Friday 9 November
Last day and only 3 appointments, down in the Côte Chalonnaise, retracing our steps to Cluny and Lyon St-Exupéry. Chagny is the breakpoint and there is a significant change in the scenery in the southern Chalonnaise from the northern Beaune side. Where the Côte d’Or is virtually monocultural, with vines as far as the eye can see, there are many crops to harvest in the Chalonnaise; from legumes to Charolais to grains and others. There are fewer villages and apparently fewer people and it is significantly quieter, though the villages do have life. First two stops are in Rully, one of those prosperous French villages where medieval invaders would have been confused by all the identical, narrow roads and high walls, got lost and retreated in confusion. Or just gone round in circles for days.
However, we are early to see Vincent Dureuil-Janthial and we are joined by Éric Forest from Vergisson in Macon, whom we’ve met before. The presence of another excellent vigneron makes Vincent more animated and open than he sometimes is and though conversation is more rapid than usual and entirely French there are a lot of exchanges about what they do differently and similarly. It’s a fascinating visit and with top wines to taste, a very rewarding one. Vincent is more than competent; he is a craftsman at the top of his game and his 2017s are balanced and beautifully extracted.
Speaking of accomplished craftspeople, Paul and Marie Jacqueson have been impressing us for years with the quality and value of their wines. It is the second year of their newly acquired vineyards and they easily match the ones we know so well, though they are different because of their different soils and altitudes. Both Chardonnay and Pinot played nicely for them this year and it isn’t a surprise to see such precise terroir definition here. They are also based in Rully but have a couple of distinctively characteristic Mercureys. Except there’s no sign of the rusticity that often attaches unfairly to wines from that village.
Finally we arrive in Givry. Francois and Isabelle Lumpp consistently turn out some of the most undervalued Burgundies and these self-made high achievers have done it again in 2017. The wines were all racked into tank at the end of August prior to the harvest. The whites saw 30% new oak and the reds 70%. Of the two whites the Petit Marole is slightly more backward. Of the reds, the one I’d want for lunch today is the Petit Marole: floral, red fruit and red cherries, good structure but soft and integrated tannins and no sign of that oak. Crausot rouge and A Vigne Rouge have more structure and savoury aspect respectively. The Lumpps also win the prize for the week’s prettiest crachoir, a handmade ceramic one and beautifully glazed. And so, with a belt back down the autoroute to the airport and a cross-country diversion for fuel, the trip ends.
Thursday 8 November
To Ballot-Millot. There’s a sort of inevitability about being in Charles Ballot’s cellars before 8.30 on a morning and in the tasting room, apart from the usual skis and so on was a full drum kit, which is a first for me in Burgundy. The proof is on our Instagram feed. Having been founded in 1780 the Domaine has changed a bit since then and even since Charles took over in 2000 cousins Vincent Dancer and Arnaud Ente have retrieved some parcels that were due to them. See? Everybody is related in Burgundy. The wines have just been racked and the samples we’re tasting opened for two days but all taste as fresh as possible. Winemaking here is precise and the extra time in barrel has given them complexity without oakiness.
On to Domaine Bernard Moreau. Everyone is whizzing around like mad things preparing masses of samples for a big event. Chantal, who is married to Alex, and as skilled as he is, puts us though our paces, tasting through all the wines, including reds for the first time here. She also explains more about how vignerons down the Cote got together in a massive common effort to save the vintage in the face of the same frost/sun situation they faced in 2016. Essentially, this involved burning masses of damp hay through the vineyards to create smoke so that sunlight couldn’t touch the vines. This annoyed the hell out of the neighbours, especially those with washing out, but was amazingly effective and is the reason we have a near-normal Burgundy crop this year. The Moreau wines showed beautifully distinct terroir differences and some rich and creamy diverse fruit, depending on the cuvee.
At this point Neil and I split up. Nothing irreparable, just too many addresses to visit as a team, and mark my words, we’ll be reunited before end of day. In the meantime Neil gets custody of the car. He can speak for himself. Meanwhile I’m cadging a lift with some kind folk from Bristol and only a bit late for a fairly speedy visit to Domaine Arlaud, where a knackered looking Cyprien (sorry lad) is flying through his 2017s. And it never helps when you’re late but from Roncevie up to Clos St-Denis and beyond the wines show lovely texture with good structure and fine tannins and plenty of flesh on those bones.
On to Stephane Magnien – a cellar with a personal frisson and a lot of fruit intensity with fine balance of acidity and tannin. In fact the structures are quite big, but the tannins are very woven and integrated in the wines. Stephane likes to rest his wines so after fermentation he lets then drop sediment in tanks for a bit before barrelling them where further sedimentation takes place. Finally, once the final assembly for each cuvee is made in tank the wines should be clear enough not to need either fining or filtration.
We arrive at Domaine Duroché with an appointment and are even early. Sadly they have no knowledge of our appointment but gamely show us the wines. They’re a bit awkward today and remind me more of vintages like 2014 and before – a bit burly – rather than the finer 2015 and 2016 wines that I thought were superb. We’ll try again in January and see what we think then.
At Domaine Berthaut-Gerbet Amelie explains how, having taken over in 2013, the 2017 vintage was by far her easiest, once the threat of frost was over. It’s also by far her biggest vintage so will help pay for some of the big improvements she’s been making. Wines here are silky and seamless with the Clos Vougeot one of the best I’ve tasted from anywhere. Tannins are silky pretty much across the board and from Fixin’s finest (Les Arvelets for me) to Echezaux a great success. There is even a small quantity of Fixin Blanc, a new venture that should become commercial in the near future when more of the vines come on stream. It is barrel fermented and very fresh with pronounced fruit.
Burgundy alter-ego, Neil takes the wheel
With the pace of visits accelerating, Colin and I head off in different directions to cover more ground. I stay in Chassagne, and head to up-and-coming Heitz-Lochardet. Armand Heitz, sporting a wedding ring and fresh from his honeymoon, has been busy bringing vineyards that for years were rented out back under family management. He’s also been replanting and converting everything to biodynamics. We taste on the terrace of the beautiful family house, overlooking the garden that sits plump in the vineyards of Chassagne-Montrachet. The range here is impressive. One bee doing revolutions in Armand’s bonnet is the idea that Pommard always produces a more structured wine than, say, Volnay; his Pommards Clos des Poutures and Perezolles are both examples of what he describes as the prettier, more feminine side of Pommard. But it’s white wine that is the core of the range, and there’s a great line-up of Meursaults and Chassagnes here: La Barre, Gruyaches, Morgeot, Chenevottes, Perrieres, not to mention Chevalier-Montrachet. Although the bottle that really bowls me over is Maltroie. There’s a cliché that there is nowhere better in the world to drink Guinness than Dublin. If that’s right, then there is presumably nowhere in the world better to drink Maltroie than Maltroie, and with Maltroie all of five yards away from us at the bottom of the garden, this bottle sings. Armand is a man of enthusiasm and experiment. He is excited about his plan to plant a parcel of Meursault to Sauvignon Blanc. I must say this raises an eyebrow or two.
Our next stop is also in Chassagne, 5 minutes walk away. Now, we all have gaps in our vinous education. Uncorked has stocked Paul Pillot wines on and off for longer than I’ve worked there, but I’ve never spent time with a bottle, and arrive with few preconceptions. But this tasting blows me away. The wines are as dynamic and as full of vitality as Thierry Pillot himself – they seem to strike a perfect balance between poise and energy, lusciousness and minerality. My notes from the tasting are full of words like fine, intense, elegant, pure. And some more extravagant ones like dancing, glittering, singing. At Bernard Moreau we had classically chiselled Chassagne, Ballot-Millot brought brilliance and electricity, but Pillot surpasses both with his sheer class – this is certainly my top white tasting of the week.
One mad dash up the A6 later I miss the turn off for Nuits St Georges and arrive half an hour late at Vougeot for Hudelot-Noellat. Fortunately, I am not the only late arrival. Charles takes it all in his stride, with the air of a man who has seen it all before. Like many (most? all?) vignerons we meet this week, he is in a good mood thanks to a cellar fuller than it has been in years. It’s a very impressive lineup; silky, dark Vosne, substantial if currently brooding Murgers, intensely floral Beaumonts, the tense, wound-up spice of Suchots… and don’t get me started on the grand crus.
And finally, the day ends with a hugely privileged tasting with Romain Taupenot who is as generous with his time and wisdom as he is with his samples. He racked everything into tank three weeks ago and bottling will be in February/March according to the weather and the moon. He’s another vigneron using a lot less pigeage in general, maybe four punch-downs per cuvee. He’s one of the very few willing to make a vintage comparison; positing 1985 as the nearest he can think of to compare to 2017. Romain is a hugely intelligent and reflective practitioner of his trade and this tasting was a rare chance to sit and taste and chat. For instance, you know that these wines aren’t matured in new oak every year, only some of the barrels are new. But he always keeps the barrels that were new for, say Mazoyeres, for that cuvee. It’s a detail, and an interesting one.
Wednesday 7 November
It's Nuits-St-Georges day. We meet at Thibaut Liger-Belair’s new winery near the railway in Nuits-St-Georges. His family were wine merchants for generations and he began the Domaine in 2001. There is a small negociant side to the business, but Thibaut’s team does all the farming. Since he took over the land to recreate the Domaine he has worked hardest in the vineyard. All the soils were grey and dead and as part of that he’s been organic for the last 17 years and biodynamic since 2004. This year is the first vintage in his new, ecologically-focussed, new cellar. From ten cms of lambswool insulation above ground; to geothermal cooling for the cellar; to to a giant solar flower you’ll have seen on our instagram feed; to the water treatment plant underneath that flower. I think he had a lot of fun designing it but behind that fun is a conviction that such design is not optional. Additionally, like people such as Jean-Marie Fourrier, he has a great knowledge of history and geography of Burgundy and a keen sense of their importance in current thinking among vignerons.
In the cellar he uses whole bunch when appropriate, which for him is when the soil is richer and less rocky. When the vines are on pure limestone he de-stems completely. A lot of thought goes into these and he’s not afraid of long, slow vinifications. I’ve always liked these wines and I hope we can offer you some in due course.
After Thibaut, we're off round the corner to see Alex at Domaine Jean-Marc Millot. She easily wins strong handshake of the week award, so will hopefully never meet the Queen. Her views are as trenchant. This as yet little-known Domaine has great vineyard holdings filled with old vines and, perhaps needing only this generational change, looks set for fame. Alex claims not to have made any changes since she took over from her father in 2016. Apart, obviously from all the little tweaks she hasn't mentioned. The farming is sustainable and pragmatic. Alex maintains a healthy scepticism about organic farming and those who practise it. The wines show great balance of structure and fruit with very fine tannins.
We're frightened of Bertrand Chevillon. Our last visit to Domaine Robert Chevillon was marked by a ten minute late arrival and Bertrand wasn't happy at all for the whole time we were there. We're so paranoid that a dash through a brief lunch sees us back in our cars at twenty minutes to two and parked up round the corner from his cellars at ten minutes before the hour. At four minutes to, we roll into his yard. Victory is ours; he's charm personified for the whole tasting. The wines are super, we've been admirers for ages and even though some other growers have upped their game the Chevillon wines have silk and perfume you don't historically associate with Nuits. All the vineyards show well and differently and the quality of the 2017s is unquestionable.
Next is another first, as we shoot off to Cathiard where we're part of an international, largely Scandinavian tasting group. This is fun as there are tall, note-taking, giggling Danes and short Norwegians who rely on their memory to preserve their impressions of the wines. It's not quite Edinburgh vs Glasgow but there's a frisson. The Cathiard wines are classic Vosne-Romanees. They are sophisticated, restrained and it's a fascinating tasting. The keyword here is balance. There's a compulsory blind tasting challenge and Sylvain is a master of choosing wines that nobody dare identify, so he wins every time. Well, would you tell him that this sample was the Coteaux Bourgignonne in case it was Malconsorts?
Finally for the day we broke yet more new ground with a drive down to Bligny-lès-Beaune. This is a village I'd only seen signposts for and in the dark and pouring rain they were necessary. We've had these wines in the shop occasionally and always admired their value and style, but never really understood what Domaine Jean Guiton was all about. It turns out to be a fascinating tasting. Guillaume Guiton is another young producer who is using less extraction and in some cases pretty much none. The wines are svelte and the Pommard is typical of this with its woven tannins and extreme drinkability. This is a super Domaine and Guillaume's wine will definitely continue as part of our offering, hopefully in expanded form.
Tuesday 6 November
Tuesday brings a welcome later start. It also brings a privileged opportunity to taste at Domaine Fourrier with François Orise. There have been a couple of changes here. As ever Jean-Marie is contemplating the future, looking at climate change and wondering what he can do to retain his wines' freshness and elegance. There are four amphora in the cellar now. He used one in 2017 for a portion of Combe aux Moines and was happy enough to invest further in the technology. He hadn't decided what to do with it yet - there are various options. The wines were effortless with fine-grained texture and the only change in style is for the white, which from 2017 is being picked earlier for enhanced freshness.
Next is a visit to Domaine Gouges in Nuits-St-Georges. I've noted that Nuits so far have tasted very well when not made by growers based in the town so this is an opportunity to try some from people who really know the land. Nothing stands still in Burgundy these days and Gregory is tweaking things in the vineyards as well as in the cellar. He is experimenting with the use of stems a little, but he too is looking to the future and is heavily involved in a project to allow the use of massal selection when replanting vines. The cost of this has become prohibitive for most individual growers as they have to prove that the material they are planting is free of virus. The wines here are continuing to achieve greater suppleness year on year. They really are noticeably from Nuits-St-Georges with palate density and good structure. They also show good terroir definition. They'll be drinkable fairly young in 2017 but still have plenty of stuffing to age.
2017s are very attractive young from the growers we've visited and don't lack body or fruit but we hear plenty of stories of lesser producers who have harvested enormous crops, so this is a vintage where it is important to taste.
On to Felettig, where in 2016 Gilbert was using stems for the first time in order to get something - anything almost - into those depleted tanks and cellars were empty. No such problem in 2017 but his yields are much less than the appellation maximums. This is partly due to the large proportion of older vines, which effectively self-regulate how much they produce. He began his harvest on the 8th September and it took just over a week to get the fruit in with a couple of interruptions for rain. Fruit in 2017 was largely very healthy and like most growers we've asked, very little sorting of fruit was necessary. The 2017 Felettigs have really nice density and textures and they show very classic and restrained fruit.
Like everybody else we've asked, Gilbert can't think of a comparable vintage to 2017. In everybody's experience, whether young or much older or retired, this is a unique vintage.
I don't quite know how to describe our visit and tasting at Dugat-Py. For one thing it really changed how I see when you might want to drink the wines. The barrel cellar is a small but tall, vaulted edifice that used to be a hospice for lepers. It’s very atmospheric, Loic is a very hospitable vigneron. The tasting: well the tasting was, to retreat into a totally unsuitable metaphor, like a fireworks display by the Royal Horse Artillery; agile, mobile, packing a punch and with one showstopper after another. In fact I began to get almost suspicious about the ever-increasing intensity and richness, even though these traits were cut by genuine acidity and minerality. And in common with many other Domaines we’ve visited this week, there was a real sense of terroir definition. What’s the secret at Dugat-Py? Haven’t a clue. They seem to do more or less what many others do. Let’s look at one of the wines that stood out for me: Coeur de Roy, which is the name of the family who originally owned the land and who are still in France. It has 50% whole bunch and 50% destemmed fruit. The age of the vines varies between 50-110 years old and around half of the barrels are new, but you can barely discern the oak. It is a common misconception that Dugat-Py can’t be drunk for years after the vintage. This is no longer true. For the last ten to fifteen years the wines have been much more accessible, though decanting the youngsters would be good. This was a terrific and quite dramatic tasting, showing a different, but still balanced side of Burgundy from, for instance Arlaud.
Monday 5 November
We're on the road at 7.30 to get up to Chambolle-Musigny for our first appointment, which is with Ghislaine Barthod. She's happy and the cellar is the fullest I've seen it for nearly 10 years. 2017 is on a par with 2009 for quantity, though it's a very different style of wine. Ghislaine can't think of a similar vintage from a style point of view. She's the first person to say that it was a fairly easy vintage in the vineyard with no real problems. The 2017s are still in cask and are expected to be transferred into tank in January and bottled before the end of March. This is a bit sooner than in some vintages as she doesn't want to over-oak these delicate wines. They've plenty of fruit and depth but these really are delicate and finely structured efforts at every level.
At Grivot we meet Mathilde who is joined late by her father Etienne. 2017 was Mathilde's first easy vintage since she started to take more responsibility in 2010. And it's the first vintage they've had of any size. They've worked with between 150 - 220 barrels so far but 2017 gave them the 'old normal' of 325 barrels, so they'll be relieved about that. Incidentally, Hubert is on a research trip in Portugal looking into corks. They started harvest on 12th September - the latest we hear about today. Ghislaine started on the 6th. They did that because they were tasting the grapes as harvest approached and weren't happy with the skins. What they've produced is a range of wines between 12.8-13.4% natural alcohol and they are just perfectly ripe wines. We're also starting to see that there is great terroir definition in 2017
Then to Meo-Camuzet where Jean-Nicolas Meo shows us the wines. Lots of them haven't moved yet so there's a fair amount of reduction in these fine and ripe samples. Overall there's a bit more plushness here, definite terroir definition and wines with great length. He's very happy with the way the wines have been in the cellar and particularly appreciated the higher levels of malic acid in 2017 compared to the two previous vintages as he thinks a proper malolactic fermentation is very good for the development of the vintage.
A quick schlep down to Pommard for lunch, but it's closed, so off to Meursault for a quick bit of fish. After fish we're back up to Pommard for our visit to Lydie at Jean-Marc Boillot. The whites here are extraordinary with both immense concentration and brilliant acidity. Lydie found that the grapes were small in 2017 so yields weren't particularly high for her but the natural acidity is there and balances the fruit intensity beautifully. And the wines don't taste forced at all, which incidentally has been a theme of the day so far. But from the Montagny up to the best Puligny 1er crus these Chardonnays deliver.
After this to Volnay next door and the home of the sort of wines we had at our Burgundy tasting a couple of weeks ago. At Domaine Lafarge we meet an almost effervescent Frédéric who is very happy with the wines across the board. From the Aligote Raisin d'Oree we settle into a range of delicious whites, rich in fruit and density with fine acidity and character. The reds are amazing with finesse in spades and delicious fruit. The Vendanges Selectionnees is back as obviously here too quantities have been restored to normal for a couple of vintages. The use of oak is notably low, nothing new for village quality wines, 15% for 1er crus and just 7% for the Selectionnees.
Damien Colin and his sister now run Domaine Marc Colin and they have 12 hectares when previously they had 28. If this seems an uneven split with their brother Joseph then that's because they retain the Le Montrachet and Batard-Montrachet vineyards in their entirety. This was something Joseph insisted on as Marc Colin is so associated with these holdings. Damien is looking for more freshness rather than super-ripe opulence. He'd rather pick a bit earlier and allow for a slower maturity in the bottle. Trying almost the entire range we found wines of restraint. They are fresh and a little lean but definitely aimed at the cellar, where they should do very well.
Sunday 4 November
I wouldn't normally condone getting up at 3am to go to work, but when it means going to Burgundy for a week, well then, exceptions have to be made. After a not bad eggs Benedict at 5.30am in Luton Airport we embark for Lyon. Yes, unusually we're giving the chance to dash through Paris on the only slightly sinister green line a miss this year.
Anyway, we've decided to come off the autoroute early and trickle up through Beaujolais, Macon and the Cote Chalonnaise to give Neil, who hasn't been to Burgundy for ages - and never on a trade trip - a feel for some of the geography. Also, regardless of the breakfast eggs, I want to go to Cluny.
In Fleury we arrive just as church is finishing and the congregation I serenaded by a group of horn players as they leave. We go and take a look at some vines and then head north.
Cluny is a much more fascinating place than I expected and much more extensive. From the little I'd read I had thought its destruction much more complete. The ruins are comprehensive, it is true, but there are tantalisingly complete parts including a transept, even glazed in the restoration of 11 or so years ago. From this base, black-clad Benedictine monks spread through Burgundy, taking with them farming and especially viticulture knowledge, a work ethic* and a strong desire to produce everything to the highest possible standards for the glory of God.
*They were supposed to work in the fields everyday but got distracted by the sales of masses for those eager to escape purgatory early. These were lucrative and necessary to support the lavish building and worship costs.
They were reformed by a breakaway group of white-clad Cistercians who did work in the fields and loved doing laundry. Anyway, if you're in the area I highly recommend half a day dedicated to a visit here. After this it's a straightforward drive up past Givry and Rully, Chagny and then the Cote de Beaune. With all the excitement we managed to skip lunch so we're grateful for the sustenance provided earlier by different forms of Benedictine nutrition.
We're staying in La Villa Fleury, just outside the ring road and in the same group of hotels as Belle Epoque but less cosy. Everything else has the ring of quality but avoid room 5 as this one is a tad noisy. Neil's is fine. Service is good and the staff lovely and accommodating with an early breakfast arranged for tomorrow.
We eat at Ecrit'Vin, which Beaune aficionados will know better in its former incarnation as La Goumandine. Under its new moniker it has new (and not sticky) carpets and everything is cleaner and slicker generally. The boeuf bourgignon could have done with another couple of hours so improvements are there but not complete. Everything else was jolly.