January 4, 2016

Wine Tasting

At work, old school style
Near the end of 2015, it was, as is so often the case here, time to visit some winemakers and taste some wine. Though I know a lot of different winemakers and their products, when it comes time to discover new ones, I basically rely on the good ol' internets to help me through.

I don't know any winemakers based in Chassagne-Montrachet, a village famous for some of the world's finest white wines. At the entrance to the village, there is a sign eliminating any and all doubt about the quality of the town's Chardonnays. It reads, "Les meilleurs vins blancs du monde," or, modestly, "the best white wines in the world." I figured that if I was seeking a new discovery, I could do worse than here.

After some preliminary research, I called one winemaker who seemed to make a nice variety of wines at different price points, from the regional to the grand cru. I said I would be interested in scheduling a tasting and eventually purchasing some wine. The woman who answered told me that, in all likelihood, such a visit was "impossible." I explained that I live in the area and was looking to develop my wine cellar a little bit and the family's winery seemed to be a place that could help me with quality products. I emphasized that I wished to purchase, not just taste, the wines. She asked if I was already a client of the domaine, which I answered in the negative. "Écoutez, Monsieur," she said, "I will check with my children as it is they who manage these types of affairs. But I do not think we will be able to accomodate your request." She took my number and promised someone would call me back. This was a call that, two years ago, I would have expected to have returned. Experience has taught me, however, that there was practically no chance of a callback. Experience was right.

One of the vexing things for the wine enthusiast or the tourist visiting Burgundy is that the winemakers really have all the power. There are 4000 of them in the region, and the average family estate is around 6 or 7 hectares (about 15 acres +/-). Such an operation can produce somewhere between 15,000-30,000 bottles per year, depending on the weather. So, when the winery has a list of clients that demands about that number of bottles, the winery can basically eschew all marketing and close its doors to the public. Even though they get calls from people like me seeking to purchase wine, they have the bizarre luxury of refusing new clients, explaining, quite simply, that they do not have any wine to sell. The American in me obviously wonders why they don't try to buy more vines or buy grapes from other growers in order to increase their production and their profits. The French in me understands that such ideas resemble the four letter word "work." 

I say that not in a pejorative sense. Burgundian winemakers are afraid of hail, but they do not shy away from labor. They work six days a week, year-round, tending their vines, caressing their grapes, fixing their tractors, planning the harvest, and, of course, making and aging their wines. They literally live in the vineyards, often coaxing grapes from vines a few steps from their front doors. Their hands are gnarled and thick, boots are their preferred footwear, and they toil in mud, rain, heat, mist, sleet, snow, and fog. They make they average person feel lazy.
Our host
But when the family business does enough to provide a suitable living, they are content. They do not seek market dominance. They do not pine for fame. They do not covet spots on the wine lists of the world's best restaurants. Instead, they are content to provide a quality product with a quality story to quality customers, whose loyalty they treasure. So when the Yankee comes calls up and breezily asks when he can come to buy wine, they just shake their heads and say, "non." 

Happily, there is enough wine to go around if you're willing to look for it, and a little perseverance always leads to some tastings. I contacted a second winemaker in Chassagne, and a few weeks later found myself in the company of Vincent Dancer, who welcomed me and my wife into his cellar for a tasting of his whites.

We started with some 2014 regional that was not yet in the bottles and progressed up through his entire line. The wines were all chilled but not too cold, and the aromas were consistently pleasing. Sometimes, a regional wine and a grand cru don't differ all that much, but chez Dancer, the higher we climbed, the nicer the wines. In simplest terms: they would all be excellent wines to serve to people who say, "Oh, I don't like Chardonnay." Sure you don't...drink this. And, when we sipped on the premier and grand cru, you could feel your mouth starting to crave food: a seared scallop, perhaps, or maybe a nice chicken in cream sauce, or even a comté cheese with a little nuttiness. 

It was so relaxed and casual, the welcome so warm and friendly, that it was possible to overlook that we were tasting appellations that would make most wine nerds swoon: Chassagne-Montrachet and Meursault in both village and premier cru, and Chevalier-Montrachet grand cru, a wine that is routinely amongst the most expensive whites in the world, sometimes selling for more than $500 a bottle. 

Vincent chatted with us about his methods, the history of his operation, and his client base. It is incredibly important and educational to have direct contact with winemakers here because each time you think you have something figured out, you realize that this is intensely personal work. He told us that many French clients come into his cellar and say, "Oh, you love lots of oak, like Robert Parker." Them's fighting words in Burgundy, as Parker is synonymous with American tastes, far from the more subtle, delicate flavors the French palate prefers. He sighed and said, "The reason is that I power wash the outside of my oak barrels as well as the insides, so people think I am only using new oak, which gives wines much more woody flavors. But the truth is that my barrels are 5, 6, 7 years old. I just like them clean." He also let us into his world a little bit, explaining that he and his winemaking friends very rarely drank Burgundy wines, instead preferring to venture farther afield, traveling in a glass to Argentina, Chile, Bordeaux, and Chianti. While other winemakers have professed to the same openness to wines from elsewhere, I have never seen anything other than Burgundy on their tables. Vincent convinced me that he wasn't all talk, detailing where he finds his wines and what he likes to drink. Throughout, no one checked a watch or a phone. We never felt rushed nor like we were imposing upon our host. It felt hanging out with a friend.
Hallowed Terroir
As the morning wrapped up and we got ready to head off for lunch, I asked him if I might see a price list so we could buy some bottles. Our host had generously poured 8-10 wines for us for free, and we had enjoyed many of them immensely. It seemed only natural that we would express our gratitude by purchasing some nectars.

France, as she is wont to so, laughed at me. Vincent said that he had no wine to sell us, but maybe we could call back in March when the 2014s would in bottles, and he might be able to propose some options to us. A little awkwardly, we thanked him profusely and went off for a three-course lunch. I have no idea how much his wines cost, but I am looking forward to calling him in a few months to see if I might be lucky enough to procure a few bottles for my modest cellar. 

Check back soon for our afternoon tasting in the town of Monthélie, where the experience was just as charming, but entirely different.

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