I promised the full story of my trip to Burgundy for the Auction at The Hospice de Beaune. Here it is…
Why all the fuss? A question I asked myself as the TGV sped southward.
Size wise it’s insignificant, comprising as it does a mere 02% of the earth’s surface that’s covered by vines. What’s more, the fêted Grand Crus make up a mere 1% of the region’s total output and the Premier little more than a tenth. The bulk of the production, entitled only to the name of Burgundy tout court, is honest but unremarkable wine. Yet the region carries an undeniable charisma, an attraction exceeding even that of the Medoc.
Partly, of course, it’s that aristocrat of wine words, terroir. Nowhere else in the world do you find, in the midst of an otherwise unremarkable array of vineyards, hallowed patches where the grapes yield up wine of exquisite quality. Where even the vinously literate search in vain for clues, getting down on their knees to turn over handfuls of soil or gazing down from the crest of the slope in utter bewilderment.
Much is made of the terrain. The buzz word is ‘Kimmeridge’ or ‘kimmerigien’. But beware, there’s more bollocks talked about Kimmeridge than even politics or football.
I’ve been told, by those who should know better, that it’s a corruption of an old French word for ‘high ridge’; that it’s the name of an American professor of geology. Truth is Kimmeridge is actually the name of a village in Dorset, England where the substrata and soil is remarkably similar to that of Burgundy – limestone blended with fossilised rock and sprinkled with marl overlaid in parts by other clay pocked with bituminous shale; a topography that took shape during the Jurassic era.
History is another aspect to Burgundy’s appeal. Its wines were patronised in turn by Louis XIV, Napoleon and General de Gaulle, not a bad trio of endorsees. Some claim viticulture in the region stemmed from a colony of Greeks settled in Marseilles, some of whom ventured north. Others date the process to Caesar’s conquest of Gaul in 52BC. What is certain is that medieval religious orders, Benedictines and Cistercians, advanced matters, the latter by being the first to cultivate the back-breaking inclines of the Côte d’Or. Much of the credit, though, must go to that Duke of Burgundy who, in the late 14th century, supervised the wholesale ripping out of the common weed-vine Gamay and its replacement by the aristocratic Pinot Noir.
Temperamental Pinot Noir and ever-complaisant Chardonnay are the real glory of Burgundy, the former making red wines that, while wholly enjoyable when young, develop a patchwork quilt of nuances given some bottle age; the latter achieving its world-wide apogée on the sacred slopes of Montrachet just south of our destination, the town of Beaune.
All this flashed through my mind on the journey. We changed trains at Dijon, capital of the region and took the stopper. I was pleased to halt at Nuits-St.Georges, home of the first wine I ever drank. If Dijon is the Duchy’s capital, Beaune is undoubtedly the wine capital, especially in November when it plays host to the world. Norwegians and Koreans, Americans and Japanese and other poles apart pairings crowd the streets, either as invitees of the merchant houses or as independent travellers with a common aim – to attend the great annual wine auction at the Hospices de Beaune and enjoy the remarkable gastronomic accompaniment. Some arrive, chequebooks at the ready, to bid for a barrel or three. Others, merely to spectate and join in the festivities. These blow-ins are catered for by a hundred restaurants, from bistro to temple of gastronomy, remarkable in a town of only about 27,000 people. It’s said that Paris is the head of France, Champagne the heart and Burgundy the stomach and after four days there I can confirm that it’s a very full stomach indeed. Burgundians, like me, are food-obsessed and it’s not uncommon to receive a lecture on how to buy or how to cook the andouillettes or poulet de Bresse when you’re standing in front of an open market stall contemplating purchase. Such advice could come from the vendor, a fellow-shopper or a mere passer-by. Meet the locals and five minutes later they’ll be telling you who’s the best butcher in town. The food shops are crowded too; twice a day there are queues outside the bakers.
Importers, merchants, journalists from a veritable league of nations took lunch chez Bouchard Père et Fils in the delightfully elegant orangery across the road from the château that serves as the company HQ. Bouchard are big in Burgundy, owning 12 hectare of Grands Crus and 74 of Premiers, the names of which sparkle like diamonds: Chambertin, Clos Vougeot, Echezeaux, Le Corton, Corton Charlemagne and an array of Montrachets shine from their portfolio.
After lunch we went off to Meursault to taste, pausing on the way at Le Montrachet to genuflect. I look back at my notes as I write and find my terse cyphering that’s gaining notoriety in wine writing circles is speckled with exclamation marks. The Meursault Genevrières 2002 “affords genuine excitement”, it seems. The Corton-Charlemagne of the same year was “tense and weighty, sea salt and Cox’s apples framed by delicate but insistent peachy flavours”. The Chevalier Montrachet “still a kit of parts but the class is undeniable”. I want to come back and taste the same wines in 5 and 10 years.
In the evening we returned to the Bouchard château for dinner in the cellars. The cooking was rich, classically Burgundian from the etherial gougères, “like eating cheese-flavoured clouds” as someone said, to the marbré de canard, to the cepes-stuffed suprême de volaille fermière, to the marc-soaked roast figs. The wines, Chevalier Montrachet 1997, Nuits St.Georges Les Cailles 1998 and the Beaune Teurons 1964, still standing up to be counted, were magnificent. Only problem was to prevent falling shards of limestone falling from the cellar roof from tainting the precious liquid.
The auction itself is, I have to say, totally underwhelming for those not in possession of the wherewithal to buy. You queue to get in, this year in teeming rain; once inside you stand or sit, mute and motionless, afraid of nodding your head or scratching your ear for fear you might be called upon to stump up for a pièce, a lot, consisting of around 300 bottles. The numbers roll on the electronic ‘scoreboard’ in euros, yen, pounds, dollars etc, the vendors grunt and groan and then it’s on to the next lot. They have a curious, time-honoured way of ending the bidding but when you’ve seen one guttering candle you’ve seen ‘em all. Ten minutes of this and you’re ready to roam the streets, buying Epoisses and the gorgeously named Ami du Chambertin cheeses, bargaining for truffles and watching the side shows – the cork-pulling contest and the demonstration of the cooper’s craft were the pick of them.