Friday, 13 July 2007

A Trip to Burgundy

The lot of a wine buyer is never one to elicit sympathy from those whose job does not involve visiting some of the best estates in the world and tasting their wares. However, I usually visit this particular corner of France in the depths of mid-winter, when lifeless vines dominate a bleak landscape lit by a few desultory hours of daylight. A June trip is therefore something of a novelty, checking into a hotel full of tourists instead of members of the wine trade, driving past vineyards in full leaf, and finishing the day’s visits while the sun is still in the sky.

This year, a very fine, hot April gave the vines such an early boost that they are three weeks ahead of schedule. Not only does this dictate a very early harvest, but it also raised an unusual logistical problem at the time of my visit in mid-June, with vineyard work that would normally be carried out by students during their university holidays needing to be completed while they were still sitting their exams. No wonder so many of our suppliers were looking a little exhausted and stressed.

My first port of call in this whistle-stop tour was Domaine Chevillon in Nuits Saint Georges, and a chance for a first taste of the 2006s. This is early to be tasting the new vintage, and our comprehensive tour of the great and the good in the Côte d’Or will be in November, but my first impressions are of a vintage with lots of fruit, with the classic character of 2001 and quality approaching that of 2005. I will look forward to re-tasting them later in the year with some of the Bancroft team.

A short drive took me down to Chassagne-Montrachet to visit Jean-Marc Morey, with whom we have just started working. The Morey family has been in the village for centuries, and many domains bear their name. Jean-Marc’s wines are round and accessible, but with the ability to age. We have started with three wines from the 2004 – his white Chassagne-Montrachet, Premier Cru Champs-Gains, and Saint-Aubin Premier Cru Les Charmois – and I tasted a full range from 2005 and 2006. Of his reds, the best was the 2004 Beaune-Grèves, which was beautifully pure, elegant and mineral. Superb value, and maybe one to add to our next shipment.

My home for the next two nights was the charming Chez La Rose in Juliènas, a useful base for the Mâconnais to the north and the rest of Beaujolais to the south. My first visit the next morning, after looping around between the rocks of Solutré and Vergisson, was to Michel Forest, a Bancroft supplier of very long standing. The 2006s are superb, showing wonderful texture and freshness, and my virtually boundless enthusiasm for Michel’s wines is tempered only by the fact that we cannot buy any more from him than we currently do – we are already by far his biggest customer in the world, taking half of his production of the Pouilly-Fuissé Vieilles Vignes, for example.

So moving swiftly on, the next port of call was Domaine Michel Chavet in the neighbouring village of Davayé, where I was met by Christophe, from the seventh generation of the family. I tasted the 2005 and 2006 Saint-Véran side by side, and there was an interesting contrast between the richness and texture of the former and the refinement and freshness of the latter. Everything’s very close together around here, so a short hop to Charnay-Lès-Mâcon brought me to the door of Didier Tripoz, where I tasted a pre-bottling sample of his brilliant 2006 Mâcon-Charnay, made from the walled Clos des Tournons. Didier has not only improved his label, but is bottling the new vintage under screw-cap, an admirable decision which is driven only by the desire to eliminate cork taint.

My final Mâconnais appointment was with Christophe Cordier, who greeted me in shorts and T-shirt, having just hopped off his tractor. He explained apologetically that he and a colleague were spending the whole day spraying his 15 hectares of vines ahead of predicted storms. He expected to finish at 10.00 that night, and so Roger, his father, took me through his superb range of 2006s (no wonder our sales of these wines are booming). Sadly, I don’t think that Christophe finished his work in time – the heavens opened a couple of hours later, by which time I was safely back in the hotel but Christophe would have still been a couple of hectares short of a fully-sprayed vineyard.

I spent a final night at Chez La Rose and met a British wine-lover who said he was having trouble finding the wines of Bruno Rocca from Piemonte. Tempting though it is to joke that Juliènas is a funny place to be looking for Italian wines, he had the last laugh, as I was able to tell him that H&H Bancroft are the UK importers.

The following morning, bright sunshine dried up all remnants of the previous evening’s storm, and I arrived at Domaine de Gry-Sablon to meet Dominique Morel, whose 2006s boast a full set of medals, including golds for the soft, rounded Beaujolais-Villages and intense, complex Fleurie. I also tasted a very impressive Juliènas, made from a parcel of vines next to the hotel I had been staying at for the previous two nights. Don’t be surprised if you see this wine on our list in the future.

Jean Foillard is always a highlight of a visit to Beaujolais, as his wines defy convention, being made in the most natural way possible, without even the aid of sulphur during vinification. After the extreme richness of the 2005 Morgon Côte de Py, 2006 is a return to the elegant, ethereal style for which he is famed. Jean considers it to be a cross between 1999 and 2004.

On the final straight now, I popped in to see Jean Calot, whose 2006s were beautifully balanced, fresh, and look to be earlier-drinking than recent vintages, and finished off with Michel Trichard, another grower dashing in from the vineyard to meet me. In keeping with the theme for the day, the 2006 Brouilly was far fresher and less powerful than its counterpart in 2005. 2006 is going to be a popular vintage, and not just in Beaujolais.

David Round MW