I won’t need to convince you of the merits of spending two months alone with your spouse in a Burgundian château, unfurnished but for a kitchen table and a four-poster bed. What might surprise you is that we spent our first few nights there so frightened we hardly slept.
“William,” I said to the spouse in question, in the dwindling light of evening, “we have to go see what’s in the attic.”
Upon arriving in the house, kindly lent to us by a friend to use while we worked the grape harvest, we had eagerly explored its three vaulted medieval cellars, its ten bedrooms, its drawing rooms and sitting rooms, walled gardens and vineyards – all but the attic, located at the top of a dark and winding stairway.
We held one another close as we ascended the steps and opened a series of closed doors, the last of which revealed a vast space spanning the house’s considerable length. While it contained no ghosts, monsters, or lurking malfeasants, it did continue to emit peculiar creaks and thuds throughout the remainder of our stay; sounds all the more audible for the absolute quiet of our surroundings.
There was no internet, only a few functioning electric lights, and our freelance-writers’-income permitted no thought of a foreign phone plan. Our village was quiet, with an early medieval chapel and a few homes enclosed by high walls. Apart from the hourly toll of church bells and the occasional passing car, all was silent. No other dwellings were visible, and the back garden overlooked vineyards stretching all the way up to the densely forested hills.
This cloistered estate was nestled near the beginning of a forty-mile-long limestone escarpment known as the Côte d’Or. This poetic name, which translates as “the golden slope,” is in fact – and less romantically – an abbreviation of Côte d’Orient, or “Eastern Slope.” Its favorable south-eastern exposure is part of what contributes to Burgundy’s remarkable quality, and the best vineyards are those where the sun lingers longest before dipping below the hill. The sunlight itself is distinctive: an aqueous glow that filters through the clouds and illuminates details of the landscape.
This small stretch of ground produces some of the world’s most ardently pursued and expensive wines. At their best, they are also the world’s most sensual, marrying authoritative power with exquisite finesse and perfume. But their diversity is extraordinary: the character and quality of wines from adjacent vineyards, many cultivated and bottled by a bewildering multitude of producers, can differ dramatically; differences which are enshrined in a minutely-regulated classification system of Byzantine complexity.
How can so small an area comprehend so much vinous variety? This is the most northerly region where the fickle Pinot Noir grape reliably ripens, and the marginality of the climate emphasizes the importance of minute modulations in exposition and macroclimate: ten minutes fewer of sunshine or a site subject to a chilly breeze can make all the difference between ripe and unripe grapes. Every break in the escarpment, a potential conduit for cool air from the hills, and every subtle shift in its orientation leaves its mark upon the vineyards.
Things are no less complicated below the surface: geologists and winemakers debate the importance of such arcane subjects as the mineral composition of the soil, its capacity for water-retention, the internal surface area of its clays, the kind of limestone. While it’s hard to definitively correlate factors like these with characteristics in the wines themselves, the variation below the Côte d’Or’s seemingly-uniform surface is significant enough to a least legitimize speculation.
Over the millennia, the Côte’s limestone strata have slid and slipped in a process of geological faulting that can entirely alter the subterranean makeup in the space of a foot. Montrachet and Chevalier Montrachet, for example, two of the most prestigious white wine vineyards in Burgundy, are contiguous, separated by only a narrow road; and yet a fault line between them means that they rest upon entirely different types of limestone.
Such finessed distinctions are as nothing when compared to what occurs at the foot of the slope itself. Here the bedrock falls away abruptly into the Saone graben, an almost bottomless geological trench filled with silt and clay. With neither exposition nor bedrock, grapes harvested here on the valley floor receive generic “Bourgogne rouge” and “Bourgogne blanc” appellations, the lowest rung of the classification scale, signifying that there’s nothing to distinguish one vineyard from another.
This classification system was formalized in the 1930s, but it has deep roots in the region’s rich history. Winemaking in Burgundy began in Roman times, but viticulture as we know it today started to take shape in the Middle Ages. Nobles – among them the outrageously wealthy and powerful Dukes who turned Burgundy into the post prosperous state in Europe during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries – established vineyards for their own enjoyment. They also granted land to favorite abbeys and monasteries: Cîteaux, Cluny, and others.
The Church represented a multigenerational institution with, at least in principle, very letter interest in pecuniary gain. The pursuit of perfection, so important to Christian monastic orders, spilled over from the spiritual to temporal world, inspiring innovations in winemaking. Delineated by low stone walls and meticulously tended, many of these enclosed vineyards (such as Clos Vougeot, Clos de Bèze and Clos de Tart) have survived from the 12th century, and remain among the region’s most coveted vineyard sites.
But while the vineyards have endured, their owners did not. In the late 18th century the French Revolution violently dissolved noble and monastic holdings. In their place came bourgeois and peasant landowners, whose estates were increasingly fragmented as the years passed thanks to the principle of partative inheritance, enshrined in law by the Code Napoléon since 1804.
Winemaking, however, continued, and in the 19th century a number of experts and connoisseurs followed in the monks’ footsteps and elaborated upon their work to propose a classification of Burgundy’s vineyards. In the 1930s these efforts crystalized in the official system of Appellations; all vineyards became Grand Cru, Premier Cru, Village, or generic Bourgogne. Unlike Bordeaux, where the producer of the wine is classified, in Burgundy the site itself is judged by its potential (which may or may not be realized by the current owner). With the exception of a few upgrades, the ranking has held ever since.
It was, of course, the wines that brought us to Burgundy. Indeed, it was wine that had brought us together some five years before, when William, touting his tasting group at Oxford, asked if I liked to drink the stuff. With enthusiasm that we’ll attribute to my friendly Texan manners rather than nascent dipsomania, I replied that I liked nothing better. We were married three years later.
Wine eventually took us to France. Following months of negotiation and a complete dismissal of any notion of pay, we secured work for harvest. Ease of travel lulls one into a false sense of familiarity, and while the younger generation of Burgundians are more welcoming, the place is, at heart, rural and profoundly marked by centuries of conflicts between rival villages; for every friend you make an enemy.
We persisted, but a week before we were due to arrive in Burgundy we were still without a place to stay. A generous friend finalized the purchase of the château that was to become our temporary home the day we arrived, hence the lack of furniture.
“It’s like camping, eh?” he asked that evening over the phone. Rather better.
2016 was a difficult year in the vineyards, fraught with damaging hail and rain that complicated picking dates. As we waited for harvest to begin, we visited the local winemakers: profoundly impassioned men and women, many of whom have inherited estates with centuries of history. You can’t rush a wine visit in Burgundy. They’re a philosophical bunch, bound to expound for hours on the nature of everything from art to love, but often reticent to discuss the technicalities of viticulture itself. To learn that, only getting our hands dirty would do.
Winemaking in France is a combination of back-breaking labor and three-hour lunches. Harvest work begins with triage (the process of selection), carefully removing every leaf, bunch or grape that isn’t up to standard. Some standards, of course, are more stringent than others: we were instructed to remove each unsuitable berry with tweezers, while elsewhere crates of rotting fruit were being sent to the wine press.
To make white wine, you press the grapes right away, fermenting only the clear juice, but the process for red wine is entirely different. Picked grapes are put in a tank to macerate on their skins until fermentation, which typically occurs about five days later. Various techniques are used to extract color and flavor from the skins, but due to the dangers of carbon dioxide fumes, pressing only rarely involves stomping on the grapes (although I know of one wine which bears the dubiously-translated note “Crushed by Maidens”). The grapes are pressed following fermentation and, like white wine, put in tanks or barrels to age.
Naturally, every decision along the way influences the wine’s ultimately color, flavor and texture. The entire process is remarkably rapid: with white wine, picking to barreling can take place within a matter of hours. Most of harvest is unglamorously spent cleaning the cellar and equipment.
Since we were working with a very small producer, our harvest period lasted only two weeks – larger domains might harvest from their various sites for over a month – but our time in Burgundy was by no means at an end. As a more normal schedule of reviewing resumed (if you can call tasting up to 100 wines a day normal), we began to truly sink into the pace of Burgundian living.
Our house, initially so frightening, no longer seemed quite so big and strange. I fell into certain rituals: a favorite was walking up to the forest to pick fresh mint, rosehips, and linden for a Proustian tisane every morning; another was going to the Beaune market every Saturday to select the week’s sustenance from a remarkable array of fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, and poultry. In the evening, my enthusiastic cook of a husband would prepare some elaborate local dish: Boeuf Bourginon or Poulet Gaston Gerard.
We occasionally dined out at restaurants: one favorite, hardly altered since the Middle Ages, has a duck confit worth crossing oceans for; another roasts meat over an open fire in the middle of the room. At our local café the proprietress began to greet us with bisous (a kiss on each cheek), and since we had no telephone or internet at home, we were there so often that I even befriended a regular – hitherto known only as “the lady who drinks three pints of beer for breakfast.”
Another unlikely friend was the owner of a local lingerie store, full of advice on life and undergarments alike, and never one to mince her words. “Well,” she said as I opened the dressing room curtain the first time we met, “it’s better to have too much than too little.”
We often dined with friends – something of a hazard given the inevitable proffering of wines, be it lunch or dinner, combined with a long drive home on tractor-infested roads. One friend, an older ex-pat Englishman who once uttered the phrase “I’d drunk so much that I could barely stumble back to my car,” told me not to worry: I was unlikely to be arrested since I had an American license. Rest assured that I did not take his advice to heart.
On rare days off we traveled further afield. The Côte d’Or possesses an astounding concentration of historic sites: 27% of the country’s official cultural patrimony. It’s a rare place where medieval abbeys and ruined castles are as much a part of everyday life as grocery stores, but Burgundy is one such, although various revolutions provided ample opportunities to destroy the dwellings of the much-despised nobles and tithe-collecting monks.
Among the region’s many historic sites, the hilltop town of Vézelay, which looks as though it’s sitting upon a sea of mist every morning, is one of the loveliest. So, too, is the Abbey of Fontenay, dripping with bright red creeper and situated at the base of a hill after a long string of meandering valleys adjoined by a winding stream. Left to my own devices I always made my way up to the hidden hilltop remnants of a ruined castle, so rarely visited that I could spend hours there undisturbed.
The hot spell that had marked the beginning of our stay in August gave way in mid-October to frosty nights. On our arrival there were still roses blooming on the ancient well in the garden, and it was just warm enough to swim in the pool after a few fortifying glasses, but by our last week in Burgundy we were huddling together for warmth. At last even the vines, deep green in early September, began to fade to yellow and red, bright against the dense blue mist that clouded the Combes and Clos.
After a few adventures with the gas and pilot light, I abandoned the hope of modern heating. We lit roaring fires to keep the cold at bay in the cavernous kitchen, and went to bed with layers of clothing, socks, and hats to ward off the winds that whistled through the pretty 18th-century windows in our bedroom.
On our final night we stoked the biggest fire yet, put on Shubert’s Death and the Maiden, and lingered over a five course dinner – naturally enjoyed with a good few bottles of Burgundy made long before we were born.