Côte d’Or diversity
It is four years since I last visited the Côte d’Or, at least three years and 11 months too long. This too was a short visit – a summer holiday in July 2018 split between Beaune, the northern Rhône and the southern Rhône. Three classic and favourites regions in 10 days, what a mouth-watering prospect. But even a short visit reminds me why the heart of Burgundy is simply one of the world’s greatest wine regions. And there is more diversity on the Côte d’Or than you might think.
Great wines … in restaurants
Unless you have a very deep pockets, restaurant prices for top wines in the UK are prohibitive. This is not the place to debate the issue but it is such a joy to find great wines in restaurant lists which don’t require taking out a mortgage. Two really stood out:
Nuits-Saint-Georges 1º cru Les Bousselots, Dom. Philippe Gavignet, 1990, €12.50 by the glass. We arrived at La Gentilhommerie restaurant on the evening of our first day in France, after a somewhat fraught journey. Unusally, zero research had been done on the restaurant – it was just a convenient stopping point. I had to try this wine on the list – legendary vintage, great Côte de Nuits village, premier cru level, 28 years old. It could not be good at this price, could it? But it was fantastic: beautiful leather and forest floor notes over still fresh red fruit, fine tannins. It did not have the greatest concentration but still very, very beautiful.Restaurant Le Soufflot on the edge of Meursault: innovative food and excellent wine list. It includes a page of rare bottles from which the Dujac came. They protect their stocks by allowing only one bottle per table from this page, which is clever and shares the fun around.
Drouhin – the classic négociant
Cyril Ponnelle showed Janet and I around the historic cellar in the centre of Beaune which extend for one hectare! Parts of the walls are Roman, much is medieval. The wines are not made here but they are aged here. Drouhin started as a merchant in Chablis and now combines working 80 hectares of its own vines (half in Chablis) with its extensive merchant business. The company mostly buy grapes which it has also closely supervised in the vineyard, plus some wine. Total production is on average 2.5 million bottles, excluding its pioneering estate in Oregon.
The highlights of the tasting here included an Puligny-Montrachet 1º cru Follatieres 2006, unlabelled because it had never left the cellar. I guessed was a 15-year old and the acidity was crisp enough to think it could be Chablis. Fine hazelnut and leather notes with excellent lemon and white peach fruit, a real treat. Corton Grand Cru 2012 13% was tense, smoky with real body weight and fine, dense tannins, build for the long haul. Even the traditional and established négociant can have some fantastic wine in its portfolio.
Taupenot-Merme – among the giants
The small village of Morey-Saint-Denis has some very grand inhabitants, Clos des Lambrays and Clos de Tart for starters. But there are some more approachable addresses too, including the excellent Domaine Taupenot-Merme. Romain Taupenot gave us a rapid master class in his take on Pinot winemaking. The grapes are completely destemmed for fruit purity, given a week of cold soak at 8-10ºC, followed by 7-9 days on the skins with occasional pump-overs, soft press, left to settle for four days, racked to barrel with the fine lees and aged for 12-14 months in barrel with a light toast. 20% new oak only for village wines, 30% for 1º Cru, 40% for Grand Cru. Interestingly, for such prestigious wines, they are using Diam reconstituted corks for every level, choosing the ones with projected 30-year life for the top wines. Why spoil all your labour with random occurrence of cork taint and unpredictable oxidation rates?
The domaine owns 13.5 hectares of vines, including a prized sliver of the Clos des Lambrays (0.18ha). They are the only owners in this vineyard apart from Clos des Lambrays itself, owned by LVMH since 2014. Romain muses on whether one day his neighbours will offer to trade a bigger parcel of Grand Cru land in another appellation for his rows of Clos des Lambrays, giving them a much-to-be-prized monopole. Watch this space.
All the wines are outstanding here, with a proper pyramid of quality. I have bought the wines, partly for a single-producer, quality pyramid of Chambolle village and 1º Cru, and the Corton Grand Cru, for MW tasting purposes. (One of the many rewards of the punishing MW tasting regime!) Here we tasted the Grand Crus side by side. Corton Rognet Grand Cru 2016 already has a sublime floral and raspberry lift. Charmes Chambertin Grand Cru 2016, part replanted in 1998, regularly produces small berries which produce intense red-berried fruit, very tight but with great concentration. The oak is already well integrated. The wine will be fabulous with another 5-8 years of bottle age. Mazoyeres Chambertin 2016 is more black fruited. A trio of jewels at the top of a very fine range of wines. The whites are excellent too.
Benjamin Leroux – dynamic, young négociant
We had a stroke of good fortune in that the 8am appointment with Benjamin turned out to be 200 metres from our lovely, unpretentious hotel, La Villa Fleurie. Négociants used to have a bad name but they have moved with the times. The big ones own some great vineyards as well as buying fruit and/or wine. They have more than understood that high quality work in the winery will be repaid with today’s eye-watering prices for Burgundy. And then there are young and dynamic ones who have set their eyes on top quality only and a real astuteness in buying excellent vineyards in previously unregarded villages or sites.
Benjamin Leroux was able to buy a largish cellar, entirely surrounded by one of the giants, Albert Bichot. The story is that the previous owner was determined not to sell it as space for development to Bichot and so Benjamin got lucky. He has now transformed it into a high quality cellar to make his multiple lots of white and red Burgundy, backing his own taste and having a wonderful time. He is no novice, having refined that taste by previously working for the super-prestigious Comtes de Lafon in Meursault.
The Meursault connection continues as he has been able to buy 7.5 hectares of vines, virtually all in that village. As he says with a smile, he is now his own biggest supplier of grapes, accounting for 30% of his production. Benjamin is a fanatic for quality. When he buys juice or must, rather than grapes, he supervises the work in the vineyard and he insists on pressing the whites himself and gives back the juice he has not bought to the grower. And he is thinking really long-term, juggling the possibilities. Higher land will have the advantage of cooler temperatures in a rapidly warming climate but lower sites may be better in 80-100 years when water shortage may be the defining issue.
We tasted from barrel and can vouch for the freshness and liveliness of everything from Bourgogne Blanc (mostly Meursault again if outside the AOC) to Batard Montrachet for Grand Cru white to Criots-Chambertin Grand Cru in red. We muse (as everywhere on the Côte d’Or) on land prices: €11,000 per hectare for Bourgogne Rouge to €50m per hectare for the grandest Grand Cru sites. Hence the need to find vineyards in currently unfashionable locations, e.g. Saint-Romain.
Veuve Ambal – bubbles for all
As someone once said, and now for something completely different. Before this holiday I was writing the text for the major revision of WSET’s Level 4 Diploma and specifically the unit on the Sparkling wines of the world. It’s easy to find out about Champagne as so much has been written about it. Last Christmas saw the publication of no fewer than seven substantial books on that region! But the Crémants are not that much loved or at least not much written about. So I took the opportunity of this visit to Beaune to visit Veuve Ambal, the largest specialist producer of Crémant de Bourgogne. This was well worth it, even though it was only a tourist visit. The scale is remarkable. They process around 1,000 hectares of fruit each year, of which they own 280 hectares. Sourcing fruit is increasingly difficult. With rocketing prices for Pinot and Chardonnay, growers are naturally making still wines rather than giving their fruit to Crémant producers. It is therefore a big advantage to own more than a quarter of the vineyard which you need.
Most of the wines here are simple and fruity, with the requisite fizz, and inexpensive to buy. Prices for traditional method wines start below €7. What I did not know was that half of the wine made in the large factory is in fact tank method – we have an unquenchable thirst for inexpensive sparkling wine.
Crémant de Bourgogne is an interesting category as the winemaker can use the full range of Burgundian varieties, for example, Aligoté and including up to 20% Gamay. But of course the most interesting wines are the top range, Cuvée Marie Ambal NV, Blanc or Rosé. These are made from a half-and-half blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. They are given much longer on the lees than the minimum 9 months, in fact 24-30 months. They show a decent depth of crisp fruit and a light toastiness from their time on lees in the bottle. They are not cheap at €17.50 but still represent fair value when compared to entry-level large-volume Champagne.
This was a short visit which revealed the enormous diversity of the wine making in the Côte d’Or: traditional négociant, new style négociant, prestigious private domaine and large volume sparkling wine. And great wine (and in some cases, food) in restaurants.