The 13th publication in our wine writing competition series comes from Jon Wyand, who describes himself as:
... a male freelance photographer, recently described as 'of a certain age', living 40 minutes from Eurostar. I first photographed wine in 1979 for a book by Serena Sutcliffe called Great Vineyards and Winemakers, a seven-week tour of France, Italy and Germany. I work for wine magazines in the US, UK and Europe and I am the photographer for the Finest Wines of... book series. While my work takes me to many different wine regions, 18 years ago I started specialising in Burgundy. In 2014 Glénat in France published my photographic book on a year on the Hill of Corton.
Jon's photograph of a Dom Pavelot grape picker in Pernand-Vergelesses illustrates this pair of articles.
Dancing with vines
If most people were asked to write a list of Côte d’Or wine villages, Ladoix-Serrigny might not be among the first half a dozen, but who’s to say what makes a name memorable? Certainly in the 19th century the great marketing ploy in the Côte d’Or was to incorporate a village’s most famous vineyard into its name, hence Gevrey became Gevrey-Chambertin and the village appellation wines sounded immediately more impressive and of course more expensive.
However, in Ladoix’s case the second half of the name, Serrigny, does not derive, as with most of their neighbours, from an association with a vineyard but from the administrative combination of a village with a grand château and a church with its neighbour Ladoix, which has neither, on the main route from Beaune to Dijon, the N974. In fact the better known and more visible Château de Serrigny is the 18th-century offspring of an older, smaller château, directly opposite but normally hidden behind high walls and heavy gates; Le Clos de Rancy dates from 1450.
The village, old enough to take its name from the Celtic name for a spring, douix, has its share of very good winemakers but their profile tends to slip under the radar of those who are preoccupied with the more famous names, or just too lazy or do not recognise the importance in Burgundy of exploring the less-trodden paths. Ladoix lies directly at the foot of the eastern slopes of the hill of Corton with grand crus Les Rognets, Les Vergennes among others within the commune, but its inhabitants are not totally in thrall to the vine. While the other Corton star villages of Aloxe-Corton and Pernand-Vergelesses are very much wine villages with varying degrees of activity, the bakery in Ladoix is the source of their bread every morning. Ladoix has the local mini-supermarket, two hairdressers, a post office and a florist as well as the traffic aiming for Beaune or the motorway connections to Lyon or Paris. Not a quiet bucolic corner but where life is clearly visible. Until recently you could set your watch for seven am, if not by the opening of the Vival store by Fred and Gilles, but by an elderly gentleman, Monsieur Melin, who emerged, rain or shine, with his wife and a bucket full of stale baguettes, to feed the ducks beside the national road’s bridge over the river Lauve. Ladoix even had its own fire brigade until cuts meant it had to be merged with Corgoloin along the main road, and a glance at the village website reveals there is more to life here than winemaking.
Perhaps in order to raise the village’s wine profile, back in July 1996 the village’s winemakers organised its first annual 'balade gourmande' (pictured above), a walk through the vineyards with five breaks for hors d’oeuvres, fish course, meat, cheese, dessert and accompanying wines with coffee at the finish. These days 3,000 subscribers have their own starting time in batches between 11 am and 2 pm and, having gathered their straw hats, glass holders, glasses and cutlery, start off on a five-kilometre hike from the hamlet of Buisson up the hill of Corton and through its premier and grand cru vineyards stopping at feeding stations where music gets the energetic to dance as well. Faux (but good) bagpipers from Switzerland and a colourful jazz band are among an eclectic bunch of musicians that create a lot of fun at each stop.
By the time the main course at Les Bressandes is reached, everything is in full swing, everyone having been fortified by a kir and plentiful gougères, Aligoté, Ladoix Blanc Premier Cru and now a Corton Grand Cru with the boeuf bourguignon. On a typical July day this is where the straw hats and stamina come into their own as the walkers traverse the hill under a hot sun and descend to the route nationale as it climbs out of Ladoix on its way to Beaune. After the gendarmes have seen them safely across to the eleventh-century chapel of Notre Dame du Chemin, many will collect their cheese parcel and collapse in the grassy shade, if they can find any available, before heading for the water dispensers. The vines they would see next to the chapel are in fact a rare example of a Bourgogne classified vineyard that has retained its lieu-dit, in this case, naturally, Notre Dame du Chemin. More wines and music are on offer here before the final leg is attempted and there is the view of Corton’s sweeping eastern flank to be enjoyed. Surely pilgrims who stopped here on the Camino de Santiago would have looked too, and perhaps with a little wine and music. You can imagine that if Charlemagne ever came to inspect his vineyards he would have stopped here.
Passing the arable fields, walkers, no doubt glowing from their exertions, the warmth and the wine, arrive in the village past the back of Château de Serrigny, once the home of Prince Florent de Mérode, the Belgian owner of some Corton-Les Bressandes, Les Renardes, and Clos du Roi vineyards that are now leased to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Those having got this far will find dessert and a cool glass of Crémant before lowering themselves carefully onto the roadside grass in the shade of the château’s walls, perhaps among friends made along the way. The Balade is a melting pot for Burgundy fans from around the world.
After a while you may feel stirred to move on for a coffee at your final stop in the courtyard of Ladoix’s smaller and older château a little further down the road, and eventually even join in the dancing.
It all takes a lot of organising and a lot of clearing up but by early evening the marquees are cleared away, bottles and barrels collected and all that remains for tomorrow is for several of the ladies of the village to wash, dry, count and store what was left of 3,000 pairs of knives and forks ready for next year.
The vinous virgins
On the inside of the cellar door at Domaine LeBeau in Auxey-Le-Grand you should find, in chalk, a Burgundian family tree going back (and around) over several generations. It is maintained assiduously by the boss, Dominique, and refreshed after each year’s paulée lest his patrimoine be forgotten by his descendants, the staff of the domaine and perhaps any visiting clients and media.
It goes back no further than one Étienne Lesurpris. Rumour has it that his mother Margot Bontemp had borne Étienne after an out of work Alsatian vigneron walking the Camino de Santiago had gone wrong at Vézelay and had sought shelter in Mariages-Le-Faux in the Hautes-Côtes de Nuit with the local priest’s sister and her husband. It was their daughter Margot’s turn to go astray and, being a priest’s niece, she later gave birth where no one would know her, in the Côte de Beaune. The infant was duly cast away in a grape harvest basket in the nearest stream.
How Étienne had found his way into winemaking, after being taken in by the owner of the local manor Guillaume Legrand, is not recorded although it is unlikely he had any option. He was probably put to work sharpening serpettes and scrubbing vats. Eventually his father’s talents as a vigneron came to the fore (they used to say if you can make it in Alsace, you can make it anywhere) and after a couple of generations Domaine LeBeau was born, no doubt, as usual, with the great efforts and dowry of Mme LeBeau.
Back in 1979 my friend Greg from the 'Big House' in the village was being sent by his father to Burgundy for the harvest to improve his French and wine knowledge – and, no doubt, to build up beneficial family ties. Being the vicar’s son myself, I was invited too to keep Greg on the straight and narrow, or at least act as lookout.
Greg was excited as we descended from the train at Beaune. 'He’s got five rows of Corton-Les Coquelicots you know, that’s grand cru!' Greg’s eyes were bright and he was walking with his chest puffed out as we made our way down the station steps looking for Monsieur LaBeau’s daughter Marie-Luce, who, we had been told, would pick us up in her father’s bright-red jeep. There was no sign of either, but we soon heard them coming as the jeep turned, engine roaring, several hundred yards away, from Beaune’s little ring road heading for the station and the two vinous virgins.
While Greg’s father’s cellar was famously well stocked, it would be fair to say my father did not know his Arcins from his Arcenat, so to speak.
So it was that 'Ying and Yang', as we became known in the vineyards and cellar, at the table and in the village bar, started their careers in wine.
Harvest started the day following our arrival and our initiation began with a bowl of black coffee and several chunks of warm baguette with a smear of apricot jam some time before dawn. Descending from the dormitories with sleepy eyes and flip-flop-shod feet, we were greeted with mumbled bonjours and shuffling bottoms as places were found for latecomers at the plastic-covered table.
Too soon cigarettes must be trodden into the gravel outside and minibuses boarded as the skies lightened over the plain and the group set off for its first vineyard. Minibuses and vans with their seating held together by gaffer tape were quickly in convoy behind tractors and trailers with orange lights flashing, as other domaines in the village set off, before making their separate ways down narrow roads and over bumpy tracks, through the pre-dawn light of an encouragingly pink sky above the sea of dark green vines dotted with red and gold .
On arrival we noticed the old timers had already taped their cutting hands against blisters and we felt very much like beginners as we collected secateurs and buckets, wondering what lessons were still to be learned. After a brief warning to be vigilant for those hidden bunches and against too much chatter, we were each given our alloted rows. We knew we were among vines owned by other winemakers but how anyone knew whose was whose was a mystery.
It really was back-breaking work but helped a little by always working uphill so the bending was minimised. But our knees were getting a good workout too and soon sweaters were being removed and draped over the posts as the air and bodies warmed up. Hands got sticky and wasps appeared, drawn by the juice, backs creaked among the rows and minds wandered, until there was a scream as a young vendangeuse discovered a viper curled up in a vine. The boss was there in seconds to render it harmless as the two parts wriggled in unison. A serious mood of concentration returned, broken only by cries of porteur! when buckets needed emptying.
Soon some old porteur livened up proceedings with a (probably bawdy) song and some young buck started pelting his chosen female target with an occasional grape.
So our first day of harvest had begun and in another 90 minutes casse croute of bread, cheese, saucisson, red wine and white, coffee and chocolate would breathe life into everyone and we all knew we would survive and even enjoy ourselves. Of course things felt a bit different the next morning ...