A Chardonnay Pilgrimage on Two Wheels
Burgundy. The blessed slope with more history, vaunted terroir, heritage, pricing and words than any other wine district on earth. And as any self-respecting Burgundian will tell you, of course it all began with the medieval monks. Ironically everywhere my wife and I went this summer on holiday, we seemed to be unwittingly on one or other of the pilgrim roads of St Jean of Compostella, and Burgundy has more than its share of ancient churches, abbeys and religious sites.
The most famed of all is Cluny, walled city once world-renowned for its Abbey, the largest in Christendom. It’s half an hour from the Maconnais and Cote Chaonnaise, though if you visit you will be far more impressed by the amazing IT technology than medieval bricks and mortar. In a feat of unparalleled historical vandalism after the French Revolution, the state sold off eight centuries of architecture as a quarry. Yes, it was literally smashed to pieces. All that remains is a small, towered fragment and bitter taste in the mouth about the arrogant folly of man. Oh, and the brilliant computer-generated imagery of what it would all have looked like. As an aside, if you want a much smaller, but intact version of Cluniac architecture, go to Souvigny, a beautiful little town and the second pilgrimage site after Cluny. It also has a lot of very eclectic art.
But tourism aside, we were really there to visit Le Soufflot for dinner, an informal, great value temple to gastronomy in Meursault. On the way, without really thinking or bothering to look at a map, Waze directed us very kindly through Mercurey, Montagny, Rully and Givry – the latter being a lovely village. It’s sad that they all get bypassed in the mad rush to the big names of the Cote d’Or.
Guilty – after all we were heading for the lovely black, green and gold chevroned roof of the town hall. In Meursault. Next to the church whose steeple was built from stone not I hope taken from Cluny, but from the local quarry. There are a lot of ‘Perrieres’ vineyards around here, and none greater than Meursault. It seems vinously appropriate to have a church steeple built out of such epic terroir.
And if you believe in Fate, or some higher cause, I was looking for a wine shop I’d been recommended to visit, and our b&b, both of which were on the main square. In between, house martins whizzing in and out of their rounded mud-hut nests under the arches just above your head like crazed French waiters in their black and white uniforms, was the tourist office. In a typical division of labour (or common sense?) I headed to the wine shop to drool over Meursault and Kathy snuck into the office.
By the time I came out, muttering about vineyards and vintages, she was clutching a map and a brochure. The first was of the climats of Meursault, the second of bike routes. It was supposed to be raining, but in fact the sun was shining and the sky trying to smile blue, and we were a couple of hours early. And just down the road on the outskirts of town, opposite F.Gaunoux whose Pommard Rugiens we had just drunk, was a campsite. That hired bikes. And we had just discovered the joys of sitting on an electric one whilst cycling around the canals, lakes and salt pans of the Camargue watching flamingoes.
I told you. It was Fate. A pilgrimage on two wheels awaited.
I think I first came to Burgundy as a kid in the 70s when my parents took me to Clos Vougeot (that’s what I call prescient education). Now it’s a 3.5 hour drive from home, so, figure… I have staggered on foot from Vosne to Chambolle, and crept almost on my knees along the Route des Grand Crus outside Gevrey, stopping to pray at Chambertin and Clos de Beze that some kindly God would allow me to afford a bottle. But I guess I wasn’t wearing a hair shirt and need to shave my head first.
But I’ve never though of a bike. In a car it’s too easy, too flattened out, too fast. You take your drug fix on all the big names (kindly signposted in the Cote de Nuits) but you don’t remember much. It’s just a lot of ‘oohs’ and ‘aaahs’ through the windscreen. Perhaps stop for the mandatory picture at the cross by Romanee-Conti. But those all-important contours elude you, the terroir is too complicated to be taken in at 40 kph.
On foot you can pace the undulations and feel the geography, but of course it’s slow and ponderous. Hence the perfect solution – two wheels and for the more elderly or less fit, perhaps an electric boost to help you up the slope. Suddenly you can cover ground at your own price, stop whenever you like, and feel your thigh muscles as you climb up an innocuous looking hill that elevates you from the humble to the grand.
The town of Meursault is surrounded by village lieux-dits, mentally transformed for me into the incomparable wines of Roulot, ripe, controlled fruit wrapped in an armour of citrus and chalky extract that takes years to soften. Brilliant, as pure and chiselled as the monastic architecture all around.
Heading south the road forks, the left-hand heading to Puligny-Montrachet on the lower slope between 1e cru and village, the right-hand ascending to heaven, the 1e crus of Meursault that slip into their brothers in Puligny and culminate in the Puligny-Chassagne border and possibly the greatest white wines in the world. Certainly the finest expressions of chardonnay anywhere.
Those monks did not want to make it too easy for you, perhaps they envisaged hours, days, weeks of study in silence, interrupted only by the odd religious service, prayer or song. Nowadays you need either to be French or have a very good ear. For the average foreigner, the difference between dessous and dessus is an inflection, a nuance too slight to be interpreted. Oo or oo? Ou or U?
However, here it matters. Big time. And on your bike you can see it clearly, to the right side, lifting gently above the road to the trees atop the slope, are the prime sites. To the left, still on a slope, but flattening out towards the village wines on the plane, the lesser ones. Sorry, I should have said up there on your right the dessus and down there on your left the dessous. Got it?
Just out of the village, as you try to squint at your map and not fall off the bike, it’s easy, the 1e crus Goutte d’Or, Porusot and Boucheres are on the right, upslope. But when you hit the top trio, it complicates. Genevrieres is on both sides, the better part being up. Then you hit the Mecca of all, Perrieres, which is all up, some of it walled off into the Clos des Perrieres, but here you have up and then higher up, so it should really be dessus and dessus plus, but here the dessous, ie lower part, is the better all be it in fact upslope above the road. And just to finish of the topography-terroir lesson, Charmes is all on your left below the road and of course the dessus is the better bit adjoining the road and the dessous the lesser section heading down to the lower road.
Not obvious. But easily navigated and mentally imprinted when you are there with wheels. Of course, the site does not quite equate into the quality-price as I think Coche-Dury’s Perrieres is too high, but… I do see that nowadays the attributes ‘dessus’ for Genevrieres and Charmes and ‘dessous’ for Perrieres are appearing on labels just to remind you where exactly where the wine comes from (and no doubt the price).
So much for Meursault. If the Clos des Perrieres has asked for grand cru status, thus far Meursault is without, but as the bike cruises along the road you suddenly notice the stone archway to Les Pucelles on your left and you’ve just cycled through prime 1e cru Puligny territory: Combettes, Champs Canet, Leflaive’s Clavoillon and another Perrieres (it may be my imagination, but whenever I drink this from Sauzet it is so stony and mineral it merits its name).
This is where you have to descend from your bike, get out the camera and breath heavily. As the pilgrimage route has reached its Compostella. To the left, downslope, slide the two illegitimate princes, Batard and Bienvenues-Batard (and if you pedal a couple of times just across the Chassagne border, Criots-Batard).
But to your right, just above the wall and interspersed with hallowed archways, the greatest of them all, Montrachet. Above it – quite steeply (I told you electricity had its uses) sits Chevalier, the crown prince. It is an amazing place to take in, on your own surrounded by vines, fresh air, birdsong and the greatest chardonnay vineyards of all.
If you cycle up the road above Montrachet you can see up to Chevalier or down through Batard, with Montrachet itself as your fulcrum. I just wish I had more of it to be able to try to understand the differences. And these days it comes at high risk, the last precious 2007 Batard we had went straight down the sink, oxidised. As for Montrachet and Chevlaier, I have only drunk them once, though the 2001 Leflaive Chevalier is probably the greatest white I’ve ever been lucky enough to swallow. A perfect match of mineral elegance and fruited power, taught with lively acidity. Big, endless and refined. If only…
(From Montrachet down toBatard)
(Montrachet, Chevalier above)
In the distance sits Chassagne (some of the grand crus straddle the border) and the main road that curls sharply up to St Aubin – another salutary lesson as suddenly I realise why the wines of St Aubin, especially the top premier crus with a bit of global warming and very fine winemaking, generate such great wines nowadays, definitely the value proposition as the Montrachets and Meursault ascend into the heavens, or the stratosphere of pricing. The grand cru slope does change orientation, but circles round to St Aubin (a bit like the hill of Corton with its Charlemagne).
We stopped, turned left towards the village of Puligny, freewheeled past Sauzet and popped into the Caveau. It was teatime, but, well, when in Rome… I have not heard of the Chalumaux vineyard, but it sits above Champ Canet and just north of Folatieres, Truffiere and Champ Gain, on the border with Meursault and it’s quarry… Nor had I heard of Jean Pascal, but his 2018 Chalumaux was surprisingly good (2018 is so young and so sunny, but here there was some lift and chalky bite too, and at a very reasonable price). So we sat outside in the sun opposite a statue of workers during the harvest, watched goldfinches flash above us and sipped Puligny.
I could grow to like electric bikes and become a seasoned pilgrim here in the temple of chardonnay. In the meantime, monastic studies impose – but perhaps with corkscrew to replace quill pen.