burgundian hospitality. Sadly, Niamh found out that she had an allergy to samphire and spent an uncomfortable night with a stomach cramp reaction starting immediately she ate the samphire as an accompaniment to the fish and these symptoms got progressively worse until morning. It was nothing too serious, but a lesson learnt to avoid this particular vegetable in the future. She was up and ready for more wine tasting in the morning however.
Our last morning in Beaune was a real treat and a privileged visit to one of Beaune’s well known wine houses located in an atmospheric side street just by the ancient town walls – Maison Champy, 5 Rue du Grenier À Sel, 21200 Beaune. Champy has a boutique in the centre of Beaune close by the L’Hôtel Dieu but we were able to go to their site in town where they have cellars under the ancient streets. Maison Champy have been wine producers in the region since 1720 and the cellars as we will see certainly reflect that history and tradition in the old town. Champy has access to some of the finest sites in the Cote d’Or and Cote de Nuits. The list of named wines available from their cellar are from the top quality villages in the region. We were in expert hands here and this morning would really add to our knowledge and understanding of this most complex of wine regions. The tasting room is dominated by a very large old wooden barrel stood on its end and into which two copper bowls for spitting the wine are secured – I have to say our party does not waste the wine and these are never used. Our host for the tasting was an immaculately dressed young lady who knew her subject down to the finest detail. The French take their wine and the presentation of it very seriously in these grand old wine houses. By contrast in the countryside you may get the vigneron himself breaking away from his work in the fields, dusting himself down and grabbing a few bottles to happily give you a degustation.
Here in Beaune at these important maisons of wine everything is gleaming and crisp, our young host presents herself as befitting the status of the wines she will show us. Hanging on her every word our party enjoys a superb tasting and it does seem that the soft and delicate tones of her French accent actually elevate the wine in your mouth to another level – maybe I am being a bit romantic about that but the wines are extremely fine, at the top of the range in quality. The prices as expected reflect that but there is no way that people are not going to leave without a bottle or two. I feel sorry for our American friends who cannot take very much back with them, but they purchase a fine bottle to pack into their suitcase for home. We content ourselves with two wines – a 2001 Chablis Premier cru Cote de Lechet and expensively, a treat for our friends around the dining table, is a 2001 Corton Grand Cru. The reds of course are relying on the pinot noir grape and back in the UK we tend to associate that with some fairly unremarkable and relatively cheap imports from around the world. The level of quality that the French in Burgundy elevate it to is a totally different wine and these wines available in Maison Champy are never going to be a cheap import. The tradition and terroir are there for all to appreciate and once again it is a chance to see the difference between villages that are producing the same grapes and even the difference between parcels of land in the same village. It is also an opportunity to really grasp how age affects a wine and the effect of weather conditions in any particular year – we are learning a lot and it is all very interesting and I want to learn more and so we will.
Our visit here is not restricted to a tasting and we are handed over by the young lady to a man who is dressed a little less beautifully – we are off to the cellars deep below the cobbled streets and this is a rare privilege and one of the benefits of being on a guided tour in this more inaccessible region. The cellars here at Champy are truly astonishing and steeped in the long history of this wine house. It seems that nothing has ever changed down here, the wooden storage racks that appear to have fossilized to stone are from the 18th century. The walls are musty and full of spreading wine mould. There are cases of wine all along the passageways and hidden in dark alcoves beneath the low ceilings. The really astonishing part is looking at the loose bottles down here in the cellars. Some of these are very old vintages and it is not surprising to see many bottles still available from between the wars. Actually when you start to explore further down the passages these bottles are in fact relatively young. We come across an 1898 Volnay, 1875 Pommard and oldest of all a Chambertin from 1858 – this is a real treat to see and we are all in awe at what is down here. There are old 20th century vintages set in antique wooden racks. These bottles are completely encased in dust and mould and would require much attention and relabelling to get ready for sales to someone who would have to be a very serious collector with bottomless pockets. As we emerge back above into the light we all feel a long way removed from being home and selecting a bottle in the supermarket or wine store. We have seen a totally different side to wine and its production and indeed what can be done with the noble grape.
Life will never be the same again but I will continue to refuse to become a wine snob which you could so easily do. It is time to leave Beaune and move on to Beaujolais where we will stay in the village of Villié-Morgon and the Hotel Villon, finding more new gems in an area that is relatively underrepresented in the UK other than the Beaujolais Nouveau that of course everyone knows.
Enjoy the rest of our tour of French Vinyards on Amazon – available also for Kindle Unlimited