There are plenty of things I take for granted, but being able to catch an underwater train from central London to the wine capital of Burgundy in just a few hours is not one of them. Since first taking the Eurostar to Beaune with my father more than 12 years ago, I have literally made it my business to return at least three times a year.

Blessed with an improbable number of wine bars, restaurants, shops and the Hospices de Beaune museum, this is a town so devoted to the pleasures of the vine that you can’t throw a bunch of biodynamic Pinot Noir without hitting a fellow foreign wine importer, or one of the hoard of aspiring young vignerons studying at the Lycée Viticole. But although Beaune contains the third largest number of vineyards on the Côte d’Or — after Gevrey-Chambertin and Meursault — and some significant terroirs, it’s far less celebrated as a place where great wine is grown than the famous villages nearby.

Once upon a time, Beaune premier cru Grèves could sell for a similar price to a renowned Chambertin-Clos de Bèze. But its fall from the upper echelons of Burgundian wine has been profound. Perhaps the town slipped down the pecking order of drinkers’ desirability because ownership of its vineyards is dominated by large domaines and merchant houses, and Burgundy these days is a region where big is not beautiful.

All-powerful houses such as Drouhin, Jadot, Faiveley, Chanson and Bouchard Père & Fils historically controlled the fortunes of hundreds of small growers, whose livelihoods depended on them buying their crops. But in the early 20th century, many of these small vignerons began taking control of their own destinies by bottling and selling their wines independently.

Able to finesse their work on a more modest scale — it’s easier planning ideal harvesting times with fewer vineyards, for example — domaines such as Gevrey-Chambertin’s Armand Rousseau and Morey-St-Denis’s Ponsot made mind-bending Pinot Noirs, generating global acclaim for their appellations.

Accessing the cellars of such sainted estates is hard for winos not involved in the trade, so in 2012, when my father and I first visited Beaune, we arranged tastings at the more accessible Joseph Drouhin and Bouchard Père & Fils. Dad sadly passed away 18 months later, but I have beautiful memories of us exploring the cellars of Bouchard’s 15th-century Château de Beaune and drinking its divinely monikered flagship Beaune premier cru Vignes de L’Enfant Jesus.

Bouchard Père & Fils is the largest landholder on the Côte d’Or and was bought in 2022 by Artémis Domaines as part of a merger with Maisons & Domaines Henriot. So when last November I was invited to a dinner at the Château de Beaune “to go through some Bouchard bottles with a ‘venerable age’” by Artémis managing director Frédéric Engerer, the thought of returning after more than a decade filled me with intrigue and nostalgia.

If anyone in the wine industry does quality on a big scale it’s Artémis Domaines, from its stewardship of Bordeaux’s mighty Château Latour and the Northern Rhône Valley’s mystical Château Grillet, to Burgundy’s Clos de Tart and Napa’s Araujo Estate Wines.

While many captains of industry have business savvy but lack a passion for their field, Engerer combines a love for distinctive wine with an uncompromising drive to fulfil his domaines’ potential. The dinner was a rare opportunity to drink perfectly stored treasures from Bouchard’s cellars with a focus on Beaune, where it is the largest vineyard owner at almost 50ha of nearly all premier cru vineyards (over three-quarters of the commune is premier cru, the second most prestigious classification after grand cru, with 80 per cent planted to traditional Pinot Noir — on which I focus here).

Bouchard was renowned for some great wines in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, and I was astonished by how the ones we tasted had evolved. Burgundy suffers in some quarters from a perception that it’s unable to age over long periods, and those that can are the loftiest grand crus. God knows, then, what business 1962 Beaune premier cru Grèves Vigne de l’Enfant Jesus had in being so finessed and harmonious. Or 1962 Beaune premier cru Clos de la Mousse, whose rotting strawberries aromatics were so dense and alive that it’s a wonder that a cork managed to hold them at bay for 60 years.

Impressive too were a rustic 1942 Beaune premier cru Les Teurons, which still had fresh fruit flavours alongside a smidge of the finest Burgundian merde, and a delicate 1892 Beaune premier cru Grèves Vigne de l’Enfant Jesus, which put the kibosh on any suggestion that Beaune’s terroir doesn’t produce wines capable of graceful evolution over many, many decades.

Vigne de l’Enfant Jesus is among Beaune’s most famous vineyards, located in the central part of the large Les Grèves vineyard. Like most Beaune premier crus, Les Grèves is a sunny terroir that produces refined wines with a sense of generosity and richness. Bouchard’s newly released 2022 Vigne de l’Enfant Jesus and the even fleshier 2022 Clos de la Mousse, hit the sweet spot for something Beaune can do so well: reds that can be enjoyed young but also have the capacity to age. Of course, generalising about Burgundy is always tricky. But the characterisation of Beaune as wine with some of the muscularity of Pommard and some of the delicacy of Volnay — but which rarely reaches the heights of either — doesn’t take into account recent improvements. Certainly, Domaine des Croix’s 2017 Beaune premier cru Les Grèves proves that sensational vino can be made here in the right hands.

Loire-born David Croix of Domaine des Croix typifies a generation of vignerons eking magic from Burgundy’s humbler appellations. Like, say, Sylvain Pataille in Marsannay, Croix’s roster of premier crus have become new-school benchmarks, from the tenderness of the aforementioned Les Grèves to the dense, bulging biceps of 2020 premier cru Pertuisots. (If another cliché of Beaune is that of it producing fruity easy drinkers, this is the antithesis.)

Greatly improving farming and refining a gentle style of winemaking since his first Beaune vintage in 2005, Croix is lighting the way for rising stars such as Chanterêves, Thomas Boulay, William Kelley and Catharina Sadde, who are already making great wines in tiny quantities here. “I’d like to buy more land in Beaune. Because people don’t have a fixed image of it, you can surprise them,” says Sadde, who makes a fabulous Les Prevolles and whose domaine wine Les Horées, is one of the hottest on the Côte d’Or.

It’s these tenacious small producers who have the power to help restore Beaune’s reputation as a place where amazing wines are grown as much as they are sold or drunk. If only they can get their hands on more vineyards to do so.

Beaune big & small

Best wines from Burgundy’s capital

  • 2020 Domaine des Croix Beaune 1er Cru Pertuisots
    £75.50 per bottle inc VAT, Berry Brothers & Rudd

  • 2022 Domaine des Croix Beaune 1er Cru Les Grèves
    £372 per six in bond, Howard Ripley

  • 2019 Jean-Marc Bouley Beaune Les Reversées
    £74.85 per bottle inc VAT, Haynes Hanson & Clark

  • 2017 Le Grappin Beaune 1er Cru Les Boucherottes
    £174 per six in bond, Fine and Rare Wines

  • 2020 Les Horees Beaune Les Prevolles
    £295 per bottle inc VAT, Hand Picked Burgundy

  • 2020 Michel Lafarge Beaune 1er Cru Grèves
    £80 per bottle in bond, Farr Vintners

  • 2020 Fanny Sabre Beaune Clos des Renardes Rouge
    £55 per bottle inc VAT, Buon Vino

  • 2022 Joseph Drouhin Beaune 1er Cru Clos des Mouches
    £520 per six in bond, Brunswick Fine Wines & Spirits

  • 2022 Louis Jadot Beaune 1er Cru ‘Clos des Ursules’
    £355 per 6 in bond, Fine and Rare Wines

  • 2015 Chanson Beaune 1er Cru ‘Clos des Fèves’
    £72 per bottle inc VAT, Lay & Wheeler

  • 2005 Bouchard Père & Fils Beaune 1er Cru ‘Vignes de L’Enfant Jesus’
    £120 per bottle in bond, Seckford Wines

Dan Keeling is the editor of Noble Rot magazine (@noblerotmag) and co-founder of Noble Rot restaurants

Follow @FTMag to find out about our latest stories first

Source link