Friday, 6 April 2012

A Winemaking Holiday in Burgundy (Part 2)

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.

Domaine Ludovic Belin - Home for the Next Week
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 delivery guy 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 potential. Secondly, as time passes, descendants may be forced to sell out as their ever-shrinking holdings become too small to be worth farming.

In the Vineyard of Corton-Charlemagne
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 Forgotten Fruit
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”.
Inspecting the Vines
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 that 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.

The view of Beaune from the B&B
Over a glass of his excellent premier cru 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.
St Vincent, Patron Saint of Winemakers

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 greedy, I couldn't help thinking to 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!

Les Combottes
21429 Pernand-Vergelesses
Tel: +33 (0)6 86 41 34 30

"LB et LB" Chambre d'Hôte (now open and welcoming guests)
La Montagne
Rue Francois Vaillant,
21200 Beaune
Tel: +33 (0)3 80 22 90 77

Related Posts:

A Winemaking Holiday in Burgundy (Part 1) -

A Winemaking Holiday in Burgundy (Part 3)

The Hill of Corton -

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