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Google Earth De-Mystifies Burgundy Wine

September 4, 2012

Last week my friend Robin sent an email from New York:

Hey Tom, I saw Meredith and Didier last night, they asked about you, and wanted to know when you would be in Lyon.

Drank a bottle of 2008 Domaine Francoise et Denis Clair Les Champlots, Saint-Aubin Premier Cru.

Friends and dinner in Lyon

Meredith and Didier at home in Lyon

Robin and I visited this couple (she has known them for years) in the city of gastronomy – Lyon – last spring, after a week spent snooping around hidden vineyards and cellars in Burgundy – just to the north.

I did a bit of research on this wine – and am going to show you, visually, why this wine is a Premier Cru.  It all hearkens back to geography.  Pay attention!

First, a bit about the wine.

The Wine Spectator only tells us about the 2004 – saying, “Oak spice, mineral and citrus flavors combine in this firm white. There’s more structure than fruit now, yet this has a decent finish. ”

The winery website itself describes this wine as:   “Tight, precise and very mineral….entry presents a great aromatic purity, supported by citrus notes in the finish.  This appellation requires some time before it fully opens.”

“Aromatic purity” – love it.

Oysters and wine for lunch in Lyon? These French have the right idea…

Now, geography.

Saint-Aubin is in the heart of Burgundy, just 5 km west of the renowned hamlet of Puligny-Montrachet, and 9 km southwest of Meursault.  In relation to larger towns, it’s about 20 kilometers southwest of the ancient walled city of Beaune.  (Does the word Montrachet jar your memory? Grace Kelly, chatting with James Stewart, plunged a bottle of Montrachet in an ice bucket to cool it down in Hitchcock’s classic movie Rear Window).

Within the Burgundy wine region is the Côte d’Or, and within this are Côte de Beaune vineyards – which are sort of downtown for Burgundian vines (though you’d never know it.  The villages around here are so quiet and sleepy, it’s almost spooky.  We visited one village in March and actually thought it was evacuated).

This location also tells us the wine is classic Burgundian – meaning the whites are 100% Chardonnay, while reds are 100% Pinot Noir. The Domaine Francoise et Denis Clair exports mostly to Switzerland, Belgium, and the Netherlands.  Check out:  http://domaineclair.fr/wines/view/white

Now – geography.  Maps and photos.  This will be worthwhile.  Promise.  Keep scrolling and absorbing.

The general region is Burgundy, and the specific region is within the Cote d’Or.

So – what is it that gets a wine classified as a Premier Cru in Burgundy?

It’s geography.

There are basically four wine classifications in Burgundy – Grand Cru, Premier Cru, Village, and Regional. The most prestigious Grand Cru’s comprise about 2% of all wines produced, while Premier Crus make up about 12%.  A Premier Cru is an excellent quality wine, not necessarily priced out of bounds.

Back to geography. I’ll skip the discussion of Jurassic limestones and flinty marls – though the details are sort of juicy.  Instead, this is what you need to remember:

In Burgundy – Premier Cru grapes are generally grown on mid- to upper south or southeast facing slopes, while Village and Regional grapes typically grow on lower slopes, or slopes with different aspects to the sun. This provides close to optimal sunshine and decent drainage. That is the very simple secret to  Burgundy’s classification – it mostly depends on the where a vineyard sits with respect to the slope of a hill, and in which direction the vineyard faces (this classification is based on about nine centuries of monks’ observations – oh, blessed are the observant).

The map below (taken from the Domaine Francoise et Denis Clair website) shows – look just below center-right – the Les Champlots plot of vines.

Map of various vineyards, including Les Champlots – look to the center right

The photos below (courtesy Google Earth) zoom in on the plot of Les Champlots from which this Premier Cru wine is made.  Remember to look for the middle to upper portion of the hillside slope.

Zooming in – looking northwest toward Les Champlots plot

Closing in on the hillside vine plots

Look at where the vineyard fields sit with respect to the bottom, middle, and top of the hillside

Above the twisting road are two vine fields – bisected by a trail running left-right

Les Champlots is the top field – though both fields produce grapes for Premier Cru wines. This is the origin of the wine that my friends enjoyed.

Why is this wine not a highly prestigious Grand Cru?  Because (according to WineSearcher.com), the slope is just around the topographical bend from the famed Puligny-Montrachet Grand Cru terrain – but Les Champlots faces southwest – and so misses out  on morning sun and is blasted with afternoon sunshine.  See?  A little bit of positioning – in wine and in life – makes all the difference.  But this is still a Premier Cru – so no whining.

But beware – this classification system for Burgundy (which is quite the Holy Grail for Chardonnays and Pinots) is completely different than that used in, say, Bordeaux.  Stay tuned for a few weeks.  More on that is coming up….

Santé!

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