There’s no substitute for visiting a wine region to really appreciate its wines, especially if you have The Society’s Burgundy buyer as your guide.
Tasting 2015 Burgundies
In November 2016 I joined Toby for four days of his three-and-a-half week trip to taste the 2015 vintage; a buying trip which paves the way for our Burgundy en primeur offering the following spring.
Tiny vineyard plots are typical in Burgundy, immediately setting it apart from those of Bordeaux
Malolactic fermentation plays a big part in the production of Burgundy wines, so in order to be able to properly assess the quality of a vintage, it is necessary to wait for the process to finish before planning a trip to taste the wines. This is why the trip takes place a year and a bit after the vintage – something that members frequently query.
If you want to read more about what happens during malolactic fermentation (where sharper malic acids are turned into softer, lactic acids), Master of Wine Caroline Gilby writes on the subject here.
Getting to Burgundy
It's a relatively straightforward Eurostar journey from London to Dijon, changing only once in Paris and with enough time to walk from the Gare du Nord to the Gare de Lyon, it was far from stressful. Toby had arranged to meet me at Dijon station on the Sunday afternoon so that we could drive from there to our hotel in Beaune via the Route des Grands Crus, which takes you via many of the Côte d'Or's most famous vineyards.
Immediately I was immersed in all things Burgundian, as a grateful student of Toby's. As soon as we left Beaune and headed towards the vineyards, Toby was able to talk me through every vineyard that we could see on the right and left-hand side of the car, describing their microclimates and the impacts that the different parcels of different soil has on the wines.
Patchwork of pocket-sized vineyards in the Côte de Beaune. Toby pointed out all the essential differences between them as we passed by on our route south.
For a wine lover I can only describe it as being similar to a tourist's first visit to London, driving past Big Ben and Buckingham Palace, followed by The Tower of London and stopping off at St Paul's. To be able to see such legendary vineyards as Romanée-Conti and Le Montrachet in real life, after reading about these legendary slopes, was really quite special.
The schedule for the four days was a busy one, as it had been for Toby for the previous three weeks. We had four or five producers to see each day in order to taste their 2015 wines, from the Mâconnais, right down in the south, to the top of the Côte de Nuits at the northern end. Whilst I was lucky enough to meet a lot of very talented, interesting and enthusiastic winemakers, here I have chosen to write about a select few who really stood out for me.
...and as members will know if they have read Toby's comprehensive Burgundy wine guide, it's all about the producers!
Comparing Bordeaux and Burgundy – my observations
Not long after discovering a love of the subject of wine, for so many, next comes the discovery of Burgundy. Home to many of the greatest wines in the world, Burgundy is often seen to have a little more mystery about it than Bordeaux, its big fine-wine rival with which it is often compared.
Of course you learn about Burgundy when studying wine; you read about it in books and even get to taste the wines (if you're lucky!), but there's still that element of mystique and, for me, it wasn't until going there in 2016 that I really felt as though I was starting to get to know the place. There's no substitute for visiting a region to properly get under its skin. Doing this in the company of Toby, who spends several weeks a year in the region, is obviously an added bonus.
While it's true that some Burgundies rank amongst the most expensive wines in the world, comparing only with those of Bordeaux in terms of their legendary or cult status; a significant difference between the two regions struck me immediately.
At the top-end level in Bordeaux, you'll drive up the gravel drive of a grand château and be met by a smart person in a suit when you visit. Rarely is this the château owner, rather an export manager or sales person.
A scrupulously tidy cellar or installation art, you decide. The cellar of Jean-Philippe Fichet
In Burgundy, you can go to one of the most famous domains yet still have the door opened to you by the owner, who its likely is wearing a grubby fleece, old trainers and with dirt under their finger nails. This is because they often not only own the place but also oversee everything, often only helped out by their husband or wife and a small handful of employees. You're immediately in the heart of the winery.
The best way to describe this, I thought during the visit, is by comparing it to an artist, a painter for example. It's like arranging to meet up with an extremely talented artist, whose work sells for an awful lot of money. You pull up to their studio, perhaps a shed or something similarly modest, knock on the door and they answer it, with paint all over their clothes and hands, a cold cup of coffee in the corner and perhaps just a dog for company (similarly paint splattered). You walk into the studio and there you see some of the most valuable and rare works of art in the world, born from otherwise modest surroundings. For me, this is Burgundy and so many of its winemakers.
> Toby Morrhall talks more about Burgundy with reference to Bordeaux in his in-depth Burgundy wine guide here.
Where to go next?
> Return to trip overview
> Meet the Producers