Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

The Romanée Conti expedition – Part II

Our lunch at Le Millésime the previous day had been so enjoyable that we decide to repeat the experience today. Propinquity (it’s only two kilometres away) also plays a role in the decision. Another three courses for less than 20 Euros take the edge off our hunger, while the recollection of the stunning DRC wines, still perfuming our palates, has us almost panting aloud for a delicious wine. We go for a 2007 (a delectable, easy-to-drink vintage) Chambolle Musigny*** from Domaine Georges Roumier, one of Burgundy’s finest producers. Beautiful workmanship and artistry combine to give a lovely bottle. The colour is satisfyingly solid, while the aroma fuses expressiveness with classic structure, suggesting red cherry, ripe plum, and cranberry. The flavour has optimum body and intensity and a lovely texture. Before leaving, we have a friendly chat with the young and modest chef, Matthew Mazoyer, who is able to explain exactly how he’d cooked a delicious cod dish when I last visited the place 14 months earlier.

On to Domaine Dujac, where we’re received by Alec Seysses, one of the two sons of the founding couple, Jacques as Roz Seysses. Like a maturing wine revealing a wholly fresh nuance, the tall, rangy Alec now sports an elegant beard that gives added dash to his appearance.

Frank Ward with Alec Seysses, one of the new generation now helping to run Domaine Dujac.

We’re here to taste the 2010s.

The vintage was not an easy one, we’re told, not least due to an erratic growing season and heavy frosts, which caused severe damage in Morey Village vineyards. The resultant berries were tiny, with a high skin-to-juice ratio, and the overall yield was exceptionally small, the smallest since 2003. “The Grands Crus were much less affected by the frost than the Village wines, as cold air sort of slides down the slopes.”  Alec sweeps his hand downwards, as if gently but firmly pushing cushions of chilly air away from the precious vines of Clos Saint Denis and its peers.

All of the 2010s show well in their different ways, with some more closed up than others; but all are beautifully coloured and highly aromatic, with a buoyant, even floating quality. Not surprisingly, the Gevrey Chambertin Premier Cru Combottes***/*, with its typically ferruginous accent, is bigger and more assertive than the Village Morey Saint Denis, while the Charmes Chambertin**** has a noble, refined aroma of black fruits and peony but is resolutely closed on the palate. The Clos Saint Denis**** (just bottled today) shows typical CSD delicacy but is wrapped up in itself at the moment, following the trauma of la mise. Clos de la Roche****/* is in a more extravert mood, with a gorgeous scent of red rose and raspberry. It’s an impressive wine, structured and sinewy in a typical CDLR way but full of ripe fruit too. The Bonnes Mares*****, vividly pigmented, has a rich and concentrated nose and flavour, its ripe fruity acidity accentuating the wine’s intense Pinot Noir fruit. A great Bonnes Mares.

On to the Côte de Beaune, the southern half of Burgundy’s Golden Slope. I’ve been visiting Domaine Tollot-Beaut for some forty years and have always relished the luscious fruitiness and unmistakeable Pinot Noir character of their range of red Burgundies. Their two whites, a plain Bourgogne Blanc and the Grand Cru Corton-Charlemagne, are also very good indeed  (bottles of the ’02 Bourgogne Blanc are still excellent – not surprising as it’s made in exactly the same way as the Corton-Charlemagne). I still recall the first of their wines I ever tasted: a ‘67 Corton-Bressandes opened for me some time in the Seventies by the late and much-missed Anthony Goldthorp, of the London wine merchant house of O. W. Loeb. It was so delicious I almost slid off my seat, making an immediate resolution to acquire as many of their wines as I could  afford  (friends who’ve been helping me enjoy a dozen vintages  know I’ve done precisely that!).

Nathalie Tollot of Domaine Tollot-Beaut on the Côte de Beaune.

We’re received by the lively and intelligent Nathalie Tollot, and descend to the extensive cellars (which once sheltered local people during WWII air-raids) for the tasting. Once again, the outside world is shut out, with everything – eyes, lighting, and conversation – focussed on the succession of wines, which glitter like rubies in the muted lighting.

The 2010 Chorey-Les-Beaune* is excellent, showing an unwonted distinction given that the vineyards are relatively flat and therefore receive less sunlight and heat than those on slopes. The Chorey Chapitre** – from that  appellation’s very choicest  segment – is even better, with a richer,  fuller nose of black and red fruits  and a flavour to match. Both wines will develop well for several years. We then taste two Savigny Premiers Crus – Lavières** and Champ Chevrey**/*. The former used always to be superior; but as the latter’s vines grew older the gap has narrowed. Both are delectable but the Champ Chevrey – of which Tollot-Beaut are sole owners – has just that little bit more body and depth in this vintage.

They make two Aloxe-Corton Premiers Crus: Les Vercots*** and Les Fournières***. Both are first rate, with almost as much power and body as a Corton – if less finesse. Some years ago Les Vercots always showed better; but Tollot-Beaut always felt that Les Fournières had the greater potential and now that its vines, previously a bit on the young side, have reached a more venerable age (fifty years) it now seems to me  to have the edge, showing  just that  scrap more definition and complexity than  Les Vercots. But both are exceptional. Nonetheless, the ’10 Corton-Bressandes**** asserts its overall superiority, with an intense colour, a scent like the ripest of cherries, and a fresh, exceptionally long flavour full of vitality. It should develop well for a good 25 years. The tasting concludes with a delicious ’06 Savigny Champ Chevrey**/* followed by a 1990 Beaune Clos du Roi**** of great power and depth.

In Puligny-Montrachet we check into Olivier Leflaive’s comfortable hotel, La Maison d’Olivier Leflaive. On our way in we bump into a group of Belgians with whom Mike, being Mike, instantly strikes up a conversation, in the course of which he shows an intimate knowledge not just of their country but also of their various townships. He even makes a joke that seems to have a specifically Belgian angle. They walk off chuckling delightedly. When we meet them again later, they greet Mike as an old friend and an amicable new exchange leads to further hilarity.

We have dinner at Le Montrachet in the heart of Puligny. Many are the lunches I’ve eaten there with the late Vincent Leflaive, for years the head and heart of Domaine Leflaive. Vincent was an immensely kindly, civilized man who, after making you feel thoroughly welcome, never failed to give you a tasting of all of the Domaine’s dozen or more different wines. In fact, you might end up tasting several dozen samples, as Vincent would often have you taste several different versions of one or other specific wine – from old casks, new casks, or stainless vats. Each one would be subtly different while remaining unmistakeably the same wine. These differences would stem from the age and relative porosity of the cask or the length of time spent in a stainless steel vat and that vat’s size and shape. These and other factors served to modify, usually in a very subtle way, how that particular wine tasted. After that, a number of priceless bottles would be uncorked, to be tasted in their turn. Then Vincent would loosely replace the corks, deal out bottles as if they were medals, and we would then carry them, clasped to our breasts, across Puligny’s village green to Le Montrachet to accompany lunch. They would usually include Chevalier-Montrachet and Bâtard-Montrachet, and two or three of the Premiers Crus. Often a glass was proffered, blind, to the restaurant’s sommelier, who usually made a pretty accurate guess as to its identity. They were always delightful occasions, with lots of humour and spontaneous exchanges (not to mention good food, notably Le Montrachet‘s delicious smoked haddock flan).

I now find that Le Montrachet has been transformed. What used to be the dining room is now part of a  regenerated  hotel, while the dining room as it is now is completely new and has been greatly enlarged and moved about 50 metres. Now it’s smart enough for a royal wedding reception. Over the 30 or so years I’ve known it, the place has at various times possessed a Michelin star; has lost it; regained it; and lost it again. At this moment it holds that distinction – partly, no doubt, because the Michelin inspectors wouldn’t dare deny a star to so expensively revamped a hotel-cum-restaurant located in so prestigious a wine village. The service is good enough to merit a star but not the food. The starters are tasteless while the main dish, a whole Bresse chicken en vessie, is so utterly insipid that we have no choice but to ask for it to be taken away. I tell the head waiter that it tastes as if it’s been left in tepid water in a bain marie for a fortnight! I deliver this judgement in a friendly way, in the spirit of passing on a bit of useful information, professional to professional. Just like his colleague at the Hostellerie des Clos in Chablis, he doesn’t turn a hair, and before we know it the bird (the Bresse one) has flown. Without hesitation (again, just as at the Chablis place), and as though wholly unsurprised by our obvious disappointment with the dish, he offers any other fish or meat that’s available as substitute. We decline politely (no point making the innocent maître d’hôtel suffer for the kitchen’s shortcomings) and merely ask for bread with which to accompany the two wines we are in the process of enjoying: a delicious ’06 Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos*** from Dauvissat and a wholly delectable 2005 Vosne Romanée***/* from Domaine Robert Arnoux. The chicken does not appear on the bill – tacit acknowledgement that our critique is valid.

Next to Etienne Sauzet to taste the 2010s with the man who made them, Gérard Boudot. It seems that 2010 was a very small harvest indeed, down 30-40% by volume, giving yields of between only 25 and 27 hectolitres per hectare. The malolactic fermentation was a particularly long one, Gérard Boudot says, the longest since 1993. He’s extremely pleased by the quality, though, and I cannot but agree as I taste my way through the samples.

The Bourgogne Blanc is very pale and has an agreeable, flowery nose with hints of elderflower. The flavour is light and elegant and the wine will benefit from a year or two in bottle. It’s made from two plots, the larger of which has vines aged around 60 years.

2010 PULIGNY MONTRACHET**

The colour has a greenish tinge while the nose, strikingly pure, is appley with fugitive hints of lime and pineapple. The mineral flavour is long, but closed up at present, with underlying elegance. I’d recommend drinking it around 2014-18. This wine comes from nine separate plots spread over seven lieux dits, all vinified separately. Two of the plots are located in Les Enseigneurs, says Gérard, which is very close to Bâtard Montrachet, and two are in Le Meix, close to Meursault, where the subsoil gives a mineral character.

2010 PULIGNY LA GARENNE***

This has a greener colour and the nose is rounder and riper, making me think of greengage and lime. It has a forceful, Chablis-like flavour, very incisive, with good length. Clearly a wine to hold back 4-5 years, if possible and to enjoy over the 8 or so that follow. “This comes from the high part,” says Gérard Boudot, adding:  “the Chablis of Puligny.”

2010 PULIGNY PERRIERES***

Still fuller, this has a more honeyed nose, reminiscent of pear, lemon balm, and white rose. It’s a lovely delicate nose, very flowery and expressive.  Flavour and aftertaste are in tune with this, and there’s a fine minerality on the chalky finish. (This is from the base of the slope, I’m told).

2010 PULIGNY CHAMP CANET***/*

Shining like a lamp, the Champ Canet has a lovely round aroma of acacia honey, white roses, and peaches. There’s a sense of perfect ripeness. The flavour manages to be both luscious and incisive and the aftertaste gone on a long time, with plenty of minerality l showing. This excellent wine should live a good 12-15 years or more.

2010 PULIGNY COMBETTES****

This has a brilliant appearance and thick tears, while the nose is weighty and very round, yet also buoyant, conjuring up white peach, mirabelle, and honey.  It coats the palate with thick Chardonnay fruit and the finish is very persistent. One of the best Combettes in recent years, it will age exceedingly well and could even replace a Bâtard as ideal partner to lobster. Combettes is a super-Premier, with almost the body and depth of a Grand Cru.

2010 BATARD MONTRACHET****/*

The nose is broad and weighty, of optimum concentration but without heaviness, while the superb flavour is long, full of nuances, with lots of Bâtard power and authority. At less than two years, with a long life ahead, it will develop almost unimaginable subtleties as it undergoes the ageing process.  Those who drink it at full maturity will feel privileged.

“It’s absolutely vital to avoid any heaviness in the Bâtard,” says Gérard Boudot with emphasis. This is why you always have to pick early, before maximum ripeness is attained.” His Bâtard, he explains, is from two plots: one in Chassagne and the other – the larger one – in Puligny. The soil is red marne with traces of iron. There’s even some crasse de fer – clumps of “iron-dirt” that can impart a very special flavour to wines.

2010 CHEVALIER MONTRACHET****/*

The colour is a crystalline green-gold and the complex, refined nose suggests greengage, lemon balm, and honey, with a hint of kiwi fruit on the palate, full and masterful yet with that typical Chevalier finesse that makes it the most poised and subtle of all of Burgundy’s six Grand Cru whites. “Chevalier, though a Grand Cru, is often very good when it’s young,” says Gérard Boudot. “You ought to try the 2007, for example…”

I resolve to do so when I get home (if I’ve managed to hold back one of my very few, and exceedingly precious, bottles).

***

My good friend Mike, many years past retirement age, is as full of energy and a man half his age. He’s also an indefatigable driver. We cover many hundreds of kilometres in only a few hours and decide to spend the last night before returning to England at La Ferme du Vert in the tiny hamlet of Wierre-Effroy, just 14 kilometres from Boulogne. It’s a former farmhouse, made up of several buildings around a sort of green, with 16 rooms and a restaurant. They produce their own cheeses. The place is packed, mostly with Brits either returning home on their way to la France profonde. There are also a number of Belgians. “Last night we were packed with the French!” says the owner, when questioned about this seeming Anglo-Saxon preponderance.

We eat a hearty dinner, washed down with a fine Meursault followed by a decent red from Château de Pennautier. Mike soon has us chatting in the most convivial way possible with sundry English couples and three charming Belgian girls, who are induced to tell us their life stories, which prove to be both touching and funny. Then it’s off to our beds for a few hours’ rest before a very early start indeed. The next morning, we rise while it’s still dark. Extremely tired, lusting for black coffee, we already find ourselves planning the next trip…

© Frank Ward 2012

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One Response to “The Romanée Conti expedition – Part II”

  1. […] The Romanée Conti Expedition – Part II […]

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