There are 32 Grand Cru vineyards throughout Burgundy. In one hot day day, during the summer of 2015, we sampled wines from nearly half of them.
The day started like every day really should; with a croissant and coffee at La Villa Fleurie, our quaint little bed and breakfast in the village of Beaune in the heart of Burgundy, France.
It was already hot and steamy out, so we were happy to be greeted by our tour guide who invited us to take a seat in his fabulously air-conditioned late-model Mercedes van for our trip around Burgundy and our scheduled visits to the vineyard and wineries that produce some of the best wine in the world.
As the day’s trip was to focus on Burgundy’s Grand Cru vineyards and wines, it was important to get some perspective from the heart of the vineyards themselves. We wanted to smell the terroir. So, we drove through winding roads, weaving through little villages, up and down rolling hills and through meticulously manicured vineyard fields. We hopped in and out of the van, walked the roads and through the vines, smelled the dust and dirt, and talked Burgundy until the heat got to us enough to seek out the air conditioning again.
There are 32 Burgundy Grand Cru (Great Growth) vineyards throughout Burgundy that represent less than 5% of total production. They are the best of the best, and owning a piece of Grand Cru is a great honor and a great responsibility.
When any one owner of a parcel of these vineyards dies, French law states that land be split and passed down to heirs. These ownership laws have resulted in literally thousands of individual owners compacted into these 32 Grand Cru vineyards, each with their own style of farming. It’s fantastic to roll through and see these little tracts of vines, some only a couple rows across, that are totally different from the tract next to it. Some are organic. Some are dry irrigated. Different sowing styles and trimming styles are easily seen.
For large wine producers in Burgundy, owning even a small section of Grand Cru vineyard elevates the status – and therefore the value – of all the wines they produce. But so few of these individual owners produce their own wine. Instead, they sell their grapes to negociants who, in turn, produce wines for consumption under a variety of labels. Many of them are so small, and the land so divided, that they may only produce 500 cases of a certain wine each year, compared to a Bordeaux or Napa Valley winery producing over 15,000 cases of it’s best wine, resulting in wine that is in short supply.
Enough law, geography and history. Time to sample. Our first tasting stop was down in the caves at Pierre André where we were treated to a half dozen wines, including a vertical tasting of their 2009, 2010 and 2011 Corton Les Renardes Grand Cru.
After a fabulous lunch at Domaine Trapet, our next stop was Domaine Quivy where we were able to sample, among others, their very young 2012 Charmes-Chambertin Grand Cru. This Pinot Noir was surprisingly elegant, considering it’s youth, with aromas of rich earth and dark fruit flavors. It had solid tannins but was very well balanced with deep fruit. 2012 was a hard year, they say, with challenging weather and really low yields. Regardless, often when it comes to wine, success can come from adversity. Wines from this vintage will not be celebrated like those from 2009 or even 2011, but don’t be surprised to see them age incredibly, as well as being enjoyable immediately.
A dozen wines and discussions in, and with the shadows starting to creep up on us, we rolled into our final stop on our Grand Cru tour. The Burgundy Shop in the basement caves of Les Deux Chevres, a luxury inn in Gevrey-Chambertin, offers an opportunity to sample many wines from producers that are often too small to be found elsewhere. Here, we were treated to samplings of over a dozen white and red Grand Cru and Premier Cru wines from all over Burgundy. Admittedly, it was a bit overwhelming. The surprise was the 2003 Corton Grand Cru from Louis Latour. It was more spicy and well balanced than others from the day, and definitely benefited from a decade long rest in a bottle. It was incredible, and the perfect way to end the day.
What did we learn? Burgundy is complex. It would take a lifetime to figure out the little idiosyncrasies that make it one of the best regions in the world. But, you know what? As long as Grand Crus were available for drinking, it would be a life well spent.