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Anthony's Trip Diary

We had not anticipated how busy Beaune would be at this time of the year. It was bursting at the seams, with many hotels and restaurants fully booked by the time we started trying to make our reservations. Nothing was available in the town but we did find rooms at the Chateau de Challagnes, which turned out to be a quite charming 19th Century chateau only a mile or so from the centre.

On our arrival we walked round the town on a hot late summer's evening. The cafes were full and diners were beginning to take tables at the restaurants, so the streets were filled with people sitting and relaxing while the shops, which stay open until seven, were still serving their final customers of the day. I was looking for some wineglasses but instead, amongst a plethora of dishcloths, corkscrews, decanters, wine labels made of local stone (yes, stone tablets with colour facsimilies of several well known wine labels, presumably serving as paperweights, although I never asked what they were for) and many other essential items aimed at the wine lover, we found this book on gundogs, and bought it. Roger, one of Anthony's Irish SettersThe French take their gundogs very seriously. A good multi-purpose dog is highly prized and amongst the finest of all is the Irish Setter. The Englishman prizes his Spaniel or his Labrador both of which tend to be dual purpose, part retriever, part household pet. For the Frenchman who takes his shooting seriously, the Irish Setter is the tops, a genuine multi-purpose dog that points, sets and retrieves. They are also adorable companions and as we have several at home, the book was a "must buy".

This trip has been a mix of old haunts revisited and new ones explored. A visit to the Sunday market at Savigny les Beaune turned out to be a failure as it was not there, however this sent us into the Chateau de Savigny, a sizable and ancient chateau which the owner has filled with a quirky collection of racing cars, motor bikes and enough ex-military aeroplanes to start a small war. It was most strange to be walking through the parkland with its walls, vines and huge mediaeval moat, while being surrounded by assorted jet aeroplanes, plus a random scattering of wings, engines and sundry other spare aeroplane parts. This sense of the surreal continued as we walked into the huge Chateau to find the whole of the upper floors of the house devoid of any furniture, but stuffed with the biggest collection of motorbikes I have ever seen. If you like this sort of thing, it is about 2 miles outside Beaune just off the N74 on the way to Dijon.

Much more wine related was a visit to the Chateau de Vougeot. This listed Ancient Monument had a chequered history between the Revolution and the mid-1940's. The original buildings are a series of 12th/13th Century barns and on the other side of the courtyard is an elegant 16th Century chateau which was extensively renovated by its owner of about150 years ago. Requisitioned by the Germans, it suffered further damage before being acquired by the Confrerie des Tastevins, an important association of Burgundinian wine lovers and growers. Today the Chateau and some of the barns serve as the headquarters for the Confrerie and host many official and social celebrations throughout the year. Alongside the Chateau, in the original farm buildings, it is possible to visit four of the earliest and most certainly the biggest wine presses built before the industrial revolution. Capable of pressing four tons of grapes at a time and requiring 8 monks to turn the screw, these massive machines, made from huge lengths of oak, have survived intact since they were built nearly 800 years ago. A tour round this chateau gives you Burgundy in microcosm. Here there are some 95 growers sharing a walled vineyard of 52 hectares, the "Clos". As the bigger growers own over 2 hectares each, it follows that smaller ones must have tiny portions, yet all are producing wines that are labelled Clos Vougeot Grand Cru. That 95 people will be making the same wine, with each of them using their own particular vinification techniques, serves to illustrate why it is that there can be such variations in quality in even one single vineyard.

September is the summit of the wine growing year. Sometime during the month an official decision will be taken about the maturity of the grapes, the Vendanges will be declared open and the vineyards will be instantly buzzing with activity. On occasions the Vendanges has started in August but it is generally in September and the date for each region will vary, starting in the South and gradually moving northwards. This is the moment when Mother Nature hands the baton on to the vignerons. She has nurtured the grapes from bud-burst to harvest, giving each vine and each vintage its unique flavours and it is now down to the individual vignerons to add their own personal alchemy. The relationship between nature and the grower is a crucial one, where man has to work around what Nature throws at his vines until the moment arrives when he is allowed to polish his secateurs, grab his baskets and march off into the vineyards to gather in the harvest.

A stone cabanon amongst M Jean-Louis Huguenot's vines.    Click to enlarge. The vendanges had not yet started when we arrived, although the harvesting of the grapes for the sparkling Cremant de Bourgogne began the following day. However, everything was gearing up for the big event of the year with even the supermarkets creating a special section "Special Vendanges Grosse Quantite Petit Prix". The vendange is very popular with students as well as quite a number of older workers who take part of their holidays to pick grapes. As with so many aspects of French life, there are rules for engaging and paying casual workers and within these rules there are two official payscales for grape pickers, with food and accommodation or without. Where food is provided, then the vigneron's family will cook substantial quantities for lunch and dinner, often for up to 20 people. Thus it was that the Champion supermarket in Beaune had this entire section devoted to huge tins of peeled vegetables, massive packets of steak or sausages and even inexpensive wineglasses stacked to the ceiling, because the pickers are given wine with their meals. It was here that I finally bought my wine glasses. They were 8 euros for a dozen, were thin and elegant and just what I was after, without so much as a dish cloth or stone wine label in sight.

Of course we tried several restaurants. Ma Cuisine and La Cremaillere were both just as expected and our most notable new restaurant find was Chez Guy in Gevrey Chambertin. In the heart of the old village this is a modern restaurant in a period building. The food and service were excellent and local wines dominated their extensive winelist, with a heavy bias towards the Cotes de Nuits and Gevrey Chambertin in particular. From here it was only a short walk to Domaine Rebourseau, where we met M de Surrel and Theo his golden retriever. Theo is a jolly fellow who is particularly fond of duck shooting, because it gives him the excuse to dive into ponds and get wet. I had forgotten to mention in my last notes that when we visited in July, M de Surrel had offered us a tasting of the cask samples of all his 2005's. They were, unsurprisingly, utterly unlike the finished product in a bottle with a few years of age but they nevertheless carried themselves very well for such youngsters and show the high promise of this excellent vintage.

We stayed from Saturday until Tuesday morning and the main harvest was due to commence on the Wednesday in the Cote de Beaune and the following Monday in the Cotes de Nuits. The weather this year has been good but mixed. July and August were contrasting, with fierce heat in July and a cooler period in the following month. There had been heavy localised rain amounting to an inch in some areas a few days before we arrived and the forecast was for sunshine and showers. Fortunately the sunshine seems to have dominated and the showers held off, although we drove through a very localised tropical downpour north of Dijon which happily stayed well away from the vineyards.

Our visit concluded as it had commenced, at the Beaune motorway "payage" in warm sunshine. As there was less packed into this visit, there had been less to go wrong. Apart from missing the Sunday market in Savigny and nearly running out of petrol on the motorway, everything ran smoothly for the first time in quite a while. The next visit remains planned for November and the Hospices de Beaune Auction.

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