Burgundy for beginners


When you tell people you are a wine merchant, they often assume your days are spent swanning around vineyards and indulging in esoteric discussions about the minutiae of viticulture. The reality is generally rather more mundane. We are running a business much like any other and it is sales and deliveries, cashflow and stock holding that occupy the vast majority of our time.

The exception to this is the wine buying trips. Voyages of exploration, visiting old friends to taste new vintages and always seeking out new discoveries to try to find those unknown rising stars. Not to say that it is a ceaseless round of pleasure – a punishing schedule is adhered to. Up to eight producer visits a day, which, if you are in Burgundy, means careering helter skelter from village to village, diving into the caves (punishingly cold – the chill seeps up into your bones) and tasting anything from ten to twenty barrel samples, before piling back into the car and on to the next stop.

I was part of the tasting team that went out to Burgundy a couple of weeks ago. It was my first trip to Burgundy for a long time. So it was the eyes (and palate) of a relative novice that I brought to this epic winemaking area.

We did not have particularly high expectations, as 2007 had not been a straightforward vintage. Three days and twenty-one wine producers later we staggered back to Lyon airport (leaving our wine buyer behind to visit another raft of producers), replete and very very pleasantly surprised.

As Johnny said “2007 is not a “great” vintage like 2005 but the reds have a sweetness of fruit, a ripeness of tannin and a precision that make them one of the most attractive En Primeur vintages I have tasted in 26 years, whilst the whites are clearly very good.” We all shared this sentiment and, while current financial conditions may not make people keen to open their wallets, this is undoubtedly a vintage for those who love drinking delicious wine, and not waiting too long to do so.

So, some seriously edited highlights – for the full offer you will have to wait until Robin’s words of wisdom in January. The gods smiled on us. The previous week had been a veritable deluge, but as we drove along the Cote d’Or the gentle vine-covered slopes were bathed in sunlight.

We started well, bright and early on Monday morning at Domaine Mortet. Arnaud Mortet is full of energy. Straight-talking, imbued with a protestant work ethic, he clearly doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but has an intensity and charisma rare in one so young. He took over the family business after his father’s tragic and untimely death and has exceeded all expectations. These are serious wines, with great focus and energy.

On to the pristine cellars shared by the charming Ghislaine Barthod and her partner Louis Boillot. Ghislaine personifies grace and charm. She jokingly mentioned her dismay at the imminent approach of a significant birthday. Frankly, the rest of us would be delighted to have her elegance and energy at any age. Her Chambolles are pure and poised.

Later in the day (a couple of producers and lunch later) we made our way to Domaine Grivot. The hobbit-like entrance to his cave is shrouded by ferns in the corner of the courtyard. We duck down and enter a labyrinth. Etienne is quietly spoken yet eloquent. As we taste through the barrels his gentle enthusiasm warms the chilly air. In some years his wines can be a touch unapproachable, needing some serious cellaring, but these are very fine. His intention is to balance vigour and finesse. We certainly thought he had achieved his intention.

A final three visits – first with charming Nathalie Tollot at Domaine Tollot-Beaut and then down to Puligny for the classic restrained whites of Roland Maroslavac-Leger and the full-throttle, ripe rich wines of Philippe Chavy – and dinner at Ma Cuisine in Beaune was very welcome.

Day two saw another early start at Armand Rousseau’s cellars. I felt hugely privileged – these are the stuff of legend, made in miniscule quantities from an astonishing spread of Grand Cru vineyards. Frederic Robert took us down into their immaculate barrel cellar. With the look of a left-bank intellectual, more at home in the Deux Magots, he is gentle and understated, letting the wine speak for itself. And how eloquently it speaks.

At the other end of the day, five producers later, we were thrilled to be offered a seat in relative warmth at Paul Pillot’s cellars. An incredibly charming father and son team run this Domaine, with Thierry, the son, gradually taking over the helm. In fact it was Paul who showed us the wines as Thierry was rushing off for a scan of the next generation of winemakers. It would be impossible not to be charmed by these wines – pure, mineral and precise. Simply delicious, from his basic Bourgogne right through to the Chassagne 1er Crus. This is why we love white Burgundy.

We finished the day in the ancient cellars of Joseph Voillot with the fabulous Jean-Pierre Charlot. He won the prize for the most spectacular encrustations of mould of the trip – and some of the most spectacular wines. Volnay and Pommard are not the most sought-after villages in the Cote, but when you taste Jean-Pierre’s wines you wonder why. These are very serious wines indeed.

Dinner chez Charlot followed. All delicious but the cheese board groaning with an absurdly generous selection from Beaune’s finest fromgier, Le Tast Fromages in rue Carnot, deserves a special mention.

My stamina was starting to fade and I have to confess I was glad that there was only one more day of tasting to go. Fortunately some of the shining stars had been saved to the end.

It was a morning of contrasts. First stop was Nicolas Potel, who must be one of the hardest-working men in Burgundy. His barrel cellar is packed to the rafters with over 110 different appellations. We were disappointed that there were no gougeres but his wines were ample compensation. Lacking the high profile of smaller more exclusive producers, Nicolas’ wines do what they say on the tin, and they do it at exceptionally competitive prices.

Domaine d’Eugenie, formerly Domaine Engel, is all about power and intensity. This is the baby of Frederic Engerer of Chateau Latour fame. They are currently looking for a permanent home, but in the interim have hired space in a large negociant’s cellars. The great man himself, accompanied by his talented young wine-maker Michel Mallard, showed us the wines. These are dense, concentrated wines. For me not perhaps classic Burgundy, but they are certainly show-stoppers.

On for a whistle stop tour of the lovely Domaine de l’Arlot, possibly the prettiest estate in Burgundy? A fairytale world of pale blue shutters, stone urns brimming with lavender and sweeping marble staircases above ground, while down below an immaculately ordered cellar boasting positively world-class mould and stalagtites. And the wines are simply delicious, very pale coloured, bright pure fruit and beautifully balanced. This is Burgundy as we know it.


Then lunch in the legendary Laurent Ponsot’s tasting room with a view across the whole valley. He is currently embroiled in incredibly frustrating litigation (across the pond, which is always a nasty business) having to prove that a cellar of Ponsot’s offered at auction are not genuine. For a man with a lot on his mind these wines are spectacular. Suffering from a post-prandial lull (I blame the cheese) my notes are not the most extensive, but words such as dense, delicious, brooding and sexy are followed by a lot of stars. Enough said.

We saved the best for almost last. Sylvain Cathiard is the most gentle, quiet, unassuming man we have met. His cellar is nothing special, under a very average family house. His wines are quite simply exquisite. In spite of a family tragedy he welcomed us into his cellar and spoke with great eloquence and simplicity about his wines. He describes them as “vins de plaisir”, and really there is little to add to that.

And finally, I confess with a huge sigh of relief, we arrive at Domaine des Lambrays. Said to rival Arlot for the title of loveliest estate (in particular the apparently fabulous gardens). I can’t comment as it had been dark for a good hour or so before we arrived. Thierry Brouin’s wines are certainly among the loveliest we tasted. Maybe Morey isn’t the most glamorous village in the Cote, but every year the two Moreys and the Clos des Lambrays really stand out for me. And they are always sensibly priced. Of all the growers we saw Thierry was the most realistic about the financial turmoil gripping the globe, and committed to price decreases.


Another excellent dinner at Le Caveau des Arches and so to bed. An extraordinary and enlightening three days. I was already a fan but my conversion is now complete. Burgundy can seem confusing at first glance but as the Michelin guides say “Ca vaut le détour”.