Sunday, 17 June 2012

A Winemaking Holiday in Burgundy - Part 4

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 rat-race 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.


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 before, we are more than happy to accept.

Vincent Rapet - a winemaker par excellence!

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 achieves 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 said conveyance 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.

Eliot travelling to his first Michelin three-star meal

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. 

One way to make an entrance

Lunch is good but not spectacular, 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. 

(L to R): Roast veal, potatoes and girolles; and tarte de legumes with snails, parsley and garlic foam at Lameloise

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 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 above), 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. 

Ludovic, a scion of the Rapets, with the
1976 Domaine Rapet Aloxe-Corton en magnum

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.

Some of the spoils from our trip

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!”

Farewell, Pernand-Vergelesses!

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!

Notebook:

Domaine Ludovic Belin et Fils
Les Combottes
21420 Pernand-Vergelesses
Website: www.domaine-ludovic-belin.com
Email: belin.ludovic@wanadoo.fr
Tel: +33 (0)6 86 41 34 30

Domaine Rapet, Pére et Fils
21420 Pernand-Vergelesses
Website: www.domaine-rapet.com
Email: Via the website
Tel: +33 (0)3 80 21 59 94

Related Posts:

A Winemaking Holiday in Burgundy - Part 1 
A Winemaking Holiday in Burgundy - Part 2 
A Winemaking Holiday in Burgundy - Part 3 
The Hill of Corton



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