The alarm seemed painfully loud, but by the time I had dragged myself out to the car, in the pitch dark wetness of a December morning, I was fully legal, by half an hour. The French government released lockdown and after six the curfew was off (for 14 hours anyway). The A6 is a nightmare when it is two lane, with endless trucks throwing out blinding spray in the still black morning, but I had to be in Meursault at 10,30 and this was the only way to do it.
300kms and three hours later a miserable damp greyness lifted the horizon, and I was cheered by the huge signs they now have on the motorway ‘Beaune – cite des vins’ and, above all, ‘Climats de Bourgogne – Patrimoine Mondiale’, a UNESCO world heritage site. No sooner read than I crested the hill, the road swung right and as I descended, I had the serried rows of Savigny vines to my left and Beaune to my right. Neat lines of now leafless stumpy bushes rolled up to the hills which were topped with little tufts of forest like medieval monks, a very appropriate image here where the Cistercians did so much to map out the vineyards centuries ago.
Heading out of Beaune we again hit the open vineyards, the road forking right up to Pommard and straight to Volnay and thence Meursault. The palette looked as if someone had sucked all the colour out of it, rain still bulleted the windscreen and I pulled off the road, sloshing through puddles to take silly pictures of Domaines Roulot and Coche-Dury, where alas even with Christmas seasonal cheer, nobody was ever going to sell me a single bottle of anything. The vines were lost in the murk, the low cloud and rain mixing with smoke to obscure the view. Sad looking folk wheeled what I guess where rusty old braziers around, presumably burning off the vine cuttings (nowadays a subject of debate due to carbon emissions, believe it or not).
Between the two megastar domaines and on the opposite side of the road stood an imposing tree-lined drive, our destination for the morning.
And this is where a little history comes in, personal and vinous.
Burgundy is famous for its small family domaines and unimposing architecture, chais tucked into what look like garages in the middle of little villages nestled amongst rolling vineyards. There is none of the pompous ostentation of Bordeaux here, but at the end of the drive stood quite an imposing chateau that would not have looked out of place in the Gironde. The Chateau de Meursault.
But let’s flashback, oh dear, 40 years… The chateau was owned along with the Chateau de Marsannay up north in the Cote de Nuits and the Marche aux Vins in Beaune. The latter sits in the heart of Beaune, opposite the Hotel-Dieu with its magnificent courtyard and tiled rooves, soaring steeples and, of course, the Hospices de Beaune. As a teenager I guess just about of legal drinking age, I was standing in awe in front of all this history when my dad spotted the market behind. A large building which offered you a glass, I think for 15 francs (one pound fifty, a couple of euros?), which bought you entrance to a downstairs which from very distant memory was mainly white, to an upstairs called ‘the chapel’, where under vaulted ceilings you had bottles of reds from the Cote de Nuits sitting on top of barrels. With free service…
My mum and I actually didn’t bother going in, and did something else, but my father, serious soul, did the tour and then came running to get us. He thus slurped his way round twice (and then drove the car back to our hotel, how life has changed…). I was more raised on Liebfraumilch, Hungarian Bulls Blood and, I think, Bulgarian cabernet, but I remember a Pouilly-Fuisse that made me stop and think, and by the time we had got upstairs I was almost on my knees, this was a chapel after all, and as closing time approached, we discovered a bottle of Clos de la Roche grand cru that we unashamedly polished off. I had never tasted anything like it and could literally remember its perfume for years.
It was ridiculous, and used as a very low cost way to get drunk by the local students. Later they changed the rules to one hour maximum and a metal tastevin not a glass, but I left clutching a couple of then precious bottles of Bourgone Rouge (all I could afford) and that was, I guess, the start of my love affair with la Bourgogne.
Thus when friend and wine merchant/expert Peter Thustrup asked if I’d like to join him for a couple of tastings, as a new blogger I didn’t need to ponder for long. But when he said we’d meet at Chateau de Meursault I admit I was bemused. A lot of wine has flowed under the palate since then, and my experience with the domaine was that it was a huge commercial affair that produced industrial quantities of wine. I had enjoyed one white, but it was a Meursault 1e Cru which turned out to be a mix of Charmes and Perrieres (who mixes two of the most famed vineyards in Burgundy together?) and the reds that I’d drunk from Beaune, Volnay and Pommard were, frankly, rustic and green. The best you could say was that at least they were cheap.
Hence my expectations were low, until we met the CEO, Stephane Follin-Arbelet, ex of Bouchard and a man who has lifted the domaines since their take over in 2012. He took us around the amazing underground cellars and showed us where the bacchanalian Paulee de Meursault is held every year (well, not 2020 of course) - the dinner and drinking fest that ends the ‘3 Glorious Days’ celebrated every November after the Hospices auctions. Chemicals and pesticides are all gone and the top level certification (3) acquired already for ‘high environmental value’ with the hope of full organic next year. Plants were being grown between the vines to increase biodiversity and help the soil, yields were down, and the enormous grain silo-sized fermentation tanks replaced. The grapes were now treated with care and the least manipulation and pumping possible. No more filtering or heavy extraction.
It all sounded, and looked, very serious, abetted by the obvious enthusiasm and conviction of Stephane. You have to take someone seriously who personally grows Corton in his back garden. I felt rather embarrassed when he asked me if I’d drunk their wines, but when I told him the truth, he was not surprised nor shocked and disarmingly honest. The whites could be good, but the reds were perhaps better left to history. I could feel my saliva buds peaked by interest. Looking at the vineyard maps on the walls I could see they had split their plots in Charmes and there was now a Charmes Dessus bottling in the best (upper) section of the vineyard, right next to Comtes Lafon no less, the other in the triumvirate of Meursault superstars.
Upstairs a line of half bottle cask samples awaited us, (socially distanced), from both domaines. I am not a wine professional, and frankly not good at tasting and supposedly scoring cask samples – it’s a bit like trying to decide whom you will marry when you are mature from a hurried, rather awkward teenage kiss. The wine hasn’t even finished its adolescence. I am not going to give you a long list of wines and notes (which I cannot remember anyway), but I can perhaps give you an idea of the style of the house and the vintage, plus the standouts.
2019. It’s in the middle of the trio of hot, dry vintages, and there are stories of pinots reaching 15, even 16 degrees, unheard of levels, so you need to pick carefullyu. 2020 was the earliest vintage ever. I recall being in Vosne at the start of September 2011 when the first grapes came in, and it was considered an early vintage. In 2020 some harvests were already finished in August. If you are looking for edgy, classical wines of austerity that need a good decade to soften out, not sure that 2018, 2019 or 2020 will be for you. The 2019 whites are ripe, the reds full of soft ripe cherry. When some restraint has been practiced, the wines are pleasing and have enough structure, I think, to hold. When not, they can quickly tumble into a cloying sweetness and alcoholic burn on the finish.
Stephane said that for the whites, especially in Meursault, he wanted vins de terroir, but not too much austerity or, the modern vogue, reduction, (which seems to becoming ubiquitous and sometimes overpowering). The wines carry a certain plumpness and ripe fruit, but I don’t think we felt any over-ripeness and there was sufficient extract and acidity to balance the fruit. The Meursaults were all good and we debated whether the extra minerality of Perrieres won over the balance and perfect position of the Charmes holding. Perrieres is the more famous name, but perhaps here the Charmes wins. Have to say I also liked the Puligny Champs Canet. I look forward to tasting these when mature as they have power, fruit, extract and acidity.
The reds? I am not very familiar with Marsannay other than Longeroies, which is up for promotion to 1e cru and can be very nice after a decade in a good vintage. I suspect global warming is helping this most northerly of the Nuits villages. The Chateau de Marsannay has a broad selection of vineyards (& prospective 1e crus) and the Longeroies was indeed good. The standout was the Ruchottes, but sadly I don’t know anyone who know buys Cote de Nuits grand crus nowadays to drink (due to the prices), so let’s return to the Cote de Beaune. Stephane had discussed the relative finesse of the Pommard Clos des Epenots as opposed to the structure of the Volnay Clos de Chenes, as if the villages had swapped, the reputed feminine, floral elegance of Volnay for the sturdy masculine power of Pommard. But a wine is only as good as it tastes on the day, and this time the Pommard was in more surly teenager mode, but the Volnay had a fruit, bouquet, power and length that really leaped out and stayed there. It was the standout wine and by far the best value, though to be fair the 2017 Pommard at lunch disappeared very quickly which had certainly not been our intent and was indeed all about charm, flattering ripe fruit and elegance. Yes, the ’19 Corton had serious weight, but for me the wine that really shone was the Volnay and I will certainly want to taste how that progresses in a decade or more…
No question, quality here has really turned around. 2019 is a fruit-forward vintage, but seems to retain enough freshness and structure, and with some refreshing rain in August, 2020 is hoped to be better…