March 1, 2014


Time for some wine talk. In Chaumont-le-Bois, in northern Côte d’Or, a stone’s throw from Champagne, Anne and Sylvain Bouhélier are making crémant de Bourgogne, a tasty sparkling wine made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Right next to the tasting room is the Musée du Vigneron, the Winemaker’s Museum.

Tools of the trade...back in the day
First a little history. Throughout the 19th century and before, seemingly everyone in this region had vines. They made wine for their own consumption or sold the grapes to winemakers in the area. Phylloxera devastated the region, as it did everywhere in France, destroying an economy and a tradition of a proud people. The government, of course, was concerned not only for the enjoyment of its people at the table, but also for its tax receipts. The state and the winemakers in the different regions came together to experiment, research, and find solutions to the problem. Eventually, grafting American vines to French ones and hybridization yielded a solution. But, as Mme B. was quick to point out, Phylloxera is still in the soil in France. The sap-sucking little pests have not been killed off, but the growing techniques have made the vines impervious to the assaulting offender.

Not a prop from Seven...this is a plow purchased by the first assoication of winemakers in the region
 Once that plague had been conquered, vines reappeared on the land…until around 1911, when the law of appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) affected the area. (You see this label on many bottles of French wine, a sign of quality and regional purity.) Unfortunately for the people of the Châtillonais, their region, shoulder to shoulder with -- but not part of -- our old friend Champagne, found themselves in a bad situation. Normalement, they sold the bulk of their harvest of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes to Champagne producers. Once the AOC became the law of the land, the Châtillonais was no longer eligible to sell grapes to make Champagne because their grapes were on the wrong side of the border. Armed with old maps showing that the Châtillonais used to be part of Champagne, not Bourgogne, where it is currently, those with vineyards prepared to protest vehemently this artificial border, a line on a map.  Just as their efforts were ready to amaze Paris and others with their acute knowledge of cartography and righteousness, 1914 arrived.

Now, when in Europe, one must remember that the First World War is a landmark in a way that it just is not in the U.S. Suffice to say that this little band of winemakers had other worries from 1914 on, and the wine world went away. The land no longer had vines, and people turned to more important matters, like surviving and grieving and coping.

Fast forward to the 1980s. The Châtillonais is designated as part of a territory where one can create crémant de Bourgogne. M. et Mme. B. started their vineyard in the 1990s and bought an old house from a grand-mère. In the attic, they found, amidst piles of junk, a trove of vintage winemaker’s tools. They decided, in true French fashion, that these gems couldn’t be relegated to obscurity. At their own expense, they placed the artifacts in a display space on the property.

The diploma makes another appearance...respect the diploma
It is a great place to visit if you are interested in how people used to harvest grapes and turn them into wine. Mme. B. gave a comprehensive tour, explaining how Burgundy is the cradle of wine in many ways, including a description of the 2500-year-old Cratère de Vix; the correct way to cut oak to make a barrel; and how the pressoir works.

While not next to a lot, this little museum is worth a trip. Plus, one gets to taste some delicious sparkling wines from soil that once produced grapes that ended up as bubbles in Champagne. As Mme B. pointed out, “if we don’t make quality wine, we fail.” They are not failing.

What: Wine Museum
When: September-June, Saturdays from 3-6pm; July-August, Monday-Saturday 3-6pm
Where: 1, Place Saint Martin, Chaumont-le-Bois, Côte d’Or, Burgundy

How Much: Wine museum is free; crémant is 7-13 euros a bottle

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