My friend J's stated plan, this past October, had been to staff a replacement at his cave in Paris and cruise down to Burgundy for three days of marathon solo tasting. All business, no sightseeing, no fancy meals, just serious professional tasting.
Then at the very last minute he must have been worried about getting bored, because he invited me along.
As luck would have it, I was able to take off work. It became a Bro-gundy road trip: we ate Pringles and listened to the recent Real Estate album on repeat in the car and had a nice bro picnic of sandwiches on a cliff in the Hautes-Côtes de Nuits before our first appointment. Then we went to meet a friend of J's, Axelle Machard de Gramont,* winemaker at Domaine Bertrand Machard de Gramont, a Nuits-Saint-Georges estate that was, for me, a wonderfully atypical introduction to tasting in Burgundy.
I should clarify that the Machard de Gramont wines themselves are not themselves atypical, unless one is speaking of their exceptional quality, value, or mostly-organic production. What was unusual for the region, and for Americans such as ourselves visiting said region, was Axelle's marvelous hospitality. Not to say that Burgundians aren't nice people, but at some estates one can encounter a sort of fortress mentality, the understandable psychological response of a community of vignerons who for over a thousand years have made wine for which demand far outstrips supply. Axelle referenced this effect herself, if obliquely, when she noted that being based in the obscure village of Curtil-Vergy had the advantage of sparing her winery from the continuous tourist onslaught experienced in more famous wine villages.
J knows both sides of Burgundy tourism, at this point. Years ago, before entering the wine industry, he used to give bike tours of the region to non-wine-professionals, a fact which explains how he knew about the aforementioned picnic spot in the Hautes-Côtes. Traveling through the region now as a wine professional is, he explained, less fun in certain ways, more fun in others. There is general work stress, and the way people presume (correctly) that you're there to find ways to make money. But there are also warm, relaxed tasting visits like that we had at Domaine Bertrand Machard de Gramont.
If I keep typing out the entire huge domaine name, it's because the "Bertrand" is necessary to differentiate the estate from Domaine Machard de Gramont in Prémeaux-Prissey. Along with Domaine Chantal Lescure, these estates used to comprise one large domaine Axelle's father Bertrand used to run in collaboration with two of his brothers and the one brother's wife, Chantal Lescure. After Lescure and Bertrand's brother separated, the then-32ha estate was divided into the three different estates mentioned above. This is the kind of village-level domestic legal minutiae that makes people despair of ever understanding wine, so I'll drop it there.
Suffice it to say that Axelle Machard de Gramont, Dom. B. M. de G.'s current winemaker, returned to aid her father in her native Nuits-Saint-Georges in 2004, after fifteen years in Paris, where she'd been exposed to the then-nascent natural wine scene. While we tasted she cited Catherine and Pierre Breton as inspirations, recalling Pierre's initial experiments with sulfur-free vinification.
Since taking charge of her father's domaine, Axelle has brought some of the same principles to bear on winemaking in Burgundy, stopping the use of herbicides four or five years ago, reducing the proportion of new barrique used each year. Presently she's working towards organic certification for the estate's 6ha.
J and I tasted through the entire range, with the exception of Axelle's basic Bourgogne rouge, which is produced in such tiny inexpensive quantities as to have already been completely snapped up by the time we passed in October. The other reds - four crus of Nuits-Saint-Georges and a Vosne-Romanée - are true-fruited, athletic Burgundies, sharing a briary forthrightness that in the best examples, particularly from the 2008 vintage, doesn't obscure their cerebral side.
The 2008 Nuits-Saint-Georges "Aux Allots," from a clay soil parcel of 40-to-50-year-old vines, the oldest of the estate, sang of pure cassis fruit, with integrated tannins and lovely whipcracking acidity.
Most memorable for me was the 2009 Nuits-Saint-Georges "Les Hauts Pruliers," from a thin-soiled cru of 58ares. Even among the unusually rich 2009s it stood out for sheer blackness in the glass. The nose and palate were markedly less opaque, thankfully, scanning as old books, dark rock, and berry patch, dirt included.
After the tasting we all armed ourselves with umbrellas for a walk through some Aligoté vines she has on a ridge above the winery.
On the same ridge there's a dilapidated abbey, currently under restoration by none other than Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, who it turns out own a small parcel of vines not far off, which they bottle under a different name.
We then took a short drive over to tour Axelle's young Pinot vines at "Les Vallerots." But by this time the rain had increased and we began to sink into the earth as we walked. It was a short, low-visibility vineyard tour.
We thought to repair somewhere for an apéro afterwards, but since it was a national holiday, most places in the neighboring villages were shut. We thanked Axelle for the marvelous tasting and nosed off to our hotel in the rain. We were to meet her and a friend in Beaune later for dinner and what would turn into a surprisingly epic drinking session. (Bro-gundy !)
* Such a totally bad-ass name. I have a typical American admiration for names that contain prepositions. Additionally I can't help thinking of Axelle de Rose.
Domaine Bertrand Machard de Gramont
13, rue Vergy
Tel: 03 80 61 16 96
Tel: 03 80 61 16 96