Monday, November 12, 2012

Our Man in Puligny Montrachet
Maxine & Mike at Home
This blog is a collection of letters, season by season, about wine, food and life in Burgundy from Mike McAndrew, whose French Wine Routes does really fun and informative wine tours in France based from Puligny.  Maxine and Mike also have a wonderful one bedroom carriage house available (including petit dejeuner and afternoon tea) to use as a base for exploring all of Burgundy.  You can contact Mike at 33 (0)380 219 488 or

Fall 2012
October marks the end of the viticulteurs’ year. The harvest is completed and the juice of the fruit is well on the way to becoming wine.

This is the season when the department flaunts its name, La Côte d’Or literally the golden coast or the hillside of gold.  This month it is easy to see where the name derives. Daily the sun sinks lower and as wintry weather creeps in, the vine leaves unanimously assume their autumn colours. Before the first frost the whole vineyard foliage turns to warm shades between yellow and scarlet.

In Burgundy the fruit is picked in one go and then only from the lowest trusses. Second generation fruit, from later flowers is left on the canes to rot or provide a feast for flocks of rooks which wait in a marvellously disciplined manner until man has taken his share.

Years ago the gleaning of grapes was very popular but the practice is now forbidden. Even so, you can still see the odd furtive scavenger who takes a few bucketfuls of missed or rejected bunches as dessert treats or the means to produce a few bottles of illicit Meursault or Montrachet in a carboy under the kitchen table at home. This year their pickings will have been hard won.

2012 will be remembered for hard work and frustrated effort. After months of unremitting husbandry, the recolte or harvest has been nothing short of catastrophic. The causes of this disaster were reported in earlier newsletters.

Volume has typically been measured at between 30 and 50% of normal. The better parcels were particularly hard hit, being those plots which enjoy maximum exposure to the elements. Some Grand Cru parcels yielded no fruit at all.

Notwithstanding these tragic circumstances the vendange was carried out with the customary high level of excitement. Mechanical harvesters are becoming more common but are only used on generic Burgundy vineyards. But communal appellations specify hand picking, which is highly labour intensive. Every year an army of itinerant fruit pickers descends upon the côtes. The population of this village grows by several hundred percent as they settle into their lodgings.  The work is hard and the days are long. The fruit trusses are low so, most of the vendangeurs’ time is spent bent double.

The proprietors make every effort to encourage high morale and the workers sing and joke together throughout the day. There is a mini celebration as each parcel is completed.  Of course, with so much physical exertion there is a need to fortify their bodies. The day begins at about 7:00hrs when the various gangs assemble to head for the vines. At about 8:30hrs breakfast of bread, sausage and cheese with coffee and white wine is served in the field. At midday everyone returns to the domaine for a full three-course lunch. Each firm has a kitchen crew who serve delicious dishes in serious portions, accompanied by good (sometimes excellent) wines.  Following a further four hours labour in the afternoon a similar feast is presented in the evening. There is a major party by the whole team when the last load of grapes for the whole domaine is delivered into the cuverie.

Despite the poor yields, winemakers remained philosophical. No one can deny the many abundant harvests enjoyed in recent vintages. In true Burgundian manner, many people are saying “that’s nature, every year cannot be bountiful”.  In terms of quality, opinion varies considerably. Some say that whatever their dissatisfaction in volume, fruit condition was good. Others express a double disappointment in both quantity and quality. One sage response to my question on quality was “we will know in March”, when fermentation is complete and the wines begin to show their character.

So, there will be less to sell but revenues might be balanced by higher prices. 2011 prices were marginally lower than 2010; this year will be particularly meaningful as supply could fall well short of demand. We will know soon enough since the Vente des Vins des Hospice de Beaune takes place in mid November. This event, held annually on the third weekend in November determines the market price for burgundies.

One of the great things about this part of France is the abundance of good places to eat. There are many Michelin starred establishments in and around Beaune. They invariably serve World class cooking and often at sensible prices. Le Montrachet, is a shining example. Here a delicious lunch, elegantly served in a charming setting can be enjoyed for less than 30€ per person.

Some of the finest places to dine are unpretentious family establishments that do not always boast tourist awards or appear in famous guide books but which do offer the best of regional cooking. Typical is a favourite restaurant of ours in Beaune, L'Auberge Bourguignonne, where we had a superb lunch with friends one day in September.

In recent years, the degustation lunch has become a popular formula. It makes for an unhurried sampling of a number of fine wines selected to compliment local dishes. Dining in this way allows one to maximise the tasting experience yet avoid the side effects!

 Another culinary strength lies in the street market. Every decent town in France holds a weekly produce market where the choice of foodstuffs can be wide. There is always a well stocked cheese stall. The French could not survive without a daily selection of cheese.  Together with bread and wine, cheese represents the national staple diet. Our favourite vendor is a family who visit Autun and Chagny every Friday and Sunday respectively.  Their range is extensive and this diversity reflects the Gallic character well; an exasperated De Gaulle once questioned how anyone could be expected to run a country that had over 300 cheeses! 

Sausage too comes in an amazing range of meats, cheeses and herbs. Flavours include game options of rabbit, wild boar and deer as well as more exotic sources such as bison, kangaroo and donkey.  Contrary to common belief the French enjoy fast food too. The rotisserie is always a popular stall, offering delectable roast chicken or duck, beef, lamb and to order, a suckling pig.

There are many great spots for picnicking in the countryside or on the wooded fringes above the vineyards.  Recently we went with friends to dine on the boundary between Puligny Montrachet and Saint Aubin. We pitched our site at the junction of three 1er Cru climats. We ate market bought produce and drank the wines of our immediate environs: Puligny Montrachet La Garenne and Champ Gain and Saint Aubin Murgers des Dents de Chien and ended up with cheese and Blagny 1er Cru Sous le Dos d’Ane.   It was a glorious late summer evening and we only finally and reluctantly packed up the table after nightfall.

On 17th October a grand opening ceremony was held to celebrate the reincarnation of Puligny’s village green. This “Village Centre” capital project was successfully completed to the general delight of the population. In a village like this it is never possible to please everyone. One lady said that she preferred the square the way it had been before – condemned chestnuts and all!   The great event was attended by a government minister, the sub-prefect and a phalanx of departmental dignitaries. After the speeches, the assembled populace retired to the salle des fêtes for delicious canapés and some good wine from several Puligny domains.

The new square comprises a fine lawn bordered by lime trees and box and yew beds. This Englishman’s suggestion of a cricket green had been discounted early in the consultation process!    The Place Marronniers is still awaiting the census on the new name.  It may be that there is some political division developing. The mayor publicly stated his preference for "Place Grand Crus" his deputy - who managed the project - favours "Place Chevalier". Something should happen before January & the mayor's New Year address. The French way is to let things stew for a long time to see what arises naturally or to avoid any controversial decision for as long as possible. If you wait long enough, those with opposing views might die before you commit yourself.

The previous road in front of the mairie has been replaced by a terrace of rough limestone pavement to reflect the rustic vineyard walls. A knotted design of raised beds planted with indigenous shrubs, runs up the middle of the plaza. The centrepiece is a large mirror fountain in polished stone. On its base are bronze plaques bearing the names of the four Grand Crus of the commune Le Montrachet, Batard Montrachet, Bienvenu Batard Montrachet and Chevalier Montrachet.  The seventeen 1er Crus are similarly confirmed along the sides of the terrace.

This magnificent new setting saw its first formal event last month.   France is a secular state.  The greater part of the population is catholic but it is not a catholic country. No religion is taught in state schools. Ostentatious displays of religious belief are not allowed whatever the faith.  Matrimony is officially encouraged and the income tax regime positively favours formal family units.

When it comes to marriage, the state maintains its initiative and weddings take place in the Mairie. The procedure is much like the civil ceremony in UK but includes a reading of the specific fiscal responsibilities of the partners, especially in respect of children and their maintenance.  Any subsequent religious service is a matter of private celebration.  So it was on 17th October that the new square witnessed its first wedding. After the official business, the bride and groom left mairie in a beautifully restored 1953 vintage Peugeot, followed on foot by their guests.

Another difference to UK custom is that the public celebration, the Vin d’Honneur involves pretty well all of the couple’s family and acquaintances. The form is canapés and wine and lasts only for an hour or so, following which everyone goes home.  The serious festin takes place in the evening when close friends and family dine and party into the night.

Summer 2012
Burgundy is complicated, for a start in the name itself. There is La Bourgogne - feminine and Le Bourgogne - masculine.  La Bourgogne is the region that was once the centre of a powerful medieval duchy, which at its peak stretched from the Netherlands to the Pyrenees and eastwards to Switzerland. It is today, a large province bounded by Champagne in the north, with two great rivers running either side. The Loire in the west, runs north to the Atlantic whilst the Saône to the east, flows south to join the Rhône at Lyon and thence on to the Mediterranean.

Modern Burgundy includes several political departments. The wine regions of Côtes de Nuits and Côtes de Beaune are in the department of Côte d’Or. Dijon is the administrative centre but Beaune is the capital of wine.

Le Bourgogne is the generic title for wines that are grown in a number of regions from Chablis, about 130km North West of here to Beaujolais, 100km to our south. A series of escarpments runs the length of the Côtes from Marsannay in the north to Les Maranges in the south. All of the wines of Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune are grown along its eastern side. It is some 50km in length but on average, only 1,500m wide.

This part of France enjoys a semi-continental climate. The winters are cold; there is limited snowfall but there are about 50 days of frost on average each year. Spring comes early and the hot summer weather turns into extended autumns. However, there is substantial rainfall with occasional heavy and violent thunderstorms, sometimes accompanied by vine damaging hail.   The prevailing winds are westerly and the Côtes benefit from the protection of the heavily forested massif of the Morvan to the west, where most of the moist air blowing in from the Atlantic precipitates. Closer to home, the forest-topped ridge above the vineyards provides a further weather shield.

Our relatively northern latitude means long days of summer sunshine. The eastern and south-eastern facing hillsides thus benefit from the maximum exposure to the sun’s radiation both in intensity and duration.   The latitude, the climate, the orientation of the banks, their gradient and highly localised soil conditions combine to make these narrow slopes the most important vineyard in the World.

We British are brand conscious people, for us the mark is the all important sign of quality. The French have different buying criteria; for them provenance is the principal badge of confidence and terroir is fundamental in this requirement.   To  ensure satisfaction in this respect, the Institut National des Appellations d’Origin (INAO) exists and endorses not only wines but also many other consumer products including cheeses and poultry.

The wine appellation systems can vary from region to region but in Burgundy it is used to identify the potential quality of the wine based upon precise local environment and sustained historical performance. There are many individual appellations in Burgundy but they fall into three groups. 

The top ranking is Grand cru. Grand cru appellations identify a specific named vineyard or climat, such as Chambertin or Corton, which have a particularly high reputation for consistent and outstanding quality. There are 33 Grand cru climats in Burgundy, all within the Chablis, Côtes de Beaune or Côte de Nuits areas. Amongst these are a few “Super Wines” such as La Romanée or Le Montrachet, which are both rare and expensive. 

The next group standard is Communal appellations. These relate to specific villages for example Aloxe-Corton or Nuits St Georges. A further distinction within a commune can be a specified climat. So, the declared village might be Pernand-Vergelesses and the vineyard could be “Sous Fretilles”. Within a commune, certain climats may be further defined as Premier cru. The product of these locations is considered as consistently the best of the commune. 

The third class includes the regional appellations. These cover Pinot Noir & Chardonnay wines grown on land which does not meet the standards of communal appellations. Lesser grape varieties are recognised too, for example Aligoté, as well as alternative vinification processes such as Crémant de Bourgogne, Burgundy’s sparkling wine.

Each appellation is governed by comprehensive regulations which detail measures and correct methods of cultivation, handling and presentation which must be employed to meet the appropriate standard.

What’s in a name?
On the topic of appellations, a point about village names; names in the Côtes are often double-barrelled, for example Aloxe-Corton or Morey St Denis. This is an affectation from the last century when villages such as Puligny or Gevrey sought to distinguish their address by hyphenating it with the name of the most celebrated local vineyard. Thus Puligny became Puligny-Montrachet and Gevrey became Gevrey-Chambertin. 

But anyone who buys a bottle of village appellation wine should be aware that its origins might be some distance from its famous Grand cru suffix – both in location and in quality!  On the other hand, it is possible to find a communal climat that is immediately adjacent to a Grand cru or even a “super wine”. A good case being Chassagne-Montrachet’s 1er cru Blanchot-Dessus. This small vineyard is separated by only a narrow track from the fabulous Montrachet and its product too can be very good.

Local knowledge is invaluable and it is important to understand also that cru labels are not the guarantee of quality. Their status relates to the history and potential of a climat but it is down to the application of skill and pains taking efforts by the grower and the winemaker to get the best from the fruit of any plot. Estate bottled wine from a renowned domain further qualifies provenance and class. 

A difficult year
Since our last letter, the vignerons have been very busy dealing with the challenges caused by the exceptionally poor and erratic weather patterns. The early spring and subsequent return of wintery conditions were described in earlier newsletters. Flowers appeared on time in early June but blooming was irregular with some fruit beginning to form before flowers had opened on neighbouring vines.

Along with most of northern Europe we have seen a lot of rain and not much of the sun until now. Constant high humidity has encouraged the dreaded Oidium on a vast scale. This form of mildew is endemic and unless treated promptly and effectively, will attack green growth, penetrate the plant and prevent the young fruit from developing.  

As growers sprayed to contain infection, frequent heavy showers not only washed away their treatments but also turned clay soils into quagmires, making it difficult to negotiate the land by tractor. So, progress was slow and often incomplete. One Chassagne grower with over 50 separate parcels found it impossible to keep ahead of the problem.  An option was to resort to more potent fungicides.   Even so, loss of fruit was extensive and it will be a meagre harvest in most places. Domains that have maintained their commitment to bio or organic methods are sure to be particularly hard hit. 

We also experienced several violent hail storms. There is no defence against hail and a few minutes of sufficient intensity can strip an area of vines to leafless, fruitless sticks. So far, Puligny has escaped without serious loss but other villages have not been so fortunate.  In June some vineyards in Beaune and Pommard suffered up to 50% damage and the great Clos de Ducs monopole in Volnay lost 80% in one storm. Other villages have fared equally badly in July storms.  2012 harvest volume is certain to be low and it will be remembered as a year of frustrated toil and low yields. Quality too is under threat since oidium can taint the juice.

On a more positive note, routine seasonal tasks continued in the vineyards. Rows of vines are spaced and planted to standard pitch to optimise exposure to the summer sun.  Throughout the growing season leaders are regularly trimmed to concentrate each plant’s energy into the fruiting trusses.  Stems are trained vertically to allow warm air to circulate along the rows and provide better access for picking. One or two pairs of wires at half height are fixed to the main support posts at the end of each row.

Earlier in the year these wires were laid down but as the new wood grew, they were lifted along their length to rest on hooks in the intermediate posts. These lateral restraints support the canes and train them to grow upright.

Village news
Work on the restoration of Place Marronniers continues but at a reduced pace. Previous bulletins reported on the sad demise of the stately chestnut trees. Results so far are gratifying. Fifty five lime trees and several hundred evergreen shrubs have been planted in borders around a newly seeded lawn.

The focal point is a mirror fountain symbolising a wine press and located in front of the Mairie. This is to be complemented by bronze plaques dedicated to the Grand and 1er cru vineyards of the commune.  For the first time on 14th July (Quatorze Juillet, the French national day) a fête was celebrated in the refurbished place. Aperitifs were taken during a sunny gap between showers and a funky jazz band entertained as we sipped excellent village wine.   In true democratic style, a poll will be taken of all residents to select a new name for this important new asset. 

Another great plus for the village is in the restored old château. Built in the mid 15th century and standing within an enclosed vineyard, the house has been faithfully brought back to former glory. But in its new life the old château will provide the latest in modern facilities including a superbly equipped kitchen. Le Vieux Château de Puligny Montrachet will be the most prestigious and luxurious of holiday homes.  

Mid September harvest
Throughout the village, cuveries are being prepared for the harvest. 
The portion of new oak barrels varies from domain to domain but is typically about 20%. Most barrels are used for several years and those recently released as 2010 vintage was bottled, have already been cleaned ready to receive the new vintage. Our neighbour is particularly fastidious and uses various mechanical devices to wash and scour. The machine below is ingenious but simple. Brush heads scrub continuously as the barrel is driven on its wheeled bed.   Other cleaning machines work on the barrel interior to deliver a spotlessly clean vessel in which to ferment this year’s chardonnay juice. 

In the last days of July settled summer weather finally arrived. We now trust that nature will provide the right conditions to bring some recovery to the vines for a mid-September vendange. 
May 2012
Emerging Leaf Buds - Guyot Pruning
Secondary Pruning - Cordon de Royat
Following a warm and sunny March, the Côtes slipped back into almost wintry conditions. Vines that were up to one month ahead of normal growth were suddenly arrested.  The much feared frosts were generally avoided and the plants miraculously paused in their development. Now after these abnormal circumstances, normal service has been resumed and the new foliage has taken off with recharged vigour.
Burgeoning Laterals
Nipping Buds - En Remilly 1st  Cru
 With the return of proper seasonal weather, growers are happily busy once more in the vineyards.  The restoration of spring weather has encouraged a profusion of extra buds and side shoots.There is so much new growth on some vines that the viticulteurs are obliged to remove them in order to concentrate fruit production on a limited number of shoots. 

Wildflowers Everywhere
Orchids above Chevalier Montrachet 
On the hillsides and on verges between vineyards, there is currently a riot of wildflowers.  Amongst the mass of common flora are some stars, this is season for orchids which love calcareous soil. 

Bottling 2010 Merecury 1st Cru
Mobile Bottling Line
In the meantime, our winemaker neighbours were attending to cuverie tasks including bottling. In recent decades the practice of domaine bottling has increased in popularity in the Côte d’Or. Rather than investing in a bottling line, which might stand idle for most of the year, these producers will hire a specialist contractor with a mobile bottling line to fill and cork their finished wines at the cuverie door.

Burgundy differs from other wine regions in the scale of estates. To understand this some historical background is needed: 
- By the 18th century, the wine trade began to become commercially organised and saw the emergence of large firms of negotiants or merchants. Certain “super wines” such as Le Montrachet and Le Romanee had already gained international reputations. Then, increasing consumer awareness led to the first system of classification of vineyards to identify specific plots that regularly produced superior wines.
- Until the revolution, vineyards had been largely owned by the church. Under the new regime, nationalisation of property of both the church and émigré aristocrats was swift. From 1790, estates were divided into affordable pieces and sold at auction. The effect was a general breaking up of large vineyards. One of the prevailing features of Burgundy is this patchwork of plots. For example, the once monopoly of more than 50 hectares (120acres) of the Grand Cru Clos de Vougeot is today in more than 80 separate parcels.
- Fragmentation is furthered at each generation, since French inheritance law requires that property is shared amongst surviving blood relatives. So, each generation experiences further divisions of land and each marriage between vigneron families brings additional but perhaps remote parcels into their ownership. A vigneron friend in Pommard has 4 hectares (about 10 acres) in 19 separate parcels and this level of dispersal is common.
- The modern wine industry in Burgundy has operated as a multi-tier structure of growers (viticulteurs), winemakers (viniculteurs) and distributors. In recent times, independent vignerons have developed their own presence in the global market for fine wines. Domaine bottling has become an essential activity for some recolteurs (those who grow and harvest) even though output might be quite limited – perhaps only a few hundred bottles of any particular appellation. Yield is strictly regulated by the authorities. Generally speaking, communal appellations are limited to 40 hectolitres of wine per hectare (about 1/2 bottle/vine). This favours better quality at the expense of volume. 

Turning to national issues, France has a new President, Socialist Francois Hollande narrowly defeated Nicolas Sarkozy earlier this month. His five year term will be an interesting time for France and Europe. Election of the President is decided by a national count and unless one candidate receives at least 51% of the vote, a second round takes place. So, the first ballot cuts down the field to two leading candidates and a fortnight later, a second determines the winner. There were nine candidates. Ideology ranged from deep left to neo-fascist. There was a wide spectrum of policies too; from a 32 hour working week to a block on immigration. Nevertheless, a number of people deliberately spoilt their polling papers in protest over the lack of choice! 

In the first round, 94% of the votes went to five candidates. The leader was Hollande with 28%, closely followed by conservative President Sarkozy with 27%. Third came extreme right winger Marine Le Pen with 18% followed by the "ex Trotskyite”, Melenchon who got 11%. That's nearly three people in ten voting for fascist and communist politicians. It certainly demonstrates the diversity of opinion of the people but probably contains an element of safe protest since there will almost certainly be a second ballot. Closer to home, the first round results had been more conservative. Sarkozy took 44% of the vote in Puligny and Hollande at 15% was beaten into third place by Le Pen with 20%.

Opening Night at Le Pelugney
 On Saturday 12 May a new restaurant opened in the Place du Monument. It was christened Le Pelugney - an ancient spelling for Puligny. Jean-Louis and Béatrice Choquet-Sabbe specialise in traditional cuisine and presentation. Menus are well balanced and affordable; they offer wines from notable sources at fair prices. Decor is stylishly simple and the atmosphere friendly. We went there with friends for dinner on the inaugural night and enjoyed an excellent meal. At the end of the evening we gave our hosts the customary Burgundian equivalent of “for he’s a jolly good fellow”. This involves rotating both hands lifted to shoulder height whilst “la-la-ing” a simple tune. There are 32 seats including a pavement terrace and since our visit, they have been pretty well fully booked for lunch and dinner.  It should be a great success.

Gran Torino of Starsky & Hutch 
Movie Car
Each April Beaune hosts a film festival. It is quite specialised in Policiers or crime thrillers. There is usually a guest of honour, this year was tough guy, Jean Reno. To celebrate the event, they imported some cinema police cars which were on display in Place Carnot and then toured wine villages with sirens wailing.

We have made a couple of interesting domaine visits in the last week or so. First we drove to a cave in the village of Dezize-lès-Maranges for a wine tasting. This commune contains the most southerly appellation of the Côte de Beaune and borders on the Côte Chalonnaise. The Pinot Noirs from Maranges or more sunny and full bodied than those from villages only a few kilometres to the north. They also carry a distinctive herbal taste. I bought some 2009 Hautes Côte de Beaune Chardonnay, which is refreshing and good to drink now, 2006 Maranges 1er Cru Clos Roussots that will go well with red meat, game or cheese and a few bottles of the great vintage of 1999 Maranges 1er Cru Clos des Loyères The latter will complement the same dishes but its liquorice and chocolate tastes could go with a rich desert too! For the first time in 2011 they made some Rosé. This has good acid and generous fruit and was great value. We bought half a dozen in anticipation of some warm summer evenings soon.

The second was a short walk to a close neighbour in Puligny. We tasted Puligny Montrachet, 1er Cru Champ Canet, 1er Cru Les Referts and 1er Cru Les Perriers– all 2010. The village appellation was fresh and surprisingly ready to drink now. This vigneron has a reputation for very good Chardonnay but his traditional methods mean that his wines age more slowly than is currently fashionable. The Champ Canet had good acidity and minerality but was very young, having been bottled in March this year. Les Referts had honey overtones and although easy to drink now, should improve over 3 years as the acidity mellows. The best was Les Perriers which filled the mouth and already showed some fattiness. The older vines used for this cuvee provided good minerality and aftertaste was long. 
We also tried Pinot Noirs from Mercurey and Saint Aubin from both 2009 and 2010. The earlier year is good to drink now having “sous bois” aroma and good fruit. For me, the latter vintage is more typical of Burgundy and I bought some Saint Aubin 1er Cru Les Pitangerets, which I trust will prove a good investment within about three years.

Autun Flower Market
Autun Flower Market
The French are a nation of gardeners. With 15th May (the day of Saint Glace, after which we are said to be safe from frosts) behind us people put out tender plants and restock their beds and balcony boxes. We took a trip to Autun a few days before the magic day. In the pre-Christian era, as Augustudunum it was second city to Rome itself. Set on the edge of the great Morvan forest, this provincial market town contains many vestiges of its strategically important past. 
Theatre and Hotel de Ville
Lycée - Brothers Bonaparte attended
Each August hundreds of its citizens volunteer to take part in an epic nocturnal pageant set within the ruins of the Roman theatre and overlooking a lake. It relates the story of Autun from prehistoric times to present day. The highlight is a chariot race between German, English and French teams – guess who wins! A firework display completes a unique entertainment. It is an interesting town to visit at any season, with a range of good spots to dine and other fascinating sites to see. The market has a wide selection of country produce and the flower market is great value. 

No way, my boule is closest
Work on Puligny’s Place Marronniers is progressing well. Fifty five mature Lime trees have been planted to replace the old Chestnuts plus beds of evergreen shrubs and a square of grass. It is already looking super and I will send more detail when the job is finished. The petanque pitches are playable already and we took part in an international challenge with our Danish friends last weekend. The ground has been well prepared but the surface of fine grit was a little loose which made the bowls difficult to control. Of course, the glass of crémant at the caveau afterwards is the best part of the game!

We look forward to a World Series when the USA gang is next here in October.

Spring 2012
Puligny from Montrachet
The triangle formed by the communes of Puligny Montrachet, Chassagne Montrachet and Saint Aubin contains the most famous chardonnay vineyards in the World. But not all of the land is under cultivation. A rocky massif rises in their midst and its steep sides and barren slopes make crop growing impossible. The summit is the Roche Dumay, a limestone crag 200 metres above Puligny. The brief ascent from here rewards the walker with extensive vistas in all directions and a great overview of the local topography.

Finger Signpost
France is covered by a network of long distance footpaths known as the Grand Randonées (long distance footpaths). These often have a regional theme and the one which passes through Roche Dumay is the GR76, also known as the Chemin des Grands Crus (Grand Crus Road), the 217km path follows the line of eastward facing escarpments from the Côte de Nuits right through Beaujolais.  In places the main route shares sections of local footpaths and the whole network is clearly marked with finger posts and way marks. It provides a fascinating way to visit many great Burgundy wine villages on foot.

Saint Aubin & Gamay Beyond
The route is interesting in natural history too. The complex soil conditions of the côtes are the result of successive of periods in geological development. The most significant events were firstly the Jurassic period, around 150m ago when Burgundy was covered by sea. In this era, deposits of the bodies of countless billions of shellfish and crinoids lined the seabed to form a thick layer of limestone. This made a great foundation since limestone is a desirable rock for grape production - it absorbs water and acts as a vast porous reservoir just below the surface. It also retains warmth within the soil.

Chassagne & Cote Chalonnaise
The Alpine upheaval 35m years ago caused lateral breaking of the côtes and the random exposure of accumulated bedrock, generally rich in calcium. One of the remarkable features of some areas is the abundance of fossils, confirmation of the marine life that existed here aeons ago. Time and weather since have honed the present day landscape. Streams carved clefts in the limestone wall and created natural sites for human settlement at the base of the hills. This erosion also exposed varied rock strata, rich in minerals. Outcrops of rock, mixed with different soil types formed highly localised conditions. It is in these complex environments today that soil, weather & drainage combine to enable the creation of such diverse and distinctive flavours in wines raised in quite close proximity.

Blackthorn, its fruit makes Sloe Gin
Bird Cherry
Spring has arrived early; midday temperatures have been in the 20s oc and both cultivated and wild plants are bursting out. The winter had ended with a two week freeze late in February, when day time temperature did not rise above zero and we had several consecutive nights at -14oc.  Immediately after this fortnight of frost came to end, temperatures leapt. Clear skies provided plenty of sunlight and perfect growing conditions.  The untamed areas of hillside support a rich flora and this season can be particularly attractive for the walker or mountain biker. This year the early flowers are plentiful and robust both in fruit tree blossom and underfoot.

Tradition holds that it is not safe to put tender plants outdoors until after the feast of Saint Glace on 15th May. This is deeply respected lore, which dictates when just about everyone puts out their summer bedding plants and pots en masse. Being foreigners, we are exempt from this convention and for the last few years have acted in reckless advance of this date. Up to now our putting-out of exotic plants has paid off. Sooner or later we might pay the price of our hasty gardening and then we will be reminded of the importance of waiting for that time honoured date.

For the professional, these unseasonably warm conditions are cause for some concern since frost can strike the Côtes well into April. A Puligny vigneron told me that his vines are currently three weeks ahead of the norm; in fact, he felt that 2012 to date was a record for premature vine development. With the new leaf buds just beginning to open, a frost could ruin growth so far and possibly destroy the shoots on the pruned plants. We are all hoping for frost free nights from now on.

Chardonnary Tears
Throughout March growers have been completing their pruning. Almost all the baguettes have been tied over in time for the sap to begin to rise. As the life giving liquid rises but before the leaf buds swell, drops of juice exude from the cut end of the new leader. This phenomenon is popularly said to be to be the vines crying.

Another important job for March is de-earthing. In early winter months soil had been ploughed up to protect the stock base from frost. Now, in order to let warm air and sunlight get to the body of the vine, a delicate ploughing of soil away from the stems is carried out.

New Vine
There is a secondary purpose to this task. Artificial irrigation of vines on the Côtes is forbidden. Plant roots must search for water below the top soil and are encouraged to do so by shallow ploughing between rows of vines. The roots penetrate fissures in the rocks to impressive depths and there take nourishment from the mineral rich rocks. The longest recorded roots being 70m; I have seen a taproot from a Pinot Noir vine some 90 years old, broken off from 12m deep but still as thick as your finger.

Although vines can remain productive beyond 100 years, some vines are lost each year through mechanical damage or natural causes. To replant a parcel of land is a major undertaking. The work itself is substantial and costly but the land is unproductive for several seasons as the plot must lie fallow for one year and the fruit for the first three harvests may not be used for winemaking. So, lost plants are replaced on an individual basis until the time when overall yield declines sufficiently to justify the replanting of the entire plot.

A favourite wine producer of ours is Domaine de Blagny. We went recently to taste and buy their recently bottled 2010. They produce Meursault Blagny and Puligny Montrachet 1er Crus in white and the rare Blagny 1er Cru in Pinot Noir. It was a great tasting and confirmed that the vintage will age well. I bought some 2008 Meursault which is drinking well now and some Blagny of the latter vintage, which should be very good in a year or two.

The proprietor, Mr de Montlivault is an interesting man whose family have lived in Blagny for many generations. I asked him about a website I had visited featuring the activities of the resistance in Burgundy in WW2. In July 1944, the occupying Germans were seeking to reinforce their positions in northern France and were sending heavy materials by train north through this region. The resistance was sabotaging their movements and one group was based in Meursault. It was recorded that British and US air forces made a number of supply drops to them in Blagny. He remembered some of these events as a six year old and recalled some relevant anecdotes and described where, as a boy he had found remnants of some of the parachuted canisters.
Band & Lameloise (Michelin 3*)
Basque Band in Chagny
Spring revives the human spirit too. Last weekend saw nearby Chagny celebrate mi-carême or half way through lent. There were various carnival activities but the most enjoyable for us was to sit in a pavement café with friends, watching and listening to visiting bands.   There were a number and they moved from place to place around the town in a stop/start procession. They played everything from marches to boogey in spectacular style – great fun and essentially French!

Mock Pomp Done Well
A tribute to earlier conflagrations was made last week a little north of Dijon. Some 28€ million has been invested in a museum dedicated to Julius Caesar’s final defeat of the forces of Vercingetorix in 52BC. The double siege, as the Roman legions contained him in the hilltop town of Alesia whilst withstanding assaults from the united Gallic tribes from the outside, is documented in Caesar’s own chronicle “The Conquest of Gaul”. Latest presentation technology has been incorporated and the site includes a reconstruction of the Roman fortifications. Added to the existing remains of the Gallo-Roman town, it will make an enthralling visit.

Breaking news for visitors to the area is the opening of a new five-star boutique spa hotel. Château de Cîteaux is a classic French empire mansion built on top of 13th century vaulted cellars and set in an enclosed vineyard in the centre of the village of Meursault. Under the ownership of Philippe Bouzereau, the chateau has long been renowned for his excellent wines. Now the house is being developed as a deluxe spa resort hotel. The original historic decor in the main house is being faithfully restored by design experts to provide opulent surroundings. Guest facilities will include therapy and fitness rooms and pool. A Michelin-star chef is to be engaged to ensure top class cuisine in a magnificently appointed dining room and there will be a more modest bistro. La Cueillette is due to open in May, I’ll keep you posted!

An important piece of good news for Puligny is that the restaurant in our celebrated hotel, Le Montrachet has been awarded a Michelin star. It is excellent timing since the Place Marronniers restoration is expected to be completed by the end of April and will perfectly complement the hotel.

Winter 2012
Our New Year began with a tasting of 2010 and 2011 vintages from Beaune, Pommard and Volnay. They were still in their oak barrels; the earlier wine being close to ready for bottling and the latter having not long completed malolactic fermentation. Some of the 2010s will take a few years before being ready to drink but a lot of the 2011s were not far off palatable already. This was a year that had begun with great promise and seemed destined for an exceptionally early harvest, eventually threatened by a lack of sun and saved by the last couple of weeks gloriously sunny weather. As reported in a previous letter, it was this late ultra-violet barrage, followed by a dry cool breeze that could deliver an excellent year, so watch out for this vintage, especially from growers who held their nerve and did not pick too early.

As in all French towns and villages, the communal year begins with a reception and an address by the mayor. It is a good time for the population to get together and to hear from their elected leader what the coming twelve months might bring. Also of course, to enjoy canapés and a glass or two of our own Puligny Montrachet wine, grown in the communal vineyard and vinified by the students at the Lycée Viticole de Beaune (wine college); but it is not just a social event.

The commune was the building block of the French Republic and still today, the nation relies on good management at this first level of administration. Some tax revenue is retained within the commune for local works.

The mayor, through the departmental Prefecture in Dijon bears executive responsibilities from the President; these even include ensuring a reliable supply of good bread (a price controlled food in France) for the people. Presidential hopefuls must show proof of the support of at least 500 mayors from across all regions before their candidature can be accepted.

On January 10th we were informed of the local capital and maintenance projects which will be tackled in the coming twelve months. Increasing the stock of social housing, commissioning a shop to sell objets d’art works and the reconstruction of a major road with its drains and sewer beneath were among the undertakings proposed.

The most visible single project however, concerns a famous landmark, the reconstruction of Place Marronniers. This shady green is a focal point for the village. Fêtes are celebrated here and petanque games are decided on lazy summer evenings. It provides a great foreground for our famous hotel, Le Montrachet. 

Sadly, the dozens of stately chestnuts which gave the square its name have been ravaged by a fatal fungal infection. Efforts to treat the disease failed and eventually all of the trees became infected. As the trunks and boughs rotted from within, they became structurally weak and increasingly dangerous. So, in the interests of safety they were condemned.

The mayor and his council were determined to make something positive out of the disaster and now the whole area is being remodeled to provide a new and better facility for inhabitants and visitors alike. It should prove to be a great asset for the village. The green area will be planted with Lime trees and a new T shaped piazza will run on an East/West axis from L’Estaminet bistrot, past the Mairie to the hotel; with a leg going northwards towards the Place du Monument.

This pedestrian area will include a mirror fountain and bronze plaques mounted upon stone plinths depicting the grand and premier cru vineyards which border the township. It should be all finished by midsummer and will be an appropriate contribution to the regional campaign to win UNESCO World Heritage Site status for the Côtes des Beaune and Nuits-Saint-Georges.

By that time, Jean-Louis and Beatrice will have opened their Belgian restaurant in the former épicerie of Place du Monument – moules et frites and smoked eel washed down with Belgian beer could become regular fare! In spite of these hard economic times our restaurants and bars are thriving. From the recently extended haut cuisine of Le Montrachet to the Caveau de Puligny of our resident wine authority, Julien Wallerand whose extended bar is due to reopen in March.

On 25th January we drove with a group of friends down to Beaujolais, to the Cru village of Fleurie to lunch at a superb country restaurant called Le Cep. It has one Michelin * and is run with an iron hand by Madame Chagny, a charming lady of indeterminate age who specialises in local cuisine. We had a terrific meal, supported by the indigenous light and fruity chardonnay and a couple of bottles of fine 2009 Fleurie. Dishes included spinach soup served with tiny toasted ham sandwiches, hot goats cheese or cray fish salad, rack of lamb or cervelas sausage and a memorable blackcurrant soup and sorbet to finish – delicious!

Afterwards we took the road towards Moulin-A-Vent to taste Beaujolais Cru Village wines of both appellations. The 2011 Moulin-A-Vent was in new oak barrels in order to “pinotate” it or seek to achieve a quality closer to the pinots of “the Côtes”. It was far too tannic and heady to drink now but one can believe it will be a full fruity wine after a couple of years in the bottle. More popular with English drinkers is their Fleurie which is matured in oak barrels from previous Moulin-A-Vent vintages. I found the 2010 Fleurie easier to drink, being softer with red fruit and liquorice flavours and an unexpectedly long after taste. These are true Beaujolais wines; limpid ruby in colour with scents of woodland, dry but full of fruit to taste. It is a great shame that unscrupulous marketing of inferior wines, on an international scale has done so much damage to the reputation of this region.

Finally we were offered, in a less than serious vein, to try their brand of “snake bite”. A bottle was produced of a viper pickled in Marc de bourgogne, said to possess sobering properties. We didn't need time to reflect but declined with as much élan as we could muster!
La Taille, the pruning is in progress here as well as in Burgundy proper. The work in the south is more labour intensive since the Gamay vine is not trained on wires but trimmed to a goblet shape. Some vineyards are even planted randomly, with no thought of rows.

On the Côte de Beaune the unseasonably mild autumn finally gave way to the normal continental winter weather. There has been no snow so far, other than a couple of light dustings. As January ended, brisk northerly winds brought temperatures down below -10oc at night and have kept them well below zero during daylight hours. It is currently bright and dry, which as well as providing excellent walking conditions, has enabled the viticulturist to press on with their wintry work.
The Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines around Puligny are always planted in neat rows and trained to strands of wire. The most popular style of pruning is known as the Guyot system. Each vine is visited several times during this demanding process and the final result, achieved by winter’s end is a plant with only two stems. The longer one is trimmed to about five buds but long enough to be bent over horizontally and tied to the lowest wire. This is the new leader, known as the “baguette” and which will bear the fruit for the coming vintage. Vertical growth from its buds will cross and eventually be supported by the higher wires. The shorter branch is no more than a spur with a couple of buds – this will be allowed to develop into the leader for the subsequent spring. 
The method of pruning begins with a mechanical cutting of side and top twigs once the sap has dried up. This is followed by the hand cutting of the last season’s fruit bearing leader and its numerous laterals. The old canes must be disentangled from the training wires and disposed of in one of three ways. The most common practice is to burn them in a kind of mobile incinerator – the favoured design being a wheel barrow arrangement with the body being a split steel drum. The workers push these “brûleurs” between the rows of vines, feeding the fire as they go. Ash falls through the ventilation holes in the body of the brazier and provides phosphates for the roots. More important to the person labouring outdoors in freezing conditions, it gives a close source of heat!  Some growers prefer to remove the cuttings from site to be burned away from the vines. The most ecological solution involves laying the brushwood between the rows to be mechanically shredded and thus provide mulch to the base of the vines.
The most skilful stage in pruning does not begin until after the feast of Saint Vincent on 22nd January. The experienced viticulturist makes the final cuts to not only stimulate growth and control yield for the immediate summer but also to fashion the shape of the stock for years to come. In the last stage of all, the baguettes are gently bent down and tied to the bottom strand of wire. 
Thus the feast of the patron saint of vignerons falling at a natural place in the process makes a convenient date for a holiday. In Burgundy this takes the form of the Tournante. This is the ultimate movable feast, being held in a different village each year. This year was an exception in that the festival was held across three venues: Dijon, administrative centre of Burgundy; Nuits-Saint-Georges, hub of the Côte de Nuits and Beaune, capital of Wine. 2012 is a special year too because the Côtes hope to be awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status. All of these cities were showing off wines from the several regions of Burgundy. Each had set up seven “pavilions” to serve the produce from Chablis, Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune, Côte Chalonnaise, the Mâconnais and generic Bourgogne and Crémant-de-bourgogne. 

Frankly it was a disappointment. We tasted an excellent Fuissé and a very good Beaune 1er Cru (both 2009) but there was quite a lot of less than mediocre wine on offer. The concentration on a single village showing off the best of its close is a well proven formula and I am glad to confirm that future years will revert to a focus on one rural community.

November 2011
November is in part a sombre month. The first day is the feast of Tous Saint – All Souls Day. It is a public holiday in France, when people travel back to the villages of their origins to visit their families and remember their ancestors. This is the season for chrysanthemums, a plant which thrives in the Burgundian climate and which is traditionally the flower of bereavement and remembrance. Public places are bedecked with huge bunches in vibrant colours. Graveyards become riots of glorious, brilliant displays of chrysanthemum blooms.

In our first year here we had a humorous but embarrassing experience. We had been invited early that November to dinner at neighbours and Maxine wanted to take a gift for our hostess. She noticed that the florists were well stocked with healthy looking bunches of chrysanthemums and bought one to take with us. As we arrived at the door we were greeted warmly by our friends but their welcoming smiles turned to looks of shock and bewilderment as she handed over the floral arrangement more suitable for dressing a grave than a sitting room!

Within a couple of weeks another annual holiday, on 11th November marks the armistice in 1918. Every commune in France has a war memorial usually erected in about 1920 to display the names of the local young men who died in the Great War. The numbers are shocking even today, for example, the population of Puligny is about 460 and the names of 37 young men who did return from the trenches are recorded on our memorial – perhaps more than half of the eligible males. France nearly lost an entire generation as a consequence of the monstrous battles which ravaged the land. Subsequent conflicts, from WW2 through Indochina, Korea and Algeria have added further names.
Throughout the country, in cities and villages remembrance ceremonies are held at these shrines and the French respectfully pay their respects to their fallen countrymen and those of their allies. Each year, at 11 o’clock a substantial crowd of all ages gathers in the Place du Monument for an address by the mayor. He reads a message from the president and there is a minute’s silence followed by the playing of Le Marseillaise.

All of that is pretty sobering stuff but in true Burgundian style, in the interests of enjoying what life has to offer, the gathering proceeds to the Salle des Fêtes for a communal Vin d’Honneur. This is a glass or three of wine accompanied by gougeres (savoury choux pastries) and brioches (cake). By now the spirit has become more convivial, encouraged by the quality of communal chardonnay. There is never a function or fête that does not justify the Vin d’Honneur. One added benefit of living in this particular village is that we are always served with Puligny Montrachet.

The following week we drove with friends to the Auxerrois in the north of Burgundy. We were going back to see a vigneron in the picturesque village of Irancy. This is a special place, nestled in a steep sided valley running westwards to the Yonne valley and close to the white wine communes of Chablis and Saint Bris. Here the regulations allow a blend of Pinot Noir and the rare and ancient Cesar grape. The latter is highly tannic and so astringent that it would be impossible to drink by itself. It does give this northerly grown Pinot Noir peculiar qualities in taste and longevity.  Typically brilliant and clear with herbal aromas, red fruit flavours and soft tannins lead to a subtle after taste which is cleansing to the palate. Part of the attraction lies in the unspoilt nature of this area and the size of the appellation; at only 166 hectares (about 400 acres) there is limited production. Commercial attitudes are unspoilt too.

On our previous visit, earlier this year we had wanted to buy some bottles of their 2005 but were told it was not ready. Our promises not to drink it right away were to no avail, none would be sold until it was ready to drink! Upon our return this time, that vintage was available to buy. So far, even I have resisted the temptation to drink our purchases.

The highlight of our trip came at the end of our tasting when the caviste brought out a bottle of 1999. This was a great vintage and now difficult to find but she kindly shared the bottle with us. It was exceptional in all respects; the colour was ruby and limpid with sous-bois (woodland) and berry aromas, the taste was intense strawberry and the aftertaste extensive, lasting more than 10 minutes. Experiences like this are truly the best of France – first class produce, ethical values and generous hospitality.  A bonus to the day was in that the necessary return provided a good excuse for a superb lunch at the Auberge Tilleuls restaurant on the Yonne in nearby Vincelottes.

November sees a great fête every year in the city of Beaune. That is the occasion of the Vente des Vins d’Hospice de Beaune. The central event is the auction of the recent harvest of the wines of this charity which was established hundreds of years ago. Over the intervening centuries, vignerons have bequeathed many fine vineyards to this trust and today it owns some of the best properties in Burgundy. The product of many famous climats is sold in barrels in what is one of the greatest charity auctions in the World. The proceeds go to equipping the local hospital & retirement home.

This year was the 151st Vente des Vins and people from all over the globe made the journey to join in the party. This year there was a mini migration from Asia. Prices were very marginally lower as Anglo Saxon bankers reflected on their smaller bonuses but held up by the increasing Chinese interest in White Burgundy. We understand that one bidder was prepared to buy 20% of the whole sale and he didn’t mind which 20%!

It is also a good excuse for an autumn celebration on a grand scale. Bands & street entertainers parade throughout the town there is a lot of wine tasting & dining to be done. As part of the celebrations, for two days the Palais de Congres stages a colossal wine tasting. Some 150 villages from Chablis in the North to Beaujolais in the South are represented and hundreds of wine makers proudly dispense thousands of fine wines. We sampled some good 1er Cru vintages but particularly tried 2010 Red & White.

Each Sunday a market is held in the village of Chagny. It was particularly popular one weekend and we had to drive beyond our normal place to find a parking spot. We eventually found one by an old mill standing on the bank of a gushing stream. As we got out of the car, my attention was drawn to a large stone with a bronze plaque standing by the bridge.

The plaque reads:
Ambassador of the United States to France 1785-1789.
Third president of the United States 1801-1809.
Principal author of the American Declaration of Independence 4th July 1776. Lover of France, he travelled throughout our land and promoted to the United States our heritage, architecture, environment and culture. Humanist, he shared our values of liberty. With his friend Lafayette, he played a key role in drafting the French Constitution and the Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789.
Thomas Jefferson made a grand tour of France in 1787. He travelled alone but for a guide, by carriage, hiring fresh horses as he went. Remarkably for a politician he did it all at his own expense; modern day would-be presidents take note.

Last weekend we were invited to join a group of local friends for a trip to Alsace. Alsace is a colourful region, lying at the foot of the Vosges Mountains, lining the Rhine from Strasbourg to Colmar with eastward views to the Black Forest. Successively claimed by Germany and France, it displays the best of both. Despite a turbulent past - nationality changed 6 times in 200 years - its carefully preserved heritage has largely survived and beautiful architecture from all eras fills its charming towns. Christmas is celebrated here like nowhere else and preparations throughout December are spectacular - they actually invented the Christmas tree here. Each weekend in the month, there are Christmas markets in the medieval town centres and villages. People come from far and wide to join in the merriment from wine drinking to just plain shopping, there is something for everyone!

Alsacienne wines betray the region’s pedigree – German grapes converted in French ways! Alsace grows a number of grape types to make a wide range of wines from the driest whites, through fruity reds & fine sparkling wines to the sweetest dessert wines. The latitude is similar to Champagne and the local Crémants compare very favourably with their more famous compatriots.  Menus too, offer a delicious duality in everything from Foie Gras to Choucroute. A favourite of mine is Tarte Oignon - a quiche of caramelised onion, cheese & cream; the perfect lunch with a green salad and a glass of Riesling.

The Cave de Turckheim offers a wide selection of wines from all the grape varieties grown in the area. We tried Riesling grown on different soil types from granite to limestone and from sand to clay; an informative way to appreciate terroir. We bought fruity, flinty Pinot Gris; bone dry Chasselas (which should be perfect with English fish and chips) and light and nutty Pinot Noir – not unlike Bouzy Rouge from Champagne. 

Fall 2011

Fall in Cote d'Beaune
After an extended summer, the autumn has arrived in Burgundy. This year we have experienced a long but interesting summer; spring arrived early and between mid March and last week we have enjoyed warm and generally dry weather. Following a couple of frosts last week we have slipped into an Indian summer (un été indien in French) which is a bonus for us.  The premature spring encouraged early flowering of the vines and led to predictions of the grape harvest (vendange) taking place earlier than normal.

Meursault Chardonnary Vendange
In July and early August the  essential sunshine was sadly limited and fruit ripening was delayed. By mid August as sugar levels were mounting, heavy rain and some violent storms occurred.Rully in particular suffered severe hail damage, losing up to 80% of fruit in places. A difficult decision for the viticulteur to make is always: whether to play safe and pick before threatened storms or wait a few more days to optimise ripeness but risk damage. Some growers, especially in Meursault took the plunge and began to pick in the last week of August. This season however, those who waited a further week were rewarded with better quality fruit. Their grapes were refreshed by some rain and subsequently dried out by bright days and cooling breezes – perfect for picking.  The Chardonnay harvest was high in volume with good sugar content and is expected to deliver an excellent vintage. Results for Pinot Noir were more mixed with lower yield; partly through rot which had developed but which was sorted in the vineyard or upon arrival at the cuverie. It is all now progressing through the miracles of fermentation.

Firefly Takes a Breather
In October the vignerons are largely engaged in earthing-up. In this ploughing process the ground between the rows of vines is drawn up to the base of the plants to protect them from the worst of approaching winter frosts.  We went for a sunny walk this morning up to the Grand Cru vineyard of Chevalier Montrachet. There a neighbour was turning the soil with his 12 year old Ardois mare Luciole (Firefly). Horse power is an increasingly popular feature of cultivation as consumers become more interested in bio methods. Another consideration is that the hooves of a horse effectively “need” the soil whereas driven wheels can roll the surface into a hard, impervious crust. Apart from the technical benefits, the sight of a fine animal working the furrows is very agreeable.  For the first time today we saw preparatory pruning taking place. In this operation the worker cuts off the limb which has borne this year’s fruit. The cut is made low down, close to the stock of the plant. The separated branch is left suspended by its training wires to be later disentangled and disposed of. Creative pruning, to stimulate growth next spring will take place early in the new year.
Fall in Cote d'Or
Each year on the third weekend in November a great fête is celebrated in and around Beaune. The occasion is the annual auction of the wine of the Hospice de Beaune. Between now and then the vineyards will display a mounting spectrum of autumnal hues from the palest yellow to deep scarlet. This department of France is called the Côte d’Or (literally golden hillside) and it is at this season that it lives up to that name. By the way, this is the best period to identify specific parcels within the vineyards. Property limits can be discerned when viewed from a distance, by the boundaries of patches of assorted colours of foliage on different vine varieties favoured by individual growers.

A second great festival is celebrated on the weekend closest to the feast of Saint Vincent (22nd January), the patron saint of vignerons. This is a movable feast known as the Tournante Saint Vincent because, by tradition every year a different village hosts the event. To mark the feast in January 2012, the tournante will be on an even grander scale than normal and held across three major venues simultaneously - the city of Dijon, political capital of Côte d’Or; the town of Nuits-Saint-Georges, centre of the Côte de Nuits-Saint-Georges and the medieval city of Beaune, wine capital of Burgundy and centre for the Côte de Beaune.

Montrachet Hillside Clos
On both of these holiday weekends this winter there will be extra emphasis on the region’s environment, history and produce. This is because we are all eagerly anticipating that the special cultural and environmental nature of the Côte d’Or is about to be recognised by the award of UNESCO World Heritage Site status.  As a physical feature, the côte is a south east facing escarpment which runs about 80 kilometres between Dijon in the north and Mâcon to the south.  Geological conditions are highly localised, being the result of an ancient seabed thrust upwards, subsequently laterally twisted by alpine upheavals, and eventually eroded over the millennia by prevailing south westerly winds. Very different soil conditions exist in close proximity. Two meaningful words help to define this unique topographical diversity – terroir and climat.
- Terroir is an important word to wine. Literally it means the soil but terroir effectively embraces all the environmental attributes present which influence or determine the character of the local produce. Here terroir can change dramatically within the space of a few metres.
- Climat is another important word. Climat refers to a precise plot of land, which exhibits a distinct terroir. A whole vineyard might qualify as a climat, it might be restricted to a extremely limited area of a vines.

In cultural terms the côtes have great heritage too. There is written evidence of “admirable wines” being produced here in Roman times. From the Middle Ages, monastic houses refined winemaking until the time when their properties were seized in the revolution. The sale of nationalised church assets at the end of the 18th century gave people of all classes the opportunity to become involved in a lucrative industry. Since then, the science of winemaking and the skills of local vignerons have continued to evolve to the highest levels. It is this unique legacy which is responsible for the côtes being the source of the greatest wines in the World and why it deserves UNESCO distinction.

Chestnuts in Place Marronniers
I must tell you about two exciting developments are taking place within the village of Puligny Montrachet.  Out of disastrous circumstances, a renaissance is to take place in the Place Marronniers. The stately horse chestnut trees which enclose this popular green space have suffered a chronic disease and have been condemned. Following a public consultation and lively communal debate, plans are in hand to rebuild the whole square. The high specification demands an enormous investment for a population of less than 500 souls. But the benefits will be considerable. A piazza commemorating the renowned Grand and Premier Cru vineyards of Puligny Montrachet will be laid in front of the Mairie and a plantation of lime and other indigenous trees will be created. This whole sector of the village will be transformed as a much improved venue for fêtes and other social events. The new park area will provide a beautiful, relaxing and informative space for visitors too.

Puligny Salute to the Vendange
The other improvement is a courageous private enterprise by our friends Jaap Reijnders and Karen Verdooren. This Dutch couple have had a holiday home in Puligny for many years. Now they are making a great personal investment in Le Vieux Château. Work is well advanced and should be complete by spring 2012. A seven bedroom house with well appointed living areas is being rebuilt in the heart of the village. The best of modern materials and equipment are being installed but only after the most careful and loving restoration of the 15th century Donjon and later mansion. We were invited there for aperitifs last week and given a thorough tour of the project. The window views in all directions are stunning and include Grand Cru vineyards and the natural beauty of the côte. Accommodation will be spacious and luxurious. Original features abound, many of which have been revealed in the course of the works and make it a fascinating and memorable place to visit.

We are looking forward to the Vente des Vins on 19th November and hope to give you an update on 2011 and other vintages later that month.

Summer '11
July 14th is the Fete Nationale in France. It is a public holiday & we celebrated with a party in Place Maronniers.  The communal marquis was erected complete with barbecue & bar & we enjoyed a picnic of moules et frites (mussels in white wine sauce & fries).  The evening ended with a procession led by the children carrying lanterns to the place d'orientation where there was a superb firework display. Apart from the excellent show in Puligny, we could see the the displays in surrounding villages.  Yesterday was less fun; dismantling the tents & other equipment! but even that ended with the customary Vin d'Honneur (complimentary wine drinking).

In the afternoon we went for a tasting in the nearby village of Chassey-le-Camp. The camp is a neolithic site on the highest point above a pretty valley containing a several small villages. We tried Rully, Santenay, Meursault & Puligny chardonnays & Rully, Santenay & Mercurey Pinots - all 2009. Mercurey is a favourite of ours - it was one of the first villages that we ever visited in this area. I bought some to save for a few years but ended up drinking one this afternoon, lack of will power was always my weakness. 

Am writing especially to tell you about the lunch because you had previously expressed an interest in farm restaurants. Today we visited for the first time, a farm auberge that we had heard a lot about but never tried.  It was excellent good country cooking. The starter was poached egg on a bed of ratatouille with sweet white tomatoes & a basil sauce, the bread was delicious "a la gaulle". We had a bottle of Chenin Blanc from Anjou (as you know Maxine abhors Chardonnay) followed by a bio from Volnay for the main course. This was a roasted leg of pork with roasted potatos & French beans. It was tremendous - almost in an English style, very healthy & worth about 100,000 calories - my mouth is watering now to think of it.  After cheese the dessert was apricots in a flan accompanied by goffre (a kind of waffle but thinner & crisp), finished off with coffee. In  summary, succulent rustic & memorable - you'd love it.  Their card  says " Only by reservation One menu, following slaughters: poultry, lamb, kid, pig of traditional breeds (home reared).   From 35 to 50€, set from day to day. Open: Saturday & Sunday serving at 12:30hrs, & Tuesday & Friday for at least 10 people.

Of course your party does not have to number at least 10 but they will only open on Tuesdays & Fridays if they have bookings for a minimum of 10 people in total.  Website is You can see from the maps that it is not far from the Abbey Busierre which I mentioned in a recent email & within easy cycling distance of  Meursalt via picturesque but hilly countryside.
Spring Letter 2011
It is an interesting year so far.  In December last we had quite a lot of early snow and unseasonably cold weather. When we left here for Switzerland on Boxing Day 2010 the village was covered in snow & we wondered what to expect en route for the Alps. There was a lot of good snow in the mountains too but it didn’t snow there again until late February – and it didn’t snow again in Puligny at all!  As a rule we don’t catch much snow here but we do have cold night temperatures. This year at the Tournante Saint Vincent, on the third weekend in January it was stayed below 0c all day but it was bright and sunny. Immediately after that it began to warm up and we have had very little rain since. The vignerons were able to press on with la Taille (pruning) and were not hampered by wet clay underfoot, which makes hard work of just walking.

Still in January, I had jokingly remarked to a neighbour that we were already running into Spring. His response was that in some years the winter could be over by 20th January – and indeed, that seems to have been the case.  I was outside painting shutters early in April – quite a bold thing to do but it felt settled enough – when a passing villager said it was the best April weather since 1971. I asked if that had been a good year and he laughed - “No, it snowed in May and it was a disaster!”  Early in May flower buds appeared 3-4 weeks early and this caused concern over the possibility of late frosts. There is a time in mid May which is called Saint Gele or Saint Glace (Saint Ice) which is regarded as the latest date for frost. So, up until 15th May many growers were worried about the exposed shoots and buds. There was no need, everything just went on growing and temperatures were safe. There has been a lack of rain however, and it was possible to see that although the vines were up to normal height, they were thin and the rows lacked density of foliage.

On 8th May all over France people celebrate VE day. The mayor addresses the population (and quite a lot do turn out) and reminds us all of the sacrifices of France and Britain and the USA in lifting the shadow of Nazi oppression in 1945. The French do remember their struggle and, contrary to common belief in your country and mine, do gratefully remember the enormous help from across the seas. Le Marseilles (National Anthem) is played and then we all go off to the village hall for a Vin d’Honneur. I was talking to a couple of old vignerons - Mr Chavy who is the patriarch of a large Meursault and Puligny family and Jean-Louis de Montlivault, a count who has vineyards in the hamlet of Blagny. They reminisced about 1947, which is generally held to be a great vintage. They were saying that the conditions so far in 2011 had been very similar to that year. However, the count said that it had been a difficult wine to make.

The other comparison being drawn is with 2003. That was a year of heat wave in France when many elderly people died. Pinot Noirs from this area were so full and fruity that purists said they were not true Burgundy but more like Cote de Rhone. Maxine and I were visiting Pommard at the end of August that year just as the vendange was completed. That was pretty remarkable since the harvest here is normally late September/early October. Now, it is predicted that picking could take place in August this year too.  By the way, we had a bottle of 2003 Pommard a couple of weeks ago and it had developed into a well balanced wine with good acid and fruit – a typical fine Burgundy! Wine is a wonderful product.

Now we are enjoying hot sunny days, more like July than May. 80% of France is declared to be in a state of drought. I don’t think that need be a problem for the vines in terms of water, the roots go deep and there is never artificial irrigation here. The threat will come from violent storms induced by high daytime temperatures, and the dreaded hail. We have seen a couple of summer type thunder storms already but have heard no news of damage from hail.  On Thursday we are having a tasting with Jacques Carillon. We have been waiting until he bottled his 2009 Saint Aubin Premier Cru Pinot Noir – in previous years I have thought it terrific wine. We have tasted it from the barrel, which was already delicious and am eagerly looking forward to tasting and buying some. He has warned me that owing to low yields he is limiting his 2009 Puligny Montrachet Premier Crus to 3 bottles per client!

On 10th June Mr de Montlivault is having a day of Portes Ouvert (open doors) and we will be there too. I love Blagny – which appellation is always Red but is becoming rarer. Chardonnay gives greater yields than Pinot Noir and fetches better prices. So, when it is time to pull up old Pinot vines they are being replaced by Chardonnay and Chardonnay grown in Blagny qualifies as Puligny Montrachet appellation. That’s progress!

I’ll give you an update on both visits mid June.