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February 28, 2016updated 02 Nov 2022 10:12am

Corton Chronicles Three: Winter

In Burgundy, everything is possible. But having your wine poured by a gendarme in uniform is fairly unusual. After a busy weekend, I was in the loft above the cuverie at the Château de Meursault. Up here, next to the bottling line, a long table was laid out with the usual impressive Paulée menus at each setting. This was where the photographers and gendarmes had the same meal as the guests downstairs, but without the speeches, music, and continual flow of winemakers sharing their bottles.

Between courses I stalked the tables below looking for friends and photographs. The tables were close together, and the whole place resembled a very large sardine tin, dark enough, my camera said, to make you think the lid was still on. Periodically, the gaps between tables were flooded by waiters and waitresses carrying the next course, and wine-bearing vignerons and guests, trawling the tables for friends with whom to share their bottles, were forced to move aside.

Upstairs I was sharing one end of the table with a local photographer when suddenly a gendarme arrived in his sky-blue polo shirt bearing a bottle, brought up by a well-meaning winemaker, that he could not enjoy on duty. Next thing I knew, my empty glass was brought to life by one of Beaune’s finest pouring one of Meursault’s. I was tempted to comment but couldn’t find the words in French-or English, for that matter-and I never joke with gendarmes.

No one would describe me as a gourmand, and yet, perhaps because I was in Burgundy, when I think back over the winter, meals are the memories that stand out. The Paulée de Meursault would always be memorable, but lunch in a cabin with a group of hunters, or with a woodsman at home with his family, is more intimate and takes you deeper into the reality of peoples’ lives. Cassecroute in a vineyard on a frosty morning tells you more about the spirit of your companions than the quality of a baker or sausage-maker. What would a vignerons’ village banquet on St-Vincent’s feast day provide?

Hospices and handball

The third weekend in November brought the Vente des Vins at the Hospices de Beaune, when the Domaine des Hospices auctions some of its wines to raise money for the hospital in Beaune and a guest charity that provides a celebrity auctioneer for the Sunday afternoon auction. The domaine opens its cellars to the trade, press, and, at a price, the public. On the Saturday, at the Palais de Congrés on the outskirts of Beaune, other producers offer small samples of their wines to the same crowd for €10.

I was chasing anything relevant to the Hill of Corton, where the Hospices owns several vineyards, all of which, like the rest of the domaine, have been donated by philanthropic wine growers over the years.

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A press card sped me through the Hospices cellars thronged with wine lovers lingering over their samples, keen to demonstrate their wine-tasting prowess. With a packed schedule, I had no time to join them.

As a break from the crowds swarming around Beaune, I had a date to photograph the Pernand-Vergelesses handball team playing at home on the Sunday morning. A small group of faithful friends and family had gathered in Rue de Pralot and, leaning over the railings above the school playground, shouted encouragement to their men in black and yellow playing below against the backdrop of the vineyards.

I took up position beside the away goal but, in no time at all, was almost concussed, then nearly emasculated, by some wayward shooting by the home team, much to the amusement of the fans above. “We” lost, by 21 goals to 24, having looked the stronger, more athletic team.

Back at the Hospices auction, further hefty price increases recognized the small size of the 2013 crop, as well as Roland Masse and Christie’s promotional work in China.

Fog, hoar, and boar

In December, I was hoping to encounter a suitably wintry landscape, and I was not disappointed: I arrived to fog and heavy hoarfrost. It was too cold to prune, but I found two stalwarts from David Croix’s team preparing the frozen ground for new vines in Les Grèves.

One Saturday I accompanied a Ladoix winemaker, Jean-Ren. Nudant, and some of his friends as they set off on a hunting trip in the Hautes Côtes. I spent the morning with the trackers, sporting a high-visibility orange jacket. The wooded terrain was a hazardous mix of wet, moss-covered rocks and low branches, but my grunts and groans as I stumbled along were drowned out by the barking of the dogs, the guttural calls of the trackers, and the blasts from their brass horns.

A fortifying lunch in the hunters’ cabin was followed by two hours stationed on the side of a combe (ridge) watching for any boar or deer that might be driven past me.

“Have that long lens ready,” I was instructed by my companion before he disappeared into the trees; “they will come from your right.” But the first deer actually came bounding past me from the trees on the left, not 20 yards away, all speed and grace. Wrong lens, but a privilege to see.

Half an hour later, I saw another pass through the woods, again on my left. I got off a snap, certain it was in the frame somewhere… but no.

No wonder there was nothing stretched out beside the cabin when we returned at dusk for a glass and a hunk of brioche. But no one was downhearted: We had had plenty of exercise, good company, and an enjoyable lunch.

A Christmas tree in the woods

The following Sunday was a quieter affair. I met up with Sylvain-the woodsman for Vincent Sauvestre who owns and maintains the Bois de Corton at the top of the great hill-for a coffee at the épicerie in Ladoix. He had a laconic air and a great mustache. We embarked on a small tour of the woods, where Sylvain felled a few dead trees that would be sold for firewood. The fog was still quite thick and gave the wood a mythical atmosphere.

Sylvain kindly invited me back to his cottage for an unexpected Sunday lunch with his family, next to his Christmas tree and blazing log-burning stove, preceded by a little Ricard by way of an apéritif.

We went out again after lunch to look for more boar and deer, to be shot with a camera only this time. But I was having such a good day that I didn’t really mind if we didn’t see anything so wasn’t disappointed when we didn’t.

St-Vincent meets St-Aubin

The first big wine event of the year was St-Vincent’s festival on January 22, celebrated by the vignerons with a Mass at the local church and a five-hour lunch, followed by further drinking, eating, and dancing into the small hours.

The following weekend was the St-Vincent Tournante, a carnival held in a different village each year, and this time it was the turn of St-Aubin. It attracts supporters in their tens of thousands, so it was crowded, a photographer’s nightmare, and began (surprise, surprise) with the porters having half an hour of cassecroute and wine to ward off the cold. They set off at 7:30am to process around the village and its vineyards, carrying statues of St-Vincent from every wine village in Burgundy you’ve ever heard of and some you haven’t.

I chased the statues of Pernand, Aloxe, and Ladoix- Serrigny as best I could, hoping to build up an appetite for the banquet that I was sure would follow.

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