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Thursday, 3 May 2012

Fly on the Wall: A Salute to Burgundies

'Tell Me Where You've Been,
and I'll Tell You Where You're Going'

By Don Merlot
[Writers Clearinghouse News Service]
There, standing inside the vineyards of Vougeot was a massive medieval château, which has become the symbol of winedom. I stood there in awe and was being absorbed into the history of wine as I know it, ancient wine history, and the Burgundy culture, the raison d’etre of France, the early Christian Church and Pax Romana. I had read about it, and now I stood at the very spot where Col. Bisson, who was leading a French regiment, paused and saluted the Clos de Vougeot. Col. Bisson fought for Napoleon following the French Revolution and knew the value and culture of this monument. In front of the Château he commanded his troops to make a “left face” and ordered the colour guard to dip the French flag to one of the Glories of France.

This beau geste has been immortalized by every French army detachment since that gesture when marching down the Route Nationale (N 74). The army will stop and salute the great vineyard. To me, every time I visit the Clos de Vougeot I see the founders of the order, the Cistercians, who not only cultivated and developed the greatest red and white wines of Burgundy but originated from Citeaux and had the Abbot of Vezelay –- Bernard of Clairvaux -- who commanded and had the power and reputation as the “Pope Maker,” and could summon European kings and noblemen to launch the Second Crusade in 1146; and most significant to the church he was the founder and organizer of the Knights Templar, who were his fellow Cistercian brothers, who were Knights, monks, soldiers and protectors of the pilgrims going to the Holy Land. He later was beatified and is St. Bernard.

As I stood in front of the Château I marvel that, except for a few modern vehicles in the area, this place has a permanent vista of Burgundy of the last millennium. Although it is the wrong Napoleonic battle, I could imagine the music of the Marseilles, as composed by  Tchaikovsky in the 1812 Overture. I could sense the historical pride that as I stood in the panorama on offer.
In 1162 the Cistercian brotherhood focused their wine making skills and controlled 125 acres. The Clos was built as a pressing shed and storage place.  By 1336 they completed the wall around the Clos. The brotherhood graded wines into three categories:t top wines came from the highest part of the vineyard, Musigny and Grands Échézeaux that were reserved for gifts to the high prelates of the Church. In 1359 the Abbot of the Cistercians gave Pope Gregory XI thirty kegs of wine (equal to 9,000 bottles), and he was rewarded with a cardinal’s biretta four years later. The brotherhood expanded out to France and became known as the Trappists monks. Today the Clos is the headquarters for the French Burgundy society, Les Chevaliers du Tastevin.
The Clos de Vougeot is in the Cote de Nuits the northern district of the Cote d’Or. So when the Cistercians arrived and planted the vineyards they went to the Cote de Beaune also. Their improvement of Meursault a white wine was impressive. After the involvement of the brotherhood in 1162 the fame of Meursault grew across Western Europe. The prestigious category of whites was: Montrachet, which is the grand seigneur. Alexandre Dumas said of Montrachet that it should be imbibed only when one is bareheaded and kneeling.
Meursault is legendary in its own right.
When I visited the Basilica of Ste. Mary Magdalene in Vezelay near Chablis, I was again awed by the Church history. They claimed to have had the relics of Mary Magdalene, and that the path from Santiago Campostella (in western Spain) taken by pilgrims from Santiago to Vezelay connect the two. Santiago is Spanish for Saint James, the disciple of Jesus Christ. What intrigued me from a historical perspective was that not far from the pilgrims’ route was Vienne the last stop of Pontius Pilate who had been exiled by Caligula. Today I think of those six “degrees of separation.” (NB: not that the Da Vinci code is true, but historical novels are intriguing as is early Christian history). During the French Revolution the new created State controlled the Church vineyards and the properties were sold privately as biens nationaux. Burgundy was broken up and sold into parcels of vineyards. The quality and prestige of the wines collapsed, but great efforts since World War II have been made to restore their prestige.
Burgundy is made up of ancient history, and wine lore and much wine history since 1 AD. Burgundy is today a department of France; it was a viniculture that traces its origins to the Phoenicians in 600 B C. Wine development was encouraged after the fall of Gaul, and Western frontier wines beyond the Alps became a major competitor to Roman wines which suffered from suppressed prices as the western wines became better and better and rivaled the Roman quality. The Emperor Domitian decreed after being encouraged by Roman vintners that the vineyards beyond the Alps be uprooted in 92 AD. In 210 Emperor Probus allowed the vineyards to come back, and following the Roman Gallic conquest, vineyards flourished: Champagne and Burgundy became the favourites of the western Church leaders, western kings and western nobles.
By the time the western civilized world developed written history, wine as we know it had already developed its current modus operendi. Archeologists can find wine, grapes and wine holders in bas-relief carvings and paintings. In our Western religious culture, we find wine mentioned in the Bible: Noah “drank of the wine and was drunken.” Egypt, Persia, have wine carvings and drawings. In Eastern mythology DIONYSUS comes west from Asia into Egypt, Thrace, and the Mediterranean. BACCHUS comes from Egypt to Greece and Rome. These ancient gods and names make wine part of the western tapestry of life. Records show the Wine festivals called Bacchanalia were banned in 186 BC. Hebrew Law governs the mis-use of wine.
Wine came to France through the port of Marseilles with Phoenicians in 600 BC. Wine today is defined as Table wines, Sparkling wines(effervescent) and Fortified wines, which have wine brand added at the stop the fermentation. Wine is white, pink (or Rosé) and or red. Wine has 9% to 13+% alcohol, and fortified wine has 20% Alcohol. White wine comes from green or gold color grapes. Red wine comes from red skinned grapes. When harvesting to get a red wine you leave the red skins to blend with the grape juice. For white wines from red grapes you remove the red grape skins before fermenting.
History tells us that the Burgundii are of Scandinavian descent and arrived in the 5th Century via the Rhine. There was Burgundy wine before that and from the vitis Venifera that had come from Italy and Gaul (pre-Christian Era). It is known that in the first Century Gallic tribes that had settled around Auxerre and Macon were already drinking wine. When the Burgundii came in post 500 AD across the Saône the rivals for the region were the Franks, who eventually became Frenchmen. The Franks and their King Charlemagne penetrated as far as Corton (Charlemagne Corton -– a superb white Burgundy that is made with the Chardonnay grape.) As a political entity Burgundy has been a Kingdom, a Duchy, a county and a Province. Today, it is made up of the Cote D’Or, Saone-et Loire, Yonne and part of Rhone.

It was the Burgundian Duc, Philip the Bold who forbade the blending of the grape Gamay with Pinot Noir, hence why the red wines are not blended and blending is forbidden. On the White side Chardonnay is for white wine only. Aligote cannot be blended as it would lose its AOC status.
The Burgundy wines of the Cote D’Or are only part of the story of French wines that emerged in the 20th Century as the epitome of table wines. Burgundy wines beyond the Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC) wine governing protocols go From Chablis, to Dijon the Cote d’Or, the Chalonnais and the Maconnais, Beaujolais to Lyon.
Burgundy makes still wines (Cote d’Or), Chalonnais. Maconnais and Beaujolais. Burgundy makes Sparkling wine, Mousseux. Burgundy makes a Brandy, Marc de Bourgogne.
Today a pure-bred Cote d’Or will fetch a three digit price if it has a pedigree. One can look all over to see what is available. We are limited to two grapes. White Wine is the Chardonnay and to a lesser degree the Pinot Blanc; the Red wine is the Pinot Noir. There is a Rosé as I recall and it comes from Marsannay. I love Burgundy, but unlike what I could do 40 years ago, I do not buy them except for a very special occasions or for friends who have my passion for Burgundy.

My favourite food natches with Burgundy (Cote d’Or) wines and for special occasion follow:
White:  Meursault and Dover Sole grilled & off the bone and with steamed spinach.
I like Chablis with a Chilean Sea Bass or a French Loup stuffed with fennel.
I like a veal Roast with a white Pernand-Vergelesses and roasted endive with blue cheese.
Red: The best red wine meal for me is a Morey-St. Denis with a Leg of Lamb, Saffron rice and sautéed Spinach.
A fat trimmed off sirloin with a green pepper gravy and English roasted potatoes.
The Cote d’Or is divided into two districts: the Cote Nuits (North). The reds dominate the cote d’Or but there are some white Burgundies.
And the Cote de Beaune. Where the Hospice de Beaune is headquartered and was the government building for the Duc de Bourgogne. The White Burgundies become fuller ads are legendary and rivals of the red wines.
The rest of Burgundy is made up of other wine districts.
Chardonnay: White not as expensive as the Cote d’Or: Rully fish or shell fish.
Red which is Pinot Noir and not as expensive as a Cote D’Or. Mercurey with red meat.
Try a St. Veran white – Fish with cream sauce.
Look for a cru Beaujolais for a good red and red meat. My favorite is Moulin au Vent if you can find it.
If you are on a budget get a Beaujolais Villages. (Young recent vintage, and not old).
Remember these are my favourites after 40 years of sampling, and I strongly suggest you find what pleases you. You can teach history, but you cannot teach experience.
Don Merlot, also known as Ron Alonzo, has created Don Merlot Enterprises LLC – 2012. He is a Chevalier of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin since 1991 – Nuits St. Georges, France. He is a Professionel de la Table of the Chaine des Rotisseurs since 2007 – Paris, France, a founder of Le Groupe Vin (with Ralph Carreño– St. Joseph, Michigan, 1975), started a Chapter of Les Amis du Vin chapter in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, in 1980, and has traveled the vineyards in France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, New Zealand, Australia, Chile and Argentina, and Uruguay.