What better way to beat off January blues than with a trip to the historic and renowned wine making region of Burgundy? Last month I was fortunate enough to accompany Jack Scott and Buyer Alastair Pyatt on a buying trip there. Having never been before and with Pinot Noir being an absolute favourite of mine, I could not have been more excited to visit the place where the finest examples of this challenging and delicious grape variety are produced.
From my studies and textbooks, I am familiar with the status and reputation that surrounds much of French wines and their strict classé hierarchy. Bordeaux’s reputation in particular is always loomingly omnipresent. Yet whilst being aware of this imposingly renowned region famed for its immaculately groomed vineyards and impressive châteaux, I felt I knew remarkably less about Burgundy’s hidden secrets and this was the perfect opportunity to discover them.
In comparison to its much praised and celebrated neighbour, the region of Burgundy lies in complete contrast; 20km south of Dijon the story takes a different turn – and it is a remarkably pleasant one at that.
As we amble along in our rental car, winding across the ‘Rue de Grand Crus’, there is such an atmosphere of tranquility and simplicity that it is easy to forget (probably from sheer post-Beef Bourguignon/ Pinot Noir stupor) that some of the most opulent and refined wines originate from here. Indeed, this region is one of the world’s most prominent and idiosyncratic. With over 600 vineyards across 100 appellations it struck me that this was going to be a daunting region to explore, and with road signs whizzing past dictating that we were no longer in ‘Meursault’ but had crossed over a path into ‘Puligny Montrachet’, my dizzy head (again, most likely wine induced) could not keep up and I felt I would never get to grips with the landscape.
It is, however, precisely the nuances of land and terroir that are quintessential to understanding Burgundy. The wine’s classifications are geographically driven (unlike those of Bordeaux for example which are producer-centric) and so it really is down to the very intricacies of soils, slopes and streets that dictate the outcome of a wine. It is both the physical and metaphorical foundation on which quality, price, and status, will all be determined. Call me romantic, but it was this realisation that suddenly transformed the landscape in my mind, from the understated to the symbolic. Vineyards with their rows of naked winter vines, a stony pathway separating two famed appellations, the figures of French folk wrapped up in woolly hats, hunched over pruning the shoots and sending wisps of smoke rising into the air. The soils of this wintry landscape are something special ; in fact they are so revered that, apparently, Napoleon ordered his troops to salute the steep slopes of the ‘Grands Cru’ vineyards when they were marching past.
Of course the land is not the sole player, and the producers here write their own unique history too. If Bordeaux is sharp suits, chateaux, and negociants, then Burgundy is muddy boots, petit maisons, and truffle hounds. As we pull up to each ‘Domaine’, it is with curiosity and amaze that I wander practically through the front door of people’s houses before being led into spectacular cellars that appear to have been hidden there for years. Each producer has their own unique heritage and philosophy, and this is intrinsically linked with the way they produce wine. At Bachey-Legros, we are entertained by the two sons who make up the sixth generation of wine makers (Maman still sits in with us though, keeping an eye). Keeping it in the family at Françiose André, the production is overseen by Lauriane who is the daughter-in-law of the original owners. Each Domaine has quaint hidden cellars full of red wine stained wooden barrels, and the cold, musty smells of history in the making. At Domaine Gerard Seguin for example, we learn that its founder, Alex Seguin in 1850, was a Burgundian pioneer in the fight against Phylloxera – he was one of the first winemakers to graft vines onto American rootstock in an effort to prevent the spread of the disease. One room in their cellar even housed cobweb entangled bottles over 100 years old, or so I was told (or so my amateur level French led me to understand).
Few wines impress like the best of Bordeaux, but for me the finest Burgundies evoke a more emotional response. From starting the day with a Meursault 1er Cru at Domaine Patriarche, to finishing a fantastic few days tasting with the outstandingly out-of-this-world wines of Lignier Michelot (his Morey-Saint-Denis practically had Jacko in tears), we had a wonderful trip and met some amazing people. Like an intricately woven tapestry, each appellation revealed its own story, history, and delicate wines, to make up this fabulous patchwork quilt that is Burgundy’s unique landscape.
By Nadia Williamson