Extract: Côte d’Or by Raymond Blake

8 June 2022 by in Classic Wine Library, Extracts, Wine and spirits

Principal vineyards of the Côte de Nuits
For many people, their mind’s eye picture of the Côte d’Or stretches from Gevrey-Chambertin, the first commune that is home to grand cru vineyards, to the last, Chassagne-Montrachet. Until recently this was a safe mental attenuation, lopping off the northern and southern country cousins and not paying much heed either to some others in between, such as Prémeaux-Prissey or Saint-Romain. Not a lot was lost in the process and memory space could be reserved for the wines that really mattered. Such an exercise today would be ludicrous, ruling out a host of yet to be celebrated vineyards at the northern and southern extremities of the côte as well as others in between.

A brief overview of the vineyards, running from north to south, begins in the outskirts of Dijon, whose urban sprawl has engulfed land that was previously home to the vine. The first vineyards are in Chenôve, though it is at Marsannay-la-Côte that the shopping centres and light-industrial zones segue into unbroken vineyard. The slopes are gentle here and, as yet, there are no premiers crus, a situation that may change in the future if current efforts to get a proportion of vineyards upgraded are successful. Some producers already use lieu-dit names such as Longeroies, probably Marsannay’s best site, Clos du Roy, which lies in the Chenôve commune, and Es Chézots, which is noted as much for how it should be spelt (Les Echézeaux, Echézots) as for the quality of its wine. Other communes seeking to have vineyards upgraded include Nuits-Saint-Georges, Pommard and Saint-Romain, but however strong their claims I believe Marsannay’s is strongest.

Continuing south through Couchey, which is included in the Marsannay appellation, we come to Fixin, whose handful of premiers crus are the highest in the commune, all lying above 300 metres and abutting the forest. In total they amount to about 20 hectares and the remaining 100-plus hectares qualify for the Fixin or Côte de Nuits-Villages appellations. The best known of the premiers crus is Les Hervelets, a climat that includes the lieux-dits of Le Meix-Bas and, confusingly, Les Arvelets. The latter may be made as a separate wine but this is seldom done; Hervelets is the name to look for.

Sandwiched between Fixin and Gevrey-Chambertin is Brochon, whose band of southerly vineyards is included in the Gevrey appellation. The best known are Les Evocelles and Les Jeunes Rois, the former high on the slope and easily spotted thanks to the Domaine de la Vougeraie section being planted en foule, meaning in a crowd, at a density of 30,000 vines per hectare. Students of orthography will note that the corner of Evocelles that crosses the commune boundary into Gevrey changes its spelling to Evosselles; others will scratch their heads in bafflement.

The paucity of highly ranked vineyards encountered thus far is amply rectified in Gevrey-Chambertin, home to nine grands crus and a slew of premiers crus. In each category there are vineyards that fully justify their status, none more so than Chambertin and Chambertin-Clos de Bèze, a pair of the Côte d’Or’s most esteemed vineyards. The latter may be labelled simply as ‘Chambertin’ but the reverse is not allowed. At their best these neighbours yield wines of majesty and substance, capable of long ageing, the Chambertin perhaps sturdier and stronger than the slightly lighter footed Clos de Bèze. Together they form an oblong block of some 28 hectares, about 300 metres wide and less than a kilometre long. The Route des Grands Crus forms their eastern boundary and travelling along its north–south axis the slope is barely perceptible; a walk up towards the forest and back is needed to notice the roughly 25-metre rise from bottom to top.

The seven other grands crus are Chambertin satellites and all appropriate its exalted name to gain recognition by way of reflected glory, as with Montrachet in the Côte de Beaune, though the Chambertin ‘clan’ is more scattered and numerous. They claim ‘Chambertin’ by virtue of being contiguous with it or Clos de Bèze, though Ruchottes’ connection is fingertip slim and calls to mind Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. The seven are Chapelle-Chambertin, Charmes-Chambertin, Griotte-Chambertin, Latricières-Chambertin, Mazis-Chambertin, Mazoyères-Chambertin (usually labelled as Charmes) and Ruchottes-Chambertin. Mazis borders Clos de Bèze to the north with Ruchottes above it, reaching up to the tree line above 300 metres, while Latricières is Chambertin’s southern neighbour. The western flank of all these vineyards, with the exception of Mazis and part of Clos de Bèze, is cheek by jowl with the forest, meaning that the vines there go into the shade of the trees much earlier in the day than those to the east. As such, the siting of these grands crus doesn’t accord with the oft-repeated tenet that they lie in mid-slope, cushioned above and below by lesser crus. The remaining quartet – Chapelle, Charmes, Griotte and Mazoyères – lie on the other side of the route and in the case of the latter reach right down to the D974 main road, where there is virtually no slope, a hardly ideal situation that risks devaluing the Chambertin name. The wines from the satellite seven can be excellent even if they never surpass the heights achieved by the first pair.

Some two-dozen premiers crus cover over 80 hectares and include at least one – Clos Saint-Jacques – that is worthy of grand cru status. It sits above the village with a perfect south-east exposure, plumb in the centre of a crescent of premiers crus that girds the hillside. So obvious is its de facto grand cru standing that nobody bothers to agitate for its elevation. Supposedly, it was overlooked when the grand cru gongs were being handed out because it was not contiguous with Chambertin, though a more colourful suggestion blames a cussed previous owner who so irritated the authorities that they were never going to confer top-rank status on his vineyard. The Côte de Nuits stretches to its widest at Gevrey. From its western extreme at the pinpoint of La Bossière it is over 4 kilometres across to the 18-hectare La Justice vineyard which is located on the ‘wrong’ side of the D974. Though flat, it can produce vigorous wines well worthy of their appellation.

After the glamour of the Chambertin name it is understandable that Morey-Saint-Denis carries less cachet, less immediate recognition. It is a compact commune, not 2 kilometres from north to south, and is home to four-and-a-sliver grands crus, the sliver being Bonnes Mares, which is generally treated as if it resided wholly in next-door Chambolle-Musigny. The four divide easily into two pairs: Clos de la Roche and Clos Saint Denis to the north, and Clos des Lambrays and Clos de Tart to the south.

Unlike Gevrey’s grands crus these do sit at mid-slope and straddle the commune in linear succession. Though all four are ‘clos’, it is Clos de Tart that does justice to that designation, being enclosed by walls in a fashion that is largely absent in, for instance, Clos de la Roche where you can park your car besides the Route des Grands Crus and stroll into the vineyard. The northern pair are Morey’s standard bearers, with Roche generally regarded as the better of the two, though its greater consumer visibility is down to its size – at a shade under 17 hectares it is nearly three times the size of Clos Saint-Denis. Between them they encompass a dozen lieux-dits, including the evocatively named Maison Brûlée that abuts the village dwellings. The name probably derives from the sacking of the region in 1636 by Austrian troops of the Emperor Ferdinand II, with whom France was at war.

While Clos des Lambrays and Clos de Tart are roughly equal in size (8.8 and 7.5 hectares respectively) their shapes differ markedly, the latter’s neat rectangle making the former’s boundaries look ragged by comparison. In the past it didn’t help Morey’s standing that this pair seldom lived up to their potential, and despite significant improvements in recent years it could still be argued that their reputations are not as high Clos de la Roche and Clos Saint-Denis. Morey’s premiers crus cluster mainly downslope of the grands crus though some of the best such as Monts Luisants lie above, between 300 and 350 metres. It is best known as a premier cru for red wine and also for Domaine Ponsot’s famed Aligoté, proof that marvellous wine can be made from this overlooked grape. At village level Clos Solon, adjacent to the D974, yields a memorable wine in the hands of Jean-Marie Fourrier.

Chambolle-Musigny is noted for wines of grace and elegance yet its pair of grands crus can hardly be considered as two sides of the same coin; they are more differentiated than that. Bonnes Mares and Musigny are the opposite poles of Chambolle, separated by the village itself and a swathe of premiers crus that runs between them. Travelling from Morey, Bonnes Mares is the first vineyard you encounter, a substantial rectangle of 15 hectares that crosses the commune boundary, with about 90 per cent of it in Chambolle. It is difficult to generalize about Bonnes Mares because there is a radical difference between the soils in the upper and lower sections of the vineyard. What can be asserted is that by comparison with Musigny it produces a heartier wine, with more spice and something of a sauvage character. If it lacks something of the perfumed grace of Musigny its impact is more immediate; visceral to Musigny’s sensual.

Musigny overlaps the top corner of Clos de Vougeot and comprises three lieux-dits: Les Musigny, Les Petits Musigny and La Combe d’Orveau. Its eastern boundary is completely formed by the Route des Grands Crus – or so it appears until a close examination of the map reveals a shred of vineyard that lies across the road from the main body of the vineyard. It sits on a step of ground at the top of Bertagna’s monopole Clos de la Perrière and is home to a couple of hundred individually staked vines. It is so small that it is hardly worthy of mention but because it belongs to one of the côte’s most celebrated of all grands crus it is worth cultivating. A final quirk that distinguishes Musigny from all other Côte de Nuits grands crus is that it is permitted to plant Chardonnay there, though de Vogüé is the only producer to make a Musigny blanc.

It’s a hackneyed assertion that Musigny is the Côte d’Or’s queen while Chambertin is the king, a memorable, if hardly profound, observation that can be dismissed as an old nugget of faux wisdom. Yet it stands up to scrutiny. The power and concentration of Chambertin is absent in Musigny, replaced by more moderate qualities of elegance and poise. There is strength, but it is the finessed strength of the ballet dancer not the overt weightlifter’s version. Its qualities have been the cause of much superlative frenzy over the centuries thanks to the extraordinary intensity of complex scents and unfolding, layered fruit flavours.

Of Chambolle’s premiers crus Les Amoureuses, downslope from Musigny, stands apart and is accorded putative grand cru status, much like Clos Saint-Jacques in Gevrey. Thanks to quarrying in previous times, Amoureuses presents a more jumbled appearance than its neighbours and the derivation of its name is fertile ground for speculation. Perhaps it was a venue for torrid trysts; more prosaically it is suggested that the soil when wet clings to footwear with a lover’s grip.

Though Musigny and Clos de Vougeot share the same vineyard classification and indeed share a boundary for a couple of hundred metres, along which they are separated by a literal stone’s throw, a huge gulf in renown divides them. Where superlatives rule the roost with Musigny it is hard to write about Clos de Vougeot without slipping into cliché, trotting out the rote statistics used for generations to illustrate its shortcomings. It is a roughly square, 50-hectare block of vineyard, a little longer on the diagonal that runs from the south-east corner up past the château to Musigny. The Côte d’Or’s usual clutter of tiny, variously shaped vineyards, threaded with roads, tracks and dry stone walls, is absent here, where the vines seem to stretch to the horizon. If it was in Bordeaux it would have one owner and produce two, perhaps three wines; here it has more than eighty, many of whom lay claim to slivers of land so thin that in places the ownership map looks like a barcode. It did once have a single owner – the Cistercian order – but the Revolution saw them dispossessed and their flagship vineyard sold off as a bien national. Fragmentation was slow at first but accelerated through the twentieth century to the point where today’s ownership mosaic is a cartographer’s delight, or not. The best wines rank with the best of the Côte d’Or, carrying the conviction and energy that should be present in a grand cru, but they also serve to highlight the deficiencies of the others. In some respects the clos is the Côte d’Or in microcosm; knowing where the vines lie is useful but who farms them and makes the wine is critical, here more so than in any other grand cru, save for Vougeot’s southern twin, Corton, another behemoth that would be improved by some trimming.

Clos de Vougeot contains sixteen lieux-dits that are not officially recognized and so are seldom seen, apart from Le Grand Maupertuis, used by Anne Gros, and the clever use of Musigni by Gros Frère et Soeur. It seems surprising that almost no other producers use them to create a semi-separate identity although it is doubtful if adding names such as Quartier des Marei Haut or Montiotes Basses would add lustre to the Vougeot name – probably the reverse. At premier cru level Vougeot continues to confound, for the most prestigious, in this red-wine heartland, is the white Le Clos Blanc, a monopole of Domaine de la Vougeraie.

An oft-cited criticism of Clos de Vougeot is that it runs right down to the main road, with a negligible slope in its lower section, while above it and better sited lie the two grands crus of Flagey-Echézeaux: Les Grands Echézeaux and Echézeaux. To all intents and purposes they are considered part of the next commune, Vosne-Romanée, home to the most celebrated vineyards in the world: La Romanée-Conti, La Tâche, Richebourg, La Romanée, Romanée Saint-Vivant and La Grande Rue. Taken together this half-dozen amount to about 28 hectares, not much more than half the area of Clos de Vougeot
It is not possible to overstate the renown in which these grands crus are held, particularly the two monopoles owned by the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. The eponymous vineyard is a rough square of 1.8 hectares and is marked by a gaunt cross, making it easy to find as you travel up from the village on the small road that runs through Romanée Saint-Vivant. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that it is a place of pilgrimage for wine lovers from across the globe and, conveniently, there is space for a few cars to park next to the vineyard, with clear sight of the sign on the low surrounding wall asking visitors not to walk through it, a request heeded by some: ‘Many people come to visit this site and we understand. We ask you nevertheless to remain on the road and request that under no condition you enter the vineyard.’ La Tâche is separated from it by the monopole sliver that is La Grande Rue and a fourth monopole, La Romanée, is contiguous on the west side and there has been speculation that it was once part of Romanée-Conti.

Of the remaining grands crus, Richebourg is the star, yielding a wine of flesh and substance, structure and depth, variously described as ‘sumptuous’, ‘opulent’ and ‘voluptuous’, qualities reflected in the plangent ring of its name. There’s ballast in Richebourg. It neighbours Romanée-Conti to the north, and the lieu-dit at its northern end, Les Verroilles, turns slightly north of east, causing the grapes to ripen a little later than the rest of the vineyard. Romanée Saint-Vivant lies below Richebourg, close to the village, and takes its name from the nearby abbey of Saint-Vivant at Curtil-Vergy, the remains of which have recently been secured against further decline. The wine is scented, graceful and elegant, a violin to Richebourg’s cello.

Les Grands Echézeaux and Echézeaux don’t enjoy the same renown, which is hardly surprising in the case of the latter, given that it includes eleven lieux-dits comprising a cumbersome 38 hectares. Much the same criticisms that are levelled at Clos de Vougeot apply here – the paramount consideration when searching for quality must be the name of the producer. It is a dictum that applies everywhere in the Côte d’Or, but with heavy emphasis in places like this. Grands Echézeaux, on a barely perceptible slope, is separated from Clos de Vougeot by a narrow road and, with deeper soil delivering more weight in the wine, is generally considered superior to Echézeaux.

After the surfeit of grands crus in Vosne-Romanée the next commune south, Nuits-Saint-Georges, is home to none and must settle for the distinction of lending its name to the Côte de Nuits. Because of its size and memorable name it is probably as well known as Vosne, if not nearly as highly regarded. The town in turn takes its name from its most prestigious vineyard Les Saints-Georges, at the southern limit of the commune and reputedly the first plot to be planted in Nuits, in 1000. Efforts to get it upgraded to grand cru are ongoing. It is probably the only one of Nuits’ premiers to warrant promotion, though a case could be made for Aux Boudots right at the other end of the commune, abutting Vosne. The Nuits appellation continues south into Prémeaux-Prissey, home to the large monopoles Clos de l’Arlot and Clos de la Maréchale.

Thereafter the côte is pinched narrow by rock at Comblanchien and Corgoloin, where vineyards give way to the quarries that form the stony sinew connecting the Côte de Nuits with the Côte de Beaune. The final vineyard contains a little flourish in the shape of Domaine d’Ardhuy, whose impressive building is set back from the road and surrounded by the vines of its monopole Clos des Langres.

Extract from Côte d’Or © Raymond Blake (Infinite Ideas, 2017)
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