Autumn in Burgundy

November 06, 2017

The suddenly crisp mornings and shockingly glum afternoons of early November in London make it unexpectedly difficult to recall Summer. My memories of warm days, grilled seafood and swimming in the ocean are as tattered and thin as my favourite beach shirt. I'm acutely aware that there is now an urgent need to draw up all my Summer reveries and mentally feast on their freshness - a necessary uptake of sustenance as I knuckle down, and hustle my way through the handful of gloomy months that lay before me. I nearly always find the gradation of time towards Christmas invigorating and cosily satisfying, even full of expectation. But its a mood that I know won't last beyond New Year. Its time to make the most of it.

In November we are now deep into game season, salads have made way for soups, and if there ever was a wine custom forged for this time season on the cusp, then it is Burgundy. 

Be it red or white, Burgundy lives and dies by its perfume - each bottle should have a continuous thread back to the memory of longer and easier days, to a beginning. There should be a waft of joy in each glass, the promise of something sensuous and tantalisingly. There has to be a memory of Spring and Summer - the tender acidity of a perfect raspberry, the crisp lines of a lime in elderflower. Burgundy, when its good, lifts the spirits and makes joyful celebration of all the best foods of Autumn when the larder is heaving at its seams. There is no better match for game birds of any kind and an axiom in the wine trade is that Burgundy is made for food of a feather. Burgundy has no business with deep Winter.  That is the preserve of the Rhone and other heartier wines, all of which prefer fur. 

I've been lucky enough to visit Burgundy at least 4 or 5 times in my life, and every single visit has been in Autumn. Its now difficult to imagine going at another time of year. I feel I know something about Burgundy now, of its essential character, of its devious charm. Its promise and casual indifference. If you are a cat owner then you're well placed to appreciate Burgundy. If its dogs all the way for you, then I'd stick to Bordeaux. Wine can be that simple. 

At the very least I now have a framework for understanding Burgundy, something upon which new knowledge more easily rests, but I was blissfully ignorant of what I didn't know the first time I visited in 2000. Then I ate grapes directly from the Romanee-Conti vineyard (it was after harvest and they weren't ripe enough to pick), and tasted Montrachet from cask. I had no idea what Montrachet was but it tasted unbelievably good and I knew it must be special because it was the last wine we tasted in a marathon 6 hour session. Occasionally people feed strawberries to pigs. 

The 2nd time I scored a ticket to the Hospice de Beaune auction and a bunk bed at Domaine Jacques Prieur, and still not a clue I had about Burgundy, except that the Cotes de Nuits was Pinot Noir and the Cotes de Beaune was Chardonnay. I was normally a quick student but this seemed very hard to understand for some reason.

The 3rd time I was with a friend who spoke French and had been Dux of the Len Evans Tutorial, and thus earned a promised appointment at Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. I think Aubert found me out without even needing to find me out. Disappointingly our golden ticket turned out to be gilded with bronze. We were never received. It was meant to be the highlight of the trip and I fear I caused it to go cursedly wrong. A metaphor for drinking Burgundy if there ever was one.

Still that didn't stop me from trying again. On the 4th time I took friends and became host. We ate at Ma Cuisine, Caves Madeleine and Auberge la Miotte, and we drank Lafon, Raveneau and Coche-Dury, but we did it modestly via Macon and Aligote (and one very well priced bottle of Valmur) and we all loved it. It was an exercise in enjoyment rather than education. Maybe that made the difference.

Last year I was invited to Burgundy. It was an immersion in the 2015s, tasting at great and humble domaines, everything from cask by day and everything older and from bottle by night. Despite not having much improved my French I learnt a good deal more. I'm more comfortable with my ignorance, I can navigate my way around the villages and the vintages, and increasingly the vineyards but here I still have much to learn. Like English, Burgundy is as much defined by its exceptions as its rules. An old truth about Burgundy worth following is to find the producers you like and follow them. It's a good tool. Solid, reliable, fairly dependable. But in my mind not really the essence of Burgundy. With Burgundy one must take risks.

There is a time and place for a safe pair of hands, a solid companion at the table upon which all guests can reliably lean. That is Bordeaux through and through. But if you want to explore, take a gamble, be prepared to fail, to strive for the elusive then Burgundy is your siren. You best answer its call.

I'm heading back to Burgundy later this month, this time to taste the 2016s from cask. Of course they're meant to be very good again. They always taste phenomenal from barrel. I still don't speak French, but my guide does, and I'll do my best to research the domaines before departure and most of all listen while I'm in those dark cellars. And let the moment of revelation fall upon me or not.