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A Winemaking Holiday in Burgundy (In Four Parts)

PART ONE

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

 
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      1. Where, pray tell, are parts 2 - 4?

        1. Julian, I love your writing style almost as much as your drinking style ;)
          More, please!

          1 Reply
          1. re: Bigos

            Hi all,

            Thanks for reading and for the very kind feedback, I really really appreciate it!

            In response to Mr Miller's query, Parts 2-4 currently exist in my imagination only but I shall post them as soon as I figure out what I want to say in them ;)

          2. 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...

             
             
             
             
            5 Replies
            1. 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.

              1. 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...

                1. re: Bigos

                  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!

                  1. 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.

                    1. 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.