The week beginning Sunday, August 17th has been a succession of splendid, sunny days, with cool, brisk evenings and nights. Temperatures in Beaune have ranged from unseasonably cool nights of 8 to 10 degrees Celsius (46 to 50° F) to pleasantly warm and sunny days of 21 to 25° C (70 to 77° F). The last week has been dry and brilliantly sunny, with many of the local tourists sporting some sunburn as they go about their daily interests (including this writer). But it is unusually cool here in Burgundy this summer so far, after a rainy July and wet, cool, damp beginning of August, and a few hoteliers have reported to me a drop in reservations to finish the summer vacation holidays.
The return of drying and moderate weather after the changeable rainy conditions of July and the first two weeks of August has brought a few sighs of relief from local growers, and allowed those on their summer holidays to relax even further. The vineyards are drying out, the vines are receiving their final trimming, some growers are pulling leaves and dropping fruit to control yields and enhance quality, and the many preparations for a busy harvest season are underway. Local predictions are for the vendange to begin sometime around September 10th to15th.
I have spent the last several days visiting the vineyards between Chenove, the northernmost of the Cote de Nuits villages on the outskirts of Dijon, and Savigny and Chorey-les-Beaune, where the A6 AutoRoute cuts through the vines, whisking travelers between Paris and points south this summer season. Resolute patience has given way to a quiet optimism here in the Cote d’Or, in spite of the setbacks and damage inflicted in several appellations in the area by the hailstorms of June 28th.
Damage from that storm north of Beaune was a bit more widespread than I had initially observed. There is spotty damage to grape bunches on the southern sides of many vine rows in almost all the villages between Savigny-les-Beaune and Gevrey-Chambertin, showing the swift moving nature of the storms. Most of the damage was confined to the south facing sides of the vines planted east-west, and varies from minimal (5 to 10%) in most villages, to fairly significant (35 to 50%) in the areas surrounding the Chapter House and historic pressoir of the Clos de Vougeot, and the upper and middle slopes of the Grands Crus of Richebourg, Romanee-Conti, Romanee St. Vivant, Grands Echezeaux, Echezeaux, and Musigny. From Bonnes Mares into the four Clos of Morey, and finally the cluster of Grands Crus of Chambertin, damage lessens again to between 5 and 10% of grape bunches. Some of these Grands Crus sites showed evidence of significant efforts mid-veraison to remove damaged bunches, a costly and time-consuming attention to detail during the August vacation period that can be financed only by the high prices that these wines can and will continue to command.
On the whole, ripeness is proceeding nicely, with veraison fairly advanced in most places, although somewhat variable with millerandage (shot berries) in many bunches, and some vines with one or two green bunches complementing the red in the Pinot Noir. There is very little appearance of a “second crop” that occasionally appears in the higher foliage of the vines in sunnier vintages. In speaking with a few vignerons this past week, I was told that the variations in veraison color within and between bunches was a good thing. Slight variations in ripeness tend to boost acidity levels in the resulting juice, making for fresher, livelier wines overall.
This report will concentrate on the most illustrious of those vineyards north of the A6 highway, the Grands Crus sites north of Beaune which have established and maintained the glorious reputation of Burgundy for over 1,500 years. I have written about hail damage and the Grands Crus of Montrachet in a previous post (see Race to Ripeness – Santenay to Beaune, last revised Aug. 16, 2014), so here I will report on the historic sites between Gevrey-Chambertin and Pernand-Vergelesses, from Chambertin to Corton-Charlemagne. Regional, villages and 1ers Crus appellations from the villages between Chenove and Chorey-les-Beaune will be discussed in a later post to follow.
CHAMBERTIN GRANDS CRUS
One of the oldest extant records of a single vineyard site refers to the donation in 640 AD of vineyards to the Abbey of Beze by Duke Amalgaire of the Kingdom of Burgondes, who had previously endowed the Abbey itself. Interestingly, and perhaps denoting a historic recognition of superior quality, Clos de Beze can also be called Chambertin under today’s Appellation d’Origine Protegee regulations, but not vice-versa. Most producers elect to bottle under both names if they are lucky enough to possess vines in both appellations.
Most of Chambertin and its adjacent Grands Crus remained in the hands of the monks of the Abbeys at Langres and Cluny until the French Revolution confiscated the church’s property and sold it to benefit the new French republic, dedicated to liberte, egalite et fraternite. In 1790, the 28 hectares of vineyards comprising Chambertin and Clos de Beze were sold to a gentleman named Claude Jobert. They remained in that family’s hands for years, but with the newly revolutionary Napoleonic rules of inheritance, the property has since been fragmented over generations into over 60 parcels, each jealously guarded by its proprietors and farmed by individual growers as they see fit. Now there are over 40 producers of wines from these two Grands Crus alone.
The other Chambertin Grands Crus, Ruchottes, Mazis, Chapelle, Griottes, Latricieres, Charmes, and Mazoyeres (itself a lieu-dit within Charmes) surround the noble growths of Chambertin and Clos de Bezes. Whether adjacent or just below, (but never above, as for the most part the upper Chambertin Grands Crus extend to the forest), these vineyards produce some of the most sublime wines on the planet. The finest examples of Grands Crus Gevrey-Chambertin are rich and dense but never heavy – supple, lively, fresh, complex and succulent in smells and flavors of raspberry, black currant, and pomegranate fruits, with discreet but never overbearing notes of cinnamon, licorice, oriental spice, and moist forest floor, complemented by a suave texture of elegance and velvety suppleness, and a profound tannic structure that finishes with a cinnamon/cocoa-dust dryness, never hard nor bitter.
To be sure Chambertin Grands Crus have been renowned through the centuries for the wonderful wines produced there. Its wines may indeed have been among the first ever counterfeited: after Napoleon’s retreat from the Russian front, the market is said to have been flooded with his favorite wine: Chambertin.
THE MANY SPLENDORED CLOS OF MOREY
Of the five Grands Crus in the village of Morey St. Denis, four are named Clos, implying a walled garden vineyard of historically unique importance. All possess medieval historical origins, with over 900 years of viticulture, mostly by monks and nuns, the most well-educated people of their era. Like most other church and aristocratic property, these were also confiscated by the new republican government after the French Revolution, and sold at auction for the benefit of its citizens.
Only one, Clos de la Roche, refers to its geological rather than historical features (it was near the site of a medieval quarry for limestone marble). Clos de la Roche is the largest Grand Cru in Morey, at nearly 17 hectares, with over 30 different producers working its vines.
The historic origins of the other Clos in Morey date from the 11th to 14th centuries, with both monks and nuns making their contribution to the development of some of Burgundy’s most prestigious vineyard sites.
Morey Grands Crus show very little hail damage, with some marvelous fruit ripening nicely over the last week. Some growers have practiced a vendange verte, thinning the crop by cutting off excess bunches to (theoretically) increase the concentration and ripening prospects of the grapes that remain.
Clos de Tart has a unique history, as it was one of the few medieval vineyard sites under the control of women. From the 12th century it was the property of the nuns of the Notre Dame de Tart. In 1791 it was confiscated and sold to benefit the new republic, but to this day it remains a monopole vineyard with only one single owner of its 7.5 hectares.
Clos des Lambrays does not have a name to reflect its monastic connections, but they do exist. The Lambrays were a noble family from the upper Saone river valley (northeast of the abbey town of Beze). The property was leased in the mid-14th century by the abbey of Citeaux, who had been cultivating Clos de Vougeot for 200 years already. Their expertise undoubtedly paid off over the centuries, until the property was nationalized after the Revolution. Today Clos des Lambrays is just under 8 hectares, with only three producers accounting for its wines.
The main Grands Crus vineyards of Morey St. Denis sustained fairly minimal damage from the storms of June 28th. These should be a fine, but very limited, source of very fine wines at the Grands Crus level if the weather holds from now until the coming harvest.
BONNES MARES & MUSIGNY
Just south of Morey is the village of some of my favorite Cote de Nuits wines, Chambolle-Musigny. Bookended by two excellent Grands Crus, Bonnes Mares in the north with a small parcel in Morey, and Musigny south of the quiet, nearly hidden village, for me Chambolle is the Cote de Nuits’ stylistic equivalent of Volnay. The wines possess an elegance and silky texture, combined with a depth and powerful, nearly coffee-like torrefaction which I find most expressive in Musigny itself. This is not to diminish the efforts of Bonnes Mares’ excellent producers, and the fact is that I have only drunk either no more than a dozen times during my lifetime so far.
The first Burgundy that truly turned my head, literally blew me away, was a Bonnes Mares from Domaine Georges Roumier that I enjoyed with friends one Thanksgiving dinner as a graduate student. Its impact on all of us was profound, and we all regretted that I could afford only one bottle for that memorable celebration. Unfortunately I do not remember the vintage, but I do remember that it cost me less than $30. Bonnes Mares is all silk and refinement, the epitome of that French saying “L’Enfant Jesus en culottes de velour”, meaning “Baby Jesus in velvet pants”. The fruit is juicy and unctuous, usually more sweet red than tart black fruit flavors, with an impeccable balance and long, satisfyingly exuberant finish that literally leaves one happily speechless.
The southern parcels of Bonnes Mares show approximately 5% to 10% damaged clusters, while in the northern, Morey parcels, merely 5% or so of the bunches were affected. Further south into Musigny and upper Vougeot the damage was much more significant and visible. This swath of vineyards south into the illustrious Grands Crus of Vosne-Romanee were hit pretty hard by two waves of hail the early evening of June 28th. This author was driving south from Bonnes Mares to Clos de Vougeot on the road above Domaine Bertagna’s Monopole Clos de La Perriere when I was assaulted by sheets of hailstones, from cherry to golf ball sized iceballs. I remember it every day that I drive, as the dings and dents in my car are quite evident of the storm’s fury, which lasted merely minutes.
Open and exposed to the elements on a knoll above its neighbors, Musigny sustained quite a bit more damage than Clos de Vougeot, which is lower on the slope, and protected by stone walls two meters high in most places. I estimate losses of 25 to 35% in Musigny.
CLOS de VOUGEOT
The memorable storms which swept northward from the Cote de Beaune that evening brought less damage than they left in the Cote de Beaune, but significant damage to some of the most storied and illustrious Grands Crus of Burgundy. Perhaps no other site enjoys greater fame or recognition than the Cote de Nuits’ largest Grand Cru, Clos de Vougeot. Since the 12th century the monks of Citeaux had built this beautiful property, endowing it with a magnificent winery, a superb set of walls delimiting its boundaries, even mapping and naming its specific, unique plots within the walls. Today, the 50 hectares of Clos de Vougeot are farmed by over 80 different proprietors. It would be a tough afternoon’s work to taste through each bottling, but I know of no amateur de Bourgogne who would refuse an invitation to such a glorious tasting.
While the upper reaches of Clos de Vougeot were pelted by hail and sustained significant damage, one of the strengths of the size of Clos de Vougeot, recognized by the monks themselves, is that the variety of plots offer greater possibility for producing a fine wine than if the plots had been vinified separately. Barring any unfortunate events until harvest, there will be a healthy amount of Clos de Vougeot for sale from the 2014 vintage. Because of the fragmentation of plots through inheritance, one may not be able to buy from one’s favorite producer, but there will be a healthy vintage here, especially from those lower plots closer to the former Route Nationale 74.
ECHEZEAUX & GRANDS ECHEZEAUX
Considerable damage was inflicted in the lower slopes of Echezeaux and upper Grands Echezeaux during the late June hailstorms. Unprotected by walls like neighboring Clos de Vougeot, the hail and winds struck with full force. 20 to 30% of the crop was lost in 2014.
I remember early in my wine career, a prominent Vosne-Romanee grower told me that Echezeaux was a monk’s wine, a wine for contemplation and reflection, if not prayer. I often remember that conversation when I am drinking great Pinot Noir. Will it thrill or pacify me? Or both? It will be a difficult harvest in Flagey-Echezeaux this year, requiring precise selection and sorting, and a monastic discipline that will eventually command higher prices.
THE NOBLE GRANDS CRUS of VOSNE ROMANEE
Heading south from Echezeaux and Grands Echezeaux into the commune of Vosne-Romanee, one dips into the slight geological depression of 1er Cru Les Suchots before coming face to face with what are arguably the greatest, and indisputably the most expensive, of Burgundy’s Grands Crus. Thomas Jefferson took over as Ambassador to France from Benjamin Franklin in 1785, and his four years of service saw him visit many of Europe’s most prominent wine regions, including Burgundy. He is reported to have remarked “there are no ordinary wines in Vosne”, but he was merely stating what had been obvious for at least 500 years.
In spite of names that allude to Roman origins, it was the monks of the Abbey de St. Vivant from Vergy in the Hautes Cotes de Nuits that first colonized these vineyards in the 9th century. With plenty of aristocratic patronage and sales to the kings and princes of France and Europe, the wines of Richebourg, Romanee St. Vivant, La Romanee, Romanee-Conti, La Tache, and more recently, La Grande Rue have come to define the finest expressions in the world from the Pinot Noir grape. There are, simply, no finer red wines in the world, in this writer’s opinion.
Unfortunately, these cherished sites were not spared by the waves of hail that fell on the evening of June 28th. Mid to upper-slope vineyards saw significant damage. Upper Richebourg and La Tache appear to have losses of nearly 40%, while further down the slopes, damage in Romanee St. Vivant and Romanee-Conti appears less widespread, which I would estimate at 20 to 25%.
The Grands Crus of Vosne-Romanee are indeed “no ordinary wines”, as Thomas Jefferson observed just before the French Revolution changed the face of viticulture in Burgundy. But I for one am happy that in the 200 years since, most of these vineyard sites have remained in the hands of only a few families. Their prescient guardianship of this patrimony is a passion that goes well beyond the luxury-brand mentality expressed by too many of their wealthy consumers. I commend the proprietors of these unique vineyard sites for their efforts to continue and improve upon this heritage. And a special mention must be achnowledged as well: Aubert de Villaine deserves thanks not only for his efforts for the wines of DRC, but for his forthright support of the cultural patrimony of Burgundy as well. His tireless efforts for the campaign to have Burgundy climats preserved in the inventory of UNESCO’s world heritage sites, his support for the renovations of the ruins of the Abbey of St. Vivant near Vergy, and his energetic enthusiasm for the Festival de Musique et Vin a Clos Vougeot are an incredible generosity for which I, for one, am extremely grateful.
The vibrant town of Nuits St. Georges unfortunately has no designated Grands Crus in its extensive vignobles. But unlike many villages, which were eager to add the names of their most famous crus to enhance the reputation of their village’s wines, Nuits St. Georges can content itself with having donated its name to the entire region: Cote de Nuits. We move south to the final Grands Crus before the A6 motorway divides north from south, in a manner that 2,000 years of winemaking history could not.
CORTON and CORTON CHARLEMAGNE
There are tales that Charlemagne’s wife asked him to plant white grapes in his vineyards so that he could continue to drink with gusto without staining his white beard with red wines. At that time water was hardly a safe beverage to drink. A story, perhaps mere legend, perhaps true, but not as documented as his gift, in 775, of a hillside between Pernand and Aloxe to the monks of the Abbey of Saulieu. It would be 25 more years before he would be crowned with papal authority as the first Holy Roman Emperor, sanctifying the medieval symbiosis between church and state throughout Europe.
After a century of battles over the division of Charlemagne’s Empire, in 936, Otton the first, also known as Otton le Grand, was crowned King of the Franks for the portion of the empire that then included Burgundy. It is his name that gives us Corton, and later becomes joined with Charlemagne’s in the largest of the white wine Grands Crus of the Cote d’Or, Corton Charlemagne. If ever there were wines of kings, and kings of wines, it is here on the hillsides below the forests of the mountain of Corton.
Proceeding from the northeast in Ladoix-Serrigny, and stretching nearly 270° around the oblong circle of the hill, to the village of Pernand-Vergelesses, the Grands Crus appellations of Corton, Corton-Charlemagne, and Charlemagne are spread over more than 150 hectares divided among three villages, Ladoix-Serrigny, Aloxe-Corton, and Pernand-Vergelesses. Charlemagne is rarely seen in use as an appellation in its own right, and Corton has numerous lieux-dits permitted to be added to the singular Grand Cru classification of Corton (Mourottes, Lolieres, Rognets, Vergennes, Renardes, Clos du Roi, Bressandes, Marechaudes, Perrieres, Greves, Vigne au Saint, and Chaumes – just to name an even dozen).
There was a bit of noticeable hail damage evident as I surveyed this spectacular real estate. I would say that losses here are no more than 8 to 15%, all around the hillside.
From an old colleague and friend, a producer of superb wines from these villages just north of Beaune, and through a source at the University of Dijon, I was able to obtain some excellent meteorological data showing the dramatic differences in the amounts of rainfall this spring, versus after the hailstorm, in July and the first weeks of August. From April through June a gauge near Aloxe-Corton recorded 105mm of rain, a little over 4 inches in three months of spring. In July alone, the same gauge recorded 135mm, nearly 5.5 inches versus 4 inches in the previous 3 months. Through August 16th, the gauge measured nearly 40mm, 1.5 inches, with no significant rainfall recorded since that date. It has been wet in the Cote d’Or, but the improvements of the last week have brought a bit of optimism to the region. It is still unseasonably cool, even cold at night, but it is drying out the vineyards and there have been no signs of pourriture (rot) to threaten a healthy crop.
Corton and Corton Charlemagne have mostly escaped the devastation of their neighbors further south in the Cote de Beaune, just across the motorway. If the good weather holds, this should mean Grands Crus red and white wines in good quantity as well as quality.
A VOIR, avec BONNE ESPERANCE
This post has discussed the ripening of fruit and the prospects for the 2014 vintage in the glorious Grands Crus of the Cote d’Or north of the A6 Motorway from Aloxe-Corton to Gevrey-Chambertin. I discussed the state of the Montrachet Grands Crus in a previous post (see Race to Ripeness – Santenay to Beaune, revised August 16, 2014) and I will discuss the prospects for the regional, villages, and 1ers Crus villages from Chenove to Chorey-les-Beaune in a subsequent post to follow in the coming days.
So far the forces of nature have dealt the growers of the Cote d’Or a difficult hand to play. A marvelous spring and beginning of summer, with a swift flowering and copious set of fruit, was followed by a devastating hailstorm affecting vineyards throughout the Cote d’Or, but especially devastating in northern Puligny, Meursault, Volnay, Pommard, and Beaune. The storm also left significant, but less catastrophic damage in Vosne-Romanee, Flagey-Echezeaux, and Vougeot.
The hailstorm of June 28th was followed by nearly six weeks of mostly rainy, cool weather, which water-logged the vineyards and delayed the ripening process, which had been proceeding to a harvest that might have been as early as the first week of September. Since Sunday, August 16th, Burgundy has enjoyed a solid week of sunshine, with cooler than normal temperatures, drying out the vineyards and lifting the spirits of most producers. The harvest should commence between the 10th and 15th of September, depending upon exposure and the location of vineyards on the slopes.
Now approximately three weeks from harvest, Burgundians do what all people dependent upon agricultural forms of life must do: it waits. Today, Sunday, August 24th, is brilliantly clear and sunny, following yesterday’s overcast skies and threatening rain, which did result in some scattered evening showers. But the forecast for next week is mostly for continued sunshine and moderate temperatures. If we can reach harvest without further damaging meteorological incidents, 2014 could bring some fine results. It will do little to alleviate the pressure on pricing due to increasing world demand and previous, less than generous vintages, but it will provide this piece of paradise on Earth a continued raison d’etre. We’ll see, and we will continue to hope for the best.