The Terror of Terroir

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October 26th 2017
Published: October 26th 2017
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My wine experiences up to now have been almost exclusively Australian. I have had little experience with French wine before this trip, and my knowledge was limited and only theoretical up to now. I knew they did things differently here, but I thought it was all unnecessarily confusing and limiting, and their classifications kind of arbitrary. I now know better. I don’t know if it’s better than what is done in Australia, but there is a logic to it that I can appreciate.

I have just spent two days visiting the Cote de Beaune and Cote de Nuit, the two major wine regions in Burgundy. Cote de Beaune is in the south and predominantly grows chardonnay grapes, while Cote de Nuit is in the north and has more pinot noir. One of the first surprising facts I learned was that the Cote d’Or (the name of the combined area of Cote de Beaune and Cote de Nuit) actually grows about 2/3 chardonnay and 1/3 pinot noir grapes. No other grapes are grown within the appellations (the official system for wine growing in France), but as “Burgundy wine” is the red wine made from pinot noir grapes, I assumed it was
The 17th century cellarThe 17th century cellarThe 17th century cellar

Domaine Ropiteau Freres
the most abundant. In the top tier of the “Grand Crus” the red makes up the majority, so perhaps this is where the perception came from.

On Wednesday, I was on the first tour of Cote de Beaune, led by a lovely French lady named Alexis, with three other people. I have forgotten their names so I will call them by what I do remember – Mr Seattle, and Mr and Mrs Chicago. Alexis drove us up to the vineyards near Beaune and there she explained the appellation system used in Burgundy. As I mentioned, I was pretty sceptical but there was a certain amount of sense in Alexis’s explanation. You see, wine has been grown in the area since Rome brought the grape vine here 2,000 years ago. During the middle ages, the monks learnt which pieces of land grew the grapes that made the best wines and that formed the basis of the appellations when they were drawn up in the 20th century. That’s hundreds of years of experience and knowledge, so it’s fair to say they have a pretty good idea of which land grows the best grapes for wine.

As you can see in the photos, there was some fog about, but we could see enough from there to see the rough differentiation between “Grand Crus”, “Premier Crus”, and the village and regional appellations. The two top tiers tend to be on the hill sides facing east to get the best drainage and exposure to the morning sun. On top of that there are the differences in the soil types that can affect the resulting wine. All of this makes up part of what the French call “terroir”. The Burgundy region is pretty unique in that ownership goes down to individual rows of vines, so one winemaker may own different numbers of vines in different appellations, and produce small amounts of different types of wines.

It still seemed quite complex, so it was time to head into Meursault and get a taste of the terroir in action. We headed to Domaine Ropiteau Freres for our first wine tasting. We started off with a tour of the cellar, which seems to be the thing here. The two wine cellars here were from the 15th and the 17th century. They are not large, so it gives a good idea of the small scale of wine production by individual makers. Interestingly, the walls were covered in mould and this was made more obvious by a recently bricked up doorway that leads to another cellar that had been sold to another winemaker. In theory, you could walk underneath just about all of the town via the wine cellars, although obviously they are not connected. We then headed back upstairs for the wine tasting which, unfortunately for me, was all white wines. I must say, I liked them better than the chardonnay I have tasted in Australia, but none of them tempted me into buying a bottle.

We then got back in the minibus and after a brief stop for photos outside the Meursault town hall with iconic Burgundy painted roof tiles, we headed out to visit some Grand Crus vines. It was interesting to see Grand Crus and Premier Crus vines separated by little more than a single-lane road, but if you looked carefully at the soil you could see the difference. It seems those medieval monks knew a thing or two.

We then headed to Santenay for lunch at a restaurant there. We started off with a glass of the local white wine made from the local grape that I have forgotten the name of (yes, I lied when I said all white wine was made from chardonnay, but this is a very small exception to that rule). Thankfully we were to have red wine with the main course as I was keen to have the duck. It was delicious and went well with the wine, which was good because they kept our glasses topped up so I had a few.

We left Santenay and I felt like a good nap. We had a bit of a drive back to Beaune for our next stop, but I stayed awake because the fog had lifted, and I wanted to take in the scenery. Once back in Beaune, we headed to the Hospice de Beaune. This was built in the middle ages as a hospital for the poor, and today is best known for the spectacular building with painted roof tiles and the wine auction they hold annually. Over the years, quite a few vines have been bequeathed to the hospice and from these they make wine that is auctioned on the 3rd weekend of November. The money raised goes towards the hospice, which is
The 15th century cellarsThe 15th century cellarsThe 15th century cellars

Domaine Ropiteau Freres
still a hospital but has moved to modern facilities. The tour of the hospice was interesting, but nothing amazing. I was here for the wine!

Fortunately, we soon moved on to the next and final stop of our tour – Domaine Debray, a short distance away. Again we started off by visiting the cellar, and then it was on to the wine tasting. Here we got to taste 3 whites and 3 reds, one of which was a Grand Cru. They were quite nice too, but I held off from making any purchases because I would be heading to Cote de Nuit on Thursday.

And with that, the tour ended. It was a really pleasant day out and Alexis was a great tour guide. Mr Seattle, and Mr & Mrs Chicago were pleasant company too. None of them were going on the tour the next day, so I was hoping I might be the only one on the tour. Alexis had mentioned that her company goes ahead even if there is only one person, so it was definitely possible. It is the end of the season too.

I was quite tired when I got back to the
Newly bricked up doorwayNewly bricked up doorwayNewly bricked up doorway

Domaine Ropiteau Freres
hotel, so I didn’t do much except wrestle with the hotel wifi, trying to get it to work. I had no luck, but at least the lady on reception tried rebooting the router and said she would get “the guy” to look at it. That was more than I got on the first night, when another lady said it must be fine because none of the other guests had complained. After processing my photos, I did head into the centre of Beaune for a quick bite and had an early night.

Thursday morning I was up, nicely rested, and after breakfast I headed back to the tour pickup point. Alexis was already there and on the phone, but as I waited I was pleased to see there didn’t seem to be any other people waiting. Sure enough, when Alexis greeted me, she gave me the good news – it would be just me! Essentially a private tour, which was nice. Less nice, though, was the fog which was much thicker than it had been on Wednesday.

At first, I didn’t mind the fog. It’s different to what I am used to, and it can add a nice atmosphere to photos. However, as we headed into the vineyards north of Beaune, it was apparent that there wouldn’t be any nice photographs of the vineyards. The fog was very thick, but Alexis and I had a good laugh about it. We headed up to a lookout in the hopes of getting above the fog, and although I got a nice photograph of the park up there, we couldn’t see anything from the lookout.

We headed north to Nuit-Saint-George, where Alexis hoped the fog would have cleared but to no avail, and then to the vineyard that creates the most expensive wine in the world. The estate is exclusive and closed to the public so there was no chance of visiting and tasting, but you can see the vineyard. By chance, we arrived just as the owner was heading up to the vineyard to be interviewed by some journalists. Not that that changed anything, but it was a bit more interesting than just looking at the sign that said “Romanee Conti”

We then headed to the first tasting of the day, at Chateau de la Tour. The lady there was quite chatty, so she spent some time talking about how the vineyard is trying to be organic and biodynamic but without any certification. I’m no expert, but her explanation of biodynamics seemed to be completely focussed on the phases of the moon. To be honest, it sounded completely bonkers but I wasn’t there to argue.

We had a quick tour of the cellar before heading back up for the tasting. The wine was nice, and once again I got to taste a Grand Cru. As I said, I was sceptical of the whole grading of the appellations, but there was no denying that the Grand Cru was very nice. We stayed there a long while, chatting with the lady. Again, I had to bite my tongue, this time when it came to screwcaps on wine bottles. I know the French find the idea appalling, and I respect their desire to keep to traditions, but they do seem wilfully ignorant about them. I talked with Alexis later and she at least said she has heard that they now have a way of letting a miniscule amount of oxygen in to age the wine, but the lady at Chateau de la Tour was of the opinion that I should drink
Grand Cru vineyardGrand Cru vineyardGrand Cru vineyard

Cote de Beaune
everything in my wine collection within a year because it will not age. We shall see.

I was tempted by the wines there, though. However, it sounded like the place I would be tasting at later in the afternoon would be more to my style so I resolved to come back to de la Tour if that didn’t work out. We headed off to lunch at what I thought Alexis called a “guest stable”, but I suspect she must have said “guest table”. It was like a restaurant except it’s family-run, you must book in advance and there is a set menu. The food was authentic local food, and while the cheese-filled, pastry appetisers were delicious, the cold meats of the main lunch were nothing special. The “guest table” was at a wine estate, so we tasted 4 different wines over lunch. Once again, I was ready for a nap.

No rest for the wicked, however, and we were off to visit the Route des Grand Crus. Thankfully the fog had lifted, so we could see more of the vineyards. We soon returned to Chateau de la Tour, but this time we were visiting the chateau next door,
Grand Cru vineyardGrand Cru vineyardGrand Cru vineyard

Cote de Beaune
which was the original vat-house of the monks from the middle ages. Like the visit to the Hospice on Wednesday, this was the history part of the tour and it was quite interesting. There are four large wine presses, two of which date to the 15th century. They are in remarkable condition. I tried to buy some souvenirs at the gift shop, but staffing problems left someone there who had no idea how to use the cash register so we gave up after waiting for about 15 minutes for someone to come and relieve her.

From there we went to the Moillard Estate, which is in Nuit-Saint-George and much more modern than any of the other places we had been to. After the obligatory tour of the cellar, which this time had the hose in place in the roof which showed me how they get the wine from the vats to the barrels, we got into the tasting. This is where the one-person tour came into its own because I was able to skip the white wines and taste 6 reds instead. They were definitely the nicest I’d tasted over the last couple of days so I was glad I had not made any purchases yet. I picked up a (relatively) reasonably-priced Grand Cru for myself, and a Premier Cru (from a vineyard under consideration for an upgrade to Grand Cru) to share with the boys when I get back home.

So with the day finished, we drove back to Beaune and Alexis dropped me off at the hotel as I was the only passenger on the tour, which was nice. The tours were really enjoyable, and I can’t praise Alexis enough. She is trained in history so that really added to the tour for me, and the private tour on Thursday allowed me to get some good ideas of places to visit, and when, for the rest of my trip. Now I just have to choose what to do tomorrow...

Additional photos below
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Fold-up painting

Hospice de Beaune

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