A Tour of France

By
Hugh Jones
16 September, 2016

I’ve always considered Burgundy to be similar to Bob Dylan; Iconic, legendary and irrefutably fantastic regardless of whether you like the genre or not. However, both are also patchy – does anybody remember when Bob Dylan found God? It didn’t do wonders for his music. Likewise, there are some pedestrian, lacklustre and over-priced wines made in Burgundy that have caused me to doubt the entire region in the past, so I was slightly sceptical as we made our way there. This scepticism very quickly dissipated during lunch at Le Montrachet with Vincent Avenel (Global Sales Director) where we tasted the first of many fantastic wines that Chanson produce; starting with the Fourchaume 1er Cru Chablis before moving up to Puligny Montrachet and finally the beautiful Beaune Bressandes 1er Cru 2010, a red burgundy to convert the unconvertible; open and generous with perfume, cherries and soft spice.

At the foot of Corton Charlemagne with Vincent

At the foot of Corton Charlemagne with Vincent

Driving around the vineyards of the Cote D’Or gave context to names I’d previously only seen on wine labels. The villages are smaller than I’d previously imagined given the global recognition of the wines produced. Standing in between premier and grand crus vineyards you can see the difference in soil type and aspect that make such a difference to the final product. It was also interesting that on one side the road Grand Cru vineyards can be found but on the other side any grapes grown are used for entry level wine – the difference of a just a few metres makes all the difference!

One of the biggest assets that Chanson have is winemaker, Jean-Pierre Confluron. He is a unique character who enjoys extensive use of the Gallic shrug and is humourously obscure when talking about the winemaking techniques he uses, which seem to be a closely guarded secret. What becomes apparent as we taste a range of 18 Chanson wines is that he is clearly highly skilled in the winery. Of the whites we tried, the Domaine Chanson Savigny les Beaune Les Hauts Marconnets 1er Cru 2014 really stood out; savoury minerality, fennel, white peach and grapefruit, with lightly salted melon hints and a long finish. Unlike white burgundy as I previously knew it. In a more classic Burgundian vein, the Chassagne Montrachet 1er Cru Chenevottes 2014 was outstanding – piercing acidity, lemon sorbet, peach, lemon tart and a touch of cumin and saffron on the finish.

Of the reds, the Savigny Dominode 1er Cru 2013 was intense, structured and powerful with red and dark fruit, dark chocolate, anise and floral notes. As though someone had driven over a bunch of lavender, pushing it into the soil. The Charmes Chambertin Grand Cru 2013 was sublime: exotic, oriental spice jumped from the glass with lychee, jasmine, cherry and spiced plum on the silky palate. All of these flavours persisted on the palate long after the wine was gone.

Chanson casksThe next day we journeyed south through the Routes des Grand Crus and beyond towards the Northern Rhone. Cyrille greeted us in Cote Rotie and led us to the Mordorée vineyard on the Cote Brune. This vineyard is entirely organic and biodynamic, which is in contrast to the famous vineyards next door owned by Guigal and home of the ‘LaLaLas’ (La Landonne, La Turque and La Mouline). There is a hugely visible contrast between the vineyards of Chapoutier and Guigal; the former allowing nature to express grapes in a pure way, the latter immaculate and man managed. This underlines a difference in the winemaking philosophies of the two houses with Michel preferring to create the wine in the vineyard, while Guigal uses different techniques on each of the LaLaLas, which are very much wines made in the winery.

The biodynamic Chapoutier Mordorée vineyard on the right next to Guigal's vineyards on the left

The biodynamic Chapoutier Mordorée vineyard on the right next to Guigal’s vineyards on the left

Michel Chapoutier has been described as a ‘terroirist’ (possibly by himself) and as we tasted a selection of his Northern Rhone reds with Cyrille it became apparent why. Each wine was 100% Syrah but all had their own character and were very distinctive. St Joseph ‘Les Granilites’ 2014 was concentrated and elegant with earthiness and minerality – almost like a compost covered dark cherry. Les Bécasses Cote Rotie 2013 was softer and richer with smoked bacon, dark chocolate, cherry, earth and black pepper. The schist terroir of Cote Rotie gives wines more opulence, while granite soils give more elegance and minerality, as demonstrated by Les Granilites.

Le Meal overlooking the vineyard, Tain and Tournon

Le Meal overlooking the vineyard, Tain and Tournon

 Since it was the longest day of summer and the sun was shining, we had a very special aperitif overlooking Chapoutier’s Le Meal vineyards on the slopes of Hermitage. What better to drink there than Le Meal? If there is such thing as a terroir of drinking then we nailed it – a beautiful wine elevated just above the vines that produce it. Life affirming stuff!

Nailing the terroir of drinking at Le Meal

Nailing the terroir of drinking at Le Meal

The next morning we drove to Chateauneuf-du-Pape (the Chateauneuf building itself used to be the summer papal residency and looks a lot like the Tower of Joy from Game of Thrones) and met Nicolas, who took us to the vineyards – all covered with the characteristic ‘galets’ stones, which absorb heat from the sun and continue to radiate at night. It was a hot day and the heat was radiating through the soles of our shoes, illustrating the point well! I used to think that viticulturists put these stones in the vineyards but learned that (aside from this concept being labour intensive and a little absurd) the vineyards of Chateauneuf-du-Pape used to be the river bed of the Rhone many years ago, which is what makes the terroir and ultimately the wines so special.

Les Galets in Chateuneuf-du-Pape

Les Galets in Chateuneuf-du-Pape

The setting for lunch was beautiful, sitting outside with panoramic views across the Southern Rhone. We tasted the hugely powerful Barbe Rac 2013, made entirely from old vine Grenache. Dense and multi-layered, this wine is a beast that will only get better with time. Chapoutier is all about single varietals but in the case of La Bernadine Chateuaneuf-du-Pape, a small proportion of Syrah and Mouvedre are used. This is a less dense and more approachable style of Chateauneuf that is currently showing really well with primary fruit, earth and peppery spice. We also had a bottle of the white expression of La Bernadine, which was floral, honeyed and well balanced.

Lunch over-looking at Chateauneuf-du-Pape

Lunch over-looking at Chateauneuf-du-Pape

After lunch we journeyed south once more and on to Provence. It was a privilege to be the first guests to do a wine tasting at Chateau des Ferrages since it was purchased by M. Chapoutier. Unsurprisingly there is a lot of work being done and we could sense an air of optimism and quiet confidence for the future. Guillaume and Mathieu tasted through the range with us; the Roumery Rosé is fresh and light, with notes of strawberry and apple flesh. The Mon Plaisir Rosé is from Sainte Victoire, where there is a higher proportion of limestone and the wine had beautiful peachy hints, strawberry undertones and subtle spice on the finish.

A Tour of France collage

In ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ Dylan sings, “We started out on Burgundy but soon hit the harder stuff”. This was true of our journey, but the harder stuff wasn’t liquor, it was an unexpected 470km early morning drive from Provence to Geneva! French strikes meant that all flights out of the country had been cancelled; fortunately Matthieu booked us onto an alternative flight and got us to the airport on time – surviving some interesting singing in the car en route – a memorable end to a fantastic trip!