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The Quintessential France (June 11, 2010)

California, Australia, Chile et al., eat your heart out. Bordeaux is still the epicentre of the wine world. Claret – what the Brits call red Bordeaux – continues to be the most sought after wine on the planet. You can actually follow trading in claret as you would the stock market. The London-based Live-Ex Fine Wine Index (www.liv-ex.com) tracks the price movement of "100 of the most sought-after wines for which there is a strong secondary market." This is an electronic exchange serviced by more than 200 wine merchants and professional traders. The wines they quote are mainly Bordeaux reds, which make up over 90% of the wine market.

 

Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin
The Confrérie was founded in 1934 to beat the drum for the wines of Burgundy. Today it has chapters all over the world. Ten years after its founding, "Friends of the Château du Clos de Vougeot" purchased the château and gave the Confrérie a 99-year lease. The brotherhood holds lavish black-tie dinners here for up to 600 guests. At these multi-course banquets participants rise often to sing the famous and tuneless Burgundian wine anthem, the words of which are easy to remember: "La-la, la-la, la-la-la-la-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la, la, la, la." While singing your hands are in the air and you twist your wrists with each "la."

The initiation rites of the Confrérie involve wearing robes modeled on those worn by doctors of theology in sixteenth century France. Their mission statement is: "To hold in high regard and encourage the use of the products of Burgundy, particularly her great wines and her regional cuisine. To maintain and revive the festivities, customs and traditions of Burgundian folklore, and to encourage people from all over the world to visit Burgundy."

But if I were to choose one vineyard that encapsulates the history, heritage and the quality of French wine, it would not be a First Growth Bordeaux like Château Lafite, the single most traded wine at auctions, or Château Pétrus, the most costly. It would be a red Burgundy. And not the Romanée-Conti vineyard – 4.44 acres of the world's most expensive agricultural land. I would choose Clos de Vougeot, the walled vineyard of 125 acres, the largest Grand Cru vineyard in the Côte de Nuits and the headquarters of Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin. One hundred and seventeen acres within the walls are under vine; the rest is the footprint of the château built by Cistercian monks in 1551.

This extraordinary vineyard dominated by Château de Clos de Vougeot was originally planted by the Cistercian monks, who received donations of land at the beginning of the 12th century. The low walls that now enclose the vineyard were first constructed with the local honey-coloured stone in 1336. During the French Revolution the estate was confiscated and sold off by public auction.

This rectangular plot sloping up from the Route Nationale 74, the main road that runs through the Côte de Nuits, is visual proof of the anomaly that is so confusing to consumers when they first enter the oenological mine field that is Burgundy.

Thanks to French inheritance laws, children are "specifically protected from being disenfranchised from the inheritance." As far as I understand it, when a landowner dies the surviving spouse gets one quarter of the estate; the rest is divided in equal parts among the children. This has the net effect over the generations of slicing up properties into smaller and smaller entities. Currently the vineyard at Clos de Vougeot is shared among 80 different owners. Technically, each owner – some of whom have only a few rows of vines – could bottle a wine under the Clos de Vougeot label. Which makes the average production per owner at a little over 1,000 bottles per vintage.

Now, not all parts of the vineyard produce great wines. The vineyard slopes from the northwest down to the southeast and, given the different soil structures, exposures and quality of drainage, some parcels are more favoured than others. The best wines come from the vines that surround the château in the top corner, where the soil is chalky and gravelly over a limestone base, sharing the same characteristics of two neighbouring Grand Cru vineyards, Musigny to the northwest and Grands Échezeaux to the southwest. The least desirable sections are down by the main road, where one commentator has suggested that the thick clay and alluvial deposits washed down from the upper slope are better suited to the cultivation of beetroots than grapes.

As Robert Parker wrote in his book Burgundy, "Vougeot is probably Burgundy's most notorious appellation, and in itself serves as a valuable illustration of why Burgundy's system of wine production remains so excruciatingly complex and elusive ... Clos de Vougeot is a microcosm of Burgundy, infinitely confusing, distressingly frustrating, yet at its best, capable of producing majestic wines." Amen to that.

I had the pleasure of tasting a range of older Clos de Vougeot wines in March at a biennial event called les Grands Jours de Bourgogne. Over a period of five days Burgundian vintners from Mâcon to Marsannay and as far north as Chablis open their cellars to buyers, brokers and the international wine press. The focus this year was the 2008 vintage (much better than the early press reports would have you believe – especially the white wines from Rully, the much underrated appellation in the Côte Chalonnaise, and from the Chablis appellation.)

Our group of Canadian wine writers sat in the former monk's kitchen of the château and were served a series of wines by François Labet, whose family (with the Dechelette family) are the single largest owners of vines within the Clos. Their five separate parcels totalling 13.3 acres are scattered throughout the vineyard. Labet poured twenty-one wines covering vintages from 2001 back to 1990. Unfortunately, we were not served the 1845 Clos de Vougeot, which was featured in that remarkably hedonistic movie, Babette's Feast. Here are my Top Ten Clos de Vougeot from that tasting with scores out of 100:

  • Domaine François Gerbet Fils Clos de Vougeot 1999: ruby colour; minerally, fresh and youthful, great balance, dry and elegant (91)
  • Domaine Mongeard-Mugneret Clos de Vougeot 1999: mature ruby; smoky, minerally, firm structure with lots of extract (92)
  • Domaine Gros Frère et Soeur Clos de Vougeot 1999: from a magnum – elegant, well extracted fruit; firm but still fruitful and sweet; chunky mouth-feel (91)
  • Domaine Michel Gros Clos de Vougeot 1999: deep ruby; smoky, spicy; powerful but elegant raspberry and mineral flavours (93)
  • Domaine Arnoux-Lachaux Clos de Vougeot 1999: mature, light elegant, well balanced (90)
  • Louis Jadot Clos de Vougeot 1997: ruby; minerally, violets, raspberries on the nose; elegant, feminine but firm and obvious tannins still (92)
  • Domaine Jacques Prieur Clos de Vougeot 1996: from a magnum – mature ruby; barnyard note, very elegant and beautifully balanced; ready now (94)
  • Château de la Tour Clos de Vougeot 1996: deep ruby; blackcurrant on the nose; firm and fleshy with a tannic finish (90)
  • Domaine Méo-Cazumet Clos de Vougeot 1993: elegant, great balance. Minerally, raspberry flavours; beginning to dry out but delicious now (92)
  • Domaine Alain Hudelot-Noellat Clos de Vougeot 1990: from a magnum – mature ruby; sweet fruit, ripe raspberry, minerally; great balance and length (94)

 

 

 

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