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The Fruits Of A Trip To Burgundy 1997

  In February I went on a buying trip to Burgundy.  My appetite for this venture had been sharpened by a long week-end spent in Burgundy in October last year, on holiday.  I went in my van, with the intention of buying the wines, loading up and heading back to the shop.

  I visited 16 domaines in 3 days, tasting, on average, 8 wines at each domaine, which amounts to about 40 wines a day - lasting from breakfast time (first appointment 9 o'clock) until 6 or 7 in the evening.  An intensive bit of research.

  My aim was to seek out small domaines either little known, or unknown in this country, so as to offer people something different.

  The trip started badly.  Within a few minutes of arriving at my hotel, the dog bit me twice.  The hotel itself was horrible - Third World, with the attendant plumbing, uncomfortable bed with cheap sheets that had a pattern of something seriously scratchy sewn into them, and a window underneath a street light and no curtain.  Since I'd booked, I stayed there the first night, but immediately that evening I jumped into my van to find somewhere else to stay.  In the morning the coffee was cold, and I was given bread and butter.  When I asked for jam, I was told there wasn't any.  I was out of the place by 8 a.m.

  After that, things looked up.  Virtually all the domaine owners were charming, friendly, generous and helpful.  The wines were all good, not a faulty one among them, and most were anywhere from excellent to unbelievably wonderful.  I cannot understand why so much dull burgundy is offered in shops and supermarkets in this country.  And another thing, I learnt that it really is possible to find absolutely delicious burgundy at reasonable prices:  wines bursting with fruit, full of character and a real threat to all those succulent New World wines that are so popular now.  Look out Australia.

  I will give an account of the winemakers and wines of four of the domaines from which I bought, in the order in which I visited them.

  DOMAINE BERNARD AMIOT  (Chambolle-Musigny).  I arrive at 9 a.m., and we go down into the cellar underneath his house.  It is full of barrels of Chambolle-Musigny maturing before bottling.  I have always been interested in architecture, and over the last decade the cellar is the part of a house that I find most interesting.  Burgundy is full of cellars.  M.Amiot's house is modern-looking.  You go into the garage, and down some steps at the side into an ancient cellar.  Everywhere, modern houses are built on top of cellars centuries old.  Wonderful.  M.Amiot gives me a glass.  He opens a bottle of his Bourgogne Rouge 1995.  I hold out the glass, and my hand shakes embarrassingly.  I would say something, but I don't know the French word for "shake".  The wine is delicious - full, fruity, a touch of vanilla.  I now have it for sale in the shop.

  DOMAINE JEAN RAPHET  (Morey-Saint-Denis).  On to the next village only half a mile away.  I arrive early.  Mme.Raphet is busy with the children, who she disposes of before attending to me.  She is polite, friendly and charming.  She furnishes me with a price list.  What would I like to taste?  A Bourgogne Rouge?  She opens a bottle.  We then move on to Gevrey-Chambertin.  Which vintage?  The 1990?  Why not - a good vintage.  We are having a very civilised tasting.  At exactly 10 o'clock, the time that I had arranged to visit, there is a commotion at the door, and M.Raphet makes his entrance.  I stand up to introduce myself.  He seems absent-minded, as if he has forgotten the appointment, checks his watch and remarks that he has arrived perfectly on time.  He starts rummaging about in the bins containing the wines.  What have we tasted?  The Gevrey-Chambertin 1990?  What about the 86 (not on the price list)?  His wife huffs, as if to say, "don't be ridiculous", and gets up to walk out of the room.  There is a sort of brisk fidgetiness about him that reminds me of my mother-in-law - I mean that as a compliment.  We taste the 86.  It is absolutely delicious, mature Pinot Noir, soft and round (so good that I bought a quantity of this for the shop).  What about a Premier Cru?  He gets up and rummages about again, and pulls out a Gevrey-Chambertin Premier Cru.  We taste, and he's off to look for another Premier Cru, which we taste.  Then he pulls out a Grand Cru - a Charmes-Chambertin.  All these bottles are wonderful.  This is great red burgundy.  Finally, the pi¨ce de resistance, he opens a bottle of Clos de la Roche 1993.  "This is for connaisseurs (sic)," he says.  It is mind-blowing - simply one of the finest bottles of wine I have ever tasted:  fabulous, full flavour; rich, but amazingly supple, with fantastic length (drink some and you'll still be able to taste it next week), and real power.  A great wine.  I bought a few (very few) bottles of it.  I thought to myself that it probably wouldn't sell - it didn't matter, I knew of another way of disposing of it.

  When I went back to the domaine 3 days later to collect the wine, M.Raphet offered me a drink:  "Vous prenez un verre?" (Sort of one for the road)  And he begins to rummage about, while I politely decline.  He pulls out a Grand Cru, and starts tugging at the capsule.  While he's doing this, we get to the subject of the invoice, etc. It turns out that an important document from the customs is missing.  It's two minutes to four and the customs office closes at four, so we abandon the Grand Cru, jump into his van and tear off through the village, skid to a halt, and as we cross the road to the office, the clock strikes four, but they let us in.  He tells them he's come about a document, do they know anything about it?  Yes, this is what he needs, and they hand it to him.  He looks at it blankly, and asks what he's supposed to do with it.  They say he has to fill it in.  With a flourish, and an absolutely charming, irresistible laugh he drops it on to their desk and says go on, you do it.  They protest, but mildly - how could they refuse?  So we get our form, and then back to the domaine.  Would I like a beer?  So we have a beer in his cellar, just a small cellar, for his private collection of bottles - Le Montrachet, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, champagne, etc.  Then it's time to go, and he just gives me the abandoned bottle of Grand Cru, and says here, keep this.

  A wonderful man.

  DOMAINE PHILIPPE GAVIGNET  (Nuits-Saint-Georges).  At the entrance to this domaine, which is in the town itself, you are you are invited to ring the bell and enter, which I do.  I hover on the edge of the courtyard, which has various bits of farm machinery and a tractor or two parked there.  After a couple of minutes a burly, round-headed man in his late twenties appears from somewhere.  He looks at me with one eye shut.  I ask him if he is M.Gavignet, and introduce myself.

  "You didn't telephone me," he barks.

  I politely start to say that I did ring -

  "You said in your letter you would contact me by telephone.  You didn't ring."

  He and his wife clearly don't speak to each other:  when I had rung and spoken to his wife a few days earlier she told me her husband hadn't said that I had written.  She didn't know anything about it.

  M.Gavignet barks.  He doesn't speak.  He is definitely gruff.  He is still looking at me with one eye.  I tell myself that this man is a farmer, that he tills the soil.  But is he one-eyed?  It is a little bit disconcerting.

  Eventually I am allowed to explain that I had spoken to his wife and arranged an appointment.  He loosens up a bit, and opens the other eye.  We go downstairs into a cellar which is fixed up as a tasting room, complete with a life-size model of a person doing something connected with wine making.

  What is your idea of the wines of Nuits-Saint-Georges?  Earthy?  With perhaps a rather four-square quality about them?  Masculine, not feminine?  In fact, a bit like M.Gavignet himself?

  So what of his wines?  They are the opposite of the man.  They are light in colour (though not lacking in depth), a startlingly bright cherry red, with an almost pinkish hue.  As we taste, M.Gavignet is trenchant about Robert Parker, and gives an amusing account of Clive Coates' visit to his cellar.  He is evidently a man of strong views.  He shows me entries describing his wines in the Guide Hachette.  The wines are lively, pretty, charming and absolutely unlike my idea of Nuits-Saint-Georges.  We are tasting young vintages.  He then pours a 1992 Nuits-Saint-Georges Premier Cru (admittedly not much older, but an early developing vintage).  Here you begin to detect something of the earthy Nuits character - on the nose.  In the mouth, the taste is still resolutely pretty, feminine.  I feel sure these wines will develop splendidly.  I bought some of his Bourgogne Hautes Cotes de Nuits "Clos des Dames Huguettes", which is not at all expensive and bursting with fruit - a delicious drink.  I hope that people will grow accustomed to his style of wine making, and perhaps then I can get some of his grander wines for the shop.

DOMAINE GACHOT-MONOT  (Gerland).  My last visit was to this tiny domaine, which is not even based in a wine village - it is a few miles out in the plain to the east of Nuits-Saint-Georges.  Young M.Gachot, and he is young, the youngest of all those I visited, is an intelligent fellow, with film star good looks.  A rather floppy, shoulder-shrugging, dismissive exterior conceals a determination to make really good wines.  He has an enquiring, open-minded approach to wine making. He is prepared to experiment and take risks in the pursuit of quality.  I rather get the impression that there is a bit of money about here (a large Mercedes, for example, was parked outside the house), so I suspect he can afford to take risks.  The domaine extends to 3 hectares in all, with 2.5 hectares being one parcel in the appellation of Cotes de Nuits Villages.  The parcel is situated at Corgoloin south of Nuits-Saint-Georges, on the edge of the Cote de Nuits before it turns into the Cote de Beaune.  Tiny amounts of other wines are made, but this is basically a one wine domaine.  The Cote de Nuits Villages from this domaine is so full of fruit it reminds me of Henri Jayer's wines (yes, it really is that good!).  The first vintage that he made completely on his own was in 1992, so the 1993 that I bought is only his second vintage. He is clearly very talented, and has a promising future if he sticks with it.

  My overall impression from my three days of tasting in Burgundy is that talented, conscientious winemakers are producing wines of unmatched brilliance - not only at the top level, but also from lowlier appellations, but that, as has always been the case with Burgundy, results are uneven and you have to taste very carefully.