A Summer Weekend In Burgundy

St Gengoux Le NationalAs roving ambassador for Park Lane Champagne, and being involved in the magical champagne trade, I find I need more time to roam the great vineyards of France.  Having not visited the great town of Epernay and the tremendous wine region of Burgundy for some time and with offices, venues, sports, restaurants and shops closed in the UK it seemed an appropriate time to take full advantage of the airbridge with France.  Thus on a chilly Friday morning four gentleman and I jumped in the motor and headed for the white cliffs of Dover. 

Our destination was the medieval city of St Gengoux Le National (St Gengoux Le Royal in pre-revolution times) which is nestled in the foothills of the Côte Chalonnaise as it blends into the Maconnais.  We were, rest assured, agreed that it would be an ideal opportunity to stop by Epernay and review the progress of this year's harvest in Champagne.  And, be equally reassured that this year's harvest boasts both excellent quality and quantity.  In fact, it is such a strong harvest that, combined with the pandemic, it has caused a certain raucous between the vignerons and champagne houses.  Following last year's slump in sales, the champagne houses are expecting 100 million fewer bottles to be sold in the corona year of 2020.  As such they are reluctant to buy much more - especially since they are rumoured to already be holding a surplus stock in excess of 1 billion bottles in their cellars - and thus the champagne governing body, the CIVC, have capped the yield for this year at 8,000kg/hectare (down by a third), in order not to saturate the market.

A picture of a vineyard by the Abbaye Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers which boosts healthy, large and delightfully ripening grapes

Anyhow, sitting at the top of the hill next to the Abbaye Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers (where Dom Perignon first tasted stars), we couldn't help but be struck, as I am every single time I visit the wine making regions of France, by it's sheer and vast beauty.

Recharged and excited by what we saw in Champagne, as well as reinforced by a coup or two, we jumped back into the Daimler (1998 vintage, now you ask) and nosed south down to Burgundy, the big V8 sipping premium unleaded at a steady 19.7mpg...

Now the aim of our weekend was not debauchery (although there was plenty) nor was it rest (of which there was little) but of learning and exploration.  We sought to conquer the Côte de Beaune.  The Côte de Beaune is situated slight south east of the centre of Burgundy and begins at Sampigny-lès-Maranges and ends at Pernand Vergelesses adjacent to the majestic Corton hill, and has along its banks some of the world's most famous vineyards and towns: from Beaune which is one of the key wine centres of France (famous for the colourful tiles that adorns many of its buildings' roofs); to Montrachet (famous for Le Montrachet along with several other fabulous white Burgundies); from Santenay via Meursault, Volnay and Pommard (which are two communes not even 100 meters apart which produce phenomenally different wines), among many others.

A map of the vineyards on the Côte de Beaune

When embarking on a voyage of discovery concerning wine there are numerous factors involved:  taste, terroir, environment, grapes, blend, vintage and ageing.  What is particular about French wines - and in particular Burgundian wines - unlike new world wines (which are named solely after their grapes) is that location is everything.  Take Burgundy, for example: while wines from the Côte Chalonnaise are, generally speaking, lighter and fruitier, wines from the Côte de Nuits have much more of the typical farmyard aroma that many associate with Burgundian wines.  Less generally speaking, each town's wine along each of the Côtes have differing smells and taste; more closely still, producers in a town in a single village are likely to have differing wines from another house in that same village, even if they own vines in the same vineyard.

Maison Dubreuil Fontaine So, with the health of our livers in mind, we decided to focus on the Côte de Beaune and in particular the 5th generation family house of Dubreuil-Fontaine - a totally first class wine producer situated in Pernand Vergelesses.  The ever fragrant Delphine greeted us with a warm gallic "bonjour" and took us on an oenological voyage of delight in the cool dark tasting cellars. Alaistair Harrison and friends in Burgundy

It is rare when tasting a single producer's range that all the wines from bottom to top impart such a delicious taste.  Dubreuil-Fontaine truly has a sensational range of both whites and reds from different plots in the Côte de Beaune - but especially concentrated in the village and on Corton hill.  Lovely rich creaminess with subtle oak in their whites and a fruity and rich depth in their reds.  Of course, as pleasant and exhilarating as it is to taste a producer’s range of wines, we had our original aim (learning and exploration) at the forefront of our quickly clouding minds; and in this too, Dubrieul-Fontaine was fantastic with wines from across the Côte de Beaune allowing us an introduction to the unique tastes and quirks of wines from along the Côte.

Charlie Harrison in Wine Cellar
One of the hidden treasures of the Côte de Beaune is not its magnificent vineyards or producers, but what lurks at the top of the hill behind Pernand Vergelesses: the Madonna. With vineyards surrounding, a statue of the blessed Virgin Mary sits at the top of the hill looking out over the entire Côte de Beaune as if ensuring that it continues producing some of the word's finest wines.  If ever travelling to or through Burgundy it is well worth a slight detour off the autoroute.  Below is a picture of the jaw dropping view from the Madonna, with the Côte de Beaune dissappearing into the horizon.  Dubreuil Fontaine also produce wine from immediately below the Madonna, with the plot enchantingly known as Sous Fretille (literal translation meaning, under the petticoats).  Amazing to consider that France has officially been a secular country since 1905, with the state owing all of the churches and yet the iconography and presence of Christianity is ever present throughout this area - little icons and images at random spots in vineyards, and such like.  Certainly the historical importance of religion is underlined, even if drinking wine from under the Madonna's petticoats does have an attractive naughtiness to it! 

View from Pernand Vergelesses over the Cotes de Beaune

Lunch at Le Soufflot, MeursaultUnderstandably thirsty after our tasting and peckish after our pilgrimage, we descended the hill with a full boot and empty tummies.  Lunch was booked in Meursault at a fantastic restaurant called Le Soufflot.  This also is a diamond in the rough for wine enthusiasts not only with two Michelin Stars for its food (which is set menu, no choice), but largely for its’ staggering wine menu that makes Jasper Morris' 'Inside Burgundy' burst into life with opportunity to taste what he describes.  The wine list has been described as second only to the George Cinq in France for Burgundy wines and we could well believe it.  Needless to say, it was fortunate that Uncle Paul came to the rescue when l’addition was presented...

Feeling suitably replete and in need of atonement from our day's indulgence into the world of wine, on our return journey to St Gengoux we stopped by The Hungry Cyclist nestled away in Auxey-Duresses to collect a jersey sportif each (sporting the great Coq of Burgundy, of course!) as a promise of repentance for deployment when on the pedals back in Bighty.  Without question, you must stay at Tom's brilliant establishment if in need of accommodation and fun in the heart of Burgundy - whether a cyclist or not!

The Gentleman Tourers

I consider it a great fortune that I work at the tail end of an industry with such depth, history, complexity and luxury, and a greater fortune still that I can explore it.  These sensational wines that are served in many of the finest restaurants in the UK from Mayfair to Morecombe have incredibly humble roots in villages that no one would ever conceive do produce such world renowned deliciousness.  For us, having certainly learned a great deal and explored a vast terrain we headed home with heavy hearts but bountiful brains.

There are certainly worse ways to spend a weekend.

Pip pip.