April in BurgundyPosted: April 20, 2013
Standing on the Boulevard de la Trémouille in Dijon, capital of Burgundy, on a fine, clear day, looking south to the hills of the Côte d’Or, it is possible to entertain the happy illusion that by continuing straight ahead one must surely be able to walk unhindered into the vineyards of the Côte de Nuits. An illusion it must remain. Where vineyards once almost hugged the walls of the city, suburbs now sprawl for some two or three miles before more than a few isolated and uninspiring plots of viticulture are reached. Untidily interspersed with patches of maize, assorted vegetables and fruit trees, limited on the one side by the unlovely building developments bordering the Dijon to Beaune road and on the other by the nondescript slopes of the Hautes Côtes, they have nothing of the dignity to be found further south along the Côte d’Or. Later, after Fixin say, the vineyards are recognizably the be-all and end-all of local existence. Here, even around Marsannay and Couchey, where red, a little white and a famous rosé wine are made, they might be mistaken for an afterthought, incidental to ever-spreading urbanisation. At Chenôve, once a country village, are nevertheless the beginnings of tracks that enable the walker to set off southwards without braving hard-top roads and backyard dogs. There also are the much-photographed wine presses of the Dukes of Burgundy, which may help to sustain a romantic idea of wine and wine-making in an increasingly technological age. Many a modest stone-built outhouse of the Côte d’Or shelters an old press, still in use, that functions according to the same mechanical principles.
It was a fine morning in April when I set out. Impatient to get well beyond the petrol stations and housing estates, I set a good pace, wanting to reach Gevrey-Chambertin, more than two miles away, before everything shut for lunch. Not only had I ideas of visiting the château, I also needed to shop for a picnic. Reluctantly, I hurried through Fixey, with its very prettily placed Romanesque church, and through Fixin (pronounced ‘Fissin’), which in retrospect seems to nestle among cherry and plum blossom, reaching Gevrey-Chambertin as the clocks struck twelve.
The château was closed all that day, but I was able to buy what I needed for lunch, including wine. Notwithstanding the locality, I had intended nothing out of the ordinary when I chanced across a serious-looking corner shop with a well-known wine-maker’s name over the door. I expected it to be locked, but it was open. The interior was attractively Dickensian and silent. After a little while a grandmotherly person appeared, apologising for keeping me waiting. “Les jeunes”, who really looked after the shop, were all “à table”. It was clearly not the occasion for tasting or deliberation, so with some extravagance I bought a cellar-cool bottle of the proprietor’s three-year-old Gevrey-Chambertin AC. As soon as I had left the shop I tucked it down inside my shirt, buttoned and zipped everything else over it, and went on my way hoping that nobody would remark my curious anatomy and that by picnic time my expensive acquisition would be agreeably ‘chambré’.
In his autobiographical book, A Traveller’s Life, Eric Newby tells of asking Evelyn Waugh to write an introduction to A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, Newby’s classic of travel writing. In the course of the brief correspondence that followed, he had occasion to point out that there was no such wine as the ‘Clos de Bère’ which features in Brideshead Revisited. Waugh apologetically replied that it was a misprint for Clos de Bèze. Newby got his introduction, and as a gesture of thanks sent Waugh three magnums of Clos de Bèze. Newby and I were friends. We had talked about the incident, and about Waugh, and (as always in Newby’s company) had laughed a lot. Such were my slender motives for wanting to sit with a glass of burgundy overlooking the Clos de Bèze, though I had never tasted the product of its precious 15 hectares.
Taking the tarred minor road that leads up the hill out of Gevrey into the Bois du Forey, I came to a track running between the topmost vines and the wood, just below the 300 metre contour line. Two or three minutes more brought me to a little grassy recess in the bank that formed both the border of the track and the margin of the wood. “The Grand Crus shelter under the woods of the Montagne de la Combe Grisard, a good barrier against the winds from the north,” notes Serena Sutcliffe of the highest vineyards of Gevrey-Chambertin, in my dog-eared and wine-stained copy of her invaluable Pocket Guide to the Wines of Burgundy. With the north wind sighing in the trees, I gratefully shed my pack, settled myself comfortably, and there above one of the most celebrated of all the Grands Crus ritually poured a little of the Gevrey-Chambertin AC onto the ground. Not ten metres below were the precisely ordered, immaculately tended vines of the Clos de Bèze.
It is not the recommended treatment for any decent wine that it should be translated from cellar to luncheon underneath the consumer’s thermal vest in the course of a purposeful 1200-metre walk; nevertheless, the little burgundy seemed to have taken no harm. It was a trifle too young, I thought, and still a touch too cold; all the same, it was better than drinkable right from the start, and much better half an hour later, and by the time I reflected that half a bottle would have been absurdly too little I began to think also that Serena Sutcliffe’s remark about the top wines of the appellation combining “finesse with power” might not be inappropriate for the humbler ones as well . What a delight it was to sit in that privileged place, watching cloud shadows passing over the burgeoning vines of Grands and Premiers Crus, looking at the map and noting that the good, wide track ran southwards all the way along the edge of the wood and out into the vines, except for the wine villages and the Château du Clos de Vougeot, promising fine, steady walking with not a dwelling (and so probably not a dog) in sight.
Later, I was sitting looking at my map on a low stone wall between the vines of Romanée-Conti and Romanée-St Vivant when a middle-aged man who was driving slowly along the track in a modest Renault stopped to enquire if I needed help. I said that I had been given the address of a certain well-reputed wine-maker in the locality and that I was now trying to find him. What was the wine-maker’s name, the man asked. “Trapet”, I told him. “Well”, he said, “you’ll have no difficulty in tracking him down because he’s talking to you. Put your pack on the back seat and jump in”.
Thus I made the acquaintance of one of the best-known wine-makers of the Côte de Nuits. His car was modest. His wine-making premises, like those of so many others whose names are music to a wine-lover’s ears, would be unlikely to attract so much as a passing glance, nor were they tricked out with any of the refinements so frequently to be found in a business that is only too aware of the value of appearances. There was no rustically elegant, candle-lit tasting cellar gleaming with polished oak and sparkling glass, no poker-worked wooden boxes of wine for VIP guests. There was oak in plenty, the deliciously fragrant new oak of neatly marshalled rows of casks stained purple around the bungs by young wines, but we tasted by electric light, spitting into a plastic bucket. “Violets, perhaps”, Monsieur Trapet replied thoughtfully when I asked him to give his own impressions of the ‘nose’ of this wine or that, “and red berry fruit. Épices, of course. Spices”. Admiring the very beautiful colour (‘robe’) and limpidity of the sample in the glass, I asked how much he filtered. “Very little”, he said. Too much filtration could take the heart out of a wine.
It was the easiest and most agreeable of marches into Nuits-St. Georges thereafter, so that I was already reviewing with satisfaction my 10-mile day on the Côte de Nuits and looking forward to the Côte de Beaune. Nuits-St. Georges only sustained and improved the mood. On a previous visit a year or two before I had stayed grandly as a paying guest in the house of the Comtesse de Loisy, where dinner had started with truffled eggs and the lamb that followed had been accompanied by a superb Nuits-St. Georges from the very distinguished house of Faiveley. Now, I lodged less nobly and chose to have dinner at a hugely busy, ordinary restaurant in the centre of town. The three-course menu cost what one might expect to pay for the soup in London’s West End, and was wholly acceptable. There were house wines at charitable prices, and when the bustling, good-humoured patronne told me, sotto voce, that there was a bottle or two of ‘réserve spéciale’ left if I would like to try it, I gladly accepted and found myself drinking a wine which, although no Richebourg or Romanée-Conti, was far superior to the sort of burgundies that I might normally afford. What exactly was it, I asked. Ah, said the patronne, she couldn’t tell me that, though her husband might know; but at any rate it was from “d’ici quelque part”, somewhere around here. It went wonderfully well with the chicken and chips.