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May 11, 2007

Working the Land in Burgundy


A handful of Burgundian dirt: Is this the soil that launched a thousand sips?

Bad news was waiting in Burgundy: A wind was blowing. It was a perfect day to send up a kite, and therefore absolutely not perfect for going up in a hot air balloon, which was the reason I had driven all the way from Monaco. I was, in other words, grounded.

If there's a place on this planet to get grounded, however, it's Burgundy, and the reason has to do with the ground. It consists of a layer of clay soil -- from a geological point of view, a thin film -- and beneath it is limestone bedrock. It is the most delicious ground in the world. It is so delicious that buyers from France, the United States, Japan, Great Britain, Russia, and almost every other country are prepared to pay as much as $2,500 for a bottle of that ground. There are no rocks or soil in those slope-shouldered bottles. There is wine: red or white.

The French call it "terroir." This is the idea that a particular place expresses itself in the food or drink that's produced there. For many wine drinkers, this effect is nowhere more powerful than in Burgundy. Not all of Burgundy, mind you -- most of it is grazing pasture for big, white Charolais beef cattle -- but a stretch of hillside called the Cote d'Or.

Burgundy is the mother country, the Holy Land, Mecca. Every year, worshippers come by the thousands. They drive along Burgundy's narrow roads that wind through the gently sloping hills and stop at wineries to sink their nose beneath the rim of a perfectly tapered glass to inhale the mind-spinning bouquet. They part with their money gladly. Back at their hotels, they wrap their newly acquired bottles carefully in sweaters and T-shirts, and laid in suitcases like confit in congealed fat. They pray their purchases make it through customs.

A few of them stay. Blair Pethel is one such person. Way back, Blair Pethel was a financial journalist from North Carolina living in London. Blair is a person who likes eating. His eating led him, as it does with many, to wine, and from there, to an acute enjoyment of wine from Burgundy. In 1987, he went to a wine tasting hosted by the Burgundian wine-maker Patrice Rion. Several years later, he traveled to Burgundy and worked the harvest at Parice's winery, Domaine Daniel Rion at Fils.


Blair Pethel loves his job

When his three-month pilgrimage was coming to an end, Patrice took Blair to the cave to taste the wines. Patrice made a total 27 different wines, all vinified the same way, from red pinot noir, grown in accordance to laws that have dictated how grapes should be grown in Burgundy for hundreds of years. The only thing different about the wines was the actual parcels of land where the grape vines grew. (The land in Burgundy is divided into an absurd multitude of parcels, some as narrow as a few rows.) Blair tasted all 27. Each was different, some profoundly so. "To me," Blair says, "there was only one thing that could have explained that difference: the places where they were grown. It was empirical evidence of terroir."

It was powerful evidence. In  2003 Blair, his wife, Fran, and their two children moved to Beaune, Burgundy. They bought a house built in 1640 on Rue des Tonneliers -- Barrel Maker's Street. The house, like so many houses in Burgundy, is its own expression of terroir. The walls are made out of limestone bedrock and the roof tiles are made out of fired clay. So far, no one has attempted to grow vines in the eaves, but I think it may be worth a try.

The family also bought four parcels of grape-growing land on the Cote d'Or. By 2004, Blair was bottling his own Burgundy. As far as he knows, he's the only purebred American -- he has no French relations of any sort -- making wine in Burgundy.

Lucky for me, back when Blair was a financial journalist, he worked with my brother Erik, who is also a financial journalist, but who, unfortunately, owns no vineyards. (We will all be meeting Erik in about a week's time, when he will be joining me on a long boat ride during which he will be assuming the role of comic foil.) I e-mailed Blair, told him I'd be passing through town, played up the brother connection, and boom: He replied with an invite. He would be happy for me to stay in his home, he said, and to show me the winery. This kind of invitation could fetch a considerable amount eBay.

It wouldn't be a stretch to call wine loving a religion, and one of the nice things about religious people is that they show you their most sacred sites. In this manner, Blair showed me all around Burgundy. We began with Blair's personal cave, which sits beneath his house and may actually date earlier than 1640. From there, we headed to the winery. A few years ago, the winery was someone's house, but now it's filled with a row of steel fermentation tanks and various high-tech machines.

In one tank sat Blair's 2005 Corton Charlemagne, and there was a problem with it. A few days earlier, Blair had taken a sample to his enologist in Beaune and was given bad news. There was too much carbon dioxide in the wine. Normally, carbon dioxide sits at around 700-800 milligrams per liter, but the Corton Charlemagne had CO2 at around 1,000 milligrams per liter, a level at which it can be tasted. (It gives the wine a bubbly quality.) The enologist had a solution: Pump nitrogen through the wine. But Blair didn't want to do this because important aromas would be lost. Blair's friend Patrice had another suggestion: Heat the wine to about 15 degrees C, then bang the hell out of the side of the vat.

In the next room we saw the cave, filled with oak barrels, which were themselves filled with aging wine. Blair lifted the stopper off the top of a bottle and let me listen to the aging wine. It sounded like a glass of club soda, but much quieter, and also much finer. Here Blair posed the question: "Mark, would you like to taste some of the wines?" Only a dog is able to communicate the level of enthusiasm I was experiencing, and since I don't have a tail to wag, nor am I in the habit of yelping, I merely said, "I'd love to."

I will spare you the descriptions of the wines. Wine terminology is inherently flowery and veers towards pretension. Plus, I didn't spit out nearly as much wine as I should have into the spittoon, so the truth is that I can't quite remember them all. What I do remember is that the young reds had a lot of "grip." Shortly after, I started to lose mine.

Our penultimate stop was the Abbe de St. Vivant, which you can only get to by embarking on a stunning 15-minute hike. The place is a ruin, crumbling, skeletal and slowly being swallowed by the earth, but the abbey is where it all started. In the tenth century, the monks here walked across the valley to a stretch of hillside called the Clos de Vougeot and planted pinot noir vines. Every fall for centuries afterwards, they hauled ripe grapes across the valley to be aged at the abbey, no doubt wondering why they built it where they did.


Abbe de St. Vivant, where the magic happened

On the way back into Beaune, we stopped by Patrice's place to buy some bottles. As much as I wanted to buy some of Blair's vintages, and as much as he wanted to sell them, I could not because he was completely sold out. Patrice is taking a trip to China in a couple months, and he wanted to hear about my experience there. As I sipped his wine, I told him about the Great Wall. He listened, he poured. We were a good match.

For Blair, the biggest surprise in the transition from journalist to grape farmer and wine maker was the sheer amount of physical work.  Each grape vine -- Blair has 8,000 -- requires 10 to 12 minutes of handwork a year. Blair does the vast majority himself. But on the next morning, I pitched in. The day's task was what's called ebourgeonnage, and it means tearing off roughly half the new shoots from the vine so that the plant lavishes more nutrients on the remaining ones, making for a richer and more intense grapes.

Wine making in Burgundy, it turns out, is the art of making the vine's life difficult. The wine tastes best when the vine is old, and when it has to struggle. Inclined, dry slopes are preferable to flatter, moister ones. An aggressive regimen of soil tilling is required to cut any roots growing sidelong so that they burrow straight down into the limestone, where they absorb flavor-enhancing nutrients and then circulate them to the few remaining bunches of grapes.

Wine making in Burgundy, it turns out, is also the art of making the vintner's life difficult, or in this case, the life of the brother of a former colleague of the vintner. Ebourgeonnage is just plain difficult. You have to bend, squat, or sit to manhandle a vine, and getting up from either position elicits joint creaking and muscle strain. The terroir may taste good, but it's hard and rocky and is no fun to sit on. To the newbie, the sheer quantity of vines in each row takes on existential proportions. After 20 minutes of ebourgeonnage, the price of the wine starts to seem like a bargain. After another 20 minutes, you need to drink some.


When do we stop for a wine break?

That night would be my last in Burgundy. The wind was showing no signs of slowing down, and it was getting to be time for me to move north, to the land of seafood and clarified butter known as Normandy. Before going, I really and truly wanted to taste Burgundy's terroir. The soil itself tastes sandy, with hints of mud and aromas of earth. But the soil supports grapes, and where it does not, it supports cows.

I dropped in at Blair's favorite butcher and bought the largest Charolais steak he had. I then purchased several raw-milk cheeses and pastries for dessert. Blair came home with good news. He'd taken the sample of the 2005 Coron Charlemagne to his enologist in Beaune and Patrice's drum banging had worked. Carbon dioxide levels were way down. There would be no need to pump nitrogen. It was time to celebrate.


Charolais steak, one of Burgundy's other big exports

Blair cooked up a gratin dauphinoise. He made it with comte cheese instead of the usual gruyere because Franche-Comte may not be in Burgundy, but it's darn close. As it bubbled in the oven, we grilled the steak over oak and as it rested, we grilled a giant green leafy vegetable that you might call a Burgundian mutant bok choy. We sat down at the family table, ate the beef, the potatoes, and the greens, then the cheeses -- epoisses, galet de poset, abbaye de citeaux, and delice de pommard. We concluded with the pastries. With every bite, there was a sip of wine: a 1999 Chassagne Montrachet premier cru made by Jean Marc Pillot -- another friend of Blair's -- and finally a 2000 Pommard Domaine Lejeune premier cru.

For a grand stretch of two hours, the land expressed itself on our tongues, and what it had to say was beautiful.

Posted at 47 01.30 N and 04 50.23 E


Oh my. Yum.

Wow, I'm thirsty just reading it. In the big push for "sustainability" in the news, I suspect we could all learn a lot from these guys, after all they have been growing for hundreds of years in the same plot of ground without depleting the soil. I shall go right now and tip a glass in your honor!

another good one - what a wonderful experience!

I can't decide what I am most jealous of: the adventure you are on, or your ability to crank out outstanding copy at every stop along the way. This has been a joy to read, I don't want it to end. Happy trails.


I have to read your postings just before dinner because I get so hungry. What an adventure this is.

Hi Mark,
This is the first article I've read on your adventure - fabulous. I want your job! I live in California wine country, so I always love reading about wine and terrior. Lookng forward to more articles.

I understand the passion. Each September we go to France to help my very American daughter and her husband pick grapes and make a very good Cote du Rhone.
P.S. We also get recruited for pruning and débourgeonnage.

Burgundy! I'll drink to that and to that too!....

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