On the Trail

Vineyards and Old Bottles in Epernay

Gary Westby

(Our Champagne buyer Gary Westby is currently traveling through the region)

There is not a lot of down time on a K&L buying trip, so when I touched down in France I went straight from the airport to my first appointment at Charles Ellner in Epernay. I was tired and jet-lagged when I walked in, but energized by a great vineyard visit and lifted by some excellent Champagne by the time I left. I met with Frederic Ellner first, who manages the vineyards, and we traveled up to the Meltins, a plot that was planted to pinot noir in 2000 on a northeast-facing slope inside the Epernay city limits. There, Pierre Ellner, the fifth generation of the family, was at work pruning and tying the vines. The whole of Champagne is a little late in pruning this year as the winter was so cold and so wet that they could not get into the vineyard to do the work. It is inspiring to me to see a young member of a family like this doing the real work in the vineyard, and that personal attention comes through in the high quality of their finished Champagne.

After the vineyard visit, we went back to the winery and I sat with Willem Schiks (who some of you may have met last year at our Champagne tent event tastings) and Jean Pierre Ellner and tasted through the range. The Ellner family is very patient with their wines and the base years for the non-vintage current releases are from 2011 at the latest, while the Premier Cru that we have in stock being is based on 2006—more than ten years old! They never do malolactic fermentation, and that extra acidity gives the wines the chance to develop the complexity that only time will bring, but without sacrificing that snap and freshness. I particularly loved the Grande Reserve, a blend of 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir from all estate-grown fruit. This non-vintage cuvée is based on 2009 with over a third from older reserves, and has that great balance of power and freshness that really excites me in Champagne. The green apple flavors of a blocked malo bottling were balanced by great brioche flavors—it it had it all and should be well under $40 when it gets here.

Although I had another appointment, Jean-Pierre tempted me into staying longer with a great old vintage from the cellar. I have been lucky enough to taste a lot of the Champagne from the 1976 vintage, but his was one of the best. The color still had a touch of green, and the wine had better acidity and liveliness than any other that I have had from this hot and early harvest. It was loaded with complex, smoky, coffee aromas, a rich, full, nearly caramel like flavor, but no residual sugar was detectable on the long, swelling, mineral driven finish. That is a bottle I won’t forget!

-Gary Westby

On the Trail with Jeanne-Marie de Champs

David Driscoll

On our recent trip to Burgundy we met with a number of brokers, negotiants, exporters, and regional experts with whom we work on the ground in France to help us navigate some of the ins and outs of appointments and direct ordering. Many of these folks act as portfolio managers for the small properties in Burgundy who don't have the means or the ability to market their wines directly to retailers like us. Without a doubt there was one such person this past week who I enjoyed tasting with above all others: Jeanne-Marie de Champs. Whereas Burgundy suppliers can sometimes border on pedantic, Jeanne-Marie exudes nothing more than a quiet confidence. She is old school Français. She likes to let the wine do the talking, and in the case of her outstanding selections, the wines say more than enough. Having spent the last three and a half decades working in Burgundy, there are few who know it as well as she does. It's through Jeanne-Marie and her company Domaine et Saveurs that we began working with a number of customer favorites like Domaine Bart, Domaine Parent, and Paul Pernot—easily three of the most popular Burgundy labels we carry that we likely would not have discovered without her help. I enjoyed both her company and her subtle charm as we tasted through a number of different cellars. She's a rather intimidating and imposing force at first, but underneath all that I get the impression she's winking at you with a sly smirk. 

I caught up with Jeanne-Marie earlier this week for a little discussion about Burgundy and the wine trade. Our conversation is below:

David: How did you start working in the Burgundy wine business?

Jeanne-Marie: By marriage. My husband Henry was working in wine business and, first coming to Burgundy in 1980, I learned about wine in Paris (from Steve Spurier) and eventually here when I was receiving guests. I created a marketing company with a “friend” who eventually left with the money and I had to close the business. During this time I worked in my husband's company and helped develop the US market. I was also meeting a lot of growers who took the time to show me the vineyards, taste with me in their cellars, and show me older vintages to get a better reference. I was lucky. But In my family, we are farmers also—wheat, corn, Charolais cows, and oak trees. I was able to understand their concerns (despite the fact their vineyards had been planted for 60 to 100 years). Experience counts for a lot. Not only with tasting, but also in understanding the influence of the weather and how it coordinates with the wines.

David: I feel like you have a very firm grasp on Burgundy's many intricacies, yet you're very gentle in how you educate, which I particularly appreciated. How did you first approach Burgundy when learning about it?  

Jeanne-Marie: Meeting growers and negociants, visiting, learning, reading history and maps, much of the time on the spot. Climats (vineyards) and terroirs are like a big family: there's a lot of kids, but they're all different and each of them is uniquely influenced by the touch of the winemaker. Bourgogne wines are mono grape. There are no blends of varietals; it's usually just chardonnay, or pinot noir, or gamay. You have no compensation of flavors between grapes; it has to be the singular expression of the quality of the varietals in relation with the work done in vineyards, along with mother nature, the vinification, and the elevage (the maturation). It's impossible to standardize that process.

David: How do you generally approach explaining the concepts of Burgundy to others? What do you think are the most important things to know starting out?  

Jeanne-Marie: Bourgogne is a magic spot on earth where mother nature gave a special combination of attributes: the terroirs (sub soil/soil), the various slopes, the limestone and clay, and the weather. Our ancestors—being farmers—discovered it over time and being smart they slowly adapted the vines to it. Production evolved from there. They also discovered that some places, certain vineyards and terroirs, had a specific influence on quality, taste, the skins of the grapes, and how they matured. When I read old books or references, I find it fascinating to discover how much they already knew back them. We cannot forget that Burgundy is a region full of paths with many saints and monks having once travelled through the area. They were educated people who came back with new views and experiences from Italy, Spain, Greece, and Germany. They ultimately influenced that development.

David: What do you look for in a good red or white Burgundy? What are the characteristics you most enjoy?

Jeanne-Marie: I like balance—a natural equilibrium of the vintage and the terroir, the acidity, the fruit, and its purity. I like respect for the vintage and I don't like high levels of alcohol except for when it happens naturally. The color is not an issue for me.

David: How do you think the business will evolve over the next decade? Do you see younger people continuing to learn about Burgundy and enjoy its complexities?

Jeanne-Marie: On one side, the wine business—as many other industries—has evolved with a concentration of companies, some of them giant, looking for larger volume, which will in turn create standardized wines to answer that demand. The power of these brands along with social media and the internet, and the images they project (ego, part of a social class, etc) supplies an immediate pleasure. On other side, I believe in the younger generation, which has started to become concerned about sustainability both for them and their kids, and who want to be educated on everything, including organic wines and wines in general. Today they have access to wines from all over the world and many retailers like you help to educate them, give them a chance to taste, and then to discover more. They have to taste and discover enough to form their own opinion and find the definition of their own tastes and pleasures. Of course, with the price points where they are for the top wines, I just hope Burgundy will not lose a large part of this generation. We have some nice standard Bourgogne appellations, but I want them to discover the climats and mother nature, along with her influence of weather conditions, rain, sun, and maturity.

David: Burgundy is a small place. There's not always enough wine to go around unfortunately. That's why I'm so excited to work with you. You're bringing us fantastic, terroir-driven wines that are both delicious and often affordable.

Jeanne-Marie: We are a small region in the world of wine, with small vineyards, which in relation to the rest of the wine world are tiny. Some regions are consistent from year to year, but each vintage of Burgundy brings new aspects to consider including acidity and potential of aging. Sometimes I am sad that some of our wines are not being consumed, but instead are an investment that can appreciate and become more valuable. 

David: Do you think the complexities of understanding Burgundy with its many terroirs act as a barrier to new consumers? How do you think we should talk about Burgundy to newcomers who may be intimidated by all that there is to know?

Jeanne-Marie: It is not a barrier, but rather a complexity that gives you only more challenges and increased moments of happiness. We will not convince everyone out there. People don’t need to know everything there is to know, but just to understand slowly why this wine is like this and not like that, and ultimately derive pleasure by drinking with food and friends. Some will eventually go further than others.          

-David Driscoll

The Reality of Burgundy's 2016 Vintage

David Driscoll

While we had nothing but spectacular weather last week in Burgundy, there was a little trepidation by many of the growers about the early Spring. A warm March can lead to early bud break on the vines before the chill of winter has left for good, which can cause havoc in the vineyards down the line. An example? The 2016 vintage. From Chablis all the way down to Beaujolais, growers were plagued by severe frost or extreme hail, or in some cases a whole lot of both. We talked with producers every single day who lost anywhere between 40% and 80% of their entire crop, either because the buds were frozen and destroyed by the cold, or the grapes were battered and busted open by hail stones the size of golf balls. Winemakers eliminated some expressions entirely from their portfolios. They blended parcels together and declassified certain vineyards from their significantly higher status. The weather didn't completely wipe out the vintage in Burgundy, but it tried to.

It's not all doom and gloom, however. The grapes that didn't get decimated by frost or hail hung on to produce quite lovely wines. In a number of cases, the lower yields produced concentrated and flavorful grapes that resulted in top quality cuvées, but just very small amounts. We tasted vibrant whites and seductive reds still in tank and in barrel as we moved from cellar to cellar through the Côte d'Or. There will still be a number of great wines from the 2016 vintage; that won't be an issue. The issue is going to be tracking down enough bottles to sustain you until the 2017s are released. Of course, there's a solution to that dilemma: buy as much 2014 and 2015 as you can afford and stock up. That's what I'm planning to do later today. The 2014 whites will stay fresh in your cellar for the next few years, while the village-level reds should soften up soon. The 2015s you can drink now or hold. There's plenty of wine for all of us right now. We just need to budget and ration our supplies.

You've got a head start. Make sure you use it!

-David Driscoll

Burgundy's Fantastic 2015 Vintage

David Driscoll

Now that we've gotten all the Burgundian introductions and explications out of the way, let's talk about why we here in the Côte d'Or this week: the upcoming 2015 reds. There hasn't been a vintage as warm and forgiving in Burgundy since 2009, where the pinot noir shows this much lush fruit and utter charm. 2010 was a solid year, but the reds had structure and over the course of our time here we've found a number of wines are a bit closed at the moment. 2011 was tough. 2012 had its bright spots. 2013 was another rough harvest. 2014 was classic and textbook. However, as we all know, in order to capture the attention of the mass market, you have to have ripeness. For Burgundian pinot noir, a wine that can often overwhelm American drinkers with its course earthiness and high acidity, the wines must be approachable immediately and showcase a somewhat silky sensibility. Lucky for those us who enjoy the wines and are looking to bring newcomers into the category, 2015 offers exactly that. Not only do the 2015s have ripeness, they have an incredible freshness to bolster all that fruit. They're vibrant and electric, often filled with bright cherries and plenty of spice. While the 2009s had ripeness, they lacked acidity. The wines were quick out of the gate, but they don't have the stuffing for the long haul. 2015, however, is looking like a vintage that can be consumed in both the short and long term.

As if that wasn't enough good news, the real surprise for us on this trip has been the whites. I think all three of us assumed the warmer weather may have stripped the whites of their crispness and minerality, but I'm happy to report that the 2015 chardonnays are fantastic. Much like the reds, they have both fullness of fruit and plenty of fresh acidity on the finish. With no other portfolio is this dichotomy more apparent than with the wines of Paul Pernot, who was up early to greet us with an absolutely spellbinding collection of elegant and refined selections. We were joined by my new best friend Jeanne-Marie de Champs, an experienced agent of Burgundy who helped guide us through our appointments. Jeanne-Marie is an absolute character; she's from another era in France. Tasting with her and Mr. Pernot was like eating with Julia Child and Paul Bocuse, each recounting stories about vineyards in the region and the memories that form their associations with each one. The reds were like velvet on the palate, but they were never flabby. The whites were just as elegant and graceful. His Puligny whites were the stars of the show with ample weight from the fruit, but balanced earth and mineral undertones. "We made sure to pick earlier," Pernot mentioned, adding that those who didn't keep a close eye on their chardonnay risked losing that freshness. His Volnay sang with fleshy tannins, crunchy cranberries, and long finish of baking spices and earth. I can see myself buying cases and cases of these wines when I get back. We've already sold through a number of what we've received in, which worries me. At this point, however, I'm more worried about my financial ability to afford the incredible wines I've been tasting. 

If $70-$150 bottles of Burgundy are out of your price range, don't worry. There's going to be plenty of delicious 2015 reds coming in at less than thirty bucks. One of our most popular and value-oriented producers is Domaine Bart, a family operation in Marsannay that has been a go-to for me since my early days at K&L. The wines are good in practically any vintage, so I was really excited to get a taste of the fifteens. Marsannay is at the very top of the Côte d'Or, to the point that it's almost like a suburb of Dijon (which you can see in the distance if you look closely). True to form, the reds from Bart were everything we hoped they would be: loaded with raspberries and brambly fruit, but again with a zesty acidity and firmness from the tannins on the finish. In no way does 2015 lack power or structure in the face of all that ripeness. Many of the reds we tasted this week were as meaty and bold as they were fruity. I was imagining the Bart wines would be rather pretty and soft, as is typically their style, but they had gusto and grip. It was enthralling. 

Where you're really going to see the quality of 2015 as a red vintage is in the big guns: the grand cru vineyards like Chamberlain, Clos St. Denis, and Clos Vougeot. We tasted numerous expressions from various producers and the quality of the wines was consistent across the board. We had a particularly inspiring sit down with Laurent Ponsot who poured us some of the best pinot noirs I've ever tasted in my life. I was practically speechless after a glass of 2015 Clos St. Denis (usually around $600 a bottle) that melted over my tongue and slowly seeped into my taste buds. Ponsot has holdings in the grand cru site with 110 year old vines that produce small yields of concentrated fruit. Whereas the 2014 grand cru expressions we tasted were rather tannic and closed, the fifteens showed tremendous fruit even in their youth. It was pretty incredible.

And then it was off to Paris. Our week in Burgundy is done. We're getting ready to board a plane shortly back to California, but we're pretty inspired by what we've tasted. We had one final meal at La Fontaine de Mars, and then we called it a night. I think 2015 will be an exciting development for experienced drinkers and a gateway vintage for newcomers who want to get involved with a heralded and approachable vintage. We'll have more to say as the year goes along, but it's looking good so far.

-David Driscoll

The True Pays de Bourgogne

David Driscoll

While for most serious drinkers the real magic lies completely within the Côte d'Or—that golden slope of heaven that runs from Marsannay to Santenay—there are indeed other winemaking appellations in Burgundy outside its scope. The majesty may not be as matched, but what these Burgundian satellites lack in complexity they more than make up for with charm, rusticity, and—perhaps most important—in price. We started our morning by heading south of Beaune and towards a region I've come to know well over the years (in terms of general consumption). Because I'd seen pictures in a number of wine books and marketing brochures, I knew we had entered the Mâcon-Villages region when I saw the Rock of Solutré off in the distance beyond the dizzying chardonnay vineyards. The many small wine appellations that make up this region—Charnay and Solutré, for example—as well as the more-renowned St. Veran and Pouilly-Fuissé sections produce some of the cleanest, freshest, and most value-oriented white wines in the world. We were starting off with an appointment at Domaine Renaud, a producer whose wines I've been pounding on my patio since the day I started working at K&L. When chardonnay tastes that crisp and that delicious for less than fifteen bucks, I tend to increase the volume in which I enjoy it. 

Next door to the village of Poussy-Solutré is the town of Fuissé, where another of our fantastic chardonnay producers is located: Château Vitallis. We've been working directly with Maxim Dutron and his family for the last few vintages, focusing on some of the richer Pouilly-Fuissé expressions that are pricier (in the $20-$30 range), but have both incredible richness and acidity in complete balance to justify that hike. We tasted through the fleshy and riper 2015 vintage and toured some of the vineyard sites, one of which is directly next to the château and surrounded by a centuries-old stone wall. The town itself is as quaint and romantic as it gets in France. Just walking through the tiny side streets and older courtyards makes me want to start popping bottles!

Leaving the Mâcon just before lunch, we continued on into Beaujolais; a region that's been on the rise for the last decade in terms of both quality and recognition. The appellation and its relationship to the rest of Burgundy shares a large similarity with the way the general drinking public often thinks about tequila and mezcal. Much like a large number of tourists to Mexico remember a vomit-inducing night of drinking cheap mezcal with a worm in the bottle, many wine drinkers associate Beaujolais with the sickening recollection of their first experience with cheap, carbonic, and overtly-fruity Beaujolais Nouveau: the locally-made Hi-C fruit punch version of gamay wine. Because most Americans are generally unaware that the region offers any other options, they tend to ignore it completely. But much like Oaxacan mezcal is having a small renaissance with its bevy of small rustic producers, hand-distilling artisanal batches of flavorful agave spirits, Beaujolais is beginning a similar ascent into the hearts of drinkers who value quality, ethics, and purity of terroir over the commercialization and gentrification of the larger Burgundian domaines. Our first stop was at Château Javernand, one of our newer relationships whose wines debuted at K&L just last year. After a huge show of support from our savvy customers, we were back to buy more of the recent vintages.

While the Côte d'Or sells its finest bottles for thousands of dollars while playing the role of the petit paysan, in Beaujolais it's a much more down-to-earth and real experience. The property owners are usually the winemakers themselves and their vineyards are often neighbored by cows, goats, and various gardens or orchards that contribute to the artisansal culture of the region. Where as Beaujolais whites are made with chardonnay like in the rest of Burgundy, the reds are mostly made with the gamay grape rather than pinot noir. When produced carbonically (the process wherein fermentation begins inside the grape), it can produce the juiciest and fruitiest wine in the world. But when harvested with integrity and care, and produced like any other great wine in the world, the result is a far more rustic, complex, and age-worthy expression that rivals any other red wine in its price point. Imagine the concentrated red berry flavors of a great pinot noir or grenache, accented by fine notes of earth and terroir, with chewy and somewhat firm tannins, and wild notes of black pepper and meaty sauvage on the finish. That's what Cru Beaujolais can offer you for under twenty dollars a bottle, if you know where to look. 

Pierre Prost and Arthur Fourneau were there to meet us at Javernand and take us through their grandfather's château, still adorned with much of its original furniture from when it was first purchased in 1917. We're currently expecting another shipment of the much-anticipated 2015 wines, but we were there today to taste the subsequent 2016 vintage; a harvest that was utterly-decimated in some regions by hail the size of golf balls. In the case of Javernand, the output was less than 25% of normal, a stunning blow for these small guys! While the yields were low, the quality is high due to better concentration of the fruit that remained. Their wines were loaded with dark, brooding fruit and loads of earthy spices. Plus, you couldn't beat the weather here today. We had lunch out on the patio with scalloped potatoes and stewed veal, plus a local goat cheese afterward that about made me weep. Beaujolais from one of the many "cru" villages like Chirouble, Saint Amour, Morgon, and Brouilly, is one of the best food wines in the business. They can age just like Burgundian pinot noirs as well. We washed down the cheese plate with a few older Javernand editions from 2005, 2006, and 2009. They were as fresh as daisies. 

From there, we moved to Régnie and the vineyards of Jean-Michel Dupré, a man whose wines about floored me upon their arrival last year (we still have some of the ten dollar holler here). Talk about seductive! The concentration and pureness of his wines was matched only by the blueness of his eyes. When you've got 100 year old vines crawling out of the earth like creepy hands out of a horror movie, you can achieve such levels of quality. Old vines make for rich and deeply-flavorful expressions. 

Jean-Michel's tasting room was buried down in the earth in an old cave dugout beneath his winery. We tasted through some of his cru expressions like the 2016 Régnie, Morgon, and the incredible "1935," made from a plot in Morgon with vines planted during that very year. I can't say enough about how delicious his wines are. They're loaded with penetrating red fruits, violets, and fresh acidity that leaves your mouth watering and begging for more. I'm very excited to get another shipment from Dupré. These wines were a big hit at our Beaujolais dinner in San Francisco this past January. Looks like Alex and I will have to host another one of those parties!

I can't say enough wonderful things about the Mâcon and Beaujolais. It's a hilly, fertile, and picturesque countryside filled to the brim with small farmers, sweeping vineyards, and a number of reasonably-priced table wines that truly nurture the stomach and the soul. I'm very pleased we were able to make a day of it there. As my old colleague Keith Wollenburg would often say: "I think it's time we revisit the wines of the Mâcon."

-David Driscoll

The Route des Grands Crus

David Driscoll

We're living in a new age of wine appreciation. Gone are the days when Burgundy was a sleepy little farming region, populated purely by simple, country folk who humbly tended to their vines just to make an honest living. Here instead are wine lists like the one pictured above; a snapshot of our dinner in Beaune last night. Those prices on the right are in Euros and represent the per bottle cost of each selection. This bewildering sight is where Burgundy has arrived to over the last few decades; often times a cult status that sets the bar for outrageous when it comes to pricing. Needless to say we didn't opt for any of the bottles on this page. I did, however, throw down three hundred bucks for a bottle of 2010 premier cru Vosne Romanée from Meo-Camuzet. You work hard, you play hard, right? Playing hard in Burgundy these days requires a serious cash flow, unfortunately, which is why we got back on the more reasonable and straighter narrow this morning.

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This morning's appointments began at Domaine d'Eugénie, a small producer in Vosne Romanée with a number of top level vineyard holdings, including the tiny "Clos Eugenie" located inside the walls of the property. See that brown area on the hill in the background, beyond the wall in the distance? That's "La Tache" vineyard. Go back up to the above menu and have a look at what those bottles will run you. Eugénie is just down the slope from that holy piece of Burgundian land, which represents a quality more our speed as Burgundy drinkers. We like good stuff, but we typically look for the bottle that's almost as good for a fraction of the price. 

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While a bottle of DRC La Tache will run you thousands of dollars, a bottle of Eugénie grand cru "Grand Echezeux" will run you a little less than three hundred bucks. With only a few barrels made each year of the vineyard expression, it's a rare breed of luxury. Shopping for grand cru Burgundy isn't all that different from rummaging through Scotland in search of rare whisky barrels. The wine goes into the cask the same way the Scotch does, and in the end there are only a few of each type in the cellar. We tasted the 2015 "Grand Echezeux" at Eugénie that was simply incredible with loads of exotic spice, aromatic fruits, and pretty palate of freshly-cut violets and deep, dark, concentrated berries. 

While prices have gone through the roof over the last few decades and a class of nouveau riche has penetrated the market, some things haven't progressed as quickly in the region. We were still treated to old school wines and old school meals here and there thanks to Clyde's old relationships in the area. How about a lovely loaf of pâté en crôute for an appetizer? 

Driving down the illustrious Route des Grands Crus is a total game changer because it's like having a two-dimensional, color-coded map manifested for you with real life colors and topography. I've looked at the map of the Côte d'Or in our tasting bar for almost ten years at this point, but cruising along the main road and being able to see each plot in its true form is an altering experience. It's the difference between book smarts and street smarts in Burgundy. Basically, until you've ridden down this street and seen the plots first hand, I don't think you can really grasp what's going on here. Photos and vineyard maps don't begin to do it justice. 

Not only do you get a sense of the layout driving down the Route, you also get a sense of the modern Burgundy existence. Tractors routinely block the way for drivers, while vineyard managers are out trimming the excess wood and burning the leftovers. The smell of smoke was constantly in the air, reminding us at each stop just what it takes to maintain and lead the Burgundy lifestyle. We tasted a lot of great wines today, and an equal number of terrible ones. It really is a crap shoot at times unless you know exactly where to look. Ultimately, they all use the same names.

-David Driscoll

Into the Côte d'Or

David Driscoll

Welcome to Burgundy's Côte d'Or: the most coveted, heralded, treasured, and expensive series of vineyards on the planet with an overwhelmingly-complex network of owners who have been passing down their plots for generations. What's particularly fascinating is exactly how these inheritances are divided. For those of you who are just getting your feet wet, it started back in 1804 when Napoleon Bonaparte decreed that all assets and property left from a parent must be divided equally among the children, including vineyards in Burgundy. That means a father who owned one hectare of vines and had four children must legally divide that holding into four parts; one parcel for each child. Imagine how that's worked out over the last two hundred years for these families! At this point there are brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins all in possession of a few vines here and a few more over there. Maybe two rows in this vineyard and another few rows in that one. In order to scale up and produce wine as a domaine these days ambitious winemakers have to buy out the rest of their relatives, which has become a nightmare for smaller producers who don't have that kind of cash just sitting around. That's why you'll often see a number of domaines with the same last name, but various first names like Anne Gros, Michel Gros, and Bernard Gros. It's also the reason you'll find Burgundy wine geeks out there who are so obsessed with the placement of these parcels that they've spent their entire lives mapping out who owns what, what lies where, and how where turns into greatness. 

But that's not to say families don't stick together. We spent the morning with the Parent sisters, Anne and Catherine, who have pooled their inherited plots and continued on under the same label. In Burgundy, the term "domaine" means the vines are owned by the producer and Domaine Parent has holdings in Pommard, Beaune, and Corton, as well as a number of chardonnay plots in Monthélie. We tasted through the 2014 and 2015 vintages while Anne poured and walked us through the wines. I found her utterly charming and appreciated her ability to explain each expression with clarity and without ever sounding professorial. Alex asked Anne if she was relieved by how much better both harvests were than the difficult 2013, to which she answered: "I think 2013 is a fine year, but you can't ask a Toyota to be a Porsche. At the same time, a Toyota can be very useful. Serious winemakers know how to make good wine in any vintage." I couldn't help but respond by asking her: "Are you a serious winemaker, Anne?" She smiled and filled my glass a little higher. 

One of the specifics each winemaker made sure to clarify for us at each appointment was the proportion of whole clusters used during fermentation versus berries that have been separated by hand. When you use whole clusters of grapes it means you're not destemming, which means you're adding little bitter pieces of wood to the wine that impact the final flavor. It's a useful strategy in terms of balancing tannic structure to fruit, but you have to be careful. Anne told us: "To use stems you have to be sure about their health and maturity or else you can end up with bitter or green flavors." Today many winemakers may do 20%, 50%, or even 100% whole cluster fermentation depending on the vintage and the vineyard. Add that to the dozen other details that can make or break a specific Burgundian rouge. New world pinot noir drinkers often have a tough time coming to terms with some of these earthier, courser, or grittier flavors of Burgundy that result from such practices. They usually prefer the lush fruit and supple ripeness of California or New Zealand pinots. As a result, producers of that forward and friendly style have been rewarded over the last decade with popularity and press, but when that subject came up Anne was quick to point out: "That's not the only vision of wine." 

If the Parent vision of great Burgundy extends beyond delicacy of fruit and into the complexities of terroir, then what constitutes greatness? There's no easy answer to that question, nor is it an easy task to find consensus from winemaker to winemaker. While the vineyard definitely has its say, the rest depends on the philosophy of the producer and the style of wine they want to present. With stems or without? For drinking now or later? Lush and pretty or bold and brawny? Knowing simply the vintage and the region won't help you in Burgundy. You have to dig deeper, both into the Burgundian earth and the complex fabric of stewards who watch over it. Anne mentioned to us that her Pommard vines were farmed organically, yet her neighbor in the same vineyard only a few meters away still chooses to spray his holding. You can have a wine from the same year, the same region, the same vineyard—heck, even the same plot—and the result still may be worlds apart. It's that incredible requisite of knowledge that makes Burgundy the ultimate challenge in the wine world. Yet, many would argue it also provides the ultimate reward. We tasted the 2015 Domaine Parent Grand Cru Corton "Les Renardes" that pretty much brought a tear to my eye. It was perfect in every way possible. It was utterly divine. That's when Anne said to me: "We know the true taste of pinot noir comes from Burgundy." She then patted me on the shoulder and went to find another bottle.

As we advanced deeper into Vosne Romanée I began to notice fortifications and divisions. Stone walls become more apparent, along with iron gates, forbidding doors, and prohibitive shutters. These parcels are no joke. As you move through the village and up onto the hill you see names like Richebourg and Romanée-Conti, perhaps the two most famous vineyards in the entire world, producing wines that sell for thousands of dollars a bottle. Many of these climats go back centuries if not over a millennium. It's imperative that they're guarded and protected. 

We tasted extensively at more than six different appointments as we began to get a sense of the 2015 vintage between different producers. On the whole the wines are riper than 2014 and in many cases we liked them more. Yet, as I've written before, blanket statements are dangerous—especially here. In a number of instances I thought the balance and the complexity of the 2014s were more compelling, but it's hard to argue with that soft and gentle fruit. We've got a few more days here to really feel things out from domaine to domaine. My impressions are only beginning to congeal into any sort of basic understanding.

-David Driscoll

Burgundian Business

David Driscoll

You wanna know how we should talk about Burgundy in this industry? How to get people interested? How to pique their curiosity and bolster their excitement? You do exactly what they do at La Chablisienne, the co-op we've been working with directly for the last year. You don't lecture, you don't preach, and you don't get pedantic; you pour people great wines from great vineyards, then simply answer their questions with short specifics that speak to the place in which the wines were made. We had an absolutely spectacular tasting this morning with Fabrice Roelandt, during which we tasted more than a dozen chardonnays, each from a different vineyard location, and each with its own unique flavor profile. I was honestly overwhelmed by the variety and the depth on display. When we commented about a wine's richness, he had an answer: "This vineyard is on the right bank of the river where there is more sun, therefore it's riper." When we remarked about a wine's clean acidity and freshness, he would say: "This vineyard is located in an valley inlet where it's cooler, that's why the acidity is higher." His simple and supportive approach to Chablis eduction was as refreshing as the wines themselves; it also spoke volumes about the philosophy at the facility. "La Chablisienne doesn't have a house style," he mentioned to us as we discussed the production methods; "We do simple winemaking that reflects the character of the vineyard, nothing more." I'm very excited to get more of these wines back into K&L. I bought a boat load for my cellar last year and I'm definitely going to reload with the upcoming fourteens and fifteens. With so many different holdings and expressions, you could get a pretty good understanding of Chablis's complexity simply by tasting through the Chablisienne portfolio. They range from saline and salty to round and seductive—and everywhere in between. 

From La Chablisienne we headed back across town to Gerard Tremblay where the operation is now being run by his son Vincent and his daughter Ilona, a formidable brother and sister duo that has carried on the family tradition. We began with a tasting of the upcoming 2016 vintage from tank, a harvest that should strike a bit of fear into your heart if you love Chablis. Due to ferocious frosts, hellacious hail, and a mound of mildew from the humidity that followed, many producers like Tremblay had their crops wiped out by fifty percent or more. The quality of what remained is very high, but the output was drastically reduced. This was across the board in Burgundy on the whole, but it was particularly bad in Chablis. After tasting in the cellar, we had lunch with the entire Tremblay clan—including mom and dad, as well as aunts and uncles—and gorged on pork with mushroom sauce and a few library bottles like the 1985 Tremblay "Côte de Lechet." Think Chablis can't stay fresh and invigorating after more than three decades in the bottle? Think again.

We had one final appointment in Chablis before heading off for the Côte d'Or: at Domaine Long-Depaquit, an Albert Bichot property with one of the most beautiful courtyards in the area. We met up with Matthieu Mangenot who walked us through the newly-bottled 2015 vintage and the devastation that followed in 2016 (the domaine lost seventy percent of its normal crop due to frost). With very little oak aging, the wines are incredibly crisp despite the warmer weather in '15, but there's definitely more heft with the extra ripeness (check out the '14 "Les Vaucopins" for a more traditional take). 

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Long-Depaquit also has a monopole vineyard that's sometimes referred to as Chablis's "eighth grand cru;" a small slice of the hill that runs along the border between the grand crus of "Preuse" and "Vaudésir." While technically it's a blend of both vineyards, the domaine refers to the wine as "Moutonne" and it's widely-considered a separate terroir by locals in the region. We drove out to the site after tasting the spectacular 2014 vintage, a wine that combined power, weight, minerality, and grace. Hiking to the top of the site, we looked out over the entire hill of grand cru sites and said goodbye to those beautiful vines. After a spectacular twenty-four hours in Chablis, it was time to hit the road and head for Santenay.

Two hours later we were driving along the Route de Grand Crus, through Montrachet and the many heralded vineyard sites, towards Château de la Charrière; one of our most popular direct import producers and a label that easily represents the best bang for your buck we carry in Burgundy. Formerly run by Yves Girardin, the business is now run by his young son Benoit, who definitely has modernized the winemaking a bit since his first vintage in 2011. Whereas the wines were a bit funky and rustic previously, the past few vintages are much cleaner; showcasing the pureness of the pinot noir by de-stemming completely so as to remove tannic structure. I'd highly, highly advise you to check out some of the inexpensive 2015 reds we just got in. For less than twenty bucks, the simple Bourgogne Rouge is drinking like a dream. Their local Santenay 1er cru wines, however, were the stars. Sourced from up on the above-pictured hill, both the whites and reds were showcasing serious stuff. It was great to finally put a face to the name.

Last, but not least, it was back to the village of Puligny to visit perhaps our most popular producer: Jacques Bavard. This man can absolutely do no wrong at K&L, as his wines have become the darlings of both our staff and our savvy customer base. While we'll have another container of 2014s coming shortly (and you should really load up as 2015 and 16 are nowhere near as vibrant), we tasted through his splendid fifteens that were singing a fine tune already. As if that wasn't enough white wine for the day, we ended up over at Olivier Leflaive for dinner, drinking a flight of seven chardonnays from the standard Bourgogne blanc to the Corton-Charlemagne grand cru edition. Trey and I posted up at the bar while waiting for Alex to wash up and drank a glass of the 2014 "Les Sétilles" in anticipation of our meal. The wine was simply charming, round, and concentrated on the palate, but fresh with acidity and a clean, snappy finish. I need to go back and buy more of that one. The more I taste the 14 vintage, the more I'm beginning to realize what utter gems these wines are.

More tomorrow!

-David Driscoll

Walk the Walk

David Driscoll

When I first started learning about Burgundy, I would subject myself to terrible lectures from pedantic know-it-alls who thought the best way to explain the wines was to talk about the region’s topography. They would describe the way the hill shifted slightly to the left in one vineyard, and how the slope of the hill changed as you moved into the neighboring one. I would stand there listening, just trying to remember which grapes the wines were made from, and write down these ridiculous notes that never once did I return to for advice. Apparently, you needed to understand the vineyards in Burgundy before you could understand anything about what you were drinking. When I opened my first bottle of grand cru Chablis I ended drinking it while looking at an atlas, hoping illumination might be hidden somewhere within those pages. I never found it, however. It would be a few years before my confidence and courage caught up with my brain and allowed me to understand the real issue. The problem with Burgundy, I’ve found over my career, is that the people trying to tell you about it are some of the worst possible teachers available. They’re literal-minded, snooty, uptight, they often enjoy the sound of their own voice, and they talk the entire time about things they know you don’t yet understand, as if to condescend somehow nurtures their soul. In their defense, part of the reason these folks go on and on about the specifics of each vineyard and the various minutia that make Burgundy into a master class is because that’s the way they were taught. They’re simply mimicking the manner of pretense they learned from those before them. But the more people talk this way about Burgundy, the more it becomes the norm; and it’s a phenomenon I’ve found very unbecoming for a long time.

I would never have a friendly conversation about Burgundy by spouting off the detailed terroir of each vineyard, much like I wouldn’t ever start off a blind date by listing the various psychological quirks of my personality or the numerous achievements of my childhood. People need to time to get to know Burgundy, just like they do other people. Moving too quickly too fast is an utter turnoff. It overwhelms people in a way that feels overtly forced and unnatural. Personally, I don’t really want to learn more about a person unless I already know I like them. Once we’ve established a relationship I’ll typically feel the need to ask more questions. Wine is no different. I don’t necessarily want to know what makes a wine taste the way it does until I know I enjoy it. At that point I can reassess how far I want to take my inquiries. I’ve always known that I liked Chablis, especially the mineral complexity of the higher-end bottles. I didn't figure that out by having someone hand me a limestone rock from a vineyard, or them telling me about the geological formations under the earth. I learned that I liked Chablis from drinking it. Lots of it. All the time. Over and over again. Since I found myself awake at 4 AM in the town of Chablis this morning, I decided to get dressed at first light and go for a little stroll through the hills. I was going to finally get to know the region a little more personally.

As you walk out of the town center towards the grand cru vineyard sites you can see a paved path that goes straight up through Les Clos—perhaps the most famous Chablis vineyard—to the top of the hill. I crossed the river in the brisk morning air, looked both ways when I reached the highway, and set forth at a quick pace hoping to burn off some of last night's dinner. When I finally made it up the summit, a bit winded from the steep climb, I discovered not only a new path that followed the top of each vineyard through the hills, but also a set of signs that designated each of the names and boundaries. I decided to do the entire loop before breakfast seeing as I had the morning's tranquility completely to myself. There were all sorts of inlets, interesting valleys, and hidden slopes with vines planted in every direction. It was a fantastic walk, but that's as much as I'm going to tell you about it. I discovered all sorts of interesting details about each site that probably help to explain why each makes a unique and beautiful wine, and I'll leave it at that. That's all there is to say right now because trying to explain to someone the detailed intimacy of each grand cru location is a bit like trying to convey how funny last night's episode of South Park was by reenacting the dialogue yourself. You can't always explain why things are good. Sometimes people need to experience things for themselves.

That's a pretty annoying thing to say, I know: "you really have to be here," as if anyone can just get on a plane and fly to Chablis whenever they want. But that's the way life works. You wanna talk the talk? You have to walk the walk, too. If you're passionately interested in something then you need to back up your words with experiences that fortify those book lessons with personal contact and direct immersion. That's not to say you can't enjoy Burgundy unless you've been there. I've been enjoying Chablis for the better part of a decade and I'm only now getting the chance to see it. It's just to say that a formal understanding of Burgundy isn't something that needs to happen over the course of an afternoon. You don't need to have a sommelier tell you that Les Clos slants one direction and Valmur another in order to know they taste good. In fact, I'd rather the somm just choose a bottle of something delicious and leave it at that. Of course, there are reasons as to why these wines taste differently, but if you truly and honestly care about what those reasons are, then I have some advice for you: save your money and buy a plane ticket. Come out here and do a morning's walk through the vineyards. Walk the walk. It's in that moment that you'll realize simply talking about Burgundy's geographical intricacies is incredibly ineffective. 

-David Driscoll

Arrival in Chablis

David Driscoll

Trey Beffa and I rolled into the village of Chablis at around 3 PM this afternoon; just in time for our appointment with Laroche in the town center. It's about a two hour drive from Paris, southeast towards Dijon and Lyon, to one of the world's premier white wine capitals. Chablis, as many of you know, specializes in chardonnay and its most famous vineyards are on display along the majestic hillside as you turn off the main road. Burgundy classifies its wines by region, village, and vineyard, depending on which designation is more prestigious. Vineyards can be unranked (usually known as a lieu dit, or a simple place with a name), classified as premier cru, or bumped up to the grandaddy of them all: the glorious grand cru level. There are seven grand cru vineyards in Chablis and they're all located right next to one another on the right side of the Serein river. It's quite a sight to behold, but it's not a phenomenon simply by chance.

We hiked up the hill into the famous "Les Clos" vineyard and ran our hands through the chalky soil. All the best sights in Chablis face southwest and get incredible sun exposure in the late afternoon. We basked in the warm glow of the early evening sunset and got a sense of the layout. Just setting foot between the vines and looking further south along the hillside, you can clearly see why these vineyards are the cream of the crop. The gentle slope that allows for drainage, the wide and expansive vista, and the limestone rich terrain that imparts an incredible minerality into the wine itself. There's just something in the air here. We could both feel it. It energized us, especially after a ten hour flight and a long drive in the car.

The town of Chablis is quaint and charming, but on Sunday everything is closed. There's an entire boutique dedicated to Andouille sausage, as well as a number of tempting wine shops with prices that seem downright unheard of. We stopped at the local bar for a quick beer to whet our whistles and noticed a few premier cru selections on the menu for less than thirty euros a bottle. That's where we met up with Alex Pross, our other Burgundy buyer, to map out the week's agenda. Between the three of us, we're a trio of fairly capable wine guys. Alex has been in the Rhône for the last week tasting wines with Trey's dad Clyde and our French specialist Keith Mabry, so he was fresh and ready to rock. We took in the lazy Sunday afternoon with a few cold ones and a renewed focus. This was going to be a great week.

The river splits off into a series of canals through Chablis, one of which flows right under our hotel room. There's a little promenade that runs along side it. I'm already imagining an early morning walk when the jet lag rips open my eye lids tomorrow. Many of these waterways were the early methods of transport for customers in Paris and beyond the landlocked region. Moving wine barrels by horseback was too painstaking. Boat was the easier method than the open road.

Being on the road for K&L isn't a vacation, however (no matter how much it seems that way). You've gotta do your appointments first and your due diligence. We tasted through a number of the 2015 selections at Domaine Laroche before even checking in at the hotel. The best part was the ten minute film featuring a live monk who narrated to us the history of the Chablis region with a deep and almost sinister voice. If you don't know the history of Burgundy, it dates back to the sixth century (yes the 500s!) and much of its development was due to the sincerity of the Benedictines with their winemaking. The cellars at Laroche were built in the twelfth century and the domaine's history of growing grapes dates back to the French Revolution. When France was under attack from viking invaders many of the monks fled further inland to hide the relics of the monastery. A devout group of St. Martin's devotees (a former bishop known for his generosity—also the man on horseback featured on the town crest in the first photo) happened to settle in Chablis where their winemaking tradition has since flourished for almost a thousand years. 

There's an old wine press at Laroche that dates back to the 1200s, built with wood that was originally harvested in the 10th century. Believe it or not, it's still in use! Every November the domaine has a "fête de vendage" to celebrate the harvest where they make a pressing of Chablis with the ancient contraption. There's a lot of history in Burgundy, which is why the idea of its wines are so romantic to us Americans—our own history being limited to a mere three centuries. It's not just the history, however. Burgundy is the epicenter for the terroir-driven culture that dominates our food and drink industry today. People want to talk about origins and a sense of place. Well, the monks were talking about that concept over a millennium ago. They were taking notes. They were ranking their wines and striving for quality from the very start. As our host Régis Salagnac said to us today: "Burgundy is difficult to understand because you can have a completely different wine from plot to plot." In order to demonstrate that reality to us, he proceeded to open several grand cru bottles from 2015. Each was incredibly distinct from the next, despite being vinified and aged in the exact same way. 

That's the magic of Burgundy in a nutshell, but I'll be back soon to dig a bit deeper. We're just getting started.

-David Driscoll