Monday 29 November 2021

The Côte de Nuits

*** Boring post alert. If you couldn't give a stuff about wine I suggest you stop here! ***

The wine-growing area known as the Côte de Nuits is a string of communes south of Dijon, running from the village of Marsannay in the north to the small town of Nuits-Saint-Georges in the south. If you go further south from here you will arrive in Ladoix-Serrigny which is the start of the Côte de Beaune, which runs through the town of Beaune itself all the way to the village of Santenay. Together they make up the Côte d'Or. 

Whereas the Côte de Beaune is best known for its white wines, the Côte de Nuits is famed for its reds. If you are a wine lover mere mentions of places like Chambolle-Musigny or Gevrey-Chambertin, or of vineyards like Echézeaux and La Tâche, are enough to have you salivating. And likely weeping that most of these are forever destined to be beyond the reach of a mere mortal like yourself. Or that is how I feel about it anyway. Once upon a time Burgundy was affordable but in the last ten to 15 years market forces have rather taken over, and the minute quantities of wine that this region produces are subscribed many times over with the inevitable result. Much of it heads east as trophies, and the rest of us squabble over what is left. If you are a member of a wine club like I am you occasionally get a small allocation, sometimes just a single bottle. You can squirrel this away for a few years by which time it may be so frighteningly expensive that you cannot possibly bear to open it, or you can throw pecuniary caution to the wind and experience the pure unadulterated joy that is top quality pinot noir or chardonnay in the flush of youth. I confess to a little of both.

Snuffi achieves a long-held ambition

It was a beautiful cold and crisp morning, blue skies and frigid digits. I left Beaune early, grabbing breakfast on the way out of town, and after a short drive through Aloxe-Corton and Nuits-Saint-Georges arrived in the seminal village of Vosne-Romanée, home to one of the most celebrated wine-makers in the whole world, La Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. All I wanted to do was to look at the vineyard, to try and understand what it is about this tiny enclave surrounded by low stone walls that makes so many people go weak at the knees. Needless to say I've never tasted a single drop, but for some people it is a lifelong ambition to own just a single bottle. I remember when I started working in Canary Wharf in the late nineties that Waitrose Cellar used to have a few bottles but those days are long gone and I never took the opportunity. Likely I would have drunk it eons ago before I really knew what it meant. The alternative view is that it is just a bottle of wine and anyone who pays thousands of pounds for one is a bit of a dope - a fool and his money are easily parted. I came away none the wiser really. Standing on such hallowed ground there is inevitably a bit of a sense of mysticism that creeps in, particularly if you know, but in the world we live in even spending £100 on a bottle of wine seems crassly insensitive when you actually stop and think about it. 

I was not the first pilgrim

I took a slow and contemplative wander south to La Grande Rue monopole (fifteen years ago I had a case but it fell into the first category and I was forced to offload it) and then north to Richebourg before visiting the local cemetery. You can learn a lot in places like this, particularly so in Burgundy which is a huge spider's web of intermarriage, family strife and the fragmentation of inheritance. Everyone is someone's son, daughter or cousin, domaines change hands with each generation or sometimes not at all, and to chart the history of any one family is to ride a rollercoaster of boom and bust, from total decimation to the triumphant rebirth and return to the golden era of times past, row by row, hectare by hectare. 

The monopole of La Grande Rue, owned by Domaine Francois Lamarche, and farmed now by his daughter Nicole. A narrow lane about three metres wine separates this plot from the Romanée-Conti. One costs twenty times as much as the other. Both are obscenely unaffordable.

Domaine Jean Grivot, Vosne-Romanée. I could afford this until 2018 after which an unjustified 37% price hike caused me to look elsewhere. A real shame as the wines are divine. I am slowly drinking my remaining stocks.

The Chateau de Vosne-Romanée, seat of the Comte de Ligier-Belair. Fortunes have been mixed, but I reckon he's doing OK.

I continued on to the Clos de Vougeot, an immense 50 hectare walled vineyard with grand cru status. A grand cru is at the top of the local classification scale, the best of the best. Within Burgundy there are four levels of hierarchy. Regional is the lowest, and which covers wines  grown anywhere within the overall Côtes. They could be labelled simply as Bourgogne Rouge, or perhaps Côtes de Nuits. Next up are village wines, those made within a particular commune and which can take its name, so for example Fixin, or Marsannay. These vineyards are usually on the flatter ground where the soil is richer due to erosion, and where they don't get quite the same amount of sun. The next level are the premier cru - these will have names that also appear on the bottle as well as the village, so for example Vosne-Romanée "Les Suchots", or Chambolle-Musigny "Les Amoureuses". These vineyards are generally on the slopes where the soil is poorer, the drainage is better, where the yields are less, and where they have an advantageous orientation. And finally there are the grands crus, where all the factors come together in apparent perfection - the soil, the minerals, the exact angle of the slope and the direction it faces. These go by their name alone, the village is superflous. Some have even given their name to the village, or rather than village has decided to add the name of the grand cru to its own in order to elevate itself by association. Hence Chambolle-Musigny, Puligy-Montrachet, Gevrey-Chambertin - the bits in italics are the grand cru vineyards. What is odd is that you can stand at a crossroads of small lanes at certain points on the Côte d'Or and be next to all of them. If you face west the field in front of you is a premier cru. If you turn 90 degrees to your left you will now be looking south at a grand cru, and if you turn around and look east behind you you will see a mere village vineyard. If the vines are very young in the village vineyard they may be declassified to a regional wine - all sorts of rules and regulations exist. If you lay face-up in the middle of the road with your legs pointing south you could likely touch all four, but a bottle from the vines by your feet will set you back hundred and hundreds of pounds, whereas a wine made ten feet away just next to your right hand can be had for perhaps about 70, and those next to your left hand maybe 20 or 30. This is what is known as terroir. It is illogical that there can be so much perceived difference, but then again when a bottle of wine trades for 500 quid and there are still many more people that want one than there are to sell then maybe logic has already taken a back seat and is just enjoying the spectacle.

Clos de Vougeot is a gigantic grand cru and is split amongst countless growers, over 80 at the last reckoning. Within these walls are people making incredible wine. Also within these walls are people trading on the name and making absolute garbage. Whether this is because they couldn't care less or whether their hectare is in a particularly muddy corner of the clos I have no idea, but this is definitely a place where the maxim of following the producer rather than the vineyard is absolutely key. In the northern part of the vineyard lies the Chateau du Clos de Vougeot, no longer making wine but instead a historical monument to wine making. It was  founded by Cistercian monks who once cultivated the entire area, and is now preserved as a museum, as well as being the headquarters of the local wine syndicate and where the noble Chevaliers du Tastevin have their annual piss-up. I had a wander around but in truth museums are not frequently my thing - in this case huge dusty wine presses from centuries past and various silver goblets - and I continued my northbound journey to Chambolle-Musigny.

As I mentioned in my crossroads example, individual neighbouring plots can be very different, and so it should come as no surprise that each wine-growing village has different soils to its immediate neighbours as well as different expositions, and hence each one ends up making different types of wines. In Nuits-Saint-Georges for example you get quite austere wines, very tannic and structured wines made for the long haul and which can take many years to come around. The same can be true of Pernand-Vergelesses slightly further south. Patience is needed but once you finally get there you are drinking the true expression of the place, the terroir. I really like Gevrey, I adore what they make in Vosne, but it is in Chambolle where in my view the closest vision of perfection is found. In Chambolle-Musigny the default style is of elegant and voluptuous fruit that caresses and delights, feminine wines of beauty and finesse whose aromas are divine and where each sip can go on forever.... Errr, I'll stop there, the pretentious button has been well and truly pressed and I don't wish to embarrass myself any more. All I can say is that wine is something I am very interested in and as regular readers will probably know I tend not to merely dip in to my hobbies. Of course some producers will make wines of great structure in Chambolle that will take an age to come good, just as there are growers in Nuits such as Chevillon who make silken wines that bely their origin. There is no single factor as important as who made the wine, but the style of the village is nonetheless a very good starting point.

And then there are places like Morey-St-Denis, my next stop, where an individual identity perhaps does not exist quite as definitively as elsewhere, with wines that come from vineyards to the south resembling those of Chambolle, whereas those from the north have more in common with Gevrey, the next village up. I had hoped to be able to sample wines from both ends at the local Caveau des Vignerons who conveniently stock the produce of everyone in the village, but this being France they had closed for a two hour lunch break. Brilliant. There are things I love about France and there are things I loathe; this is one of them. No doubt if I lived here then this would be something sacrosanct that I would love, but today as a visitor with limited time it was a great irritation. Instead I managed to scoop a quick visit chez Magnien, a bit of a surprise as they were not really open, but I winged it and managed to taste both a Morey and a Chambolle - only a tiny soupçon of each as I was driving. I found the Morey more engaging funnily enough, perhaps as the Chambolle came from a mix of different plots.

This is pure supposition on my part as to why this wine might have been less harmonious than its sibling, and there are a whole host of other things it could have been, but it brings me to another thing about Burgundy, the difference between a domaine and a négotiant. There are vines that people own and make wine from and these are known as domaine wines. Many of the myriad of smaller producers operate like this, small scale farmers who do everything from start to finish, sometimes making their wine in little more than a garage or an outhouse. Then there are vines that people rent and make wine from - they might do all the work or none, or they might just perform the actual harvest, deciding on the optimum picking time and bringing in their own team to do it themselves, rather than any of the viticulture that preceded it. All variations of this are unlikely to be called domaine wines, but neither are they really négotiant wines, they fall somewhere in between. And then there are producers who simply buy either grapes or must (freshly pressed grape juice), and the wine that comes from these sources are definitely négotiant wines. But quite often the wine-makers do a mixture of all of these things, and it is very hard to know exactly what level of involvement they may have had in the final evolution of the bottle that is in front of you. Bottles are labeled in different ways, or perhaps not at all, and often the only way to find out is to ask. So the Morey came from a family-owned plot where every step was carried out in-house, whereas the Chambolle came from a variety of plots across one premier cru vineyard called "Les Borniques", all owned by different people thanks to Napoleonic inheritance laws, but in this case all farmed by the Domaine. Or at least that is what I think they said, I may be getting mixed up with Domaine Chanson in Beaune that I visited later on. You may have seen some of the big négotiant houses on local supermarket shelves or places like Majestic - Jadot, Louis Latour, Bouchard. They dominate the wine trade in Burgundy and are massive operations.

I made a brief foray up into Gevrey, passing the various flavours of Chambertin vineyards as well as Bonnes Mares and Clos de B
èze, but my time was up and I missed out on the villages of Fixin and Marsannay. I had an appointment in Beaune at 3pm and a number of shops to visit now that they were all sufficiently restored after their two hour lunch breaks - I'll cover part of this in a shorter and likely equally dull piece on the Côte de Beaune. A lot of what I've said here about sites, classifications, elevation and so on also hold true there, so I won't need to repeat that. In summary a fun morning, and far less posh than I have made it sound, I basically went on a series of small walks alongside some expensive fields. I also submitted a series of joyful eBird lists from individual vineyards as I went along. All of them contained Chaffinches.

A missed opportunity at Latricieres-Chambertin


  1. Y'know, I follow your blog because you talk birds (see above: Chaffinch), you have a deep sense of humour, you write superbly and overall you come across as an intelligent person. Who else could entice me into reading a long post about wine production in France? Nobody, that's who. And yet I found this a surprisingly (for me) interesting read and I even learned 'stuff'. Cool beans buddy, much appreciated (though I will arm-wrestle you to the death over there being such a thing as a "top quality pinot noir", pointless fluff of a wine that it is...) I have a question though, what's with the draft horse? Is it actually ploughing?

    1. Yes, behind the horse is a simple plough, and beyond that is a man ensuring it stays in the ground and that they don't deviate catastrophically. At the end of each row the horse stops and eats some grass, the man cleans the blade of the plough, and then they turn around and go up the next one. About every fifth row the man also has a fag, this is France after all.

      Glad you read the post and found out a few things that maybe you didn't know. I discovered loads during my visit and I thought I knew a lot! But pointless fluff, come on!!?

  2. A well-timed trip ahead of La Vague d'Omicron....
    Are you having Roast Turkey at Christmas and, if so, are some of your Burgundies accompanying it?

    1. At home for Christmas this year, and another one with no visitors, so not really enough of us to have Turkey. Not sure what the plan is, but I am sure that we will have something good with it. The Champagne and Port are ready to go, but the red and white not yet chosen!