Flying North through the French countryside on the TGV towards Paris, passing by fields freckled with red poppies and white Charolais cows and thunderstorms overhead, I couldn’t help but reflect on the past month of time that we have spent in Burgundy.
Returning to Burgundy for me feels strangely like going home. I lived and studied here more than fifteen years ago and because Caroline is from here, we return often, though not often enough, to see family and friends and drink once again from what I consider to be a fountain of youth. This is where we fell in love with each other and with wine and started our journey of creating Bergstrom Wines with my parents, who were planting the Bergstrom Vineyard in 1999 as we left the Côte d’Or for Oregon.
We are proud to make Oregon wines and make our living in the Willamette Valley and call Portland home but there is so much of Burgundy that runs through our hearts. Going back to where Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have been grown for generations is where I learn the most.
It’s hard to decide after a month of travel what exactly to share about our journey. We visited New York and ate at some great restaurants all worthy of mention and description and recommendation. I had the dinner of a lifetime in London with three of the greats on the UK wine scene: Jancis Robinson, Hugh Jonson and Michael Broadbent where we ate and conversed and drank wines that were a lot older than I am, or my father is for that matter. I mean when will I ever taste a
1959 or a 1929 Mouton Rothschild or a 1943 La Mission Haut Brion or a 1945 Cos d’Estournelle again? Not to mention Port from 1893…
We reveled with friends in the old twisted streets of Paris for the festival of Music on the Summer’s solstice. And the food…. oh the great foods. Where would I even start there? I even thought about writing about the
terroir of the “Pain au Chocolat” since we purchased some every day from a different baker and they were all so unique, for better or worse, for their variations on airy, flaky, buttery, chocolatey and just plain delicious. But I decided against that last idea after I had gained my first 10 vacation pounds. We drove through Provence and swam in the Mediterranean. We celebrated Bastille Day with fireworks in Meursault. So many great memories we made and I am sure that many of you have been there and done that. So I thought instead I would share with you some revelations that I had during our trip.
The funny thing about revelations is that often times they are always lying in plain sight right in front of your nose. But when you are at home and working and deep into your daily routine, doing what you think you know how to do best, it is easy to overlook moments of illumination. I find I have to leave my comfort zone to find them. I need to get out of the daily grind for a good long time and just think about things. And that is what I did for this past month.
Now, when we return to Burgundy, I like to visit the cooperages who craft our barrels, I like to walk through famous vineyards and witness first hand how they are farming Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vis-a-vis how I am back in Oregon. We eat and drink and enjoy all of the foods and wines that we cannot find back home and savor the aromas and flavors and textures that make them special. But mostly, I really enjoy meeting with winemakers and talking and tasting. There is much to be learned by visiting professionals outside of your realm. Opening your mind and spirit to what others are doing in your field is essential to personal and professional improvement and I make it a priority when we travel. Too often I lament that if wineries and winemakers really want to become world class, they need to get outside of their state or county and really see the world and understand what that term really means. Who else is making wine out there? What is their approach and what do their wines taste like? How is my product different from theirs and where do those differences come from. And most importantly, what can you hear and learn that then jostles you into a different way of thinking or perceiving how you work. If you ever ask a winemaker what the greatest wine was that they ever tasted…. truly an A-HA moment…and they respond with something like: “Well, I made a pretty awesome wine in 1998″…. Then they are missing the point and it’s time for them to travel and learn something more.
On this trip especially, I was fortunate enough to visit some of the best winemakers in their fields, walk through their vineyards, taste their wines and listen to their words and absorb their perspectives. So I thought I would share some of those experiences and my personal conclusions from those visits. Note that it is best to start all tasting days with a “Pain au Chocolat”, but that again, is a different story.
One fine day in Burgundy when the spring and early summer rains had finally ceased to plague the local winegrowers with worry and the warm sun showed itself, we decided to drive up the Cote de Beaune and into the Cote de Nuits to the village of Gevrey Chambertin. Here we would pay a visit to one of the greatest domaines in Burgundy, “Domaine Armand Rousseau.” We were led through the tasting by Ms. Cyrielle Rousseau, daughter of Eric Rousseau and granddaughter of Charles Rousseau, great granddaughter of Armand Rousseau. The domaine was officially created in 1919 when the founding Rousseau, Armand Rousseau decided to move away from selling wine in bulk to local negotiants and began bottling his prestigious vineyard wines on their own, something that was not very mainstream back then with small growers. But his vision led many other locals to begin doing the same.
Gevrey Chambertin the village is probably one of the most famous winegrowing villages in Burgundy simply because of the sheer number of Grand Cru vineyards. It boasts more Grand Cru vineyards than any other village in Burgundy and the name of it’s crown jewel “Chambertin” is famous around the world and simply whispering the word sends shivers up the spines of most Pinot Noir aficionados. Armand Rousseau has one of the most impressive portfolios of vineyard holdings including: several Village level parcels, Premier Cru vineyards: Les Lavaux St. Jacques and Clos St. Jacques and Grand Cru vineyards: Clos de la Roche, Mazy-Chambertin, Charmes Chambertin, Le Chambertin Clos de Beze and the mighty Le Chambertin. Needless to say, tasting here is the wine pilgrim’s dream.
Cyrielle Rousseau is a young winemaker and represents the new generation of forward thinking Burgundians very well. She works directly under her father and grandfather who are still the principals at the domaine but she is next in line for the duties of taking over the domaine someday and writing the next chapters for this great family domaine. Unlike older generations of Burgundian winegrowers who rarely ventured outside of their village and almost never tasted wines from other winemakers or appellations, deeming them not important, Cyrielle has travelled and worked harvest in other regions of the world including Oregon. She writes French poetry in beautiful cursive on her barrels in chalk and speaks like an old soul who is wise beyond her years.
What struck me the most after tasting through these wines was not so much how beautiful the wines were, I was kind of expecting that. It was how simple the winery was and how simple the winemaking approach is. A lot of times when I enter a winery that I have only read about as being one of the greatest in the world, I expect to see a lot of fancy equipment and high-tech sprawled around in perfect order. Here the winery is so small you could maybe park two cars inside of it. The caves underground for aging are impeccable and old and covered with mold and moss and cobwebs but no top of the line air conditioning unit or humidity dispenser. And that is when it hit me. At Armand Rousseau, the winemaker and the winery are simply caretakers for the vineyards. Simplicity and tradition rule here and thank goodness because the wines are pure and clean yet resonate very strongly with terroir and earth character. Each wine is as unique and as individual as the land it comes from and the winery’s job is not to get in the way of that process nor muddle the clarity of sight.
I found that refreshing and reminded me a lot of our approach at home but what I really appreciated was the approach in the vineyards. As we stepped outside after our tasting Cyrielle pointed across the street to the hillside where the “Clos St. Jacques” lay. The vineyard rows run all the way up the hill to the tree-line and must rise a couple of hundred feet in elevation. She told me that the Clos St. Jacques has 4 different bedrocks almost creating four perfect squares or blocks in the vineyard. So, naturally as an American winemaker who is used to farming clonal blocks of vineyards and harvesting them all separately and fermenting them all separately, I asked if she did the same. She simply said: “Why would we do that? This is the Clos St. Jacques. Inside these vineyard walls is one organism, like a village. One vineyard but made up of thousands of different vines. Some old, some young, some overripe, some underripe, some perfect, but together they make the wine great. They make the wine complex and whole.” And although part of me found that answer to be very French, I could not agree more and I left Gevrey Chambertin that day with a different perspective on farming and winemaking. When hard work is done right and timely on a perfect piece of land, don’t get in the way once it gets to the winery, just guide the process. I can relate to that. And as we bid Cyrielle adieu she told me about how she had enjoyed her trip to Oregon. She had visited Bergstrom Wines but unfortunately I was in Burgundy working harvest (this was in 2011.) I apologized for not having received her in the same fashion that she received us at Domaine Armand Rousseau. She said “not at all, you have a wonderful tasting room team…. and I love Sigrid Chardonnay.” It is a small world.