Sunday, September 23, 2012

We discovered Chandonnay with the bones of Mary Magdalene

My wife Eddi and I decided to take the back roads from Gevrey-Chambertin to Chinon in the Loire Valley. We got lost winding through small villages, found huge chateaux not listed on any guide books and stumbled upon the bones of Mary Magdalene.
The hilltop Abby and community of Vézelay.
According to legend, near the end of the first millennium a monk brought bones of Mary Magdalene to Vézelay, France from Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume. In 1058, the Pope confirmed the genuineness of the relics, leading to an influx of pilgrims that has continued to this day.

Vézelay Abbey was also a major starting point for pilgrims on the Way of St. James to Santiago de Compostela, one of the most important of all medieval pilgrimage centers. 

In the 9th century the Benedictines were given land to build a monastery. The current Basilica was built in the 11th century. The town and the Basilica of St Magdelene are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Bernard of Clairvaux preached the Second Crusade at Vézelay in 1146. In 1189, the Frankish and English factions of the Third Crusade met at Vézelay before officially departing for the Holy Land.

Today, Vézelay is a commune in the Yonne department in Burgundy.  Bourgogne Vézelay is the local wine appellation. Vineyards descend to the edge of the town and produce a range of mostly white wines, mainly on the Chardonnay, Melon de Bourgogne  and, of course, Pinot Noir.

Today the town is swarming with pilgrims—some would call them tourists—still seeking. Seeking what?  Well, I'm not exactly sure what they are seeking as they sit in the outdoor cafes sipping local Chardonnay. Surely this could not be the beginning of a new Crusade?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Reflection on history and my cousin's death

A few days after we arrived in France, we get a i-Phone call at 2:34 in the morning. The caller ID said it was my cousin John in Napa. He only emails. He never calls. So I answered even though I knew it would cost me $19.95 per minute.  Cousin Dave answered. Dave's news: his brother, my cousin, had just died. Didn't know the cause. Cousin John was 58; I'm 64. He's dead. I'm in France.

His death colored my thoughts through the rest of France. When visiting the large chateaus, I thought about how most of us live simple lives which will be forgotten in a generation or two. Most of us will never become famous. Even though we live the best we can, history will quickly erase us.

Somehow I found myself photographing lots of cemeteries for the rest of the trip. Was that my meditation on history and death?
Gevrey Chambertin village cemetery seen across Premier Crus Petits Cazetiers vineyard. I like the idea that there has been a vineyard and village here for at least a 1000 years, probably longer.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Oregon Wine Photographer measures Burgundy Vines

After the initial awe seeing the grands curs vineyards in Burgundy, it struck me how low the vines were. Some of the grape clusters were nearly on the ground.
Two things to notice in this Village-level vineyard in Gevrey-Chambertin: 1) check how old those vines are 2) check out how low those clusters hang.
So, I'm not a tall guy, but those vines come barely over my hips. I'm sure glad I don't have to pick those grapes. You nearly need to lay down to pick. No wonder some of the older workers are so hunched over.

New Light on Chinese-owned Chateau Gevrey Chambertin

Now with Chinese-businessman ownership, does the beautiful evening light on Chateau Gevrey Chambertin in historic Burgundy, France, mean a new dawn for the run- down structure?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

French peek inside Chinese-owned Burgundy chateau

This is the group that could not be accommodated  at the 16:30 (4:30PM for USAers) tour and had to wait for one and one-half hours to peek inside the Chateau. The cheerful guide was accommodating enough to take us in, even though the last scheduled tour went in ahead of us stragglers. You should have seen the 8:30 Sunday line.
The lines at the upper part of Gevrey-Chambretin village were surprisingly long this past weekend, September 15 and 16, for peek-inside tours of the newly Chinese-owned Chateau Gevrey Chambertin. Casual me, I miscalculated the local interest. I waited until Saturday afternoon to find the lines stretching 50-people long and had to wait until a later tour as the guide could not accommodate all the French locals ahead of me. 

Finally, got in for the surprise inside.  Tours were scheduled every one and one-half hours. Even the Sunday 8:30 am tour was crowded.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Maison Joseph Drouhin hides 3-acre cellar under Beaune, Burgundy

This is an unused portion of the hidden cellar.
Mason Joseph Drouhin has a 3-acre cellar built in the 1200s, catacombing under the city of Beaune. According the Jean-Pierre Cropsal, the winery's public relations officer, much of the building material is actually recycled from centuries previously. That's old and hidden under the city. It hasn't been until a couple of months ago that the winery allowed tourists into the cellar.

Here, aging under layers of mold, is a library of wines dating back to at least the 1980s. Many of the bottles and barrels are probably older, but I couldn't read the signs for the layers of fluffy mold.

Jean-pierre Cropsal pouring some Drouhin Burgundy in the hidden cellar. He says that the recycled stones surrounding him were placed in the 1200s.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Will Chinese investors cause a Great Wall in Burgundy?

Overlooking the village of Gevrey-Chambertin, parts of Chateau de Gevrey Chambertin date from the 12th century. Along with the Chateau, Ng's purchase includes two hectares (five acres) of vines which include small plots of the Grand Cru and Premier Cru ‘Chambertin’ vineyards, with the rest generic Gevrey-Chambertin.
When it was reported last month that Macau businessman Louis Ng Chi Sing bought Burgundy’s rundown Chateau de Gevrey Chambertin, some locals declared it a national travesty. 

Jean-Michel Guillon, president of the union of Gevrey-Chambertin wine producers, reportedly asked: "How would the Chinese feel if a French investor bought 10 metres, or 50 metres, of the Great Wall of China?"

Actually, this isn't the first sale of Burgundy to Asians. Ten years ago, a Japanese sommelier, Koji Nakada, set up Maison Lou Dumont in Burgundy's Nuits-Saint-Georges area, and more recently, 28-year-old Chinese businessman Shi Yi bought 2 Burgundian hectars. And, at last count, Chinese have bought about 20 Bordeaux properties.  

Regardless, patriotic Guillon led a syndicate to buy the chateau for €5m. Opps, the Chinese foreigner Louis Ng paid €8m. 

The bigger long term concern is: there go the property values, but not down as in the past few years, rather sky-high up.

Realistically the sale price will affect inheritance taxes. France has complex inheritance laws dating from Napoleon's time and also is desperately strapped for Euros. The high sales price will affect future inheritances. Many worry that foreigners buying properties for these high prices will leave French families with no option but to sell, as they can't afford the taxes to pass it on to younger generations.

So, as property prices go up and inheritance taxes force Burgundians not to be able to pass property down to children, will Burgundy become a closthe French term for a walled vineyard used to protect the grapes from theft as well as improving the micro-climate—surrounded by a Great Wall to the French? 

Obviously, the chateau is in poor condition. Ng has mentioned that he plans to restore it starting in a couple of years.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Farmers are Told to Begin Harvest in Alsace, France

On Monday, September 10, harvest began in Alsace, France. (You know that area where I got to speak German because ownership of the strip of land went back and forth between the Germans and French. The French won the last skirmish.) This is the regulated earliest date that harvest can begin for Crémant (translate to bubbly) in Alsace part of France. That Monday morning was like a floodgate opening of workers pouring into certain vineyards. Harvest of grapes for still wines will begin on Sept 24, per regulations.  

Wine history here is ancient. The Alsacian vineyard is one of the oldest ones of France. There were 108 wine-producing villages in 800, 160 in 900 and 430 in 1400. By this time, Alsacian wine, red or white, was one of the most famous wines of Europe and one of the most expensive. Today, prices for wine are more reasonable, but the land is among the most expensive in France.
Near the little village of Eguisheim, Alsace, France, these happy guys are harvesting Pinot noir, destined to become Crémant d'Alsace (which means bubbly).
Just in case you didn't know what the Alsace wine region looks like, here is Husseren les Chateaux (to the best of my non-French ability, that means "Husseren the Chateaus" for the nearby ancient castles.)