A couple of tasting notes of two more reasonably priced Burgundies. The crémant was particularly good value, and while it no doubt lacks the complexity of good Champagne (I don’t drink enough Champagne to comment!), was very drinkable.
Palate: strawberry, raspberry; beurre bosc pear, lemon, pineapple. Russet apples. Waxy, honeyed, nougat. Quite rich, but with linear, brisk acidity. Crunchy and fresh, but with some richness. Quite oxidative, I guess. Lots of persistent bead, overflowing when first opened. Maybe not as complex as some (bearing in mind that I’m an infrequent drinker of sparkling wines), but very nice. 12% alcohol. Seal: cork capsule.
DAY 2: left open overnight (& not properly sealed), now at (winter) room temperature (ie about 15°C). Still has some bead left, just. Rich, oxidative flavours are accentuated, eg mandarin, lemon marmalade, fleshy lemon, pineapple, russet apples, lemon curd. Still very nice, actually. Lovely, rich, oxidative style, run through with a lithe, persistent acidity.
Nose: sour cherry, strawberry, pomegranate, cranberry. Balsamic vinegar. Tobacco, earthy, cigar box. Old oak. Green apple? Fresh, lively.
Palate: sour cherry, strawberry, pomegranate, cranberry, maybe plum. Balsamic vinegar? Tobacco, earthy, cigar box. Old oak. Green apple? Fresh, lithe, linear acidity; smooth, fine grained, moderate tannins, slightly drying. Fresh, lithe, but with some earthy complexity. Medium to light bodied, 13% alcohol. Seal: natural cork.
DAY 2: hasn’t really improved overnight. There’s still quite a lot of sour cherry, pomegranate, and some leathery earthiness, plus a touch of green apple (malic acid?) in the background. Better yesterday. Fresh, lithe, and linear. Pretty decent, but perhaps with a bit less complexity than you’d hope for a village level Burgundy?
Anyone who knows me in real life will know that I have somewhat of an obsession with Burgundy — the region, the countryside, the towns and villages, the cuisine, and the wine — and that ‘somewhat’ is somewhat of an understatement. Equally, anyone who lives in Australia will realise that the wines of Burgundy, expensive at the best of times, are even more so by the time they reach Australia. The taxes on imported wines here are, I gather, among the most expensive in the developed world, on top of which must be added a profit margin for the importer and the retailer. As a consequence, the wines are often two to three times more expensive than in the region. On top of this, many of the wines that represent good value in the region are hard to find, or are simply not imported.
Consequently, there is a certain perverse desire to find local wines that — while they are not Burgundy wines, cannot be Burgundy wines, and should not even attempt to be Burgundy wines — have that vitality that distinguishes the most memorable of Burgundies. As an aside, I note that they should not attempt to be Burgundy wines, since this is not something any Burgundian winemaker would ever attempt. A good Burgundy wine is one which is true to its region and its vineyard; it does not attempt to emulate any other wine, however good or famous. Attempting to emulate a Volnay or a Gevrey-Chambertin is, therefore, attempting something that no Burgundian winemaker would consider, and — in a sense — missing the point completely. The attempt to be Burgundian makes it, by definition, not Burgundian.
In part, one could consider this about determining the best regions in Australia for Pinot Noir. This would only be partly the case. My experience of tasting Australian Pinot Noirs is partial at best; there are many well regarded examples that I have yet to try, as well as many that are no doubt equally good but as yet unknown. My budget is one limitation; retail availability is another. I have yet to try Mount Mary Pinot Noir, or any of Bindi Winegrowers’ well regarded wines. No doubt these, and others, deserve their place here; no doubt at some point I will get to try them, and I’ll mentally add them to my list. There are also likely wines that I have tried, and which should be included, but I have forgotten. It is worth restating that the limits of my own tasting experience, and of my preferences, do not in any way define the limits of what could be considered ‘good’ Pinot Noir wines; as such, these thoughts are my opinions, and my opinions only.
Equally, I am sure that there are regions which have great potential for Pinot Noir, but that potential has not yet been reached. While I have tried many very good Adelaide Hills Pinot Noirs, I have yet to try any truly great Pinot Noirs from this region — perhaps, again, because they exist but I haven’t found them yet, perhaps because the potential exists but is not yet being exploited, or perhaps because the region better suits other grapes than Pinot Noir. It is, after all, a fickle and difficult grape with notoriously specific requirements.
This all comes before we get into any discussion as to what represents typically ‘Burgundian’ Pinot Noir. It is obvious to anyone who has tried a few Burgundies that the region encompasses a range of styles, from quite robust, full bodied wines (such as Grand-Echezeaux) to more delicate, light, ethereal wines (as Volnay is often considered to be).
Even these generalisations are difficult: while Volnay is, as I just noted, stereotypically regarded to be at the more light, ethereal end of the Burgundy spectrum; this is not invariably true. It depends on the specific vineyard within Volnay, as well as vintage, and vigneron. Within Volnay, for example, the premier cru vineyards “Taillepieds” or “Santenots du Bas” produce richer, fuller wines than the more ethereal wines of the premier cru vineyard “Cailleret”. As an aside, my somewhat simplistic assumptions about the wines of Volnay were reshaped by a tasting at Nicolas Rossignol‘s new winery, which provided an enjoyable crash-course in the different terroirs of the Côte de Beaune.
Having put that all to one side, I will begin with one observation: for whatever reason (terroir? winemaking talent? coincidence based on my limited range of wines tasted?) the majority of truly excellent Australian Pinot Noirs I have tried have been from Victoria. I won’t attempt to guess why. Here follows a few of them.
I have no notes on the Bass Phillips wines that I’ve tried, as I tasted these before I was in the habit of making notes for most of the wines I try, and before I’d even began to become familiar with Burgundy. Nonetheless, the combination of elegance, power, vitality, and complexity were immediately apparent, and marked these out as serious wines. Sadly, the prices they command make them unapproachable for me, and I admire them from a distance.
Again, no notes. I tried these a good few years after the wines of Bass Phillips, and after several trips to Burgundy. They are also not cheap wines (though not as expensive as those of Bass Phillips), hence, I tried them at an in-store tasting at East End Cellars in Adelaide (hence the lack of notes). They were profound, complex, vital, and Burgundian in the sense that they reflected their vineyard and did not attempt to be anything that they were not. Each of the three wines I tried, from the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, and Gippsland, were completely distinctive. If I were to try to convince a sceptic that Australia can produce truly great Pinot, these are the wines I’d choose.
Hochkirch Wines, Henty, Victoria
2013 Hochkirch Henty “Steinbruch” Pinot Noir Colour: translucent cherry, touch of brick red Nose: strawberry stewed in balsamic vinegar. Sour cherry. Plum. Beetroot. Touch of stemmy earthiness, whole bunch character. Sweet spice. Palate: strawberry, balsamic vinegar. Sour cherry. Plum. Cassis. Beetroot. Earthy, stemmy whole bunch character. Sweet spice. Fresh berry like acidity, smooth slightly drying but structural tannins. Quite sauvage, but quite Burgundian. Elegant, vital, sappy. Medium bodied. Obviously made in a natural style, and a good example of such. 12,5% alcohol. — Saturday, January 19, 2019
2011 Hochkirch Henty “Village” Pinot Noir Colour: translucent burgundy, slightly cloudy (unfiltered, unfined) Nose: stewed strawberries with balsamic vinegar. White pepper, nutmeg and other sweet spices. A touch of old oak. Cranberry. A touch of savouriness. Elegant. Palate: stewed strawberries with balsamic vinegar. Cranberry and other sharp red berries. Sappy, elegant, lively. Stemmy. White pepper and sweet spice. Sharp fresh acidity – like slightly underripe strawberries. Very fine grained slightly drying tannins. Medium bodied, perfumed – could make a comparison with a particularly elegant village level Volnay. V v good. 12,9% alcohol. — Sunday, July 19, 2015
2015 Domaine Simha Tasmania “Amphora Lionheart“ Pinot Noir Colour: cloudy brick red Nose: candied red fruit. Raspberry and cherry. Cranberry? Tobacco, hay, earthy, stemmy, savoury. Sweet and savoury, intense. Palate: fresh berry like acidity, fresh red berries, raspberry, cherry. Tobacco, hay, earthy. Stemmy — some whole bunches in the ferment? Has the spicy, earthy, savoury, stemmy character I’d associate with stems. Very fine, smooth tannins. Complex, unusual, savoury. Eccentric, but really lovely. 12,5% alcohol. — Sunday, February 5, 2017
Storm Light, Vineyards, Beaune, France, 9th September 2017 19:43
Pentax K-x, 18-125mm lens @ 18mm, 1/320 sec, f/8.0, ISO 400. Panorama created using Lightroom.
Late summer, at the tipping point of autumn. Harvest ahead. Cycling back to Meursault in the early evening. Rain hanging around, spitting, threatening. Grey clouds glowering overhead. As the sun disappears, the clouds relent & turn golden with the dusk; bluegrey & gold, like slate and fire, iron and gold. However the day seemed prior to this, it is a benediction; it is like the threat inherent in those splattered rain drops has passed and been forgotten.
But I was heading back to Meursault. Still in Beaune, not yet in Pommard, & needing to be back before the light faded for the evening. But I couldn’t move on: the light changed from gold to galah pink, the clouds still glowering slate grey above the vineyards.
Sunset, Vineyards, Beaune, France, 9th September 2017 19:59
Pentax K-x, 10-24mm lens @ 10mm, 1/60 sec, f/8.0, ISO 400. Panorama created using Lightroom.
Eventually, I got back to Meursault. Late, I struggled to find a restaurant open. Luckily, the Hôtel du Centre was still open, just. The dinning room was starting to empty. A couple, a businessman polishing off the last of a bottle of wine. I had magret du canard and a glass of red burgundy. My luck was still with me: the duck was beautiful, rich, flavoursome, seared outside and bloodily red inside. The sole mishap, that I was given a glass of Côtes-du-Rhône instead of the requested Santenay, was no mishap in that it was an excuse for two glasses of wine rather than one. What had been a desperate attempt to get something, anything, to eat, was anything but. What was to be a simple meal, an unexpected pleasure. Serendipity! The meal finished with a glass of an armagnac older than me, and a petit café.
Walking back afterwards, the sky was perfectly dark. Sodium lights lit the village, and the edges of vineyards. I walked past a clos, and looked in through wroughtiron gates at the vines, sleeping before the harvest, unworldly under the orange light. Gold to pink to orange.
Vineyard on the edge of Meursault at Night, 9th September 2017 21:46
iPhone 4s, builtin 4.28mm (~35mm) lens, 1 sec, f/2.4, ISO 800. Shot using Camera+ 9.1.
2010 was the first year I visited Burgundy. By coincidence, it was a catastrophically good year across the region — more classical and less rich than 2009, but refined and built for ageing. I barely knew a grand cru from a premier cru — and, with Burgundy, there is such a lot to learn. I visited Pommard, Volnay, and Meursault for the first time, and took a bus north to see a glimpse of the Côte de Nuits. I walked around Beaune. I tried Burgundian cuisine for the first time. I visited the Hotel de Dieu. Burgundy is such a remarkable place.
I was there during the harvest, and would have seen the grapes being picked. I didn’t actually get to work a harvest till 2011, the way things worked out, but it was a good introduction.
Now, seven years on, a lot has changed. Visiting Burgundy again, too briefly, I feel lucky to be able to sample a 2010 from Volnay. Volnay was a village I didn’t immediately ‘get’. Initially, I far preferred the wines of Pommard, which are richer and more full bodied. Volnay, elegant, light, ethereal, escaped me. Over the years, I’ve drifted from preferring Pommard to preferring Volnay. Seven years. A lot has changed.
This particular Volnay — Bernard Delagrange’s 2010 Volnay 1er cru, presumably a blend of premier cru vineyards, is a perfect example. At seven year’s of age, it still seems very young. It’s fresh, and lively, and full of primary fruit. It hasn’t yet developed any aged characters. It has plenty of cherry, with a touch of pomegranate and perhaps cassis, with lots of sweet spice, and is elegant and light. I love the way the light refracts through it — still supple cherry red, translucent. Elegant. It’ll keep a good few years more. It’s a vintage — and a region — I hope to keep returning to.
Colour: light cherry Nose: cherry, pomegranate, cassis. Dark chocolate. Sweet spice. Old oak, vanilla. Palate: still seems v.young. Lots of red fruit — cherry, raspberry, pomegranate. Perhaps a touch of cassis. Sweet spice. Fine grained, slightly drying tannins. Moderate, berry-like acidity. Smooth, subtle/supple and medium bodied, elegant. Not the most complex Volnay, but very pleasant and typical of the village nonetheless. Very nice. 13% alcohol.
I have a private pet theory for determining the best regions for growing Pinot Noir wines that I unaccountably want to share. It’s this: all the best regions have ’03’ phone area codes. This might seem crazily over-simplistic, but bear with me for a moment. I have proof.
Pinot Noir vines, vineyard near Savigny-lès-Beaune, Burgundy, 26th September 2013
Pentax K-x, 18-125mm lens @ 125mm, 1/200 sec, f/8.0, ISO 400
Burgundy, Alsace, the Jura, & Champagne all have 03 numbers assigned by the French telephone numbering plan
Tasmania, Gippsland, the Yarra Valley, & Mornington Peninsula also all have 03 numbers assigned to them, by the Australian telephone numbering plan
Central Otago, Marlborough, & Canterbury all have 03 numbers, under the New Zealand telephone numbering plan
A few exceptions:
The Adelaide Hills region gets 08 numbers assigned to it.
Oregon and California both are part of the North American Numbering plan, which does not assign any numbers starting with a zero. Some parts of north-west Oregon get 503 numbers, which may be close enough — though this doesn’t seem to cover the Willamette Valley. D’oh.
Germany is making some very good Pinot Noirs (which they often refer to as Spätburgunder, “late Burgundy”), but 03 numbers are assigned to north-eastern Germany, not Baden, Pfalz, or Ahr, which are in the south-west.
Also, some areas may be assigned 03 numbers, but not be suitable for Pinot Noir — for example, some of the warmer parts of Victoria, Australia. To this, I could only respond by waggling my eyebrows, shrugging my shoulders, and leaving rapidly before my hypothetical interlocutor realises that wasn’t actually a valid response to their criticisms.
Nonetheless, I think my theory has validity, and maybe some predictive power. Perhaps I could extend it further. Do good Cabernet sauvignons come from regions with 05 numbers, such as Bordeaux? Great Syrahs from regions with 04 numbers, like the northern Rhône? Though this might be a problem for Australia: 04 and 05 are both assigned for mobile numbers, which suggests that great Cabernet and great Syrah are possible everywhere, and nowhere (though, to be fair, I’ve never actually seen an 05 mobile number in use in Australia…). Italy has a similar problem with Pinot Noir (there called Pinot Nero), 03 numbers in Italy being assigned to mobile phones.
Or perhaps one could suggest that areas with an 08 number are good for a wide range of grapes, as this area code including both South Australia and West Australia. But this would force wineries in France to spring for a freephone ‘numéro vert’ 08 number, which may not win me friends there.
So, for now, I might leave further exploration of this idea aside for now. Still, I suspect it has promise. And I will keep returning to the allure of the ’03’ area code.
Which reminds me, I should open a bottle of something good for tonight, from a winery whose phone number starts with 03………..
Côte d’Or morning, Burgundy, 3rd October 2011
Pentax K-x, 18-125mm lens at 40mm, 1/80 sec, f/5.0, ISO 500
Pommard from the vineyards, 27th September 2013
Pentax K-x, 18-125 mm lens @ 73 mm, 1/125 sec, f/8.0, ISO 200.
Some places you can’t forget. They bury themselves deep within you, and refuse to leave. Everything else is seen in relation to them – for better, or worse. I grew up in London, and the brilliant blue of a clear winter’s day, or the oppressively leaden sky of a dismal summer day, is always with me.
One such place, for me, has been Burgundy. For one reason or another, I have always visited in late August or early September. Arriving by train, from London via Paris, you first notice how Burgundy still clings to summer, even as London sidles towards the grey drizzle of winter. Changing trains in Dijon, the local train to Beaune – historically, the wine producing capital of the region, where the major wineries had their bases – local stations and vineyards flash by, as well as woodland and cornfields.
Once in Beaune, it’s hard to know what to do. Most of the famous wineries require appointments, or are outside Beaune itself, in the smaller villages, in the cellars of medieval houses, or in concrete warehouses on the edge of the vineyards. Still, as Mike Steinberger said, “there may be different paths to wine geekdom, but they ultimately all converge in the same place—Place Carnot” – so you may as well head straight there. Place Carnot is, more or less, the main square of Beaune: its heart, and its centre. If nothing else, there are bistros and restaurants, and beautiful cakes at Dix Carnot.
This little square surrounds a small park; the tall buildings seem quintessentially French. Just a street off to one side is the Hospice de Beaune, often also called the Hôtel Dieu, with its elaborately decorated roofs made from coloured tiles. Once I’m sat outside Dix Carnot with some improbably elaborate cake, I know I’ve arrived. I can plan: what wineries to visit? Hire a car? A bike? (Yes, many of the villages south of Beaune are within comfortable cycling distance; to branch out further afield and see forests and monasteries, or even just the villages north of Beaune, a car is essential).
Frankly, Burgundy is a maze, and it will take you time to get your bearings. Take the time. Visit again. You will. I feel I am, slowly. For whatever reason, I have only visited in late summer or early autumn. I would love to see the Côte d’Or blanketed under drifts of snow, or with the first buds of spring just breaking. It is a tapestry of ancient villages and tiny vineyards, each with its own subtly different aspect on the hillside, its own soil, its own climate. Vineyards just next to each other can produce profoundly different wines.
The whole region itself teeters on the edge of several climatic zones: it is part continental, part oceanic, with warm weather sometimes coming up from Provence in the south, and cold from Germany or Switzerland in the north. Even the buildings, and the towns, can start to look Provençal at times, at others, they seem northern. Burgundy is a paradox, but a delightfully vinous one.
Cycling south out of Beaune, there are small roads that wind through the vineyards towards the village of Pommard. These roads are shared only with vineyard traffic, they are ideal for cycling. You cycle past stone-wall circled vineyards, the roadside edged with wildflowers. The track meanders on towards Volnay, then Meursault, and onwards towards Chassagne-Montrachet. I have never made it further south than Meursault, so far.
If you know something about French wines, these are names to conjure with. Pommard is known for robust, tannic Pinot Noir, its neighbour Volnay conversely for ethereal, light, perfumed Pinot. Meursault is known for its Chardonnay. Even without an appointment there are small wineries with cellar doors you can visit. Most will have wines from a range of villages, and it is instructive to taste a couple. Even where winemaking techniques are the same, the flavours and aromas differ dramatically between villages.
A place like Burgundy leaves you with many impressions, as you encounter different faces at different times. Looking back through my notes, I encounter everything from pages and pages of detail on viticultural techniques, to gripes about the weather, plans that have gone wrong, or meals that were more than memorable. Like, being forced into a small restaurant on the edge of Pommard for an unplanned lunch by unexpected rain: an inconvenience at the time, particularly since I was counting my pennies, but the sort of thing I would normally dream of. Or a meal at a small restaurant just outside the city centre of Beaune, with a shared, long table, where I ended up in deep discussion with several other diners, and did not stumble out the door until eleven pm. There were people from Japan, from Brazil, from Switzerland, from Holland, from America – and me, from Australia, via Britain. The Brazilians thought that the Europeans worked too hard, and didn’t live enough – something the Europeans objected to.
The conversation spilled out onto the street outside, and, in my head at least, followed me home. What does it say when you meet people you feel you’ve known all your life, but know you won’t meet them again? Such is travel, I guess.
The next morning, Beaune was as quiet as ever. That morning, I drove to Château-Chalon, leaving Burgundy behind for the foothills of the Alps. But, as always, I knew I’d be back.
Clos de Lambray, Morey-Saint-Denis, Côte de Nuits, 27th September 2013
Pentax K-x, 18-125 mm lens @ 40 mm, 1/100 sec, f/8.0, ISO 100.
This is a longer form of an essay I wrote for a travel writing competition (which I didn’t win!), organised by travel insurance company World Nomads. The version submitted can be seen here.