As a freelance writer, one has to count the pennies and cents. But having had the good luck to win a prize (mit cheque) for my recent book on Champagne, I decided to have a rest from bubbles and take a few days holiday in a place where my love affair with France began: the land of plenty that is Beaujolais, Bresse and Beaune.
Due to a mix-up on SNCF timetables, I had to wait around for the TGV from Paris Gare du Lyon to Mâcon-Loché, but it raced the 400 kilometres to Burgundy's southern city in just 100 minutes. I found a spotlessly clean hotel close to Mâcon Ville station. Pleasantly tired but needing some exercise, I strolled down through the handsomely restored town and crossed the bridge over the broad Saône to St Laurent, the first township you come to in the Bresse department of Ain, a mecca for foodies. That cold, star-bright night, I ate a perfect dinner in the heated verandah of the enchanting L'Autre Rive restaurant (www.lautrerive.fr) with its dramatic views of floodlit Mâcon across the water: even in November, the flat roofs and the southern architecture of the city told me that I was just at the point where southern France begins – the Midi beckons. For the record, the soup of potiron and chestnuts was a warming intro to one of France's great dishes, poulet de Bresse à la crème au vin jaune that quite lived up to expectations. As a good old boy, just wanting to sleep well, I drank just one lovely glass of Michel's Mâcon Clessé 09 and another of Devillard's Chateau de Chamirey Mercurey 08 with the chicken. Then the freshest raspberry sorbet with a splash of Marc de Bourgogne. Back to the hotel, I did not stir till 10 o'clock the next morning.
Rejuvenated, I trained it to Belleville-sur-Saône, the real wine capital of the Haut Beaujolais and home of my old friends, the Ferraud family (www.ferraud.com)
who still run one of the best small merchants that capture all the elegance and élan of top Beaujolais crus without the ‘boiled- sweets’, confected flavours that have damaged the region in the eyes of careful wine lovers. The highlight of my visit to Belleville was a memorable tasting, orchestrated by Yves-Dominque Ferraud of outstanding Beaujolais and Maconnais crus from the great 2009 and the subtly mineral 2008 vintages. All the wines came from specific domaines, where most had been aged mainly in large casks to round them out before bottling –a rarity in the region. The Mâcon whites were especially impressive; not that surprising, as Dominique is the nephew of the eminent Jean-Jacques Vincent of Chateau de Fuissé. The property of Pouilly Fuissé L’Entreroches belongs to Dom’s widowed mother, Marie- Jo Ferraud (elder sister of Jean-Jacques): the 2008 is a superbly textured Chardonnay, all silk and satin made more savoury by the mineral tastes of the rocks from which it came. Not a stave of oak in this beauty! Her Morgon Les Charmes 2009 is sensuously magnificent, a riveting mix of kirch, black cherry and liquorice flavours. At around £16 /18 € a bottle, all taxes included, this is one of Burgundy’s great wine values.
Cheers rang through the auction hall in front of the historic Hospice de Beaune as a record price of 400,000 euros was achieved for the top lot, la Pièce des Présidents, a ‘tonneau’ of 500 litres, made specially for this anniversary occasion. The very talented actor Fabrice Luchini came to support the Association for Life and Hope against Cancer, the beneficiary of the top bid’s proceeds. The lot was bought by Monsieur Jacques Boisseau of Maison Patriache et fils, Beaune. The Sale was dominated by European buyers who accounted for nearly 86 per cent of the value of total bids. For the first time Asian buyers, notably from China, Hong Kong and Korea, outnumbered those from the United States. I was much taken by elegant 2010 whites and concentrated reds (due to smaller berries) and were I to write a best –selling novel, on my shopping list would be the Meursault Genevrières Baudots, Corton-Charlemagne Roi Soleil, Pommard Epenots, Clos de la Roche and Mazis Chambertin. One of the best values was a lovely complete Beaune Clos des Avaux, which sold for around 3,000 euros la pièce and was snapped up significantly by the restored and enlightened Beaune house of Bichot. I shall look out for it.
ENGLISH SPARKLING WINE COMES OF AGE
In the time of the Angevin and Plantagenet kings of medieval England (12th to 15th centuries) vineyards flourished as far north as Yorkshire under the keen stewardship of Benedictine and Cistercian monks, whose orders had first established the great wines of Burgundy. The English winter was certainly colder then than it is now, but it was also drier and less affected by the heavy rainfall that causes so much disease in the growing cycle of the vine. English viticulture died a slow lingering death as riper, more agreeable wines from France, Italy and Spain came to dominate the English market well into Restoration and Georgian England. It was not until the 1970s that English wine was restored in the Hambleton vineyard of Hampshire, pioneered and developed by Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones, a retired diplomat and wine lover. But the best sites on the cool chalk downland of Southern England - so ideal for sparkling wine production - were not exploited until the 1980s. Thirty years on, the best English growers make sparklers that, if not completely like the real thing, do taste quite close to it.
Although warmer autumns and improved winemaking practice by English producers have resulted in some highs among our sparkling wines, one producer stands out for the consistency of his range of fizz, largely because he has always acted on good advice from his contacts in Champagne. Mike Roberts, a computer software expert, left the high tech world in 1992 to start the Ridgeview vineyard on the South Downs of Ditchling, near Brighton. He was astute enough to grasp that he had to plant all three classic sparkling grapes - palate-filling Meunier as well as noble Pinot and Chardonnay - if he was to achieve a harmony of fruit and mineral flavours to match the flavours of the better Champagnes. He has also been the first English sparkling producer to use the state-of-the-art Coquard automated press which treats mature Pinot grapes particularly well, coaxing all the right flavours without bruising and oxidising the grape clusters.
Last Sunday at the Decanter Wine Experience, I tasted through the immaculate Ridgeview range with Mike Roberts' son, Simon. Two very different recommendations: the utterly reliable Ridgeview Bloomsbury 2008 with its creamy round purity of fruit that comes from expert blending of incisive Chardonnay in the driving seat supported by firm rich Pinot and biscuity Meunier. And best of all, the South Ridge 2007 - its slightly raised proportion of black grapes, and an extra six months on lees, giving some of the richness and restraint I associate more with top Champagne producers like Pol Roger, Billecart-Salmon and Jacquesson than with any English sparkling wine. Bravo!