THE TRAVELING SOMM: One Day in Burgundy

Traveling Somm Burgundy_Cellar at Lucien LemoineEarly one winter Monday morning in France, I made the threeish-hour drive from Reims in Champagne to Beaune, the epi-center of Burgundy. A drive to remember, in what was a chilly, torrential downpour accompanied by a massive hangover and sleep deprivation from the prior evening’s festivities. This is the somewhat unglamorous side of my business. But, alas, I executed the same torture on myself the previous winter and I’ll probably (hopefully) do it all again next year. The payoff of spending one-on-one time with Burgundy producers is just so sweet.

I’m comfortably in the majority of somms and wine-lovers who revere all things Burgundy. I caught the bug just like many of us when I had my first great glass of Burgundy. The “one” that transcended anything I had tasted prior. My inner nerd also rejoiced over the clearly delineated concept of terroir, (geographical and otherwise), and the divine history that shaped it. It was terribly intimidating in the beginning – all those Villages, Premier and Grand crus to contemplate, plus sorting out the who’s who of producers when they all have variations of the same last name! But, over time, I tasted more and more (and listened to my mentors) and was able to start extrapolating my way around the Côte d’Or. I still marvel at how two bottles of wine from two neighboring vineyards, can taste extraordinarily different. And by neighbor, think bed-mate distance as opposed to roommate distance.

The complexity of the region (and sheer pleasure of drinking the fruits of the land) humbly thrusts me to the Mother-land to continue the discovery. It’s almost like I have no choice in the matter; as if some Pavlovian fairy dust forces me to click “Buy Now” on that United red-eye. So, once again I did, and my Mecca did not disappoint.

That harrowing drive to Beaune was manned by my dear friend Peter, who thankfully speaks French, was slightly less hungover than I was, and is a perfect partner-in-wine-travel-crime. I packed us a tight schedule of astounding (lucky to procure) producer visits for the week, which is why I’m sharing this. That’s the essence of wine after all: sharing. So, you know that we made it to Beaune safe and sound and hit the ground running.

In the era of limited attention spans, I’m going to focus the week-long experiences to just one day, albeit a long one. Thursday, January 25th. The day actually didn’t start out very well. I woke up to not so great news about my best friend’s health back home, which made for a distracting morning.

Marquis D’Angerville – Volnay

Traveling Somm, Burgundy, MarquisD'Angerville_Volnay_Vineyard_Terroir

Nonetheless, Peter and I made it to Volnay in time for our nine AM appointment at Marquis D’Angerville. I’ll never forget how beautiful and peaceful the Clos des Ducs vineyard (their most esteemed) adjacent to the cellar looked in the early-morning winter light while we waited to be received. It was my first time seeing this iconic terroir, of which the wines produced are haunting.

Guillaume, the striking/baronial, yet kind proprietor, was away, so we were received by François Duvivier, who expertly guided us throughout our visit. We spent a few moments in the Clos des Ducs speaking about the vineyard and the conversion to biodynamic farming over ten years ago with the assistance of the legendary Frédérick Lafarge (who’s soulful wines we tasted the day prior). I’m always grateful for time in the vineyard, even if it’s freezing cold. It reveals a certain sensibility about the producer when you can see how they care for their vines.

Shortly thereafter, we were joined by two young guys who were retailers from the region, and the tasting commenced. D’Angerville at 9:15 am? No problem! Once in the cellar, François generously started us on tasting barrel samples of the 2016 vintage. These are tiny tastes of wines yet to be bottled that are extracted from the barrel using a tool called a thief. Barrel tasting is a very different skill than tasting or drinking bottled wine that’s been released into the market. It’s more akin to tasting potential, as the wines are still gestating and not quite ‘finished.’ Even though embryonic, it can be extremely useful for grasping the character of the vintage, understanding the Domaine’s style and differences between specific vineyards, as the wines are so transparent at that stage.

Marquis D’Angerville’s holdings are concentrated in the village of Volnay, with five distinct premiere cru bottlings. Bottles are not easy to come by, so it’s extremely rare to taste them all side-by-side. I was so excited to finally barrel taste all these vineyards to see if my impressions of previous bottles were accurate, or on the right track at least. My nerd somm-hat was strapped on tight and I was salivating for extreme insider info on these five terroirs- it was a long time coming!

Sadly, I did not get my wish. The guys tasting with us started shooting the shit with François in French and formed a man-bubble. I became a ten-year-old little girl that was desperately trying to see the obstructed stage without a booster seat. Peter did his best to translate, but there just wasn’t anything worth translating. Certainly, there were no mentions of the intricacies of the slope or ratios of top-soil to bedrock that I was hoping for!

Alas, I did not let it deter me. I kept my head down and savored every last smell and taste while they chatted. I wrote copious notes of my impressions and relied on my trusty instinct. In the end, the wines spoke for themselves. They were distinct and beautiful, and I cannot wait to taste them in the bottle!

Vincent Dancer – Chassagne-Montrachet

The next appointment had a categorically different tone. We made the short drive to Chassagne-Montrachet to an unmarked, hardly distinct house on the side of the road that was presumably Vincent Dancer’s. I rarely taste his wines, but when I do, they are always quite memorable and have aged extremely well. We walked up to the front of the house and we were warmly greeted by a large sweet-natured dog. I was grateful for the K-9 energy at that minute. We sort of stood there petting her for a moment not exactly sure where to go as there was no sign or ‘entrance.’ The dog and her happy tail, sensing our awkwardness, turned toward the kitchen door giving us permission to go ahead and knock. We knocked.

Traveling Somm, Burgundy, Vincent Dancer, Chassagne Montrachet, Cellar - Wine4Food

A youthful bald man with kind yet piercing blue-eyes emerged. This was Vincent. He carried himself in a way that was ageless; seemingly wise and vital at the same time. I was immediately struck by how grounded and gentle he was. It was as though his work boots had deep roots in the ground yet somehow allowed him to move about gracefully.

Vincent opened up a hatch that I had not previously noticed, and we descended the worn stairs into his minuscule cellar. The cellar had the same old-soul and serene energy I observed above ground. Vincent started the Domaine from his family’s formerly share-cropped vines in 1996. He now has 6.2 hectares spread out primarily across Chassagne-Montrachet, Meursault, Beaune, and Pommard.

We started barrel tasting the ‘16’s. The first wine was a humble Bourgogne Blanc which tasted remarkably sophisticated for what I expected to be in the glass. I had to double check the barrel to make sure it wasn’t a greater appellation. There was so much vibrant energy and precision in the wine, it was almost shocking considering how tranquil Vincent’s demeanor was. The tasting continued this way with each wine out-impressing the next until we came to a full-stop at Meursault Perriers. A lauded Premier Cru vineyard that many argue should be elevated to Grand Cru status. Wow! What a glorious, sophisticated wine. It was only outshined by his actual Grand Cru, Chevalier-Montrachet. This was one of those visits that felt like I’d reconnected with an old friend who relayed a curative message to me. This may seem overly pedantic or emotional, but this is precisely why I travel to wine country; It’s my way of being able to see what needs to shift in my life. Harder to perceive in NYC. 

By now, we’d only consumed wine all day, so It was time for some food. Peter and I went to a charming lunch spot down the road and had a reflective meal over a bottle of Ramonnet (Premier Cru Boudriotte, Chassagne-Montrachet). We shared the restaurant with what must have been every police officer from the region. You can’t make this stuff up. It was amusing to watch thirty-plus cops in uniform fill up the long tables with bottles of wine and Poulet… at noon. Only in France!

Dominique Lafon – Meursault

The next appointment was with Dominique Lafon in Meursault. Domaine des Comtes Lafon is an icon of the Burgundy world for the history of the Domaine, terroirs, and prices these wines fetch. Visiting a producer with that much gravitas can be tricky. When I made the appointment, I considered for a moment that it might be better to keep my imagination intact in case the reality of the visit be disappointing. I’m so glad that thought only lasted five seconds.

Traveling Somm, Burgundy, Dominique Lafon, Meursault, Cellar - Wine4FoodPeter and I pulled into the (clearly-marked) entrance of the winery with a certain glee of anticipation. Dominique came to receive us with his thief, and that classic Cheshire cat twinkle he has in his eyes. At that moment, there was no question this was going to be good. The three of us promptly headed to the cellar which had an air of respect and history to it. Peter and I understood we were lucky to be there, even though Dominique’s warmth welcomed us.

Dominique started tasting us on virtually everything he made in 2016, like a total rock-star. His playful confidence throughout the tasting was bewitching, not that the wines didn’t speak volumes for themselves, but because so few people get to that place in their lives where experience and talent organize to such a level of mastery. Yet, Dominique’s curiosity is unending. He expanded his range with recent acquisitions of Meursault Premier Crus, Porusots, and Bouchères. He now has a complete picture of the great terroirs of this hillside.

Dominique is making the wines of his life right now. He exceeded our already high expectations in every way and us two wine nerds were on cloud nine.

Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey – Chassagne-Montrachet

How could we top that? Well, Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey was the last visit of the day in his new winery in Chassagne-Montrachet. PYCM- for short, would be a fine follow! PYCM is a highly coveted Maison that is continuing its rise. This would be my second visit with Pierre-Yves, and this time I wanted to taste his wife, Caroline’s, new wines as well. Caroline recently started her own label with vines acquired from her father’s Domaine, Jean-Marc Morey. Many of the vineyards overlap with the PYCM production.

In 2015 Pierre-Yves moved his winery to a larger location to accommodate his wife’s production. Pierre-Yves and Caroline share the winemaking duties, but Caroline makes all the red wines. It is culturally rare in Burgundy (and France in general), for a husband to encourage his wife’s own separate label. The wife’s vineyard holdings are usually absorbed into the husband’s production. I have immense respect for Pierre-Yves for breaking this mold and promoting Caroline’s own label and fostering her identity. Perhaps others will follow suit!

Traveling Somm, Burgundy, Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey, Chassagne-Montrachet, tasting room - Wine4FoodWe tasted 2016 barrel samples that were pulled for us in their swank new tasting room that Caroline designed. It overlooks the vineyards of Chassagne-Montrachet which is perfectly picturesque at dusk. Pierre-Yves likes to taste in that room as his cellars are extremely cold. Were able to be more relaxed in there and taste the range of wines without freezing our noses.

They make several different cuvées but in tiny quantities. Pierre-Yves took us through the tasting with few words, but plenty of subtexts. I recognize the introvert in him that has an intense energy of thought constantly streaming through this head.

We decided to taste the wines by vineyard, as opposed to tasting the PYCM range first, then Caroline’s next. We weren’t necessarily trying to compare the two labels, but rather study the terroirs. There was, however, a distinction between the two labels. Since the wines weren’t bottled yet, I’ll have to reserve more specific thoughts on that for the future.

Their ‘16’s, in general, showed a fine elegance and persistent focus as I’ve come to expect. Pierre-Yves left us with a lot to contemplate after tasting so many wines.

Peter and I drove in relative silence back to Beaune for dinner. The day was so rich in quality and quantity that we were mentally exhausted. Dinner was simple that night and I opted to drink a rare cider over wine as you might imagine, I needed a complete beverage change.

Each day continued this way with dizzying adventures and a deepening backdrop for this beloved region. There is so much terroir, vintage, and people to uncover, you can’t help but feel like you are just scratching the surface with each visit.

Fine wine is so much more than the expense and the label. The person behind the label is the ultimate context. Getting to know these artisans on their home turf is pretty amazing. I never know what I am going to learn or experience, which is why I’ll return again and again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sabra Lewis Traveling Somm Headshot - Wine4FoodI’m the Beverage Director of L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, NYC, sommelier, and wine consultant living in living in New York City. I have a background in performing as a dancer on Broadway, and I retired to drink wine for a living! Working as a sommelier in Michelin-starred restaurants, penning my own beverage programs, and traveling the world, have given me the voice that I have today. I write with a sommelier lens and insider view on all things beverage, food, travel & hospitality. Travel is my continuing education and I’m delighted to share my adventure.