A Winemaking Holiday in Burgundy (In Four Parts)
I woke up this morning in unfamiliar surroundings. I could hear the trills of joyous birdsong as sunlight filtered through battered curtains. An antique doll, dressed in yellow chiffon, stared at me, cold and lifeless yet smiling. Her four companions were equally nonplussed, their rosy-lipped grins completely at variance with their lifeless countenance. Old wooden floorboards creaked and groaned under my weight as I got out of bed. Outside, the yeasty musk of fermentation permeated the fresh, rural air.
Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Singapore anymore.
I know the post is titled “A Winemaking Holiday in Burgundy”. We’ll get there eventually, but Burgundy is so village-oriented, so local in its outlook, that we need to know the characters and personalities who populate it and who will dominate my narrative. So please let me first describe how the trip came about, and how I met the folks who would later be my kind hosts.
We first encountered Ludovic Belin, winemaker of Pernand-Vergelesses (www.domaine-ludovic-belin.com), over a wine dinner with our mutual friend William Chong. Ludovic, a scion of that quaint village’s prominent Rapets, was in Singapore for a promotional trip with his first cousin Vincent Rapet (proprietor and winemaker of Domaine Rapet – www.domaine-rapet.com).
It was a strange evening, as these so often are. I was seated between my wife Emily to my left, and our dear friend Liz (who has since gone on to open the popular Praelum Wine Bistro on Duxton Hill), with Ludovic next to her. Ludo is a rogue-ishly handsome red-blooded French male from central casting; tonight he played his role to perfection, so I ignored the blatant flirt-fest transpiring to my right and tried instead to focus on dinner. As we were in an old-style giant garoupa restaurant, we were served a succession of braised garoupa cheeks, steamed garoupa flanks with shredded scallions and soy, deep-fried crunchy garoupa fins, claypot-braised garoupa liver with oyster sauce and ginger, and poached garoupa sperm in a clear broth.
Among our Burgundian guests, this last delicacy created much confusion tinged with not much amusement. “C’est QUOI?” came the stunned query. Well, you try explaining that in French! After much obscene gesturing and unprintable language, Ludo got the idea. “Couilles du poisson”, he explained. Vincent’s eyes almost popped out of his head as Ludo popped a nugget of couille into his mouth. If nothing else, this showed how different the cousins were. Ludo, who in actual fact is a very warm, caring and friendly guy, carefully cultivates his image as a suave, slightly dangerous loose cannon who happens to make lovely wine. Vincent, on the other hand, carefully cultivates his of a simple, dour working farmer carrying on a proud 250 year-old family tradition.
The night carried on and after almost two bottles of wine each, William had a brilliant idea – let’s have more wine! We staggered out of the Maison des Couilles and made our way to Extra Space where William keeps his cellar. The rest of the night/morning was a Barolo-tinged haze; I vaguely remember saying farewell to Ludo and how I looked forward to tasting his wine when he was next in Singapore, and Ludo replying “I am at the Hilton. Come over tomorrow at 10.00 am and we’ll do a private tasting together before I fly out”.
I stumbled home with the missus around 3.45 am. “Ha ha!” I laughed as I opened the front door, “he was so drunk he couldn’t possibly be serious”. Emily looked at me. “You know, you should probably go. How would it look if he organises everything and you didn’t rock up?” I pondered this for about one minute before passing out on the couch.
So the following morning, uncertainty compounded by the incessant drumming in my head, I made my way to the Hilton. 10.03 am, said my Blackberry as I crossed the threshold into the lobby. “Great, I’m on time!” I thought. Well, almost. “Where ‘ave you been?” Ludovic cried as he gave me a meaty handshake, “I ‘ave been waiting for you”. Well, at the risk of stating the bleeding obvious… He led me to the cream-and-wood Kaspia Bar, where a daunting row of ten wine bottles, each decorated with an angel in rapture and the legend “Domaine Ludovic Belin”, stood to terse attention.
To cut a long story short, we swirled and we gargled, we swished and we spat. Every now and again, we even swallowed. I’m no expert, but we found much common ground as we shared our opinions on the wine. At the end, he said “Your tasting eez quite good. Maybe eef you like, you come to Pernand-Vergelesses in Septembre, you stay wiz me, we do ‘arvest, drink good wine?”
Now by this stage, I’m conditioned to obey our white masters. Hell, I’ve been married to Emily for over five years now. So the next thing I knew, I was back home on the interwebs booking flights to Paris for us and Liz. And the next thing I knew, it was mid-September and I was at the departure lounge in Changi Airport. Liz, as we had come to expect, was running (un)fashionably late. She finally appeared as boarding commenced, wearing a chunky pink windcheater. “Is this thick enough?” she babbled, clearly having rushed out of the office and straight to the airport, “I don’t know how cold it’s going to be and…”
But who cared? We were finally going to Burgundy!
(To be continued…)
For full photos, please visit julianteoh.blogspot.com
Dear Hounds, last instalment is below, sorry for the delay in putting it up.
Today is our last day. The work here is not done, it never is, but it is for us, and most of the wines are fermenting away happily in their barrels and tanks. We’ve learnt so much over the past week, about wine, about Burgundy, about new friends and perhaps most importantly, ourselves. When we take time out from the urban dash-for-cash and connect with nature in all her magnificent moods and variables, we rediscover our values, and a kinder side of ourselves that we think we may have lost amidst the skyscrapers.
But today, we devote ourselves to hedonism.
“Are you crazy or something like that?” is Ludo’s reaction when we divulge our lunch location: the three-Michelin-starred Maison Lameloise in Chagny.
Perhaps, but before we certify ourselves, we walk down the road to taste Vincent Rapet’s wines at the Domaine Rapet. Vincent stumbled into the cellars a couple of days ago looking for his cousin Ludo and invited us for a personally-hosted tasting before we left. Having never sampled his wares, we are more than happy to accept.
The Rapets are the first citizens of Pernand-Vergelesses. That their house is next to the Town Hall is some indication of their standing, that their vintages are featured on the lists of restaurateurs such as Joël Robuchon, even more so. Vincent, the current and 8th generation proprietor/winemaker, is a serious man with a studious mien, and his wines are focused, long-lived and superlative without exception; even the humble aligoté attains a rare complexity and finesse in his hands. Vincent regales us with a vertical of his signature Corton-Charlemagne grand cru, pinpointing the variations vintage-by-vintage, such as the 2008 which shows the austerity and lack of ripeness from that cold, wet summer. Vincent readily admits that most of the wines are too young to be enjoyed properly. “All of my wines, you should only open in about 4-5 years”. That said, his red Ȋle de Vergelesses premier cru is sheer joy and triumph given liquid form.
After saying goodbye to Vincent, we return to the house and freshen up for lunch. Ludo drops by in his trusty van, but he first needs to pick up Laëtitia and Eliot in Beaune. I ride in the back as usual - it’s not much fun riding steerage when it’s 27°C outside and you’re in formal dress! Yquem is there again but he’s used to me by now and nuzzles gently against my left foot.
We won’t all fit in the van - turning up to a three-star restaurant in one is never ideal in any event, so we decide to do it in style. Ludo indicates his sleek, black 1990 Porsche 911 Turbo, second-hand at a knock-down price, he assures me. Laëtitia, Eliot and the girls go on ahead of us in her people mover while he rummages in his storage.
He finally emerges, handing me a bottle of his 2009 Les Fichots premier cru, which just scored an impressive 16/20 in the influential Bourgogne Aujourd’hui (Burgundy Today) magazine. “For the sommelier”, he tells me. “It is a courtesy for winemakers to give one of their good bottles. And if they like it, who knows…?”
We speed down the D974. With the sunroof up, light floods in and the gentle breeze becomes a hundred-mile gale in our hair. Ludo points out some of the landmarks as we speed past, including the august Château de Meursault, a rare sight in a province dominated by small family-run domaines. He recounts how in his younger days, before the demands of family and his own domaine, he used to volunteer as a waiter at the Château’s annual bacchanalia, La Paulée de Meursault, which erupts the day after the charity wine auction of the Hospices de Beaune. Originally a lunch for the community to celebrate the end of the harvest, La Paulée has evolved into a all-day vinous orgy in which winemakers and guests bring their best bottles to impress fellow celebrants and have one last hurrah before the onset of another cold, harsh winter. I smile to myself, imagining how much of a hurrah young Ludo would have had at the Château.
The house of Lameloise stands proudly at the focal point of the Place d’Armes in Chagny, with nearby cafés and their alfresco seating opening out onto a magnificent vista of the place and the restaurant. Ludo puts on a semi-burst of speed on the final turn before pulling up right outside the restaurant. As the valets open our doors, we step out, dressed in our matching off-white ensemble and carrying our own wine. The entire café crowd turns and gawks at us with varying degrees of contempt and wonder. I suspect they think we are either celebrities, gazillionnaires or stuck-up wankers (perhaps all three) but determined to enjoy the moment, I stick my chin out defiantly and stare them all down.
Lunch is decent but not spectacular (the veal chop main course is pictured below), a little disappointing given the rave reviews that Eric Pras has received since he took over the kitchen from Jacques Lameloise. But as a rule, you don’t see the kitchen’s full potential at lunchtime, when a simpler menu is typically offered. Anything with pastry is brilliant, however, ethereally light, flaky and crispy all when it should be, and I suspect that Laëtitia, with her Michelin-starred pastry background, appreciated such fine examples of her craft more than we did. On the way out, I try my pidgin French on Eliot. “Eliot, tu aimes le restaurant Lameloise?” Eliot shakes his head in the negative.
After a little siesta back at the domaine lubricated by a few glasses of the house speciality, Ludo’s friend Thierry joins us just as we head out to dinner. Tall and bald with a very upright bearing and (on first impression) a rather reserved manner, Thierry is an airforce engineer who lives in Dijon but, seduced by rural ways, now helps Ludo from time to time with his winemaking.
Together, we make our way to Ma Cuisine, famed as a hangout for winemakers and tourists alike. Fabienne, the proprietress, is from Pernand-Vergelesses and greets Ludo with kisses. Her wine list is intimidating, the kind of list that shows precocious show-offs like me what little we actually really know about Burgundy. I settle on a wine I have had a little experience with, and hope it’s not too vulgar or obvious a choice, while at the same time wanting to show our appreciation to our kind host for putting up with us. Ludo stares at my selection, and asks for the second time that day. “Are you crazy or something like that?” Why yes, perhaps I am.
Fabienne’s partner Pierre reverentially brings our 2006 Domaine Armand Rousseau Chambertin Grand Cru (pic) to the table, and I indicate that Ludo and Thierry should have the honour of the first taste. At first sniff, all reserve and dignity falls away; Thierry swoons like a groupie, completely immersed in transports of ecstasy. Even though it's our second visit here in a week, we spend the next few hours tucking into Fabienne’s always excellent côte de porc (pictured below; Chowhounder Jeremy Holmes memorably described its accompanying mash as having "a skid mark from a Tonka truck running through it"), squab and crème caramel, sipping judiciously and enjoying the company. Ludo is uncharacteristically reflective, and for the first time, words fail him. “You know, this is…fantastic. Thank you for this wonderful wine, and such a memorable evening”. After we settle the bill, Thierry rather timidly asks, “Do you want to keep the bottle, because if you don’t…” I almost laugh as I hand it over. Soon after, Ludo commands our departure. “We go back to the cellar. I have a treat for you!” When we step out into the chilly air, Thierry breathes in the cold with pleasure, cuddling the now-drained bottle like a favourite teddy bear.
Back in the cellars, Ludo brings out various unlabelled bottles from his family stores. First is an excellent grand cru Corton 2006, commemorating his son Leo-Paul’s birth that year – I like my burgundies softer, and a few years in the bottle seem to have appeased the more audacious Belin house style, allowing elegant flowers and red fruits to show. The second is layered with mildew, dust and cobwebs, a magnum of Domaine Rapet’s 1976 Aloxe-Corton which Ludo inherited from his mother.
After some 15 hours of non-stop drinking, we are well and truly sozzled, but Ludo insists, “No, one more, one more!” before bringing out a blinded bottle of aged Jurançon vin jaune. Things get really strange when he presents an aperitif made with black truffles (“one more, last one tonight!”). Over his weakening protests of “just one more, last one, I promise this time!”, I decide to call time on this evening - it’s almost 4 am and we haven’t even packed for our midday train from Dijon.
A sunglass-wearing Monsieur Belin turns up at 11 am, to chauffeur us to Dijon as promised. He ducks into the cellar without making eye contact and I hear the capsuling machine and label printer whizzing away. At 11.30 am, he brings us a bottle each of his 2009 grands crus Corton-Renardes and Corton-Charlemagne. My personalised labels read “Cuvée Julian Teoh”, a wonderful note on which to end a truly wonderful stay.
He gasps when he sees our luggage; he has lent his van to a friend and there’s no way it’s all going to fit into his car boot. He runs over to the neighbour to borrow their people mover as Laëtitia has taken hers for the day. The next half-hour storming down the A31 to Dijon is one of the craziest 180km/h rushes I’ve been through. Even Ludo, that cool, calm customer, is visibly panicking. “There is big sheet, big sheet in Dijon!” I thought it might just be his disdain for city folk showing again, but as we approach Dijon, he points at the various roadworks blocking all of the main thoroughfares. “You see!” he shouts, “Big sheet!”
When we find a parking spot (well, it wasn’t really a parking spot but you get my drift), Ludo leaps out to the boot, grabs Liz’s suitcase, all 25 kilos of it, and sprints off. I haven’t the same size and strength, but after a week of hard cellar work, Burgundian trencherman’s fare and with a bucketload of adrenaline, I grab my hard shellcase and manage to run off after him.
We get to the platform with exactly minus three minutes to spare, and Ludo immediately starts arguing with the railway staff to let us on board. We barely have time to say goodbye before we hear the conductor’s whistles. For the last time this trip, we embrace. It’s hard to put into words how much we owe him, and what a wonderful friend and host he has been. The most I can really hope for is that he’s had fun too, and that we didn’t absolutely ruin his 2011 vintage.
He steps off just as the train pulls into motion towards Alsace, the picturesque land of the pure whites.
But that, as they say, is a different story!
More pictures can be found at http://julianteoh.blogspot.sg/2012/06...
re: Julian Teoh
Wow! I finally read (well, skimmed is probably more like it) your last two parts. What a wonderful report! I loved it all, and was transported back to Burgundy. I was there in November/December this year (just 1 week). Wish I were young and lithe again so I could work the harvest as you did.
Thanks so much for sharing. I will reread later on the weekend. I just wish the photos were larger.
Thanks once again for your very kind comments. Yes, the other benefit of heavy farm/cellar work during the day is that you need to replenish your energy by eating and drinking a lot more, which is never a bad thing in Burgundy!
I must admit I wasn't aware that the photos showed up so small on CH, as they looked a decent size when I opened them with MS Paint and Picasa prior to uploading. I should explain that the photos on this post (apart from the Lameloise dish) were shot on smartphones, which start off far smaller when I upload them onto the computer.
re: Julian Teoh
Thanks Bigos! Our Alsace experience was a little more "typical tourist", but we'll see what we can do.
Speaking of which, Marc Beyer from Maison Leon Beyer is in town (Singapore) and hosted a tasting last night, including the '04 Riesling Comtes d'Egusheim and '98 Gewurz SGN. Latter was a good wine, not as distinguished as Hugel's version, but the CdE Riesling was as good a dry riesling as I've ever tasted.
re: Julian Teoh
PART 3 OF 4
Dawn is breaking gently upon the Côte de Beaune. Emily and I are on the plateau of the Fretille Hill, enjoying the beautiful vista. Our Lady of Good Hope (Notre Dame de Bonne Espérance) stands beside us, blessing the road to Beaune and the three villages that share the Corton Hill – Pernand-Vergelesses, Aloxe-Corton and Ladoix-Serrigny. The air is bracingly fresh and clean, and not for the first time, I consider chucking it all in for a little writer’s sinecure in the heart of the picturesque countryside.
As we walk back downhill and through the threshold of the domaine, so does Ludovic, bearing a paper bag of baked treats. They are, without doubt, the best croissants and pains au chocolat I have ever tasted, shattering in crisp, buttery flakes as I bite into them. I grin like an idiot as Ludo brews up potent espresso shots to kickstart our systems. It is on such rudimentary fuel that the vignerons of Pernand-Vergelesses run, and a hard day of work is ahead.
PZZT! BANG! POW!
Due to the unseasonal warmth (26 degrees and sunny in late September), a plague of drosophiles (vinegar flies) has struck. Working at a winemaking facility, we are at ground zero of droso activity, our flying friends being attracted to anything vaguely fruity or sugary. Ludo has installed a high-voltage mosquito zapper adapted for heavy duty usage, but its glowing blue bars are already encrusted with burnt-on droso corpses. The occasional abrupt sparking noise is the backing track to our days in the cellar.
The winemaking area is a hodge-podge of barrels, machinery and rubber hoses. Our first job today is to assemble an order for Ludo’s friend Michel. Michel has been consulting to Ludo on matters viticultural and as custom dictates, he gets the option (often taken up) of being paid in wine. Ludo puts together a selection, completely unfussed that he is giving Michel an extra 40 euros of wine over a 200 euro bill. The accountant in me wants to alert him to this but wiser counsels prevail; instead I start to wonder when we city folk started to become so calculating in our dealings.
Following the list, I fetch some bottles from storage while Ludo cranks up his capsuling machine. He prints out his labels on his office printer and applies them by hand before boxing the bottles up and leaving them in the unlocked shed for Michel.
In the meantime, Emily is pouring some grapes into a spiral blade crusher, which will break the skins further before the berries are sucked into the wine press to extract the last bits of juice. After pressing, we pack the marc (residue of skins and seeds post-pressing) into large stackable containers, which Ludo moves into his van via forklift. As the van only seats three, the ladies and Ludo sit in the front and I ride steerage with the marc. The faithful Yquem is also there and he eyes me suspiciously. But I don’t only have canine company today; the drosos are here in force and I am afraid to breathe for fear of inhaling a handful of the critters. Yquem is unfussed and seems almost contemptuous of my weakness.
We pull up at the Burgundian equivalent of a municipal garbage dump, but we are not the first ones here today; tonnes of marc (and their droso chaperones) have already been deposited. Showing us how it’s done, Ludo picks up a container, which must weigh at least 40 kilograms fully loaded, and pivoting the weight in his left hand, thrusts the container and its contents over the tip, smashing the container against the edge of the tip to ensure all the marc is disposed of. I can picture this forming part of Rocky’s training regime if he ever went genteel and decided to fight in wine country. “You know marc de Bourgogne, yes? Someone will pick this up later and make alcohol from it”. So the next time you feel tempted to order a snifter of marc de Bourgogne, remember that it has been distilled from what are essentially drosophile sloppy seconds.
On our return, we are crestfallen to see the drosos have attacked the wine press, which is stained with the residue of semi-fermented grape juice. I quickly hose it down, along with a couple of “torpedoes”, effectively colanders which keep any solid matter out when we want to transfer the juice.
All of that heavy lifting has made me hungry, so we break for an early lunch – pain de campagne, reblochon and brie, some sliced tomatoes, and a bottle of Ludo’s 2009 Hospices de Beaune Pommard Cuvée Raymond Cyrot. The wine is superb, with ripe tannins and a spiciness that make it eminently drinkable, but to leave it at that would miss its significance.
The Hospices was founded in 1443 by the then-Chancellor of Burgundy, Nicolas Rolin, to look after the sick and destitute of the area. As demand for its services grew, philanthropists and winemakers supported its work by donating parcels of vineyards to the Hospices. Today, the Hospices vinifies the fruit grown on its holdings and auctions off the new wine on the third Sunday of November to raise funds for the modern hospital. Anyone, winemakers, foreign merchants and even devoted fanboys, are welcome to place their bids.
Ludo’s voice cracks when he talks about his winning bid for a barrel of 2009 Pommard (the wine bears the name of Raymond Cyrot, who donated the source vineyard to the Hospices), the first successful bid in his domaine’s young life. On his badly neglected desk rests a wood-framed Hospices label, at the foot of which is embossed the proud legend: Elevé et mis en bouteille par Ludovic Belin, Negociant-Eleveur à Pernand-Vergelesses. Yes, he’s given a couple of thousand euros to charity but you can see how much it means to him as a winemaker and descendant of winemakers, as if through this act he has become part of a noble tradition of service that has endured for almost 600 years.
In the middle of lunch, the phone rings, and Ludo rushes back into his office with a hitherto unobserved alacrity. The man that walks out is rather more downcast; the old lady with the neighbouring plot has decided not to sell her land this year, so Ludo will need to look elsewhere if he wishes to expand his holdings.
After a few glasses, we are fit only for lighter duties. 2011 hasn’t been the warmest vintage, what with a chilly July and August, so we need to chaptalise to enhance the wine’s alcohol levels. Chaptalisation gets a bad rap, but it is perfectly legal and far more commonplace than often thought, even amongst the crus classés of Burgundy and Bordeaux.
Ludo has three barrels of premium whites fermenting in new-ish oak – the premiers crus Sous Fretille and En Caradeux, and the coveted grand cru Corton-Charlemagne. He brings out his wine thief, essentially an 18-inch pipette, draws out a sample of wine, tells us “This is how we do it”, and takes a massive swig before depositing the remainder in a test tube. We gratefully follow his example, with the richly fruity Sous Fretille our unanimous favourite. Using a sugar testing implement that I can only think of as a buoyant, bobbing thermometer, Ludo works out how much more alcohol he needs over the current potential level and how much sugar he needs to add to produce it. Emily and I weigh out the sugar and feed it to the yeasts via the little plug-hole in each barrel. The wine hisses gratefully as the yeasts awake, sugar-induced, from their slumber.
Next, Ludo wheels out a tall metal box-like machine. “Temperature control”, he explains, before asking me to fit this hose here and join that tube there. After I’m done, my eyes follow the tubes, trying to fathom the wine’s labyrinthine passage. It dawns upon me: red wine is leaving the tank to be heated in the machine, and the warm wine is piped back into the tank. Ludo breaks into a big smile when he sees comprehension dawn in my eyes. “You understand!” he cries, more proud than condescending. But why do you do this? “It’s like a teabag. You get more, how do you say, extraction, when the liquid is warmer. So here, we can get more tannin, more flavour, from the berries”. Before starting the machine though, he tests the wine (taking his customary swig before doing so, of course) to ensure there is no residual sugar remaining. “If there is sugar, it will take on a more caramel flavour at the higher temperature. That will spoil the wine, so we must be sure the sugar fermentation is finished before we can do this”.
To my mind, at least, this explains the more masculine character of Ludo’s reds. In time, they settle down to reveal the enchanting soft fruit of a true Pernand cru, but in their youth, they are more forward and open. In many ways, just like their maker.
As we pack up and hose down the cuverie, a couple of neighbours walk up the hill, bearing bread and saucissons. Not to be outdone, we bring out our fromages, and Ludo cracks open bottles of his Corton-Renardes grand cru and Pommard. The sausages are garlicky, the cheeses are pungent and the wine is excellent. I can barely make out a word of the conversation and the smoke of the cigarettes stings my eyes, but the atmosphere and fellowship is so good and genuine that it barely matters.
After the neighbours wave their farewells, Michel finally turns up to collect his order. Ludo tells him “Wait, I have something for you”. He comes out of the cellar with a bottle of 2009 Côtes de Castillon. A Bordeaux. He pours each of us a glass. Having drunk nothing for the past week except minerally chardonnay and cool climate pinot noir, I feel my system rejecting the deep, dark, oaky wine and start to retch. Across the workbench, Ludo and Michel taste and shake their heads in scorn and pity. “This is SHEET!", Ludo pronounces his considered verdict. “Fecking Bordelais”. Michel nods his agreement. Picture if you can, two grown men, sitting and tasting, cursing in disappointment as if their red-headed stepchild failed, as expected, to live up to even the most modest expectations (and thereby confirming every stereotype of the Burgundian disdain for their Bordelais cousins).
Michel leaves without picking up his order; he knows it’s still going to be there the next time he drops by. Ludo says goodbye and drives back to Beaune. As has become my practice, I sit in the shed to record the happenings of the day. I notice the uncleaned glasses are attracting little swarms of drosos, who are soon drowning in rich Bordeaux goodness.
Well, at least some Burgundians seem to like it.
For full pictures, please visit http://julianteoh.blogspot.com/2012/0...
(To be continued...)
Hi Fellow Hounds,
Sorry for the delay in continuing this thread, but these are being published monthly in a magazine and I need to obey time embargoes on pain of something bad happening. Another one just passed, so here is Part 2:
PART 2 OF 4
The door creaks open. “Bonjour”, I smiled warmly at the old man, “Ludovic est içi?” This gentleman, who we later learned was Ludo’s father Jean, mumbled something unintelligible, closed the door and walked back inside. Through the glass frontage, I saw him pick up the phone.
Just to provide a little context, Pernand-Vergelesses, population 269, is a little medieval village 10 minutes’ drive north of Beaune. It’s the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else, who’s sleeping with whose wife and what you had for dinner last night. When you travel, all you need to write on your baggage tag is, “Jean Belin, Pernand-Vergelesses”. No house number, no street name, no phone number. If the local postal courier doesn’t know where to return Jean Belin’s lost suitcase, he would be sacked on the spot. Except, of course, that he’s a French public servant.
So you can imagine Jean’s trepidation when the tired, Chinese-looking strangers knocked on his door asking where his son was. I just hoped he wasn’t calling the police.
Thankfully for us, the next vehicle that pulls up around the corner is not the local gendarmerie but Ludo’s trusty old Citroën van. After catching up, he brings us some sad news. “Ze ‘arvest eez finished”, he announces solemnly, before crinkling into a big smile, “But zere eez plenty of work in ze cellars!” Budbreak in 2011 was early due to the very warm May, but the cool July and August raised my hopes that there might be a grape or two left to pick. As it is, we missed the harvest by mere days. Our rooms, which until a couple of nights ago were still inhabited by Ludo’s live-in vendangeurs, are still not made. Mattresses and sheets are strewn all over the floor, and the bathroom is cluttered with myriad shapes and colours of shampoo bottles.
“OK, you rest erp, zen I take you for a drive around my vineyards, zen you come to my ‘ouse for dinner”. Your house? Well, as it happens, Jean commands this house single-handedly. While the initials “LB” are splashed across the entrance, LB doesn’t live here. He makes his wines in a supersized shed across the driveway, but lives out in the hills near Savigny-les-Beaune.
We are soon driving around the beautiful vineyards of the Côte de Beaune, gorgeous in the evening sunlight of the Indian summer. We see the very complex break-up of the vineyards, mere rows belonging to each winemaker due to the Burgundian inheritance laws. Under these laws, each child is entitled to an equal share of his parent’s holdings, and this has significant consequences. Firstly, family-held domaines are broken up with alarming regularity, with parcels of choice land sometimes being left to feckless heirs, never again to achieve their full potential. Secondly, as time passes, descendants may be forced to sell out as their ever-shrinking holdings become too small to be worth farming.
Ludo may well have suffered the same fate, having started off with barely half an acre (2,000 bottles worth) inherited from his mother. Despite his seemingly relaxed outlook on life, he is a young man in a hurry. Through a series of purchases and leases in diverse plots from basic Bourgogne to Corton-Charlemagne, he has since built up his domaine to around 9 hectares. “I ‘ave to keep growing, so if my sons Leo-Paul and Eliot want to become winemakers...”. He finishes with an expressive shrug.
The regional plains vineyards (the fruit from which will make generic Bourgogne rouge) are our next stop. I mentioned earlier that the harvest was finished. Well, everywhere except here. The old lady in charge of an adjacent parcel gave up halfway through pruning, and the place is a mess; vines have thrown shoots everywhere, full of heavy raisin-ing fruit, and the crows are having a feast. “I made ‘er an offer last week”, Ludo confides, as we inspect the vines and taste some of the fruit. “I ‘ave not ‘eard back, but we see”.
Because of the recent warmth, the fruit is sweet and juicy, almost to the point of over-ripeness, but that is all, no acidity, no tannin, no interest. The over-fruiting will likely have stressed the vines and Ludo is unsure whether he will be able to get a crop from them next year, assuming of course, the old lady agrees to sell. God forbid, if the vines are left untouched for much longer, he may have to uproot them all and replant at great expense, and it’s going to be years before he sees a viable crop. But such is the winemaker’s mindset that he regards himself but a temporary custodian of the land. All that matters is that he leave it in a better way than he found it, for the gratification of those who will come after.
Ludo’s house is perched on the gentle hills just outside Beaune. His partner, the exotically beautiful former ballerina Laëtitia, holds court here, together with their year-old son Eliot (named after the Untouchable) and faithful dog Yquem (named after the Unaffordable). But the surrounds resemble a building site; Ludo’s projet du jour is a chambre d'hôte, an establishment offering guests a room at the proprietor’s house, so he is building an extension to the current structure. In the midst of construction, copper pipes and loose wires are a suspended spaghetti-like tangle.
Over a glass of his excellent Les Fichots, Ludo talks about his plans, his wish to offer a more intimate experience of wine country than just tasting visits. He wants to run vineyard tours, get his guests to walk between the rows of grapevines, taste fruit fresh off the shoots, enjoy a typical regional meal and sleep amidst the famous terroirs of Burgundy. And because he goes in for this kind of thing, he has also put a jacuzzi in the front, with an absolutely stonking view of Beaune and the surrounding landscape.
Dinner that evening is good but simple: store-bought tortillas reheated under the grill and served with sautéed beef slices, a fresh lettuce, tomato and cucumber salad, and numerous bottles of Ludo’s basic village wine. The wine is masculine and upfront, packing more punch than many would expect from burgundy.
The conversation is good, but Laëtitia busies herself in the kitchen while more wine is opened. I can’t see why tortillas and garden salad should take two hours to prepare, and am about to call Laëtitia to join us when she walks over, stainless steel siphon in hand. The shot glasses on the table have until now escaped my notice, but with a sibilant hiss from the siphon, each is filled with a creamy off-white dollop.
I look askance at Ludo. “You try”, he says simply. Now I hate shot glasses, and I hate food served in them. There is something pathetic about a grown man having to obtain nourishment by fumbling around a receptacle the size of his thumb. But this! I take a teaspoonful, and am instantly transported to shot glass dessert nirvana. Vanilla, coffee, caramel, little textured bits, all with that airy mousse-y texture that slides down effortlessly and leaves you wanting more.
What is it? I ask between fumbles. Cream, tonka bean powder and melted “Carambars” (a caramel candy popular with French kids), says Laëtitia. Not being French, I don’t get the childhood-memory thing, but with flavours like this, I don’t need it. Laëtitia makes a couple more rounds of the table with the siphon as we clamour for more. The penny drops when we learn that she was previously chef pâtissière at a Michelin-starred restaurant.
After a round of kisses and embraces, Ludo drives us back to the domaine (remember if you are driving around Beaune at night that the roads are likely to be filled with half-pissed winemakers making their way home). He farewells us with an offer: “Eef you are still sersty, you open any bottle in my cellar zat you like”.
Careful not to disturb Jean, we tiptoe quietly up the stairs. We are all mortally exhausted from travelling and drinking but the excitement of the day has been such that we cannot sleep. Ludo’s offer reverberates temptingly in our heads. I am rapidly developing a nasty alcoholic streak and Liz never really needed an excuse, so we tiptoe quietly down the stairs and around the yard to the cellars.
Surrounded by thousands and thousands of bottles from non-vintage cremant de Bourgogne to the prized grands crus, we are like kids in a candy shop. I still remember vividly the Corton-Charlemagne that I tasted with Ludo back in Singapore and the devil on my shoulder tells me to seek it out. But after a little deliberation, we conclude that a simple chilled village white will suffice. Ah, what’s this in his wine fridge? 2009 Pernand-Vergelesses Belles Filles Blanc? Perfect. We find a corkscrew, remove the closure, pour out two glasses, clink and drink.
And gag. My God, we gagged. The wine was unbearably corked. Serves us right for being so greedy, I couldn't help telling myself. Opening a second bottle would be to trespass on our host’s very kind hospitality, so we admit defeat and tiptoe quietly back up the stairs, still thirsty, still excitable, still unable to sleep.
Tonight, we dined. But tomorrow we work!
For more photos, etc., including the Domaine and B&B contact details, please visit http://julianteoh.blogspot.com/2012/0...
re: Julian Teoh
Since it is such a wonderful report, my I allow myself to admit that all the spelled-out French accents throughout the article became tiring. Once we get the phonetic picture, which is after the 1st quote, we need not read so much eez, zee, zen at every subsequent quote. It started to make the quotes difficult to wade through. Imagine keeping up the accent transcriptions for all quotes in a report on Beijing.
Otherwise I enjoyed the report greatly. And the pics are wonderful.
re: Julian Teoh
Oh, wonderful! And the picture of a gooood dooog rolling in vineyards speaks volumes of how great it is to be a canine vintner in Burgundy.
Having been butt of many, many jokes about my accent in English, I usually don't make fun of other people's accents. But your story reminded me of our friend from Marseille who, after having some argument with his mom, said angrily: I ate my mother! So it's all good!
Can't wait for the publishing powers to give you a green light for a third installment...
Hi Parigi and Bigos,
First of all, many thanks for reading and your kind comments.
This is written as a memoir of a trip and it is more a matter of trying to create a sense of place for readers. In line with this aim, for example, I have also tried to ensure accuracy on the accents of the French words and names I use in the article. Certainly, no disrespect was intended on my part but I apologise sincerely if I caused any offence.
PS my own accent is dreadfully confused - I suspect the only reason people haven't made fun of it yet is because no one can actually pick it!
re: Julian Teoh
I don't feel disrespected in zee least ;-)
Your chapters bring back memories of our many trips to Burgundy, spent traversing the area - dining in 3 stars restaurants and with grape pickers in little local places, drinking finest wines and humble ones without labels, just sitting there at every table. Lovely region with fantasitic food and great wines.
re: Julian Teoh
DH's accent in French is such that he said "en rut" instead of "en route", which entertains our French friends to no end.
Every time we holiday in the south, we always stop off at our fave vineyard b&b in Santenay, with vines as far as the eye can see outside our window. That area around Beaune is indeed one of the most sybaritic regions even for France. :-) The report is great for that.