Thursday, 10 May 2012

A Winemaking Holiday in Burgundy (Part 3)

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.



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. 

The Capsuling Machine at Work

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.

Juice of Pinot Noir in the wine press

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 alcool 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.

Drosos by the Wine Press

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.

Cleaning a Torpedo

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.

Drawing out some wine for tasting...I mean sugar testing

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”.

Gently heating the wine...

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 says “Wait, I have something for you”.  He comes out of the cellar with a bottle of 2009 Cotes 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 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.

Attack of the Drosos, part 73

Well, at least some Burgundians seem to like it.  

"Les Combottes"
21420 Pernand-Vergelesses
Tel: +33 (0)6 86 41 34 30

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