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Trip to France 2008 Part 1

Including a visit to the esteemed house of Champy, founded in 1720

This year I took the ferry from Poole to Cherbourg. My friend Broo, who has now been on several buying trips with me, came too. We caught the night ferry on Sunday. Poole at night is a curious place, or at least the parts that we see as we make our way to the ferry - past large expanses of water lit dimly by orange street lights, and then winding through desolate boat-builders' yards, past industrial units, weighbridges, across railway tracks until eventually we come to a parking area where we stop and go on foot to the freight office of Brittany Ferries to collect the ticket. This involves a walk of several hundred yards along a path hemmed in by high metal razor-wire-topped fences. The office is in a single-storey prefab building. We are travelling out to France with an empty van, but because I am going on business I am told I have to go as freight. The ticket costs nearly £300. If I'd gone as a tourist, the ticket would have been considerably less - I see cheap deals advertised on Brittany Ferries' website for as little as £59. Of course, I get the wonderful perk (if I like) of a large discount (50%) on a meal, but not on wine to go with it. Also, I'd booked my ticket by telephone and paid for it with a credit card. That call was an interesting experience: I was told that if I paid by credit card, there was a surcharge; so I offered to pay cash for the ticket when I collected it; I was told that if I did that I wouldn't get the "special price" I'd been quoted for my ticket. So, guess what, I paid by credit card!

We are loaded around midnight. We had had supper earlier with friends in Somerset, because I took the same route to France last year and the bargain 50%-off supper had been almost inedible: dried-up, reheated, motorway-services-type food.

We arrive in Cherbourg around 7 a.m. This crossing starts us off within striking distance of the vineyards of the Loire, though it's still half a day's drive to reach them. But it's much quicker than driving from Calais past Paris. So we get off to what you might call a flying start.

Our first appointment is at 2.30 p.m. -

Mme. BÉNÉDICTE DE RYCKE, Jasnières. Mme. de Rycke is charming, makes fascinating Jasnières (a rare, long-lived white made from Chenin Blanc grapes), and is very talkative. I have learnt that it is useless to book an appointment after Mme. de Rycke - you have to devote the rest of the day to her. She lives in a very pretty, square house built of the local pale white limestone. It has a courtyard, in which, as we arrive, there are two large plastic tanks for the storage of wine, one lying down, the other standing up. Mme. de Rycke is giving them a scrub.
We say hello and go across the yard to her tasting room. We taste three wines, all from 2006:

1. "Sous les Bois" - this has a lively nose, reminiscent of Sauvignon Blanc. As it ages it will lose this fruity florality and develop to display more typical Chenin Blanc aromas (nettles, wet wool). It is crisp and lively in the mouth, with nice length. It tastes slightly off-dry, and is low in alcohol (10.9%). An excellent food wine, it would be good with chicken and just about any cheese. As you will see later, we visited the vines that produced this wine.

2. "Vaugodin" - this has more alcohol (12.17%) and more residual sugar, but tastes drier, owing to higher acidity - though it tastes softer, less crisp, than the "Sous les Bois", which must be due to the higher alcohol and sugar content. The finish is slightly astringent, and there is a prickle of carbonic gas on the tongue. Pleasing, easy-drinking, less demanding than the "Sous les Bois", but, for me, ultimately less satisfying.

2. "Les Tuffières" - this is a sweeter wine, with slightly more alcohol (12.59%) than the "Vaugodin". It is nicely concentrated, with, again, a carbonic prickle on the tongue, and a full, fruity finish, with excellent persistence.

While we're tasting, an older couple come in to collect a few bottles of wine that they had already arranged to buy. Mme. de Rycke attends to them. She keeps talking.

We spend about an hour in the tasting room, followed by a quick taste of her 2007 wines from tank (a difficult year, in which yields were seriously reduced - in Mme. de Rycke's case, only 7 hl/ha, whereas she normally gets about 40 to 45 hl/ha), and then she proposes a trip round her vineyards and a visit to the new house she is building. We hop into her car and motor off to the vineyards, which are across the river from her house, passing through La Chartre-sur-le-Loir, a pretty, large village built of the local limestone. The vineyards of Jasnières are situated on a perfectly exposed south-facing slope overlooking the River Loir (Le Loir, a tributary of the much larger and more famous La Loire). It is a very small appellation, with 128 hectares designated and only 66 hectares actually planted. The wine must be made from the Chenin Blanc grape and consequently is always white. It is, however, one of the oldest appellations in France, having been created in 1937. Curnonsky wrote that "three times in a century Jasnières is the finest white wine in the world".

The appellation encompasses two villages: Ruillé-sur-Loir and Lhomme. We come first to Ruillé. On our left the hillside drops away towards the village and the Loir beyond. All the vineyards are on the hillside. On our right is woodland, providing shelter for the vines. At the top of the slope, where the vines meet the woods, are the vines for "Sous les Bois", the first wine we tasted. The ground is poor, flinty and chalky. Mme. de Rycke shows us her vines, and explains how she leaves the grass to grow between the rows. There are only about a dozen growers in this appellation who sell their wine, there is no co-operative, and no merchants buy in or blend up wines from here. Every bottle of Jasnières produced comes direct from growers - a very rare state of affairs in France. Also, curiously, there are owners of plots of land in the appellation who do not commercialise their wines, and there are even some who cultivate red grapes just for their personal use. These are mixed in amongst the commercial growers' vines.

Mme. de Rycke has 3 hectares of vines in Jasnières, with various holdings around the appellation. She takes us on to a spot further along which provides a panoramic view of Jasnières. It used to be well-kept, but has not been maintained, and on the January day that we were there felt rather bleak. We carry on along towards Lhomme, and go and look at her parcel of vines in "Les Tuffières", just by the country house where the founder of the appellation used to live. Very old vines here, with thick, stocky stems.

Then we're off back across the river through La Chartre-sur-le-Loir and out the other side to see the new house. It is currently just a building site, and quite small, but her two daughters have left home, so I suppose she doesn't need too big a place. It is an old farm building, which she is converting and adding to. After starting work on it, she discovered it has a cellar! And on the slope below the house she has planted two hectares of vines, one of Chenin Blanc and one of Chardonnay. This is not appellation land. It might be difficult to sell, but Mme. de Rycke is a bit of a rebel, and she is bravely going to give it a go. She already produces a wine she calls "Respect" because it is outside the appellation rules (thus, disrespectful), but respects the fruit she harvests, being produced in the most natural way possible. In fact, that is a feature of her wines: she lets the wines make themselves, with as little interference as possible, with the result that they have a purity and vitality about them that is most appealing.

We return to her present house and are invited in to taste a special bottle that she has pulled out of the cellar for us: a 1996 Moelleux. It is now after 6 o'clock. We have been with Mme. de Rycke for over three and a half hours. She has not drawn breath. Ensconced in her sitting-room, her flow of conversation moves up a gear. She becomes so excited that she is unstoppable. The wine is unbelievably beautiful, a wine for the sensualist: still fresh as a daisy, with a wonderful, fascinating array of flavours - nuts, flowers, straw, lemon, apple. We drink it with a delicious, rich, gooey chocolate cake - a surprisingly brilliant combination. It's getting dark (because of the time difference, it gets dark later in France), and we have some distance to go to get to our hotel in Chinon. I think we should be leaving. But it takes a while to steer Mme. de Rycke round to saying good-bye, such is her conversational momentum.

We eventually manage to leave at half past seven.

* * *

It takes over two hours to find our way to Chinon. Although Jasnières is an appreciable distance to the north of the main run of Loire vineyards, it shouldn't have taken that long - the fact is, we got thoroughly lost in Tours. By the time we reached our hotel (which did not have its own restaurant) nearly all the restaurants in town had shut. The hotel kindly rang round and found one that was still open if we were quick. We hurried off. On arrival it turned out that the kitchen had closed and the chef had gone home, but they said they could do us a salad. So we each had a hearty country salad, and a bottle of very excellent Chinon 2005 from Olga Raffault.

The next day, Tuesday, our first tasting was -

DOMAINE AUBERT-MONORY, Cravant-les-Coteaux. This domaine has changed name in the last year. Claude Aubert is retiring and handing over to his son-in-law, M. Monory, who is a young man in his thirties. M. Aubert still looks after the business side for the time being, while M. Monory does the work in the vineyards. He is quite shy and lacks confidence, and so, although I had previously been introduced to him, the start of our visit here was a hesitant affair. After our hellos he asked us what we'd like to taste. He produced a bottle into which he had put a sample of his 2006 Cuvée Prestige direct from the tank where it was maturing before bottling - a light, fresh wine with less colour than the 2005, which I have been shipping. He then gave us a taste of his Cuvée Prestige 2007 - this had more colour than the 2006, was nicely concentrated, and seemed very promising.

We continued with his Rosé 2007, which displayed a lively, fresh rosé smell, a very pale colour (this domaine produces just about the palest rosé I have ever encountered), and a surprisingly vigorous flavour, with a good finish.

M. Monory now took us into the cellars carved into the soft limestone rock - the buildings of this domaine are at the foot of a little escarpment which rises up behind into a mixture of vineyards sprinkled among extensive woodland; the cellars are thus at the same level as the buildings, being tunnelled directly into the rock. The walls of the cellars are lined with oak barrels, used for the domaine's most serious wines. We taste an impressively deep-coloured Vieilles Vignes 2006 from the barrel. We then go on to a new cuvée that is a creation of M.Monory since he took over the winemaking here; it is rich and concentrated, with a faint oak flavour, though none of the barrels are new.

We return to the tasting room/shop where we started and taste the 2005 Vieilles Vignes, which is still firmly tannic, with impressive length. This will need some time in bottle before it is ready for drinking.

Finally, we taste the 2005 Cuvée Prestige, a delicious drink, which is lighter than the Vieilles Vignes in both colour and weight; it is also more open on the nose, and much easier for drinking now.

I've decided to start offering a limited range of magnums in my shop because wines really do age much better in magnum, and they make such a jolly celebratory statement. I asked if I could buy some magnums from M. Monory - his tasting room has a great display of them, mostly with personalised decorated label arrangements on them in execrable taste. We had a little discussion about how they might be packed, and then I asked how much they would be. M. Monory said he would have to ask his father-in-law, because he dealt with the commercial side of things. I decided to take a chance and buy some anyway, and arranged to collect them from him the following afternoon so that he would have time to sort out all the Customs paperwork.

After lunch we went tasting at -

DOMAINE GUIBERTEAU, St. Just-sur-Dive. This domaine is just outside Montreuil-Bellay, south of Saumur. Romain Guiberteau, who runs it, absolutely does not lack confidence, and speaks about his work, his vines and his wines with an impressive degree of self-assurance. We start off in the small cellar to one side of his house. We taste reds, starting with his straight Domaine 2007 from tank - delicious fruit, lovely wine, very promising, but still finishing its malolactic fermentation. Then the 2006 - richer, though less colour. Then from bottle the 2005 - even richer, with tremendous colour, and the fruit hidden under assertive but finely textured tannins. After that, the "Arboises", a special parcel of well-sited old vines which always attain extra ripeness, the 2004 (tank sample) and 2003 (bottle) - both mighty impressive, concentrated, with amazingly rich fruit overlaying firm tannins.

Romain takes us off to the vineyards. He shows us the Arboises parcel - 1.5 hectares of gnarled old vines. He tends his vines organically, pruning hard and keeping yields very low.

Next, we are taken to a subterranean cellar carved out of the limestone. No electricity here; so Romain fixes us up with torches which we strap to our heads like miners. We taste whites, starting with the Domaine 2007 - terrific fruit here, and lovely length - 2007 seems to have been a great success at this domaine. Next, the 2005 Domaine: fennel on the nose, coconut, lemon and honey on the palate, great length, with nice minerality underpinning the flavour, not too dry. Then a pair of 2004s, which are much softer, more open. Finally, he leads us to another branch of the cellars, where a few cobwebby barrels are sitting on their own. He dips his pipette into one of the barrels and deposits a little golden liquid into our glasses. This is nectar, very sweet and rich, with brilliant, intricate flavours - fascinatng. It is a special selection from late-harvested grapes set aside while Romain watches its development before deciding when to bottle it, and how much to charge for it!

We take our headgear off, return to Romain's house, where we have a cup of tea; he gives Broo a bottle of his Arboises 2003, and we say good-bye

* * *

We spent the night in a hotel on the edge of Tours run by a Scottish woman who speaks perfect French (we didn't realise at first that she was Scottish nor was she admitting to it!). Once again we got lost. Maps were useless. We followed our noses and eventually found it after an extensive tour of the south-west suburbs of Tours. Tours really is an easy place to get lost in.

The hotel is a château, in the French sense of a grand country house, and very comfortable, with sumptuous food and a decent wine list. Broo and I thought we'd like to share a glass of fizzy wine as an aperitif, rather than having a whole glass each, and the hotel suggested that we might like it in two glasses, which I thought was very considerate of them.

I had some spare time in the morning, and so I made some telephone calls to put the finishing touches to my itinerary on this trip, because I hadn't quite got round to organising all the appointments before leaving. One appointment that I arranged was with the esteemed négociant Maison Champy in Beaune. My friend Alan had bought a barrel of wine at the Hospices de Beaune auction in 2006, and it had been sitting in the cellars of Maison Champy, at Alan's (considerable) expense, ever since, awaiting bottling. He said I could go and taste it, as I was going to be in Burgundy - very generous of him. I spoke to a woman who said she didn't know anything about it, and so I explained: I had an e-mail, which I had printed out, from another person at Champy saying that I was welcome to come and taste Alan's wine; we arranged an appointment for three o'clock on Wednesday the following week, and I gave her the mobile telephone number so that she could ring me back if there was any problem.

The next day we went on a wild goose chase to taste at a domaine quite a distance away, but which turned out not to have very interesting wines, though the couple who ran it were delightful, and slightly bonkers - he was a bit like Billy Bunter, very schoolboyish, with an amusing turn of phrase (he called one of his wines "the last of the Mohicans"), while his wife took us on a walk round the vineyards, and answered any questions by saying that she knew nothing, please ask her husband.


That afternoon we returned to collect the magnums from M. Monory.

Thursday morning -

DOMAINE PASCAL PIBALEAU, Azay-le-Rideau. This is a domaine whose wines I have been buying for over ten years. They make a particularly delicious and reliable rosé. It is made from a grape variety called Grolleau (also spelt Groslot). If you look it up, the commentators are pretty rude about it, and it is true that, although it is supposed to be a red variety, it makes crummy red wine, but if it is carefully vinified it does make excellent rosé.

We start tasting M. Pibaleau's whites. he makes at least 15 different wines. A tasting here involves opening a lot of bottles, not just the different cuvées, but various vintages of some of them - very generous of him. First wine: his Touraine Cépage Sauvignon 2007, a great success, with very nice acidity and lots of fruit. Then his rosé 2007 - a lighter year, very pale, with lovely fresh rosé smell.

What happened next was a revelation. This throws an interesting light on the current debate about corks and alternative ways of sealing bottles of wine. M. Pibaleau opened a bottle of his Sauvignon 2006, sealed with a plastic cork. It smelt of almost nothing at all, and had a very curious, not nice, taste. Broo and I could not help making a face. M. Pibaleau went off and found a bottle of the same wine, but sealed with a natural cork. It was a completely different wine: good aromatic smell, and in the mouth elderflowery and fruity, tasting of Sauvignon, more lively, fresher, more floral. Quite amazing.

We tasted eighteen wines here - whites, pinks, reds, dry, demi-sec, sweet, sparkling. His Touraine Azay-le-Rideau "Camille Claudel" 2005, made from Chenin Blanc was notably impressive, still young and floral, but showing great potential for further development, and the rosé pétillant was jolly, fruity, with nice length; and his Moelleux 2003, which I have already shipped, was in fine form - honeyed, luscious, but with nice balancing acidity.

M. Pibaleau invited us to stay to lunch. Over lunch he told us that he is in conversion to organic methods, and from August this year will be in a position to label his wines as organic. We ate well - organic pork chops from a local pig farmer.

* * *

We spent the night in Bourges, after looking round the town and visiting the cathedral. The next morning we set off for a tasting in Quincy. We were slightly early, so stopped off at Mehun-sur-Yèvre. I discovered that I still had the room key for the hotel we had stayed in two nights before. We used the time usefully by posting the key back to the hotel, and ringing them to explain. Embarrassing.

Friday, 9.30 a.m. -

DOMAINE DES CROIX, Quincy. We arrive punctually and are met by a great big, brand new building. Since last year, the domaine has put this up to house all its winemaking. We are shown into it. There is much more room now, and instead of the large stainless steel tanks for holding the wine being jammed into a limited space, everything is laid out neatly with plenty of room to work around them.

The domaine is a family enterprise, run by husband and wife Jacques and Sylvie Rouzé. Sylvie is quiet and unassuming, but clearly keeps everything, including Jacques, in order.

We are treated to a tasting of the 2007 vintage, which has yet to be bottled. It will be an excellent follow-on from the 2006: good ripeness, with fresh, lively acidity. It will have been bottled by the time you read this. M. Rouzé chatted to us amiably, about the state of the labour market in France, about how difficult it is to find builders, plumbers, roofers - they're so busy - a two-year waiting list for roofers - you can get Poles and they're cheap and quick but the quality of the work is nowhere near as good. Mme. Rouzé quietly but firmly reminds him that we ought to move along and get on with things. I go and find a present of a bottle of fizzy wine from Monmouth to give to the Rouzés. We say our good-byes, and M. Rouzé disappears for a few minutes to return with a gift pack of two bottles of his red, made from Pinot Noir, and a bottle of his best white.

* * *

We now have a drive of three hours to the village of Fuissé outside Macon. We arrive early - our appointment isn't till four o'clock. So we decide to kill time by going to look at the famous rock of Solutré. Even in January there are several cars in the car park below the rock. We wander up, past a little museum set into the hillside, and follow the path leading to the summit, which seems to lead off in the opposite direction. There are spectacular views of the surroundimg countryside. We run out of time long before we reach the summit, and turn back to go and keep our appointment -

DOMAINE ROMANIN, Fuissé. I discovered this domaine only two years ago, and it has been a great success. It is owned by the Vervier family, and run by Denis, the younger son, who is young and conscientious, striving to bring out in his wines the quality of the fruit from his vineyards. I buy his best two wines: Pouilly-Fuissé "Terroir de Fuissé" and Pouilly-Fuissé "Lamure". The former is from 30 to 40-year-old vines growing around the village of Fuissé, and the latter from a parcel of 80-year-old vines growing below the rock of Solutré. The "Terroir de Fuissé" is matured in a mixture of old oak barrels and tank, while the "Lamure" is matured entirely in oak barrels.

We taste five wines here, including the "Terroir de Fuissé" 2006, and it is in form, with a faintly oaky smell, and lovely, full, rich, faintly oaky flavour; it is quite soft, but with good depth of flavour. We also taste two vintages of the "Lamure": first, the 2006, which is more structured than the "Terroir de Fuissé", with better acidity, promising a longer development; oak flavours still to the fore, but Denis says that these will calm down and integrate with the rest of the wine with further bottle age; and the 2005, tasting lighter, brighter, less oaky than the 2006. What really impresses me about this domaine's wines is that they clearly exhibit the character of the Maconnais: more loose-knit than wines from the Côte d'Or; they are very well made, clean and interesting, while at the same time not trying to be something they are not - I'm not a big fan of Maconnais wines that are wannabe Meursaults.

We are finally given a taste of a super-ripe cuvée which Denis is keeping to one side: the alcohol content is over 14%, and it is rich, powerful, mouthfilling, though bearing its high degree of alcohol very lightly. Denis can't quite decide what to do with it - whether to blend it in with his other wine, or bottle it separately.

Denis sends us away with some samples, and we travel a few miles further south to the Beaujolais for an appointment at 5.30 p.m. with -

DOMAINE DES MARRANS, Fleurie. The Mélinand family own this domaine, and one of their sons, Mathieu, spent a month with me here in Monmouth last year learning about the wine trade.

By a happy chance, the domaine makes a range of excellent Beaujolais.

We have been invited to stay the night, and so on arrival we are shown our rooms, and allowed to settle in before we go tasting - in any case, Mathieu, who is going to give us the tasting, is still out working in the vineyards.

Mathieu comes back at about seven o'clock. We start by tasting the 2007s - they look very promising, both fresh and ripe, with excellent balance and appealingly aromatic.

We move on to the 2006s. The Chiroubles is rich and ripe - to my taste, it is their best wine, from a plot of old vines on a particularly well-sited slope of hillside. The Fleurie is lighter in this vintage than the Chiroubles (the reverse of 2005), and slightly more open. The Juliénas is the softest and roundest of the these three Beaujolais Crus, though still quite closed on the nose. Finally we taste the Beaujolais-Villages, which is light, jolly, good for picnics - much lighter than the three Crus.

My impression of the 2006 vintage here is that it is much more classic than 2005, when the wines were exceptionally ripe and weighty. In fact, I like my Beaujolais to be light and fruity and gluggable, and so I prefer the 2006s to the 2005s.

It is quite dark now, and getting cold, but tonight it is the "Fête des Conscrits", a celebration local to the area around Beaujolais. The Fête - each village has its own Fête - was originally set up as a sort of send-off party for the young men conscripted into the army before they left. They were conscripted at the age of twenty. This year Mathieu's sister Chloe is twenty. It has been expanded, however, to include those born in the corresponding year of each preceding decade (viz. 30, 40, 50 , 60 and 70-year-olds, and older!), and in addition it has now been extended to 10, 18 and 21-year-olds. It has been a useful way for those older people born in the relevant year to have a reunion, and apparently people will return from far-flung places such as Canada to get together and see their old classmates. Each year organises its own float, with a particular theme, such as Alice in Wonderland (20-year-olds - Chloe was the Queen of Hearts) and 101 Dalmations (10-year-olds), Cinderella (30-year-olds). Gloriously ancient farm vehicles are pressed into service for the floats.

Each float was blaring loud music. Three hundred kilos of confetti had been procured for the event, and a lot of it was thrown, blown and sprayed about. It was a riotous affair, with the 30-year-olds being particularly boisterous and one of their number, dressed as an Ugly Sister behaving ourageously, brandishing an industrial hoover set on blow rather than suck attached to a large sack of confetti, which he stuck up girls' skirts and blew in people's faces. A curious sweet wine-based punch was dished out in little plastic cups. There was so much confetti by the time we left to go and have supper, it looked as though it had been snowing.

Supper was quite late, and Mathieu's father, Jean-Jacques, pulled out of the cellar two treasured older bottles of Fleurie - a special cuvée of Fleurie, called Terroir du Pavillon, 2002, and a 1995. The Terroir du Pavillon (this was the first vintage of this wine) was rich and impressive, but perhaps could have benefited from a bit more zip and freshness; the 1995 was lovely, still fresh, with ripe berry flavour, a charming bottle. It was quite a late night, but at least the next day was Saturday.

* * *

We spent Sunday night in Meursault with a couple who are friends of friends. We stayed Monday night with them as well. Alison and Hugh bought their house about ten years ago, and are in the process of doing it up. It is built of stone round a courtyard, the oldest part dating from at least the fifteenth century - lots of cellars and later additions; and a lovely garden of half a hectare, which is actually classified as AC Meursault, thus allowing Alison and Hugh to plant vines commercially if they felt like it. In fact, they have bought a few rows of vines in Pommard, which are looked after and vinified by an Englishman, Steve Whitehead, and his French wife, Delphine. We will meet them later.

On our arrival at Alison and Hugh's house, some friends are there having tea, including Bernard and Judith van Berg, who we will also meet later. Bernard is a Belgian who has moved to Meursault, and has a small domaine of 2 hectares. Also present is Alison's father, who is 90, very deaf and blind. He is charming. You have to shout in his ear. Actually, he is completely on the ball, and, when we said good-bye the next evening, he knew exactly who Broo and I were.

A little later Bernard and Judith return with a couple of bottles of their own wine. It's very impressive. I arrange to see him the next day for a tasting at 5.30 p.m.

Alison and Hugh are delightful, and give us a hearty supper. Very generous of them. We offer to take them out to supper the following evening, but fail to find a restaurant that is open, and so instead we volunteer to cook them supper.

Next tasting is at 9.30 on Monday morning -

DOMAINE MICHEL SERVEAU, La Rochepot. M. Serveau starts by asking us what we'd like to taste - did we want to try his Aligoté? I have never bought his Aligoté. He invariably asks if I'd like to taste it, and usually we try it.

You don't buy my Aligoté, M.Serveau says. No. Let's not taste it.

So M. Serveau opens a bottle of his white Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Beaune 2006. Although I do buy his white from time to time, I won't be buying this.

On to the reds - Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Beaune 2004, which has good colour, brambly 2004 flavour; 2005, again good colour, great smell - farmyard, lovely fruit, slightly spicy - and delicious, explosive flavour with excellent length; 2006, lighter in colour, very closed on the nose, but in the mouth delightful flavour, light but vigorous. We also taste his St. Aubin 2005 - nice nose of black cherries, wonderful flavour in the mouth, with lovely texture and delicious length with a touch of spice; and his Chassagne-Montrachet 2006 - still very purple and youthful in colour and dumb on the nose, followed by jolly fruit and firmly textured tannin that persists throughout the finish.

We have a few minutes after the visit to M. Serveau before our next appointment, and so we go to the supermarket in Nolay to buy food for supper that evening.

11.30 a.m. -

DOMAINE CLAUDE NOUVEAU, Marchezeuil. This domaine is in a very quiet hamlet - so quiet I've never seen anybody except the Nouveau family here in ten years of coming visiting.

M. Nouveau greets us and takes us into his tasting room, which is in a fine stone barn across the street from his house. Marchezeuil sits up on an east-facing hillside looking across open countryside with hills and farmland. Below, there is a narrow spread of vines going down to the country road that goes from Nolay to Couches. Above, the vines stretch across the hillside in a band about 200 yards wide.

Stéphane, M. Nouveau's son-in-law, who now helps run the domaine joins us. We start with the reds (this is a break with tradition - we will be tasting the whites after the reds) -

Santenay "Les Charmes Dessus" 2006 - quite pale colour, malty smell; some oak, cherries, very light tannin. M. Nouveau explains that he was very gentle with the winemaking in this vintage: no pigeage (pushing down of the cap of skins during fermentation), some remontage (pumping over of the juice during fermentation). The wine is very soft, very fruity.

Santenay 1er Cru "Grand Clos Rousseau" 2006 - light colour again, but slightly darker hue than the "Charmes Dessus". Smells of leather. More weight, more tannin, bigger finish, though less immediately fruity than the "Charmes Dessus". I ask M. Nouveau how he thinks his 2006s will develop, and whether he thinks they will close up at some stage - red burgundy often tastes wonderfully vivid and fruity immediately after bottling, but then subsequently closes down, becoming dumb and tannic, before opening up again a few years later. He says they will stay open and easy to drink throughout their lives, not going through a dumb phase.

Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Beaune 2005 - lots of red fruits on the nose and in the mouth, and some tannic structure.

Mme. Nouveau and her daughter, Stéphane's wife, join us. As the next wine is poured, I feel as if I'm surrounded by spectators. They are all watching and waiting to hear what I think.

Santenay "Les Charmes Dessus" 2005 - definite taste of griottes (bitter cherries) here - a taste famously associated with Gevrey-Chambertin. M. Nouveau points out that the soil in Santenay is the same as in Gevrey-Chambertin.

Santenay 1er Cru "Grand Clos Rousseau" 2005 - this is rich and fine, with vanilla flavours from ageing in new oak (20%) - really delicious, and a significant step up from the "Charmes Dessus" in this vintage.

On to the whites -

Bourgogne Aligoté 2006 - fresh smell, quite soft (old vines, planted in about 1930). Excellent.

Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Beaune 2006 - still young, very perfumed.

Santenay Blanc 2006 - charred smell, reminiscent of this domaine's 2003, though less pronounced; very attractive the way the flavour builds in the mouth to a full finish.

Now it's lunchtime. The Nouveaus have invited us to lunch at Le Terroir restaurant in Santenay, but before that I put some magnums of both red and white Santenay into the van, and settle up with M. Nouveau. He also offers me some samples for my London tasting, and I take his 2005 Santenays, the two reds and his white.

The Nouveau family all pile into their Peugeot, and Broo and I follow in my van. M. Nouveau takes us on a back route through the vineyards.

The lunch in Santenay turns out to be the best meal of the whole trip. The cooking is brilliant. There is a tendency in restaurants in France to over-sauce and overdo the richness of dishes, which just does me in. But at the end of this meal, which was a full four-course lunch, I came away feeling pleasantly fed, rather than stuffed. With the meal we drank M. Nouveau's white Santenay 2005, which is in peak form, and happens to be in stock in my shop - I couldn't recommend it highly enough. It has won a prize. We also drank a magnum of his 1998 Santenay 1er Cru, which had matured to a delicate, mellow, gamey drink which went very well with the wild boar that I had ordered as a main course.

Our next appointment was at 3 o'clock, and we were running late.

DOMAINE BRUNO FÈVRE, Meursault. Bruno Fèvre always greets me with a huge smile, and is always in a jolly, cheerful mood.

We start tasting the whites first: the 2006s, which will be bottled late because the wine has taken a long time to ferment, with the secondary, malolactic fermentation proceeding very slowly. So the samples are from the cask, since the wine has not been bottled yet -

Bourgogne "Le Chat Blanc" 2006 - I have been buying this wine for several years now, and it is always an excellent drink, made in the same way as Bruno's grander Meursaults, but with older oak barrels. The 2006 has a slight carbonic prickle, and is fresh and crisp, with a slight caramel flavour - very promising.

Meursault "Mille Neuf Cent Un" 2006 - this vintage produced very ripe whites, including this wine. At the moment the nose is heavily oak-influenced, but behind that there is a power and density that bodes well. In the mouth it is smoky and rich.

I have reserved some of both these wines for shipment later.

Reds - we taste his Monthélie 1er Cru "Sur la Velle" 2006, which is currently an immature purple colour and unforthcoming on the nose, but spicy in the mouth; next, the previous vintage of this wine, the 2005, which is more open on the nose, more perfumed, displays better fruit, with finer, more rounded tannins and much better length - a lovely wine - I've shipped some of it! Next, his Volnay 1er Cru "Les Mitans" 2005 (which I have also shipped) - a delicious wine, tasting of cherries and spice, with a powerful nose; the wine from this vineyard used to be known as "En l'Ormeau" up to and including the 2004 vintage, but it has been decided by the authorities that the wine should disappear into the more famous adjoining vineyard, namely "Les Mitans". And finally we taste his Bourgogne "La Monatine" 2004; the "Monatine" vineyard is only classified as plain Bourgogne, but is on the edge of Meursault, and is recognised informally as a good site - for instance another grower, Alain Patriarche, bottles a white "Monatine"; Bruno's wine is a fine example of a well-made, reasonably priced red burgundy, with fresh flavours of strawberries and raspberries.

We're still running a bit late, and we hurry off to -

DOMAINE PASCAL PRUNIER-BONHEUR, Meursault. On arrival we are met by building works. In fact, we can't even drive into Pascal's courtyard because the entrance is blocked by excavations, machinery including a crane, and tape across the gateway. We park outside and make our way over the works.

Pascal takes us into his subterranean tasting room underneath his house. It becomes clear during the tasting that Pascal is stressed. He's demolished two sides of his courtyard to rebuild; he's short of space; his wife had a baby just before Christmas; and he's borrowed a whole heap of money to pay for all the works.

We taste twelve wines here. His Saint Romains in 2006, both red and white, are brilliant. The white hasn't been bottled yet, and so I will have to wait for that, but I've arranged to ship the red, along with his (red) Monthélie "Les Crays" 2006 - a gorgeous, crowd-pleasing wine ready for drinking now. And I was impressed by his Meursault "Les Grands Charrons" 2006 - this has a powerful, dense, oaky smell, and in the mouth is rich, soft, faintly smoky, with a glorious full, long finish - I can't wait for its arrival here!

Pascal's winemaking is getting better and better, and especially his whites are improving - they used to be so tight and strict and severe that they were a little bit challenging, but they are now more accessible, though still retaining their attractive tightness. His 2006s are a great success.

We buy a couple of bottles for supper, his Monthélie "Les Crays" and the Meursault "Les Grands Charrons". I also arrange to collect some of the Monthélie the next day.

After this, time is pressing on - it's getting on for 6 o'clock - and so Broo goes back to Alison and Hugh's house to cook supper, while I go round to Bernard's house for a tasting. Alison is catching an early train to London in the morning, requiring a 4 a.m. start; she wouldn't be amused by having to stay up for a late supper!

DOMAINE BERNARD VAN BERG, Meursault. I taste six wines here. This is an extraordinary domaine. Bernard really is passionate about wine. In his tasting-cum-packing room there is a small wine rack with some bottles in it: Le Montrachet, Chambertin, and the like. He makes a living as a photographer, but so loved the wines of Burgundy that a few years ago he bought a house in Meursault round the corner from Alison and Hugh, and bought vines.

He has 2 hectares, spread among eight different parcels, on the edges of Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet, and also in Chagny. All his wines are labelled as Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire ("BGO"), the lowest appellation available in Burgundy. Usually BGO is cheap and nasty, but Bernard's wines are extraordinary: he is strictly and determinedly organic - he leaves fallow land between his vines and his neighbours' to form a barrier to ensure that treatments and sprays don't drift on to his land. He never uses a tractor to work the land - he hires a horse (the same horse that the Domaine Leflaive uses!). He prunes and trains his vines in a way that I have never seen anywhere else in Burgundy (known as "en échalas", with a stake for each individual vine - no wires used). His yields are less than one quarter of his neighbours! He prunes hard, harvests late to obtain maximum ripeness, never chaptalises, or fines or filters. He only uses new oak. On tasting his wines, they have an amazingly sweet, ripe entry, but finish peppery and dry. The colours are extraordinary, deep and dark, but the wines are light as a feather.

Bernard makes a Gamay from half-century-old vines. It is an extraordinary wine, with lots of smoky oak, and incredibly rich and ripe - you'd never guess it was a Gamay, or, as Bernard said, if you did, you wouldn't know what you were talking about! However, it's expensive, and I wonder how it will age. I also tasted another red, "Le Sang Rouge de la Terre" 2005, made from Pinot Noir, which seems to me to have more potential for development, with brilliant, fascinating flavour, still amazingly youthful, and about half the price of the Gamay. I arrange to return the next day to collect a few cases of this.

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