A Visit to the Côte d’Or of Burgundy

A Visit to the Côte d’Or of Burgundy

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As with many aspects of the enjoyment of French
wines, I owe the initial idea of a visit to the Côte d’Or to my friend
Alexis Lichine. He wrote that it was simplicity itself to be in the
heart of the greatest Burgundy vineyards, and that is true. All you
have to do is to take the rapid train from Paris to Dijon, the TGV (or
“train à grande vitesse,”) and arrange for a rental car at the Dijon
train station. The entire drive, from Dijon to Chagny, is only 36
miles, or 60 kilometers, and you can do it in less than an hour. On the
other hand, you could linger for many hours, and form impressions that
will last for a lifetime. With that in mind, you should devote at least
a day, preferably an entire weekend, to exploring this glorious and
historic wine region.

 

The
Côte d’Or has two parts. The first, the Côte de Nuits, extends from
Fixin, just outside Dijon, to Nuits St.-Georges, about 15 miles south
of Dijon. The second part of the Côte d’Or, the Côte de Beaune,
actually begins north of the city of Beaune, at the village of
Aloxe-Corton, and sweeps south some 20 miles to the vineyards of
Santenay. Chagny, just to the east of Santenay, is a convenient town in
which to enjoy a wonderful meal and reflect on your visit.

Each
of the two portions of the Côte d’Or is defined by a range of low lying
hills, largely facing southeast. Of course, it is this location that
furnishes the possibility of great wines. The sunshine is usually
abundant but not too hot, the soil is not too rich (often clay, with
mineral subsoils), and the drainage is perfect. As a matter of fact,
sometimes it is too perfect, for after extensive rainfalls the patient
vineyard owners often have to make sure that any of the precious
topsoil that has been washed downhill is collected, carted back, and
spread on the vineyards once again. Wines from the plains below the
hillsides lack character. Those from too high up, in most cases, are
too thin. That can be fine as a general rule, but sometimes–as at the
Clos de Vougeot, with its multitude of owners–the merits of individual
strips of a single vineyard are painstakingly weighed against
neighboring strips. A rule of thumb often cited, for example, is that
the further up the slope the grapes are grown, the finer is the wine
produced. You may want to consider whether these minute
differentiations are, in fact, worthwhile. They translate into a lot of
money per bottle.

With luck,
you will find yourself visiting on a fine day, full of sunshine. Of
course, do not forget to bring your camera–there is nothing quite like
a photograph of the glorious view of a Côte d’Or hillside and its
growing vines and grapes, with a wooden sign in the near distance
proclaiming that this is one of the world’s most celebrated vineyards.
It is a region that will delight any skill level of photography. Take
pictures to show your friends, by all means, or send them by email.

Leaving
Dijon by car is much easier than you might think. The car rentals are
handled near the train station, from which you take the route towards
Lyon. After a few blocks the road branches off, and you have a choice.
Don’t take the main autoroute, unless you are fond of the New Jersey
Turnpike. Instead, take Route Nationale 74, a much smaller road that
runs parallel to the autoroute. Route 74 is convenient to the famous
wine towns of the region, running never more than a few hundred yards
from them. This is probably the most sensible route to stay on if you
have one destination and want to go there directly.
The third choice
and, in my opinion, the best one of all, is the Route des Grands Crus,
the D-122, a road that is smaller still and runs alongside the
vineyards themselves. It also runs through the glorious communities of
Gevrey-Chambertin, Morey-St.-Denis, Chambolle-Musigny, Clos de Vougeot
and Vosne-Romanée. That roadof ten miles or so may be the best route
for seeing these vineyards at close range. If you are lucky, and in no
rush at all, you may have some beautiful and famous vineyards virtually
to yourself as you wander along this country road.

Gevrey-Chambertin
is the first of the great wine regions that you will enter. It is
surprising just how small by American standards (or by Bordeaux
standards, for that matter), these regions are. The wines of the Abbey
de Beze began in the seventh century. Some 600 years later, a local
named Bertin planted his own fields, and those “Champs de Bertin”
(Bertin’s fields) became Chambertin. The Abbey no longer exists, but
Chambertin, and Chambertin Clos de Beze still proudly coexist.

These
are just the beginnings of a number of grands crus, tiny plots that are
entitled to use the word Chambertin. The wines generally are large and
assertive, full of flavor, often with fruit flavors predominating (a
Burgundy characteristic, I am tempted to think). I fondly remember a
1969 Alexis Lichine Chambertin, drunk probably too soon after eight
years, which was “mellow, assertive, with a fine bouquet.” But I also
remember a 1988 Jadot Chapelle Chambertin, enjoyed after ten years,
which had “deep flavor, raspberry notes, oaky structure (which meant
that I was drinking it too soon).” I particularly enjoy Griotte (or
cherry) Chambertin, with the suggestion of cherry taste that its name
implies. These are wines that are meant for people who want to enjoy
life.

Morey-St.-Denis is
mainly known for its five grands crus: Clos de Tart, Bonnes Mares
(although nearly all of this appellation is in neighboring
Chambolle-Musigny), Clos de la Roche, Clos St.-Denis, and Clos des
Lambrays. Morey-St-Denis is considered something of a buffer between
the larger wines of Chambertin and the softer, more elegant wines of
Chambolle-Musigny to the south. (I am reminded of St-Julien in the
Medoc, where that region is said to perform something of the same
function between the wines of Pauillac to the north and Margaux just to
the south.)

These grand cru
wines, and the Morey-St- Denis premiers crus, will reward patient
aging. I was told by the Maître des Chais of the Domaine Comte de
Vogue, in next-door Chambole-Musigny, that their Bonnes Mares was “like
a bachelor uncle with a heart of gold,” whereas their Le Musigny was
more “feminine and voluptuous.” I think I know what he meant, but it
would really clarify things if Bonnes Mares were entirely located in
Morey-St.-Denis.

Chambolle-Musigny
is a pretty little town, with a small grocery store and bakery just
right for filling up your picnic basket. Get some fresh baguettes and
butter, ham and cheese, wine and sausages, bottled water and perhaps
some pâté or chicken, and you will be able to stop by the vineyards and
have a country feast at your leisure.

The
glory of Chambolle-Musigny, of course, is its celebrated wines. The
grand cru Le Musigny is the most famous and elegant wine of
Chambolle-Musigny. Tasting the 1990 at the Domaine Comte de Vogue was a
great treat, and I should suppose that it will take perhaps another
half dozen years to be fully ready. In its youth, it showed great inner
intensity and fruit and delighted the palate.
The Clos de Vougeot is
a single enclosed vineyard, a grand cru of 124 acres that is divided
amongst dozens of owners. Overlooking this world-famous vineyard, with
vineyards of Chambolle-Musigny adjoining the property, is the ideal
location for the picnic that you put together at Chambolle-Musigny. It
probably is true that French soldiers marching off to war once
presented arms to the Clos de Vougeot, as legend requires. If not, they
should have.

Vosne-Romanée is
home to probably the single most renowned series of holdings in
Burgundy, the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Their grands crus include La
Romanée Conti, La Tâche, Richebourg, Romaée-St.-Vivant, and, in
neighboring Flagey-Echezeaux, the grands crus Echezeaux and Grands
Echezeaux, which are not exclusive vineyards. I should also mention the
rarissime La Romanée, a grand cru that is only two acres, and not part
of the DRC estate. Last Christmas we enjoyed a bottle of the fine 1969
vintage, which I had purchased at auction a decade earlier at
Christie’s in London. It had a deep flavor, with an earthy, almost
mushroom touch, just between the flavors of Romanée-St.-Vivant and La
Tâche. We had it with roast beef, which was fine, although game might
have been an even better choice. It is a delight to walk along the tiny
road and its offshoots, and locate both grand cru and premier cru
vineyards that are world famous. The DRC wines vary in taste, but in my
experience, not in quality. They do tend to cost a great deal of money.

Drive on N-74 from
Vosne-Romanée to arrive at the last major communal area of the Côte de
Nuits, Nuits St.-Georges, from which the Côte de Nuits presumably gets
its name. I think of Nuits- St.-Georges as the St.-Julien of Burgundy,
for like St.-Julien, there are no grand crus. There are, however, a
large number of delicious premiers crus that are waiting for you to
discover them.

The Côte de
Beaune begins at Aloxe-Corton, and continues through the region of
Beaune towards Chagny. At Aloxe-Corton and Pernand-Vergelesses, the
grand crus Corton and the white wine Corton-Charlemagne are produced. I
recall with delight a rainy September day in Pernand-Vergelesses at the
Domaine Bonneau de Martray that was spent largely in the spacious
harvest kitchen, talking about wines with the late owner, Count Jean Le
Bault de la Marinière. We shared luncheon with the owner and his
harvesters. The vigneron luncheon of boeuf aux carottes was a great
treat, washed down (if that is the right way to put it) with a bottle
of his 1989 Corton grand cru. He did indeed confirm the often-told
story that Charlemagne’s wife had demanded that the Emperor start
producing the white wine, for the red Corton kept staining his imperial
beard and clothing!

Beaune
itself is the logical place to stay during your wine pilgrimage to the
Côte d’Or. It contains the headquarters of many well-respected Burgundy
wine dealers such as Robert Drouhin, in addition to grand historic
sites that are worth seeing. (A prime example is the early Renaissance
hospital the Hôtel-Dieu.) If you are very lucky, you might visit
Monsieur Drouhin’s company when he is holding forth. He explained to me
just why the pinot noir grape, which is the grape that is uniformly
used to produce magnificent red wines in the Côte d’Or (the Gamay grape
is grown in the Beaujolais region), flourishes there, and for the most
part, only there. He said that too much heat will destroy the pinot
noir grape. The skin of the pinot noir is thin, and Drouhin considered
the grape to be more fragile than the cabernet sauvignon grape.
“Therefore, the zone where you can grow the pinot noir is quite
limited, and beyond it, nobody is completely successful. Some producers
outside Burgundy,” he conceded, “make a good wine, but these are not
really up to Burgundian standards.” Perhaps underlining his own point,
I was interested to learn that Robert Drouhin has recently invested in
property in Oregon, where his pinot noir has attracted favorable
comment.

After Beaune, the
little roads subdivide rather maddeningly. Try to be patient. You’ll
just have to back up and try again once or twice. Pommard and Volnay
are neighbors, with very different red wines. Neither produces a grand
cru, but each makes fine quality premier cru wines. Pommard tends to be
on the robust side. (“Un pommard” used to be slang for red wine in the
region of France where I taught school for a year.) Volnay wines, on
the other hand, are lighter and more nuanced. Both still give good
value according to the French scale of things, the “rapport
qualité-prix.” Les Epenots is one of the best-known Pommard premier
crus, and I have similarly enjoyed Les Caillerets, the counterpart from
Volnay.

Meursault,
Puligny-Montrachet, and Chassagne-Montrachet deserve and will receive
in a separate column special treatment as superb dry white wines. These
are worth your patient drive and separate consideration. Pick an
afternoon, at least, when your palate and vision are quite clear, as
you wander along the finest dry-white-wine areas in Burgundy, and
probably on the planet earth. It really is rather silly that
Chassagne-Montrachet does not quite share the acclaim of
Puligny-Montrachet, particularly since its most famous grand cru is
shared nearly equally by these neighboring towns, but that is the way
it is. Meursault is said to be a delight to visit. There is not a grand
cru in sight, but there is a sea of white wines of fine quality, and
the welcome mat is always out for visitors.

Santenay
is the southernmost commune of the Côte de Beaune. It produces lighter
red wines that are quite enjoyable. The best- known premier cru, La
Comme, adjoins the neighboring Chassagne-Montrachet. I still recall
with great pleasure a bottle of 1983 Santenay La Comme Château de la
Charrière that we drank nine years later. (That is about as long as I
would keep a Santenay.) It was summer, and we had refrigerated the wine
for a couple of hours to have it with Sunday dinner. To our surprise,
the wine started out very much like a Beaujolais, fruity, pleasant and
very light–like the wines from that region to the south. As the chill
wore off, however, the wine seemed to deepen, resembling more a wine
from farther north in the Côte de Beaune, and fortunately there was
just enough left to enjoy this aspect of the wine with a cheese course.
Any wine that can do that has earned a continuing place in our cellar.

I
hope this initial broad brush will entice you to visit the Côte d’Or.
Once finished with your tour, just drive back to Dijon, drop off the
car, and take the TGV train back to Paris. But before you do, try to
have luncheon or dinner at the three- Michelin-star Hôtel Lameloise in
Chagny. The restaurant has a good assortment of half bottles, allowing
you to savor the white and red wines whose vineyards of origin you have
now seen. For your meal I recommend the sandre, a superb fish with a
rather nutlike flavor that only seems available in France and in
Hungary (where it is called the sullo). It’s the perfect ending to a
grand visit. I’m sure that after your visit to the Côte d’Or you’ll
pick just the right wines to go with your meal.


Bill Shepard is Bonjour Paris’s wine editor, and the author of
Shepard’s Guide to Mastering French Wines: Taste Is for Wine: Points Are for Ping Pong.

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