Stephen W Starling
Writer and Photographer

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Wandering the Wine Route - Beaune, Burgundy, France

Saturday, February 01, 2020

It is late July when I arrive in Burgundy and set up camp in a renovated farmhouse overlooking the ancient market town of Beaune. I rent a car and each day wander the ‘Route of Fine Wines’ visiting quaint villages, sampling local cuisine, and seeking out renowned vineyards to taste the award winning wines of the region. Wonderful journeys of discovery that uncover a long lineage of wine making with timeless traditions that can provide solace in today’s hectic world.  

The Route de Grand Crus (Route of Fine Wines) along D974 winds through quaint towns and picturesque hamlets of the Saône valley between Dijon and Meursault. On both sides of this road precisely spaced lines of vivid green-leafed grapevines follow the rolling contours of the rich dark earth. Wine connoisseurs call these slopes the Côte d’Or (Golden Hillside), where almost 28,000 hectares of vineyards produce over 185 million bottles of quality wine each year. The region’s dry reds and crisp whites are regarded among the best in the world, with the finest, like Coche-Dury Cailleret Meursault Premier Cru, selling for over $2,000 a bottle.

Wine has been produced in this region of Burgundy for centuries, beginning with Greek traders who planted vines along the Rhone valley in 600 BC. Later Roman occupiers established formalised viticulture and their legacy includes a plot named Romance Conti which is still yielding top quality grapes.

In 910, when Benedictine monks built Cluny Abbey, they planted vineyards to make communion wine. During the 12th century Cistercian monks continued refining processes endeavouring to produce wine worthy of being a gift to God. By 15th century the powerful Dukes of Burgundy were able to boast they created the best wine in all Christendom.

In the 16th century the town of Beaune became an important centre for warehousing and selling wine: a role that continues today with the town still hosting an annual wine auction to fund a charitable hospital founded in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, then chancellor of Burgundy.

The finest Côte d’ Or wines originate from choice grapes grown on east and south facing slopes at altitudes between 200 and 500 metres. Here in full sun, on well-drained soils, sheltered from chilly Mistral winds, abundant sunshine drives out morning mists and damp mildew. The sun’s warmth also enriches the grapes’ sugar content, which ultimately increases the alcoholic potency of the wine. The Golden Hillside’s rich dark soil plays a role too: this terroir (cultivated earth) of stony clay soils over layers of fractured limestone imbue rich bouquets and unique flavours to the wine.

One of my first discoveries on the Route of Fine Wines is Château de Meursault. I turn off D974 some 8 km south of Beaune to take a tree-lined lane up to impressive iron gates that open onto a gravel courtyard where the grand manor house stands surrounded by beds of colourful flowers.

The Meursault estate dates back to 11th century with the current chateau being built in 1666. Originally owned by a succession of aristocratic dynasties, in 2012 the Halley family acquired the estate and merged it with their existing Chateau Marsannay in Côte de Nuits and Marche aux Vines in Beaune to form one of the largest wine companies in France. 

I stroll to the imposing three storey chateau, climb stone steps, cross a flagged veranda, then enter through a high arched doorway where I join a group of fellow wine enthusiasts. We are welcomed, in a cultured English accent, by a smart young man. He leads us across a polished parquet floor to a vaulted reception room hung with crystal chandeliers. Here our unassuming guide nonchalantly mentions the Meursault estate has been making wine for over 1,800 years, owns the best vineyards across Côte de Beaune, is renowned for its premier crus, and only uses unusually shaped bottles that were designed in the 18th century. Each harvest yields approximately 1200 barrels and currently over 800,000 bottles are ageing in the chateau’s cellars. My quick mental calculation estimates wine worth over $120 million lies below my feet.

Surprisingly, this wine comes not from one vineyard but from 110 plots scattered as far as 10 km from the chateau, the smallest plot being just 100 metre square. Small plots and fragmented vineyard ownership are a consequence of the 1789 French Revolution when vineyards owned by nobles’ and churches’ were commandeered, divided, and sold off. Napoleon’s inheritance laws continued division of ownership to the extent that some landowners now only hold one or two rows of vines in a vineyard.

Château de Meursault’s precious vines are constantly tended by 18 staff who till in winter to aerate soils, prune buds in spring to boost yield, espaliering vines across trellises in summer to catch the sunlight, and then harvest, grade, and press grapes in early autumn to make wine.

After adroitly answering our elementary questions, the guide politely ushers the group though an archway and down a flight of worn stone steps into a cool, dimly lit cellar where a musty smell of spilt wine and mould pervade the still air. Row-upon-row of stout columns support low plastered arches that fade into the gloom. Orderly lines of oak barrels resting on wooden cradles extend across a stone flagged floor the size of a football field.

A winemaker carrying a long handled ladle and clipboard beams a torch as he patrols the ranks and files of his charges dipping samples and writing notes. In this cellar, freshly harvested wine is élévage (to raise) spending between 12 and 18 months fermenting in oak barrels that impart flavour before being bottled. During that time a temperature of 13 degrees and humidity of 85% are carefully maintained, and winemakers will make subtle adjustments to the fermentation process to refine the wines characteristics.

We walk between rows of barrels to enter a narrow passage where alcoves filled with racks of dusty bottles are swathed in cobwebs. On simple backboards propped up against the racks, vintage years are scrawled in chalk. Oversized one and a half litre magnums and three litre jeroboams bottles lie seemingly discarded, in the dust. Even a rare six litre methuselah rests unceremoniously in a dark corner. Our guide explains premier and grands cru whites can be aged for 15 years, while reds, having more tannin, will cellar well for 20 years. The increased volume in larger bottles aids the maturing process.

Moving on through more cellars between more barrels, down more passage-ways past more bottles, we stumble along in single file like ants lost in labyrinths of an unfamiliar nest. Each step takes us back in time through cellars constructed in the 18th, 15th and 11th centuries; each passage-way a virtual time tunnel to an earlier epoch of great winemaking.

Emerging from a portal brings us back to the present day and into a tasting room where group members take seats on wooden chairs around barrels fashioned into tables. The guide distributes sheets of tasting notes then introduces a selection from the estates’ range explaining each wine’s long ancestry and emphasising their distinctive characteristics.

Thirsting for knowledge, group members appreciatively sample each wine offered, studiously referring to florid descriptions of flavour set out in the tasting notes. Even to a novice like me the bold, fruity Corton Vergennes Grand Cru delivers an impact: I imagine I can discern its famous balanced structure, influence of tannins, and long palate acclaimed in the notes. Clearly, Château de Meursault wines are an affirmation of excellence that would add prestige to any occasion. Moreover, they provide an opportunity to indulge in centuries old rituals of appreciating fine wines.

Seemingly, wandering the Route of Fine Wines is leading me not only through the scenic vineyards of Burgundy, but also back through annals of time. As the roots of the estates’ vines reach deep into Cor d’ Or soil: they also stretch back into centuries of tradition and generations of winemaking to furnish a tangible link to the past. Perhaps, in some way the 1,800 year lineage of the Château de Meursault noble wines provide reassurance of an enduring continuity in our unsettling and fast changing world. 

© Stephen W. Starling

You too can travel the Route of Fine Wines; for information visit:

http://www.burgundy-tourism.com/discover/travel-the-wine-routes

http://www.burgundy-tourism.com/to-do-to-see/wine-tasting-initiation 


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