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…
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