Séjour en France. Ch 7. Burgundy Country. p1. Chateau de Chassagne-Montrachet.
Mike, Jim, Felista and I set off to Beaune, to wine country and a wine tasting experiencing day. I expected this was to be a great treat, one of the highlights of our time in France.
We had to set out early to be on time for our mid day appointment. My body grudgingly got out of bed and rolled itself into the car. No time for coffee. We would get coffee on the way. No fast food coffee and donut shops around here, so we would find a a café, which we did, of course. Any opportunity for coffee here is an opportunity for engaging in artistic expression. Espresso to about a fifth of the cup, topped by steamed milk, with a packet of chocolate on the side. What a fine way to start the day. Now I am ready do it all. And back onto the road with cared for fields spread out wide and on both sides of the highway.
The whole ride down, no reading, no writing, to look, to look, so much to see. The fields, farms, the chateaus and castles along the way. Closer and closer to the wine country until it was there before us. Then, there, as far as the eye could see, grape vines on short, four foot stakes, filled with grapes across fields, up the sides of hills, each with its own certain amount of sunshine, set in a soil specific to its particular wine. This is the greatest wine country in the world. You can’t believe the thrill of it. The thrill of it for me is unbelievable. Well, believable, I am here, aren’t? I’ve heard of, read about, talked with Mike about, Mike, who studies and loves wines and all that goes with it, the making of it, the whole thing, one of his favorite things and favorite subjects, and now here I am, in France, in Burgundy country.
These are seriously big vineyards. This is Burgundy country. This is France. Here we are in this incredible wine area. At home we buy wine from France, note where it is from, or not, often from here, right here in this very place, and don’t think much more about it, unless you know a lot about these things, and that is it. But now, here we are in one of the places on the front of those bottles. Is this exciting or what? And the beauty of the place, it is hard to fathom, even being in it.
The air is so overwhelmingly filled with the smell of grape and green. Thick. It fills the nostrils. The scent and aroma seeps inside. I’ve smelled the ocean this rich, but nothing else. The air itself so clean I swear I am able to see the veins on each plant leaf from the car window, see each leaf on a vine of rows and rows of perfectly aligned plants. In the distance to the sides and up and down the hills, groups of trees stand in accompaniment as far as I can see.
Set back a quarter mile or so off the road are small villages with light brown and beige colored houses, topped by reddish brown roofs, Each of those towns with at least one church steeple rising above thick, rich green life.
Ongoing green mile after mile, well watered rich, dark and green plants. And all these miles and miles of grapes without a person in sight. Silence. Silence all around, as if the plants were given this peace and tranquility and in harmony with its surroundings, to grow without hindrance, without demand on their senses. All their energy for next vintage.
We rolled into town off the highway and to the other side of the toll exit, lots of tolls in France, at least on this highway, and as we left the highway, passing past that toll gate, we came to a roundabout. The inside of circle was filled with shrubbery and a proliferation of flowers. What a sight; what a display of color and beauty; the great bunches of flowers. Amazing. The smell in the air filled with grapes and wine.
Getting into town, what were distant sights are now before our eyes, if we stopped and got out of the car we could touch them. I guess this is what Europe looks like. Vines right up to the roads. This is town of vines, and the caretakers of these vines. I must say, you get the feeling that along with the sustenance people get from these plants, there is also reverence for them, as if each plant were a wise person, sitting in lotus position.
The serene beauty, calmness and peacefulness stands out. The sky was overcast and getting a bit dark, nice.
We got in town in plenty of time, give or take ten or fifteen minutes, but we had difficulty finding the vineyard, and time was becoming a factor, that ten or fifteen minutes was quickly evaporating, and as we drove around and in circles we were getting a bit anxious. We knew we were close, heck, we were right in the town, in the right place, but there were so many vineyards and so many roads off of roads off of the main streets. The place is magnificent, but confusing. I just want to take in every bush, every hedge, every grape, but part of me is looking and looking, looking for the Michel Picard Chateau, which is quickly becoming the overriding concern. It can’t be that difficult to find, can it, the whole town is within eye-view?
There were road turn offs and signs everywhere, but nothing with the name we were looking for.
Before he had left the U.S., Mike had booked an appointment for 12:30. Of all things, Mike actually knows someone working at this place. His friend had arranged for us to do a tour of the chateau, then a five course meal. Of course, the wine the centerpiece. And we were to do it in the most famous wine country in the world. We were that close. We were also that close to missing the appointment. “If we don’t find it soon,” Mike said, "We just won’t go. I'm not going to show up late.”
He was close to giving up, ten minutes close. And there was no doubt as to his sincerity. Either we were going to be there on time, or we were not going to go.
Whoa, it would be a terrible shame for him to have come all this way, a place he was so looking forward to seeing, to be this close, right here in town, and not get to go because he couldn’t find our way to it one time.
“It is too close to miss it. But where is it?” I said to myself. “The town was is not that big.” Up and down the roads we travelled, the same ones, but we just could not see anything indicating the place we wanted. This is an opportunity of a lifetime for him and he is going to miss unless we find it fast. Except for his brother being married, and perhaps Normandy, which is in his plans for next week, this has got to be at the top of Mike’s list. I am sure he would come away with great regret of missing this. He has a long time interest in wines, has studied them, sampled them, and discoursed on them. He loves the art and science of it. Something like that would really detract from his time in France. A bitter disappointment.
We were surrounded by so many chateau’s, so many vineyards, houses and hills, all distinct. Where is this place? We made another pass through town down the main street, back to the starting point coming off the highway, once again trying to get our bearings to see if we could hone in on the place. This would be our last pass, time was going by fast. This is maddening.
As we made that final turn back toward the main entrance road into the town, I saw a tall, skinny guy in his mid twenties, brown shoes, blue jeans, white tee shirt, dark brown hair, hooked nose and dark eyes.
As we drove I looked out through the back window and saw him coming our way. And he was driving fast. “Mike, pull over, stop the car.” I must have sounded panicked. He pulled over, skidding to a stop.
I opened the door jumped out, flagging down that white truck just as he was careening by. Whether Frenchmen are on the highway or side roads, they sure put the foot to the floor. He stopped about fifty yards ahead of us. I ran up to his truck. “Michel Picard Vineyard,” I said to him. If I had had anything else to say, I might not have been able to communicate with him. He smiled big. “Five kilometers that way,” he said, pointing, “behind those trees.” “Merci beaucoup”. “You are welcome,” he said. My turn to smile.
It was 12:30 and we were right on time as we pulled up to the chateau. This is one of the places we had pulled off of the road, looking at our directions and trying to hone in the GPS. The difficulty for us had been that there were no signs telling us this was the vineyard we were looking for, instead a huge sign: Chateau de Chassagne-Montrachet.
And don’t you know this is the exact place we were at doing all that directions checking and GPS calibrating. Felista had suggested we stop and ask someone, that this might be the place, but with three, ‘I can figure this out with my brain,’ kind of guys with her, a girl doesn’t have much of a chance, does she?
Through the door we stepped.
Once watched over by monks, this chateau is now watched over by mere mortals; mortals using the same wine making techniques used by those so long ago. The building is a large, two story horseshoe shaped brownstone with an inclining roof. The entrance is set back in a court yard with wings on each side.
On every side, the building is surrounded by vines, vines and more vines, each standing four or five feet tall. with the occasional small shed like building, made of stone, placed close by, no doubt, filled with everything to do with grapes. Well, yeah, not a thing in sight that does not have something to do with grapes.
The guide took us out to the front of the chateau, to rows and rows of Chardonnay grapes.
“Just one.” She said, taking a grape from the vine for each of us. She said they were yet a bit bitter, not as sweet as they will be when they are ready. They tasted pretty good to me, sweet as they will be or not.
On the inside she showed us a large room behind glass, filled with great silver wine vats in long rows about ten deep. Each vat about fifteen feet high and probably eight feet across.
At the back of the room was another row of about five of these same vats. In the middle of the room was the processing machine.
In this foyer, on the other side of the room are a few items used long ago for processing grapes.
Then it was down into the old cellars. I’ll say, a thousand years old, old.
Going down the steps Felista said, “We are walking on sacred ground.”
Along the ceiling, our guide pointed out to us, as our guide pointed out to us, were spiders by the millions were crawling along, moving and doing all the things they do to further the culture and the fermenting of the wine making process, and helping control the environment for the grapes inside these lines and lines the barrels currently processing wine.
All that life taking place on the ceilings and inside those barrels, all toward the same purpose. Talk about symbiotic relationships, I’ll say. If these spiders do for that for wine, what natural processes are we inhibiting in the US by killing all those tiny little creatures with our synthetic chemicals and pesticides. Do you think we might have a healthier environment if we did a bit of research before we start shooting?
What an intriguing place.
“We’ll make our way up these steps here,” our guide said. “Dinner and wine tasting next.”
Just before sitting down I decided to step outside and have a look around.
For the dinner and wine tasting, we were set up in a large square room, one wall all windows and a doorway.
To the right of a windows a fireplace.
We were the only people there. Rather intimate. Mike was surprised. He had expected others along on the tour, “But nope, we were it,” he said. One table set for four of us.
It was a table capable of accommodating six people, set with white dishes, wonderfully balanced and elegant silverware, red napkins, gray place mats, water glasses, a water carafe, a spitting bucket and a wrought iron candle holder set with five white candles in a Chateau wine bottle, and four bright wine glasses on the further side of each of our dishes. All of it sparkling in the sunshine coming in through large, reddish curtained windows. The room was large enough to accommodate four tables, ours was the only one set.
We began tasting the white wines first. Our guide poured four different kinds of wine. After she left the room we begin sipping and sampling. What a thing to be drinking this magnificent wine, this amazing art form.
Looking at all this wine I wondered how I was going to drink it all and not be lying on the floor by the time we were done.
That is what the spitting containers are for, Mike said. He explained how this worked. He said that after taking the wine
into our mouths, swishing it around, moving it here and there, getting a sense and
a feel for it, we were to spit what is left into the bucket. Do that with the
full amount that is in the glass. Then we took a picture of us.
We all sipped the first four types, making our comments on the taste of each. There were great discussions. These wines had just slipped into the tongue and the senses, smoothly and delightfully delicious. Wow. No wonder wine is an art form as great as any other. In fact, here in France it just might be the most important art form that exists. Nothing, but nothing is more important to the French than food and wine.
I had tasted the whites and when our guide came back to pour the last two whites, but had left some in two of my glasses. I thought I’d just leave the last two, not wanting to drink it all. Paranoid about getting drunk, you see. When she stopped before me, and didn’t pour my wine, I emptied the two remaining glasses into the spitter. Not good form, as it turned out.
When she left us to taste those last two white offerings, Mike was bit upset with me. “Dad, you are supposed to take the wine into your mouth and spit then it out.” “Oh?” “That’s pretty insulting to do what you did.” Nothing like being admonished by your son. “Oh. Well, Mike, had I known all this I sure would have done it that way. I don’t know anything about these things.”
And I’m sure he’d wished he’d known to tell me. He was a somewhat mortified (can you be somewhat mortified?) He was mortified, especially since I had dumped the wine into the spitter, right out of the glasses, and right in front of our guide. Whoops.
This reminds me of a time when Mike was in grammar school, in California. His class had made a day of making foods from different parts of the world and parents were invited to come by and sample it. I took the spoon and dipped it into the food, and put it in my mouth. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Mike look at his friend, half smiling and lightly shaking his head. You see that was not the way it was supposed to be done. There was another way to go about this. I was supposed to use my fingers as a scoop. I hope his friend was easy on him.
Next came the red wines, and along with that, dinner.
Someone once said one of the great pleasures of red wine is rolling it around in the glass and just sitting and looking at it. Sometimes the color of red wine is profound, you get the feeling it can’t be that way other than from the brush of a painter of fine art. But wine making is fine art, isn’t it? And by the way, our guide told us the more aged the wine, the lighter the color. I would have thought it was the other way around.
I hearkened back to the previous Monday night when I had my first sip of French wine on my first night in France, at café du Trocadero, Paris.
The food, from the hors d'œuvres to the desserts, was stunning, astounding, well, you get the idea, it was as succulent and delicious as any food anyone is likely to ever have in their lives. But then by now, having been in France these five days, I am getting used to saying something just like that about the food, in fact anything I ate, drank or set my eyes on. What a country. I’m told the food in Italy is just as good. Really? How lucky.
Once we sampled the reds and so incredible they were, smooth, succulent, if a wine can be such, wonderful smell, delightful to the eye, and astoundingly delicious, our guide came back and asked if we had any questions. After each pouring, she had left us alone to talk about the wine with each other.
Outstanding wine is amazing. The wines we had were so smooth you hardly felt the liquid.
While we’d been drinking the red, one had had a chalky kind of taste, which we’d talked about. When she asked us if we had any questions, I asked her about the chalky taste. She said it was from the minerals in the soil. That causes that type of taste. She said she has a favorite that gathers that taste at the front of her tongue, and mouth, as opposed to the side of the cheeks.
When she left Mike told me I should not have asked her that question. “If a wine is chalky”, he said, “it is because it is poorly made.” “Mike, I wouldn’t have asked the question if I’d known that was the case, but she did say there was a reason and the reason has to do with the minerals in the soil, and do you think she’d be pouring us inferior wine when the point here is to show if off and sell it?” He wasn’t convinced.
“Besides,” I told him “if a person does not ask the question, how is he supposed to find out what he does not know which is why he asks the question in the first place? Heck, I remember when you used to blitz me with question after question, and I’d answer every single one. It was a pleasure for me. Your grandmother had another point of view, she told me I did not have to answer all your questions. Do you remember that and do you remember what I told her? ‘Yes, I do.’ I said to her, ‘he is a growing human being.’” Still, sometimes it must be hard to be a son, or daughter, if that were the case.
After the dinner was completed, Mike went up the stairs to choose the wines he wanted to bring home with him.
While he was choosing, Felista and I wandered around inside the chateau, looking over the art on display.
Here is the kitchen where our magnificent food was prepared.
The wine tasting day ended about 3:30. On the way out the door we passed a room where a wedding preparation was on. People probably won't begin to sit down for this wedding till about 8 or 10 tonight. It is the way they do things here. Heck, your normal at home with family sit down dinner usually begins about 9:30 at night.
And here, a flower truck, undoubtedly filled with an array of spectacular flowers, ready to descend on that room we just passed through. Wow, I can just imagine what those flower arrangements will look like. Or maybe I can't.
We carted the wine out to the car, and now off to another adventure. Don't know what. Felista and I are along for the ride, whatever comes our way is great, especially here on this side of the Atlantic. I am sure Mike and Jim have something significant in mind.
And what we did was head for a ride through rows and rows of millions of grapes.
We stopped along the way to take in the air, to feel where we were, to get a sense of distance and sound. There was no sound. Serene. This building behind me, maybe a tool shed. One thing is for sure, it has something to do with the vines surrounding us. Well, someone knows what it is for.
Off for a bit of a stroll. First, picture of Jim and Mike next to and on an old pock marked and thick wall. Some things you can tell have been around for a long, long time. This wall was one of those.
Then a picture without them, off to an angle.
Next, let' see what the back of this wall looks like.
Ah yes, here is the back of that wall.
There they are again.
We decided to take one close by roads leading up the side of a hill. I suspect we weren’t supposed to be on the road but up we went anyway. Jim was driving, and wasn’t so sure it was a good idea to be up here. But Mike and I prodded him to go higher and higher up the side of the hill. “You guys,” he said. And up and on we kept going. And there we were amidst this great proliferation of nature and grapes, the land spread out before us and below us. “I just hope there isn’t a gendarme waiting for us at the bottom of the hill when we get back,” was all he could say.
Being up here the countryside expands and abounds, and vines being vines, they no doubt expound their own language to those who know how to communicate with them.
We were actually standing next to the vines growing right next to the road, bent over onto the road, smell the leaves pouring out and dominating the air; a strong smell right down to the toes. There is our tire mark we made in France.
From where we stood vines as far as the eye could see, miles and miles and miles of grapes. Villages off to the left and right. Seeing these scenes, a painter could only paint what there is. And what is there cannot be improved upon.
We stayed for a while, enjoying the amazingness before our eyes. I could only stand in awe. And the air temperature was perfect, as comfortable as you like, that made the day even nicer.
What an incredible sight. “Felista,” I said, “we are looking down on the most famous wine country in the world. We are standing in it.” I looked over at Mike and thanked him profusely. Then looking back at Felista,
“This is magnificent,” I said to her, “and just imagine all the activity and what that must be like down there during the height of the harvest season.”
Wine harvesting photo’s by Estelle Fresnay and friends.