France – Burgundy

Vézelay: Burgundy’s Flyover Country

14 November 2016
Vézelay

Vézelay

I regarded the Burgundy map in my World Atlas of Wine with some consternation. In the midst of planning my road trip from Paris to Beaune, I noticed an immense gap between Burgundy’s northernmost vineyards, surrounding Chablis, and its most famous, stretched along the Côte d’Or. The shortest route between my hotels in Chablis and Beaune was 82.6 miles, and the idea of driving that entire length — almost an hour and a half — without stopping for a drink seemed incomprehensible.

Then I noticed it: a little dogbone-shaped speck of pink, hiding in the map’s vast sea of grey flanking the A6 highway. This speck represented Bourgogne Vézelay, which the World Atlas calls a “recondite mini-appellation.” Goodness knows I’m a sucker for a recondite mini-appellation, especially one close to such a lovely (if touristy) town as Vézelay. I planned a detour.

The Oxford Companion to Wine had little to say about the appellation, but my Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia was a bit more encouraging, noting that Vézelay’s “top-performing white wines… are superior to the lower end of Chablis, which is relatively much more expensive.” To determine what the top-performing white was, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I simply googled “best Vézelay winery.”

Domaine de la CadetteAnd it worked! Google suggested Domaine de la Cadette, the wines of which are imported by the legendary Kermit Lynch. Trusting in the judgment of Google and Lynch, I added the winery’s tasting room to my itinerary.

The words “Burgundian winery” might conjure visions of grand châteaux, but that’s only occasionally the case in the Côte d’Or, much less in Vézelay. The tasting room looked quite unassuming, in fact, and as I pulled into its parking lot, it also looked quite closed.

Ever hopeful, I walked into the similarly unassuming restaurant, the name of which translates approximately to “The Foot in the Plate” (it sounds ever so much more charming in French). Inside Le Pied dans le Plat, I met the delightful and thankfully English-speaking Martine, who explained that the tasting room had indeed permanently closed. However, the restaurant and winery were affiliated, and I asked if I could do a tasting for my blog. Martine was happy to oblige.

ChanterellesI settled into a shady table on the restaurant’s terrace, decorated with potted succulents interspersed with old green demijohns. A young waitress sat nearby, brushing the dirt from a gorgeous pile of golden chanterelle mushrooms. Martine appeared with the first bottles, and I poured myself a bit of the Melon.

Melon de Bourgogne, in spite of its name, has little presence in Burgundy nowadays, long ago supplanted by Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. This crossing of Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc now grows more commonly in the Loire. As The Oxford Companion to Wine explains, “Melon’s increasing importance today rests solely on Muscadet, although it is also grown to a limited extent in Vézelay…”

The Melon vineyards in Vézelay may not be as important in the grand scheme of things, but the wine they make can certainly be delicious. The 2014 La Soeur Cadette Melon had an appealingly minerally aroma and zesty flavor, with tart green-apple fruit, lively limey acids and some minerals on the finish.

Domaine de la Cadette Pinot NoirI also tried two cheerful Chardonnays, the 2014 Domaine de la Cadette “La Châtelaine” and the 2014 Domaine Montanet-Thoden “Galerne” (Valentin Montanet of Domaine Montanet-Thoden is the son of Jean and Catherine Montanet, founders of  Domaine de la Cadette, and the wineries are intimately linked). The organic “La Châtelaine” had fresh, creamy fruit leavened with bright, lingering spice — a wonderful contrast. But I liked the “Galerne,” named for a local wind, even better. It had a rounder aroma, more subtle flavors and a more complex journey: the creamy fruit started taut, unwinding and opening into gentle lemon-lime citrus and some light ginger spice.

I also tried two charming Pinot Noirs. The 2014 Domaine de la Cadette “Champs Cadet” tasted light and fruity, with a pop of spice. It wasn’t especially deep or complicated, but there’s nothing wrong with a wine that’s simply lively and fun. The 2012 Domaine Montanet-Thoden “Garance” was more serious, with an unusual pink-aspirin aroma and a less fruity character. It tasted more earthy and meaty, with darker, brooding fruit and subtler spice.

Feeling quite comfortable by now at my little table on the terrace, I ordered some trout meunière for lunch. The fish had perfectly crispy skin and delicate flesh, and luscious butter soaked the potatoes and fresh vegetables. Martine tentatively asked me how it tasted. She looked relieved to hear my praise, and said, “Some people complain about all the butter.”

Trout meuniere“That’s insane,” I replied. Ordering trout meunière and complaining about the butter is like ordering steak tartare and complaining that your beef is undercooked.

The tight and citrusy “Galerne” Chardonnay was a perfect foil for the trout, cutting right through the buttery richness. I’d had more elegant wines in Chablis, and I would soon indulge in much fancier food in Beaune, but at that moment, with that trout and that Chardonnay, I didn’t want to be anywhere other than the sunny terrace of The Foot in the Plate.

Burgundy has other “recondite” appellations, and one of my favorites is St. Bris, which produces delicious Sauvignon Blanc. To learn more about St. Bris and how I made a fool of myself in Whole Foods, click here

The Most Unusual Wine Of Gevrey-Chambertin

28 July 2016
Gevrey-Chambertin

Gevrey-Chambertin

As we drove along Burgundy’s Route des Grands Crus, each sign we passed sent a shiver of excitement up my spine. Vosne-Romanée… Chambolle-Musigny… Morey-Saint-Denis… And finally Gevrey-Chambertin, our destination. Even to this old goat of a wine blogger, the thought of doing a wine tasting in Gevrey-Chambertin had me tingling with anticipation.

We pulled up to the Domaine Trapet-Rochelandet (which also makes wine under the name Domaine François Trapet), a relatively modest stucco house on the edge of the village with a tractor parked in front. This is a family winery, and the son, Laurent greeted us at the door. When you picture the scion of a winemaking family located in one of France’s greatest wine towns, you might imagine some sort of grandee in a flawlessly tailored sport coat and trousers and name-brand loafers. But here, in unpretentious and informal Burgundy, Laurent wore a blue athletic shirt, red shorts and hiking boots. He had been working in the vineyards.

Winemaker Laurent Trapet in his family's cellar

Winemaker Laurent Trapet-Rochelandet in his family’s cellar

The cellar served as both a functional winery and a tasting room, though it clearly was much more the former than the latter. Laurent led us through a fascinating vertical tasting of Trapet’s Le Carougeots, from a village-class vineyard kitty-corner to the La Perrière Premier Cru vineyard and just south of the village itself. We started with a taste right from the barrel.

The 2015 Le Carougeots tasted “noisy,” as Laurent remarked, with youthful acids that still felt a touch overpowering, but this was not at all a bad sign at this point in its life. There was plenty of ripe fruit, too, and I have no doubt the wine will be delicious by the time it’s released. The 2012 had wonderful dark fruit, gentle spice and velvety tannins on the finish, but it was the 2008 that really seduced me, with its sumptuous aroma and flavor of cassis (currant), a note of violets and more forceful tannins. Both vintages were difficult, Laurent explained, but both these wines were delicious, as was the 2007, which had an earthier, more savory character along with stronger spice. Tasting these wines together made it perfectly clear why vintages in Burgundy are so important — each wine had its own distinct character.

Laurent also poured us a taste of the 2013 Les Champs-Chenys, the first vintage of this wine, also made from a single village-class vineyard. Les Champs-Chenys has Grand Cru vineyards bordering it on two sides, which made Laurent think that its fruit might be worth vinifying on its own. He was right. The wine was deliciously complex, with ample dark fruit lifted by notes of fresh hay and vanilla, and after a shaft of white-pepper spice, the finish felt minerally — almost saline.

Domaine Trapet-Rochelandet Bel-AirThe two Premier Cru wines we tasted, the 2012 Petite Chapelle and the 2013 Bel-Air, each offered a notable increase in finesse. I loved both — the dark fruit, fresh herbs and peppercorn notes in the Petit Chapelle, and the rich cassis and long finish of the Bel-Air. But I felt truly smitten by the rich Bel-Air, a funny little Premier Cru located just above the hillside from a Grand Cru. Usually Grand Cru vineyards occupy the highest parts of the hills, but because the soil in Bel-Air is so rocky, the vines are “too stressed” to make Grand Cru-level wine, Laurent explained.

Then Laurent absolutely floored me. He produced a bottle of sparkling wine; a bottle of sparkling red Pinot Noir, in fact. “What?!” My voice went up about a dozen decibels and at least an octave, and it echoed briefly in the cellar. “This is a sparkling red Pinot Noir, made from grapes grown in Gevrey-Chambertin?” I asked, again a little too loudly. I had no idea such a thing existed. Who on earth makes sparkling Gevrey-Chambertin?

Laurent didn’t seem entirely surprised by my reaction. “It is unusual. Actually, this kind of wine was popular in the late 19th century,” he explained, as I listened wide-eyed. He thought it would be interesting to resurrect the style. And indeed, sparkling red Burgundy is officially recognized, as evidenced by the words “Appellation Bourgogne Mousseux Rouge Contrôlée” on the back label. The grapes come from village-class Gevrey-Chambertin vineyards, but because Trapet has no sparkling wine production facilities, a winery in Savigny-lès-Beaune vinifies and bottles it.

Domaine Trapet-Rochelandet Petill' RougeThe 2014 Petill’ Rouge was most definitely a red sparkling wine, not a Blanc de Noirs, the much better-known bubbly made from Pinot Noir. It looked brick-red in the glass, and it smelled of cherries and earth, as many non-sparkling Pinot Noirs do. The flavor was juicy and earthy, with elegantly small bubbles and some delightfully surprising tannins on the finish. I bought a bottle for about $16 (try finding a Gevrey-Chambertin in your local wine shop at that price).

I think of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or as one of the world’s most settled wine regions. For centuries, its terroir has been studied and carefully classified, and at this point its wines, while gorgeous, seemed more or less set in stone. Yet here stood Laurent, pouring me something I’d never even heard of, a wine he wanted to try making just to see how it would turn out.

The Côte d’Or, as I discovered first hand, is not entirely ossified after all. And it won’t become so, as long as winemakers like Laurent continue to take risks and experiment.

Burgundy Versus California: Two Contrasting Pinot Noirs

11 April 2016
Aloxe-Corton, in the heart of the Cote d'Or

Aloxe-Corton, in the heart of the Côte d’Or

Tasting Pinot Noirs side by side never fails to be revealing. That’s why when my friend Liz told me she planned on bringing a California Pinot to the BYOB restaurant where we were meeting, I knew exactly which wine I wanted to taste next to it. The last bottle of Burgundy on my wine rack.

I’ve had the fortune to visit Burgundy three times now, and though I’ve toured numerous other top wine regions in both Europe and the Americas, Burgundy remains my favorite. It combines picturesque vineyards and exquisite architecture with a grace found in only a handful of places around the globe. And despite its fame, it doesn’t feel especially touristy, especially if you get a bit off the beaten track. There’s more to Burgundy than just the three- and four-figure Grands Crus of the Côte d’Or.

Marche aux Vins

Marché aux Vins

On my last visit, which took place far too long ago in 2008, a colleague and I found ourselves in Rully, the northernmost village of the Côte Chalonnaise. The dollar was quite weak then, and Chinese demand had already begun to drive the price of famous Burgundy names through the roof. But in the Côte Chalonnaise, just south of the Côte d’Or, regular folks like us could still afford to buy a bottle of wine or two.

As The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia notes, “Despite the fact that many [Côte Chalonnaise] wines are little known, their quality in all appellations is very good, and the value for money even better.” I’ve always had good luck with this region. In fact, it was a Pinot Noir from Givry that first clarified my understanding of structure in a wine. When I tasted it, I could feel the layers of flavor building themselves on my palate, as sure as if they were being assembled by a construction crew. I remember when my father took a sip, he let out a laugh because it was so good. Not bad for an $18 bottle I found in Beaune’s Marché aux Vins!

We paid a visit to the Marché in 2008 — it is, after all, perhaps my favorite place to taste wine in the world — but it was our visit to Rully that I most remember from that trip. The words “Wine Tasting in Burgundy” likely conjure images of palatial tasting rooms presided over by some comte or other, and I’m sure you can find that. But we found the thoroughly unpretentious Domaine Michel Briday, a winery Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia cites as one of Rully’s best.

Stephane Briday at Domaine Michel BridayThe tasting room was little more than a cozy dining room in an old house, as you can see from the photo on the right. Pictured is Stéphan Briday, who looks less like a Burgundian scion and more like a farmer in his torn jeans and t-shirt. It was clear he knew his way around a vineyard, which, in Burgundy of all places, is of paramount importance. He is a winemaker connected to the land. His passion for the wine was obvious and his hospitality was gracious, even though it was equally obvious that my colleague and I didn’t exactly qualify as wine experts. But I knew exciting wine when I tasted it.

I came home with two bottles of 2006 Domaine Michel Briday Rully Premier Cru Les Pierres, one of which collected dust on my wine rack until Thursday night. It aged surprisingly well, considering the many temperature swings the bottle had endured. Liz took a sniff and remarked, “It’s temptation in a glass.” I agreed, loving the aroma of dusky red fruit and old wood.

Michel Briday Rully 1er Cru Les PierresAfter a splash of dark fruit, the wine moved to white pepper spice, some serious earthiness and some surprisingly hefty tannins. Wood dominated the almost rasping finish. It was a bit of a wild thing, this wine! Paired with some beef, it felt suddenly in perfect balance. As Liz noted, “That bitch was tamed by the steak.” The tannins of the wine and fat of the steak were an equal and powerful match.

The Pinot Noir Liz brought came not from Sonoma, where so many fashionable Pinots originate these days, but the Santa Cruz Mountains just south of San Francisco. Despite its proximity to the city, the area is still apparently quite rugged. “No one told me I would be driving 2,600 feet up into the Santa Cruz Mountains,” Liz exclaimed, relating her drive to the David Bruce Winery. “And those falling rock signs? They weren’t kidding.”

David Bruce was an early pioneer of Pinot Noir in the region, and he merits praise in all three of my major wine reference books, The World Atlas of Wine, The Oxford Companion to Wine and The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. And a Chardonnay of his competed in the famed “Judgment of Paris” in 1976.

David Bruce Pinot NoirIn a rather passive-aggressive entry, Sotheby’s says that “Having gone through a learning curve, David Bruce now produces far more elegant wines than he used to.” I can’t speak about any previous vintages, but the 2008 David Bruce Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir that Liz shared with me positively exuded elegance. It had a gorgeously rich aroma — Liz noted chocolate-covered blueberries — and a sensationally seamless mouthfeel. The wine moved with impressive grace from ripe dark-red and purple fruits to some focused spice, overtones of vanilla and violets, and a finish of plush tannins. What a delight.

The two wines tasted completely different from one another: hearty and earthy versus rich and graceful. It still amazes me how much Pinot Noir absorbs the influence of its terroir and the hand of its winemaker.

I love that a grape can do that.

Chablis: An Underestimated Treasure

25 April 2015

Chablis TastingChablis, as I wrote in my previous post, is not to be confused with “Chablis” from California, a mistake I made myself until I was in my mid-20s. Bland Californian “Chablis” has nothing to do with the real thing from northern Burgundy, a fact driven home by the deliciously focused and forceful examples of Chablis I tasted at a recent lunch held to promote the wines.

Californian “Chablis” harmed (and continues to harm) the reputation of real Chablis, but the region had even bigger problems to overcome before it became the generally stable and successful appellation it is today. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, Chablis owed much of its early success to its proximity to Paris. But the railways bypassed the region in the mid-19th century, cheap wines from the Midi became more popular in the French capital, and by the 1950s, Chablis vineyards had shrunk to just 1,250 acres.

In the 1960s, technology enabled the Chablis winemakers to better guard against frost damage, a serious problem in these northerly vineyards, giving them more income security and stability. Vineyards were replanted — in fact, some even argue that too many are now in production — and Chablis has expanded to more than 10,000 acres of vines today.

Petit Chablis, such as the one described in my previous post, come from the least-desirable vineyards, though that doesn’t mean they’re bad wines. The categories move up from there to Chablis, Premier Cru Chablis and Grand Cru Chablis, with the vineyards’ exposure to the sun counting as the most important factor. At this lunch, we had the fortune to sample at least one example of each category, allowing us to easily compare and contrast.

The Petit Chablis made for a refreshing aperitif, and I also quite liked the 2012 Domaine William Fèvre “Champs Royaux” Chablis made from “the best grapes from a variety of vineyards,” according to one of our hosts, vintner Louis Moreau. It had a very fresh and green aroma with some spiciness, like green peppercorns mixed with fresh green hay. It felt focused and fresh and tight, with amply juicy acids and some slate-like minerals on the finish.

Mr. Moreau also poured one of his own wines, a 2012 Domaine Louis Moreau Vaillons Premier Cru, which comes from the southeast-facing Vaillons vineyard on a hillside immediately southwest of the town of Chablis. I loved its aroma, a mix of white pepper and some brininess, like perfectly fresh raw scallops (that may not sound appealing to some, but it really was delightful). There was that wonderful Chablis focus again, with tightly controlled white-pepper spice and the classic minerality on the finish. This Premier Cru had such clarity and elegance, but it had a rounder, richer character than either the Chablis or the Petit Chablis.

Mussels with ChablisWe tasted two other expertly crafted Premier Cru wines, a well-balanced 2012 Domaine Laroche Vau de Vey Premier Cru and a delicate 2012 Louis Michel & Fils Montée de Tonnerre Premier Cru. Like the Louis Moreau, both had zesty acids making them work beautifully with food.

And then there was the superlative 2011 Domaine Christian Moreau Père et Fils Valmur Grand Cru. My World Atlas of Wine calls Chablis from the Valmur vineyard “some critics’ ideal: rich and fragrant.” I’m certainly not one to disagree with the Atlas — this wine was an absolute delight. It had a spicy aroma marked by notes of popcorn. Some Chablis can be almost austere, but this Grand Cru had real richness. It started ripe and round and then focused into taut laser beam of white-pepper spice. Gorgeously balanced and very elegant.

Cheese plate with ChablisThat these wines are so delicious is perhaps not especially surprising, but the prices for which they can be had are truly eye-popping. I checked Wine Searcher for prices on the Grand Cru described above, and I found retailers offering it for as little as $54 (though $65 is more representative). It’s rare to be able to drink wine of this caliber for $65, and it’s an absolute steal when you compare it to the prices for Grand Cru wines from the Côte d’Or a little to the south. The hard-to-find Louis Moreau Premier Cru runs for about $60, the Domaine Laroche costs $42, and the Louis Michel can be had for $35. Excellent values, all.

Some of my sources, notably the curmudgeonly Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, complain that Chablis can be inconsistent, and that may very well be. I recommend chatting with a trusted wine shop employee or sommelier in order to get a reliable recommendation, because different producers working with fruit from the same vineyard can handle it very differently, and vintages can vary significantly.

With that caveat in mind, I highly recommend giving Chablis a try. It’s not necessarily an inexpensive wine, but the value for the money is hard to beat. As The World Atlas of Wine says, “For all its fame, Chablis is one of the wine world’s most underestimated treasures.”

“Chablis” and Chablis

18 April 2015
Photo of Chablis by Christophe Finot

Photo of Chablis by Christophe Finot

I’m afraid that until I was in my mid-20s, I thought of “Chablis” as a low-quality California wine, not far removed from “Blush.” I must have realized Chablis was a French word, but that was as close as I got to the truth. It wasn’t until I was laid off from a luxury travel company that real Chablis revealed itself to me.

My boss felt guilty about having to let me go, it seems, and he offered to arrange a free week on a canal barge in Burgundy. I had nothing better to do, certainly, and I was more than happy to help assuage his guilt by taking a mostly free trip to France. It was early in 2003, and I was able to find airfare for just $385 to Paris. That was just one unemployment check, so I figured, why not?

The vineyards of Chablis

A map of the vineyards of Chablis

The barge arrived one morning in Tonnerre, and we made an excursion to the town of Chablis for a tasting in a cellar. It was eye-opening, to say the least. How had I never tried this wonderful wine, I remember thinking. It was nothing at all like the wan “Chablis” of California. Later we took in views of the grey-stone village from the Grand Cru vineyards rising directly above it. The ground was littered with fossilized clumps of oyster shells, making it clear why Chablis has such wonderful minerality and why it pairs so well with oysters. The vines’ roots suck up microscopic oyster bits every day.

I went through a bit of a Chablis phase after that visit, but since starting this blog, I must admit I’ve been ignoring them in favor of less famous wines. But just because Chablis is famous doesn’t mean it’s especially popular or well-understood.

It may be part of Burgundy, but its vineyards are actually closer to the southern part of Champagne than they are to Beaune, the heart of the Côte d’Or. The wines of Chablis are completely different from those of the Côte d’Or, even though both are Chardonnay. The best rank among the world’s top whites. In spite of this high quality, “Grand Cru Chablis, largely ignored by the world’s fine-wine traders, remains even now half the price of Corton-Charlemagne,” according to The World Atlas of Wine, which goes on to argue that “Parity would be closer to justice.”

And therein lies the beauty of Chablis, and why it belongs in this blog devoted to the unusual. Top Burgundies, now unfortunately popular with status-conscious millionaires in China and oligarchs in Russia, have skyrocketed in price, putting them out of reach for most of us. But top Chablis regularly sells for $70 to $90. A splurge, certainly, but not out of the realm of reason for a special occasion.

Chablis LunchAt a recent lunch promoting Chablis, I was reminded what a startling value this wine can be. We tasted the full range of styles, from the much-maligned Petit Chablis all the way up to a Grand Cru. The wines brought me right back to that revelatory tasting in 2003.

I can’t deny I felt skeptical about the Petit Chablis, because in doing some research before the tasting, I read in The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia that “…this appellation should be downgraded to VDQS or uprooted.” Harsh words, even for ever-curmudgeonly Sotheby’s.

But the 2012 Domaine Millet “La Perle” Petit Chablis tasted quite good, in fact: fresh, bright, cheerful and juicy. It made for an excellent aperitif. I wouldn’t recommend picking any old Petit Chablis off the shelf, but as this example illustrates, even grapes from the region’s lowliest vineyards can be crafted into something quite pleasant.

Because of Chablis’ northern location, its vineyards tend to be classified according to sun exposure as much as anything. Southern-facing slopes are the most prized, because grapes there will ripen most fully. Petit Chablis vines occupy land with the least favorable aspect. But that is less of a problem than it used to be, according to vintner Louis Moreau, one of our gracious hosts at the lunch. “We achieve ripeness every year now thanks to global warming,” he asserted, “and there is no greenness as we used to get in some vintages.” He went on to explain that 30 years ago, they harvested the grapes in October, but now, the harvest has moved as much as three weeks earlier, well into September.

What does this mean for the consumer? Vintages in Chablis are as inconsistent as ever, Moreau admitted, because of stormier weather and unpredictable temperature fluctuations. Nevertheless, ripeness, which is so important in northern regions like Chablis, is less of a concern. That means that even grapes in vineyards classified as Petit Chablis, which are the least likely to ripen fully, will tend to produce rounder and more balanced wines than in decades past.

Of course, Chablis is more than just a pleasant aperitif, as amply demonstrated by the wines paired with our lunch. But they deserve a post all their own.

Up Next: Delving into the most exciting wines of Chablis, and defending the sophistication of the Chicago wine consumer.

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