Beaune for beginners

Beaune for beginners People & Places Articles
  • Saturday 1 March 2003

Understanding the Côte de Beaune can help you get to grips with the whole of Burgundy, says JOHN DOWNES MW

Understanding the Côte de Beaune can help you get to grips with the whole of Burgundy, says JOHN DOWNES MW

You know the scene. He walks into the wine bar, orders a glass of Mâcon Villages and spends the next half-hour telling you he's an expert on Burgundy. Well, don't believe him – Burgundy's hallowed vineyards hold mysteries far beyond mere mortals' understanding. That said, while you may not be likely to become an expert overnight, the code to this magical region is there to be cracked.

Its myriad villages, vineyards, microclimates, soils, grands crus, premiers crus and winemakers not only send heads spinning, they send scepticism racing. I remember my early visits when I pooh-poohed differences in vineyard plots only metres apart: 'Don't tell me that one side of the wall is grand cru and the other side has a common or garden appellation. Pull the other one.' I was wrong. Time and an open mind have since taken me on a fascinating voyage of discovery.

There's no better way to discover la différence than to walk through the Côte de Beaune, the Côte de Nuits' partner in the fabled Côte d'Or, past some of the most evocative village names in the world, and, incredibly, through some of the world's most expensive real estate.

Not all things Burgundian are complicated. Talking grapes, it's simply Chardonnay for the whites and Pinot Noir for the reds, but when it comes to the appellations, things aren't so straightforward. Mind you, it's not as complicated as many would have us believe. Travelling south from Nuits St-Georges with the 'golden slopes' sweeping away to the right, the quiet village of Aloxe-Corton, with its colourfully tiled roofs, gracious château and elegantly spired church, takes the eye. This heralds the start of the Côte de Beaune.

The famous saddle-shaped hill of Corton rises above the village, and nowhere in Burgundy is the key to the code or the concept of terroir better demonstrated. Just one taste of the wines from different plots dotted around the hill's slopes will convince the most grumpy sceptic that it's all about location, location, location. Around the village, the best climats (vineyards) of Aloxe soak up the sun throughout long, lazy ripening days, while just around the corner in Pernand-Vergelesses, poorer expositions on the same hill give lighter wines that are only a shadow of their famous neighbour.

Above the village and below a top hat of trees, the Corton hill slopes steeply, clearly exposing her beneficial limestone outcrops, and perfect for the Chardonnay in Aloxe's most famous wine, the powerfully elegant grand cru Corton-Charlemagne. More clay outcrops in the middle slopes provide the perfect terrain for the flirtatious Pinot Noir, the result being the wonderfully rich Corton, incredibly the only red grand cru in the Côte de Beaune. Where and why Chardonnay vines end and Pinot begins on the magical slope is a never-ending talking point but with the Aloxe grand cru vineyards having no fewer than 200 owners, some of whom own just a few vines, knowing the best plots and their winemakers is far more critical when it comes to buying a bottle. Barely 3km to the west, and still lying on its famous hill, Pernand- Vergelesses lives in the shadow of Aloxe-Corton. Literally. The sun's rays are blocked by the Corton hill, sentencing many of the vines to a shady existence for much of the day. There is a brighter side, however, for the best red premiers crus lie on the flatter, sunnier vineyards further down the slope and these, together with the best limestone-rich, sun-blessed Chardonnay plots, can make 'PV' a happy hunting ground for the determined wine sleuth. Many of the wines are sold under the Côte de Beaune Villages label which is a pity, for many deserve to stand on their own.

Fuelling the Burgundy enigma, a clutch of favourable southeast-facing vineyard plots and their wines belie their origin, including the white grand cru En Charlemagne parcel, which is entitled to use the Aloxe name of Corton Charlemagne and, further along, a small parcel of Pinot Noir whose terroir allows it to take on the prestigious Corton label. Just around the corner from Aloxe-Corton and again lying on the same saddled hill, the vineyards of Ladoix-Serrigny face east but, as with PV, sadly do not share the same quality exposure. With the soils also changing as you move around the slope, the wines lack the intensity and finesse of Aloxe-Corton. But it's not all bad news, some climats are good enough to be entitled to Aloxe's priceless Corton and Corton-Charlemagne appellations. Many of Ladoix's wines are sold under the Côte de Beaune Villages label which makes Ladoix-Serrigny one of the lesser-known communes, but thankfully these underrated wines are becoming more visible on our shelves. 'The name may be difficult to pronounce but they give good pleasure for little price,' says Domaine Gros' Françoise Parent.

Poor old Chorey-les-Beaune hasn't much going for it. The trouble is, it's on the wrong side of the road. Consequently, the village is an oft- forgotten enclave. To make things worse, being off the slope, much of Chorey's vineyards stand on flatter, damper clay soils. Not ideal for fine wine. With the village road sign pointing to nearby Aloxe-Corton and Savigny, it demonstrates how things can change within a stone's throw. Spare a thought for the vignerons. The width of a roadway can reduce the price tag by a factor of 10. It's not all doom and gloom, however, down Chorey way, as some of the vineyards are on sandier soils where better, stronger, pleasant but rustic Chorey-Côte-de-Beaune and Côte de Beaune Villages wines evolve. The lesser-quality wines are unavoidably declassified to the Bourgogne appellation.

As you approach Beaune from Chorey, the roundabout sortie indicates Savigny-les-Beaune à droite, a small clock-towered village that holds a few hidden jewels, many of which really sparkle in the hands of the best winemakers. There's a newly found pride in the village, a swell that's not only reflected in wine quality but also in more estates adopting the Savigny name ahead of the safer, more easily sold Côte de Beaune Villages label.

The vineyards are divided to the north and south by the river Rhoin, which, although meagre, provides a marked separation between two very different parcels. The difference is clearly evident at the harvest when the gravel-based vineyards to the south are picked about a week before the clay-based northerly plots. Most of the premier cru vineyards lie to the north where red wines rule the roost.

'Only about 4% of the village and premier cru production is Savigny Blanc,' confirms Catherine Ronné of Domaine Chantal Lescure. A small percentage it may be but many Savigny whites show crisp, ripe citrus qualities that with a toasty French oak sheen are a match for many wines with far more appellation clout. The reds are generally light in colour but, as always in Burgundy, generalisation is a dangerous game. 'Our Clos des Guettes is from a great parcel that produces a wonderful depth of colour, perfume and flavour,' explains Parent.

The captivating town of Beaune, the spiritual home of Burgundy, demands an afternoon at least to wander within its ancient walls, around its famous Hospices and below its amazing tiled roofs. Large placards announce that such maisons as Bouchard Père et Fils, Maison Albert Bichot, Patriarche Père et Fils, Joseph Drouhin, Maison Champy and Louis Latour are in town, and below the cobbled streets their cellars form a subterranean world where fine wines age in French oak barrels in quiet, cool, cobwebbed surroundings.

Back into the hills

Beaune's vineyards lie beyond the town on the gentle slopes that are entitled to the Côte de Beaune, Beaune and Beaune premier cru appellations, the latter comprising 45 climats sited predominantly on the south-facing, clay-limestone slopes. Beaune's northerly vineyards produce fuller, stronger wines while the southern slopes show more delicacy, but no matter what the origin, the wines of Beaune enjoy a fine reputation. Unfortunately reputation comes at a price. About 2km south of Beaune, tucked away to the right on south-facing slopes, the vineyards of Pommard wrap themselves around this picturesque village.

Pommard's past reputation for dilute wines is hard to understand these days, for the best are full, round and fruity with an attractive tannic backbone.The appellation covers only red wines and the 24 premiers crus come from the steep, stony, red clay and limestone slopes that rise on either side of the village. Les Grands and Petits Epenots are two to remember, the best vintages of which can take up to 10 years to develop their full potential.

As you move south, the vineyard slopes become steeper and rockier which results in elegant, less muscular wines. If you detect a silkier mouthfeel to the wines, here lies an introduction to the wines of the next village, Volnay. 'Our Pommard Clos des Ursulines vineyard lies adjacent to Volnay and you can taste its proximity clearly,' explains Philippe de Marcilly of Maison Albert Bichot. 'At first you get the silkiness of Volnay but then the tannic grip and the structure of Pommard take over.'

For some reason Volnay and Pommard are often linked, 'probably because they're close and red,' quips Patriarche's Eric Le Joille, 'but when it comes to tasting it's chalk and cheese.' If Pommard is full and round, the best Volnays are big and voluptuous. They also have an elegance rarely seen in Pommard, a direct reflection of the vineyards' aspect and soil.

Compared with Pommard there's less clay and more limestone under foot, a combination that also provides beneficial drainage. Pinot just loves it and a village with more than 50% of the parcels having a premier cru title tells its own story, with Caillerets, Champans, Cleveret and Santenots among the most famous. Volnay's vineyards are less protected than many in the Cote d'Or with the 'village' wines from the more exposed or flatter sites being a distinctively lighter version of their big premier cru brothers.

Burgundy's a minefield and if terroir lives anywhere in the world's vineyards it's here. Even hard-headed Aussie winemakers admit this after tasting wines from plots no fewer than three kangaroo jumps apart. If the Burgundians could produce Australian consistency we wouldn't complain so much, but as an Aussie once quipped: 'You have to pay £200 for a good bottle of Burgundy. Not to buy one bottle but 10 in the hope of finding a good one!' Cracking the code can only help reduce the odds.

John Downes MW is a freelance wine writer and broadcaster.

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