Print this page

A Second Buying Expedition To Burgundy 1998

 February 1998

            A year on and the burgundies have been a great success, so I decided to go back this year to revisit the growers from whom I have been buying over the last year, and also to see if I could discover some more growers as well.

            Once again I was hugely impressed by the high quality of the wine making.  Let me also get off my chest an irritation put about by certain glib commentators:  that growers in Burgundy are lazy, Mercedes-driving fat cats who can live off the reputations of the labels they put on their bottles.  Well, maybe there are some, but I haven't met them.  The growers I buy from are fruit farmers who make wine from the grapes that they grow themselves.  They all strike me as being conscientious, hard-working, unflashy people who are genuinely doing their best to make the finest wine they can.  I have digressed.

            I arrived in Burgundy on Sunday afternoon.  As you come down the autoroute towards Beaune you can usually see the slope of the Côte d'Or away to the right, which cheers me up.  On this particular day it was foggy and the Côte was invisible.  That night I had a good dinner.

            Monday morning I felt terrible - headachy and unwell.  I visited 17 domaines in four days, and tasted rather more wines than last time, because I was given more tastings from the cask (as well as bottle).

            I will give an account of the domaines with whom I am doing business, in the order in which I visited them.

            DOMAINE GUY BOCARD  (Meursault).  My first appointment, 9 a.m. Monday.  I have allotted 2 hours to this visit, since I have been dealing with M.Bocard for a year now, and have bought a fair bit of wine from him (I usually allow an hour).  The fog has not lifted since yesterday, and it's a freezing cold morning.  We go into a little cellar fixed up for tasting.  M.Bocard is pleased to see me, hospitable and talkative.  He opens bottles and we start tasting - Aligoté, Bourgogne, several Meursaults - he uncorks more unlabelled bottles (cask samples).  All his wines have a characteristic intensity that I find very appealing.  I get colder and colder.  M.Bocard says I'm wearing the wrong shoes (thin soles) and shows me his (thick soles) and says I should wear shoes like his.  By this time it's already after eleven (the time of my next appointment), and he starts talking about inviting me for a meal.  I'm too cold to understand exactly what he's saying - I'm not sure if it's lunch or supper.  I tell him I've got 2 more appointments that morning - should I go and see them and come back?  He didn't seem so keen on that idea, but said he would go and look for a telephone and I could rearrange the other visits.  He disappears.  And returns with a telephone.  It doesn't work in the cellar (no signal), so I have to go outside where it's even colder.  I rearrange the next 2 appointments for later that day, hoping to fit them in among my other visits that afternoon.

            M.Bocard suggests going down into his cask cellar.  Here at least it's a little bit warmer.  We taste all his wines from the barrel.  Old wood, new wood.  I can hardly keep up.

            Then back to the original tasting cellar.  A customer in Birmingham who has visited M.Bocard in the past has given me an order, so I arrange that with him.  I finally leave about lunchtime, after arranging to meet M.Bocard at 7.30 to 8 for supper.  He says he knows of "un pub" down the road, where we can have some supper and drink some Meursault.

            I stay cold for the rest of the day, and have an afternoon of late and missed appointments.

            My last tasting finishes at about 7.30 that evening, and I go over to M.Bocard's.  We get into his wife's new sporty little car, and my knee hits something in the dashboard (I've got long legs and there isn't much legroom), and all the lights start flashing.  M.Bocard doesn't know how to stop it.  I'm so cold still, all I can do is sit there and apologise.  Eventually, the problem's solved, and we go to "le pub", which turns out to be a large, swish, Michelin-listed restaurant, where we have a 5-course meal, with a bottle of M.Bocard's Monthélie 1995, and a bottle of his Meursault-Charmes 1996 (a seriously impressive wine with texture, length and great flavour).

            Being cold makes me very tired, but not very hungry.  My brain is frozen.  At last, in this smart warm restaurant, for the first time since breakfast, I start to feel warm again.  M.Bocard is in terrific form, and is happy to talk while I do my best to encourage him to keep talking so that I don't have to say anything.  I understand about one seventeenth of what he's saying.  And play with my food.  M.Bocard doesn't mind.  So I'm happy, and feel as if I'm very important. 

            We part friends and I sleep really well that night.

            DOMAINE POULLEAU PERE ET FILS  (Volnay).  Back to Monday afternoon - this domaine is my second visit after lunch.  I arrive late.  Thierry Poulleau, who is young (I guess around 30), is making the wine here now.  We do a comprehensive tasting of cask samples in the cellars.  Then a bottle tasting in his tasting room.  He is a charming, unaffected fellow.  His wines are delicious, and very reasonably priced.  I have bought some of his ALOXE-CORTON 1995, which displays all the sumptuous character of the appellation, and his VOLNAY 1er Cru 1996, still young but showing wonderful Volnay scent already.  He makes less expensive wines as well, but there is a bit of a stock shortage.  I will be buying the junior wines when he has stock to offer me.  An exciting new discovery.

            DOMAINE THEVENOT-LE BRUN  (Marey-les-Fussey).  This is my second visit on Tuesday morning.  Overnight there was a sharp frost, but the fog has lifted and the sun has come out today.  This estate is up in the hills in the Hautes Côtes.  The countryside looks so beautiful, rime-encrusted.  I really like this domaine's style of wine-making.  I have bought their red BOURGOGNE HAUTES COTES DE NUITS "Clos du Vignon" 1995, which is, if anything, even more delicious than the 93; also an interesting blend of Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay which has for me a very un-Chardonnay smell, a gentle but full taste and a nice assertive finish:  BOURGOGNE HAUTES COTES DE NUITS 1994; and thirdly, their BOURGOGNE HAUTES COTES DE NUITS 1996 Pinot Beurot, which is in extremely short supply, but utterly delicious.

            DOMAINE PHILIPPE GAVIGNET  (Nuits Saint Georges).  Next, I went down into Nuits Saint Georges to taste chez M.Gavignet, who was considerably more friendly than my first visit last year.  His wine has been just about impossible to sell, but I am convinced it is really good wine-making, and so I keep buying more of it.  We tasted through his range - cask samples as well as bottles - and I still think this is exciting wine-making, with a beautiful vivid core of fruit being a characteristic of these wines.  I bought his COTE DE NUITS VILLAGES 1996 this time, which is made from very old vines (80 to 90 years).

            DOMAINE GACHOT-MONOT  (Gerland).  After lunch on Tuesday I went east from Nuits Saint Georges to see Damien Gachot.  I was much more cheerful today - not cold.  There was beautiful sunshine all day.  And Tuesday afternoon was the best time of all on this trip -my other visit was to M.Raphet, as you will see.  Both M.Gachot and M.Raphet make brilliant wines and are engaging characters.

            We started tasting in the cellar in Gerland.  Then Damien Gachot suggested we go and have a look at the vineyards (his vines) and do some more tasting in his cellars in Corgoloin.  He is very open about his wine-making and his theories on the subject; he loves his métier with a passion.  And the results are wonderful right across the range:  thrilling wines that are delicious in their youth, but with the balance and fruit to age beautifully.  Apart from the domaine's own little cellar in Corgoloin, he rents another bigger cellar across the main railway line, which you have to cross on foot.  We tasted through the wines in cask.

            This is a tiny domaine (though not quite as small as I said last year - it is actually 6 hectares), and the wines are now on allocation.  I had received a letter asking me how much of the COTE DE NUITS VILLAGES 1995 I would like to have allocated to me (the one wine he has in any quantity - 3.75 ha).  I raised the subject in the cellar - took a deep breath and said could I have 100 cases?  Damien let out a wail and fell on a cask beside him and beat it furiously, continuing to wail.  He stood up again, pulled himself together and addressed himself to me.  I didn't know whether I'd asked for such a shamefully small allocation that he'd been laughing at me and would say sure, you can have 100 cases any time, no need to ask for a reserve; or whether I'd asked for too much.  I took a wild guess and said I hoped I hadn't asked for too much.

            Yes, he was terribly sorry, I had asked for too much - he needed stock for other customers, etc. - but I could have 50 cases for sure, and possibly, if I'm lucky, 75.

            We continued to taste up through his range.  His top wines are a village Nuits Saint Georges "Aux Crots" (a parcel of vines he has just bought), and a 1er Cru Nuits Saint Georges "Les Poulettes", of which he makes one barrel (0.06 ha).  This is such a small quantity you could ferment it in the bath.  He loves his single barrel of Les Poulettes.  When we reached it he said with pride, "This is my Nuits Saint Georges Premier Cru.  This is my baby."  And he hugged the barrel, and stroked it as if it was a pet Shetland pony, and knocked on the outside and called to it, "Hello, how are you in there?"  It is a remarkable wine, full of vivid fruit and sheer finesse - you will not find a better Nuits Saint Georges.

            I have bought something of everything he makes.

            When I went back on Thursday to collect the wines I had bought, I was just about to leave, when Damien suddenly remembered something.

            "Do you know about boudin?"  he said.

            "Yes," I said, "boudin blanc and boudin noir."

            "We make it here on the farm.  Would you like some?"

            I brought it back home, and it turned out to be the most beautiful, lightest textured, most delicious black pudding I had ever tasted.  I'm going to buy some for the shop on my next visit.

            DOMAINE JEAN RAPHET  (Morey Saint Denis).  I was late for M.Raphet, but he didn't seem to mind.  He set to opening bottles, and, as happened last time, we ended up with a table full of opened bottles of serious burgundy, including, for example, 3 different vintages of Charmes-Chambertin (a Grand Cru - this is top of the range burgundy and not cheap).  He is so generous.  His wines have the most remarkable quality of sort of swelling in the mouth and filling it with flavour.

            While we were tasting, he got up and started packing a pair of bottles into a small box (he can't keep still - he's always doing something), and when he'd finished, he handed it to me and said, "Here's one for England."  When I got home and opened the box, it turned out to be two Grand Crus from 1993 (a terrific vintage) - a Charmes-Chambertin and a Clos de Vougeot.

            This time I bought from him two GEVREY-CHAMBERTINS - 1992 and 1990.

DOMAINE CLAUDE NOUVEAU  (Marchezeuil-Change).  9 a.m. Wednesday - a visit to M. Nouveau.  I opened by saying that I thought his white Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Beaune 1996 was delicious.  I have been buying a lot more of his whites than his reds.  His reply was perfectly polite, but also clear - "You do realise, Monsieur Innes, that I make a great deal more red wine than white wine?

            I like M.Nouveau's reds, but I have had some dificulty selling them.  Happily, that has now changed.  I had stocks of his wines, so during the tasting I said I wouldn't buy from him on this visit, but would give him an order after my return to Monmouth.  I told him I was putting on a "grande dégustation à Londres" - and he immediately said, well, in that case, you must have some samples, and gave me 6 bottles of his reds.  I was very flattered that he was keen to do business with me.

            His SANTENAY 1er Cru 1994 Grand Clos Rousseau was a great success at the tasting in London, and we will be stocking it.  His whites are as good as ever - in fact, I think his 1996s are even better than his 1995s. 

            DOMAINE MICHEL SERVEAU  (La Rochepot).  I arrived early in La Rochepot, which is in the Hautes Côtes de Beaune, over the hill from Chassagne-Montrachet and Saint Aubin.  So I took some photographs of the castle, which is a glorious, almost unreal, fairy-tale building.

            On arrival at his house, M.Serveau took me into an above-ground, chapel-like cellar, with two rows of barrels and a stained-glass window at the far end.  We tasted his whites first.  His BOURGOGNE HAUTES COTES DE BEAUNE 1996 is a really well made, pure expression of burgundian Chardonnay, at a very reasonable price.  I will be buying some for the shop.  I did buy on the visit a few bottles of his CHASSAGNE-MONTRACHET 1993.  This is brilliant:  not powerful, but with perfect balance, beautiful flavour and wonderful length and aftertaste.  I could hardly bear to spit it out.  Unfortunately, there is only a tiny quantity of it.  I hope he allows me to buy more.

            His reds:  again, really good wine-making, his BOURGOGNE HAUTES COTES DE BEAUNE 1996 displaying absolutely well-defined, clear Pinot Noir flavour, with just a touch of sternness that promises well for its future development, though it is delicious to drink now.  I bought some of this for the shop.  I hope also to buy some of his red CHASSAGNE-MONTRACHET 1995, which still has a tannic firmness and will definitely benefit from further ageing, but shows impressive elegance and length of flavour.

            DOMAINE DIDIER MONTCHOVET  (Nantoux).  At the entrance to Nantoux there is a big sign listing the growers based in the village - about a dozen, of which three-quarters are called Montchovet.  It was only luck that I found the right address first time.

            This is a domaine which is cultivated organically.  M.Montchovet teaches wine-making at the Lycée Viticole in Beaune.  He and his wife are young - in their 30s - and have built this domaine up from nothing, clearing land in the Hautes Côtes de Beaune to plant vineyards.

            Their wines obviously come first.  They are in the process of building a new house.  They live in it, but it is unfinished, with lengths of string around around the edges of a balcony, builders' rubble in the garden, alongside evidence of children:  tricycles, toys, etc.  But then M.Montchovet takes you through a smoked glass door into a scrupulously neat cellar with barrels ranged in rows.

            All his wines are aged in (not new) oak barrels - he can't afford new ones.  His white BOURGOGNE HAUTES COTES DE BEAUNE is particularly good, with rich fruit and a lemony flavour.  His red BOURGOGNE HAUTES COTES DE BEAUNE has a lovely texture with a hint of tannin that suggests it will develop interestingly over the next few years, and a good rapport between price and quality.

            DOMAINE BERNARD AMIOT  (Chambolle-Musigny).  On Wednesday night I had rung all the domaines from whom I had decided to buy wines to put in my van and bring back with me to Monmouth.  M.Amiot had been on holiday, and so I couldn't see him till Thursday.

            So, first thing Thursday morning, before collecting the wines from the other domaines, I went tasting chez M.Amiot.  Both his succeeding vintages for his BOURGOGNE ROUGE (the 1996) and his village CHAMBOLLE-MUSIGNY (the 1995) are excellent, and we will move on to them when the current stocks of the vintages we have in the shop are exhausted.

            DOMAINE JEAN-LUC JOILLOT  (Pommard).  M.Joillot had to put up with quite a lot from me.  I missed two attempts at appointments with him on the Monday, and finally turned up at 7.30 in the evening, when he was not at all keen to do a tasting with me.  In the gloom, as we discussed making the appointment for Thursday, he leant against the bonnet of my van and idly kicked the front tyre.

            I was on time at mid-day on Thursday.  M.Joillot, understandably, was quite brisk with me.  His wines are excellent, with a nice taut balance that gives them real vitality.  His BOURGOGNE PINOT NOIR 1996 tastes like a baby Pommard, and comes from vines grown the other side of the main road just outside the appellation of Pommard.  For the other two wines that I have arranged to buy from him, let me give you the notes that I took during the tasting with him:

            BOURGOGNE HAUTES COTES DE BEAUNE 1996 - Terrific colour.  Nice concentration.  Almost 100% new oak.  Really good wine.

            POMMARD 1993 - Fantastic full nose.  Complex.  Black fruits.  New oak.  Very impressive.  That's just the nose.  Terrific taste.  A bit of structure.  Very impressive.

Tom Innes,
Irma Fingal-Rock,
64 Monnow Street,