Here’s A Story
Château du Clos de Vougeot, Burgundy
There was nothing striking about the average-looking man in the smart blue blazer as he approached the spittoon swiftly and with purpose. His lips were squeezed tight as he swished, savoured, and contemplated the wine he had drawn into his mouth.
But things were about to get weird.
Suddenly, he lunged forward, violently, as if to liberate the contents in his mouth into one of the large buckets spread around the room. But he didn’t spit it out.
He tilted his head back, rolled his eyes and began swishing all over again, drawing in air as the wine gurgled loudly in his mouth. He had staked his spot beside the spittoon and a crowd started gathering, albeit at a safe distance. He leaned into the spit bucket with a series of wildly undulating false alarms, rocking like a man possessed, each time appearing to discharge his wet cargo. One, two, three … seven, eight, nine … 14, 15, 16, 17, his head bobbing like a starving chicken, each time looking as if he would finally unleash the Grand Cru Burgundy in his mouth.
From time to time the bravest of the wine tasters would sneak in a quick spit in between his lunges, but most kept their distance out of fear of being spat upon or simply because they didn’t know what this unusual man was doing.
I was standing with Walter Tommasi, a wine journalist from Brazil, trying to make sense of what was going on. Was it a joke? (It certainly was funny; we were laughing our heads off at a safe distance.) Was he paid to put on some sort of mock performance of a wine journalist spitting spent wine? (The organizers said no.)
Without warning, as the crowd of gawkers grew larger, the man lunged one more time. It was lucky No. 18, as the slavering mess hit its target. A bull’s eye! The man, oblivious to all the spectators, had a look of pure relief, like he had just experienced the most pleasurable moment of his life (if you know what I mean). He straightened his jacket, turned and was lost in the crowd as he headed back for another taste only to repeat the process several more times.
That performance, while curious, was but a brief interlude in an otherwise spectacular tasting of some of Burgundy’s greatest Grand Crus, 45 of them (Chardonnays on one side, Pinot Noirs on the other) lined up for us to taste blind on the fourth day of a five-day journey through Burgundy. Every two years, select wine journalists from around the globe are invited to the Grands Jours de Bourgogne, an intense exploration of the main Burgundian regions.
It just may be the world’s most recognizable name in wine, so finally crossing through the “Golden Gates of Burgundy” into the historic town of Chablis after a rather dull two-hour drive from Paris, one is struck with a sense of awe.
The town of Chablis is remarkably quaint, a throwback to simpler times hundreds of years ago, with narrow brick streets and limestone walls surrounding homes that have survived for hundreds of years. The smell of woodsmoke hangs heavy in the air.
It is as if time had stood still here.
The vineyards of Chablis are planted along the River Serein, where the Cistercian monks from the abbey of Pontigny began growing vines in the 12th century. The AOC, or appellation, of Chablis was created in 1938, establishing a distinct style of dry white Chardonnay that is recognized, and copied to some extent, the world over.
The wines take their personality directly from the Jurassic limestone soils laid down some 150 million years ago. The rock contains deposits of tiny fossilized oyster shells.
Grand Cru Chablis represents the best of the best and is only reserved for seven terroirs within Chablis: Blanchot, Bougros, Les Clos, Grenouilles, Preuses, Valmur and Vaudésir. The grapes for these wines come from 103 hectares of vineyards in the northeast part of Chablis, facing the sun at altitudes of 100 to 250 metres along the right bank of the River Serein.
A morning tasting of 160 producers from the region, crammed into the Maison des Vins à Chablis in the centre of the village, is an opportunity to enjoy the various styles of the region. Over 100 wine journalists are swirling, sniffing, tasting and spitting wines from producers divided into tents and buildings set up for the grand tasting of Chablis and Auxerrois wines.
Producers are showing both their 2009 and 2010 Chardonnays, two vintages that couldn’t be more different from another. The vintage in 2009 in most of Burgundy was warm, while 2010 was more classic and a better reflection of the unique style of Chablis.
The talk around the tasting tables is the use of oak in the region. Historically, Chablis was made with very little oak aging to keep the wines crisp and fresh. But more and more oak is creeping into the wines, especially at the Premier and Grand Cru levels.
I discuss this with Jean-François Bordet of Domaine Séguinot-Bordet, one of the oldest producers in Chablis tracing their history back to 1590. Bordet is the grower, winemaker and marketer, which means he does it all, at his estate.
“We make unique, pure wines, elegant wines from our very special terroir,” he tells me.
The “freshness” of Chablis comes directly from the sea that millions of years ago covered the region. “We can smell the salt,” he says.
Bordet says there are two trains of thought with modern Chablis, which has divided Old World purists and New World wine lovers. The use of new oak barrels, which gives wine its spicy notes, is becoming popular with the more expensive Grand Crus and Premier Crus.
“Some winemakers want to bring something special to their wines,” he says. “Everyone wants to do whatever they want. I prefer used oak,” he says, which brings a roundness to the wines without drowning the fruit in spice and vanilla.
“Chablis is a good brand. It’s unique and very special, not like Australia or Chile,” he says. “Our winemakers have to make the best of Chablis because it’s known everywhere in the world.”
Standing on the edge of arguably the greatest vineyard on the planet, on a warm and sunny spring day, one gets a sense of awe and disbelief that from this tiny plot of land so much pleasure has been delivered to so few people through the decades of time.
It is so small you could walk around it in 15 minutes, and the earth is brick red, the rows of vines furrowed in their winter dormancy, and the bare vines are gnarly, thick and beautifully asymmetric as they jut from the ground.
Romanée-Conti, considered by many to be the greatest vineyard in the world producing the greatest wines in the world, is a short walk behind the village of Vosne-Romanée on a southeastern-facing hillside in the famous Côte d’Or region of Burgundy.
It is not hard to find. Just look for the tourists that pose for pictures with the biodynamic-organic vineyard as the backdrop. And, of course, there is the tall, grey and weathered stone cross, brilliantly lit in the morning sun on this day, that towers over a section of the ancient stone wall that lies between a narrow road and the vineyards. The date on the cross reads 1723.
There is no fence around this most famous of vineyards, just a small note attached to the wall that asks tourists not to enter the vineyards. But you can walk the perimeter of the 1.8-hectare Pinot Noir vineyard and revel in the history and admire the limestone, red clay, gravel and pebbles that define it.
You can look, you can smell and you can admire it, but most of us can only dream of tasting what comes from it.
I have only tried the top wine from Romanée-Conti once.
In many ways, it was a mistake. It was mind-blowing, so intense and saturated in flavour yet delicate and finessed on the palate. Now, every time I try Pinot Noir I think back to that single taste of Romanée-Conti and I am disappointed. Nothing comes close to it. It has ruined me for life.
Since we had just visited the holy grail for Pinot Noir, it was only fair that we make a quick trip to another historic and awe-inspiring vineyard, what many consider to be the holy grail for Chardonnay in the world.
The Montrachet vineyard is situated in the southern tier of the Côte de Beaune (which is in the southern half of the Côte d’Or) between the two communes of Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet and is surrounded by four other Grand Cru vineyards all having Montrachet as part of their names.
The Montrachet vineyard differs from Romanée-Conti (other than one is Chardonnay and the other is Pinot Noir) in that it is much larger with nearly eight hectares (compared to 1.8) planted. Ownership is divided by 26 different producers who turn out 47,000 bottles annually of the Grand Cru wine.
Domaine Romanée-Conti, which owns outright the entire Romanée-Conti vineyard, has a tiny piece of Montrachet (0.67 hectares) and produces what many feel is the greatest Chardonnay in Burgundy with its tiny 3,000-bottle production and prices that fetch $4,500 a bottle.
While I did not taste wines from the Montrachet vineyard or the Romanée-Conti vineyard, I was treated to a taste of the finest Crus from Burgundy at a spectacular tasting of Grand Crus at the grand Château du Clos de Vougeot in Côte de Nuits. The castle, built in 1551, is surrounded by the 50.6-hectare Clos de Vougeot vineyard that was created by Cistercian monks of Cîteaux Abbey, the order’s mother abbey.
In the early 2000s, Clos de Vougeot was split among more than 80 owners and is now run co-operatively.
At a tasting of 45 Grand Crus arranged for wine media, the wines were poured blind, meaning we didn’t know what we drinking until they were revealed after the tasting.
It was a thrilling experience. Echezeaux, Grands Echezeaux, Romanée Saint-Vivant, Chambertin, Clos de la Roche and Clos de Vougeot (Grand Cru reds) and Batard-Montrachet, Corton, Corton le Corton, Chablis Vaudesir and Chablis les Clos (Grand Cru whites) were all poured in a once-in-a-lifetime tasting. Each wine more thrilling than the next.
Over 100 wine scribes dove into the tasting at a fervent pace, sniffing, swirling and spitting mouthfuls of wine that will fetch hundreds, even thousands of dollars a bottle by the time they reach Canadian store shelves.
It was truly magical.
Our evening finished with a meal fit for kings and queens.
The biggest hunk of marbré de foie gras pâté was served with the 2005 Bouchard Père & Fils Grand Cru Corton le Corton. Heavenly best describes this Pinot Noir with the duck pâté pairing. A raspberry explosion, finessed and opening like a flower with the savoury duck dish.
Next up was la canette des Dombes (female duck from Dombes, near Lyon) paired with the 2002 Maison Jean-Claude Boisset Mazis-Chambertin. The age of this Pinot was perfect with its lavish red fruits, toasty oak spice and balancing tannins that melted the already tender duck.
But the greatest pairing of the meal was a regional cheese plate served with a Louis Jadot Bâtard-Montrachet from 1982 (yes, 1982!). The Chardonnay oozed minerality and buckwheat honey, lanolin, slate, charred wood, warm apple and candied-citrus notes. It truly was a hedonistic experience and a wonderful exclamation point on a thrilling meal.
I am standing completely alone in a cavernous, dark, dank and frightfully chilly underground cellar in the heart of Nuits-Saint-Georges. I ask myself, “Who wears a short-sleeved linen shirt in Burgundy?”
Somewhere in here, Montreal-born winemaker Pascal Marchand is foraging for barrel samples from the 2010 vintage in Burgundy.
He emerges from a far corner of the cellar with a basket full of Chardonnay from the Abbaye de Morgeot vineyard in Chassagne-Montrachet, in the Côte de Beaune. The vineyard was recently purchased by Marchand’s Canadian partner Moray Tawse, and will be the first domaine wine bottled under the Marchand-Tawse label.
It is here that Marchand and Tawse, Marchand’s 50-50 partner in Burgundy and the Toronto businessman who also owns Niagara’s Tawse winery, make a range of Marchand-Tawse wines from a combination of sourced fruit and vineyards that Tawse has recently purchased, as they expand their range of Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune wines.
The Chassagne-Montrachet is exquisite, with toasted almonds, ripe apples, minerals and well-integrated citrus notes through the finish.
Marchand continues to pull samples, a Corton-Charlemagne next, then a Marchand-Tawse Grand Cru Bâtard-Montrachet, the most expensive wine made at the property at $175 euros that is extraordinary, with layers of fruit and spice, a touch of brioche and a fine oak spice that excites the palate. Magnifique!
We breeze through dozens of barrel samples: Gevrey-Chambertin Premier Cru La Combe aux Moines, Corton, Echezeaux, Clos de Vougeot and the star of this tasting, the Mazy-Chambertin, a bramble-berry, mineral bomb that is already showing both power and finesse on the palate.
Marchand has over 25 years of winemaking experience at renowned Burgundy domaines such as Comte Armand, Domaine de la Vougeraie and Jean Féry, and as a consultant in Chile, California, Canada (Tawse, Le Clos Jordanne) and Australia.
Tawse and his family have vineyard holdings in Argentina and Niagara, and just last year acquired Domaine Maume in Gevrey-Chambertin, expanding his family holdings in Burgundy, which include Premier Cru vineyards in Chassagne-Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet and Beaune.
The partnership between Marchand and Tawse is built on mutual respect and a passion for wine. The goal is to craft up to 80,000 bottles of wine from the vineyards of Burgundy.
“I don’t think we want to be much bigger in size,” says Marchand.
Both partners believe in biodynamic-organic principles for the vineyards now owned by Tawse, and that includes plowing the vineyards by horse for everything Premier Cru and above and minimal intervention of the wine through the winemaking process.
As for finding a market for the Marchand-Tawse label, Marchand says he looks to Canada, the US, Europe and Japan.
I ask him about China, the huge emerging market that has kept prices for Burgundy and Bordeaux at all-time highs.
“I’m still hesitant to sell to China,” Marchard says. “I’m not interested in label drinkers.”