Beaune is the region’s commercial hub, but a visit to Chambolle-Musigny is a trip to the heart of Burgundy.
It’s mid-morning in Chambolle-Musigny: A woman and two children stop in the Place de la Mairie—the square of the city hall—to go into the post office. The sound of a tractor lumbering up the street echoes off the steep sides of the Les Cras vineyard, which drops almost vertically into the village. Appetizing aromas of lunch being prepared waft from Le Chambolle-Musigny restaurant. Every quarter of an hour, the bells of the village church break the silence. As noon approaches, the summer heat casts a heavy pall over the narrow village streets.
The best place to view the village is from above, as I discovered when I met the mayor, Régis Baudrion, in the street on his way to lunch. Asking him about the village and its history, he told me about a well-marked steep path that climbs out of the village two blocks from city hall. Up on top, above Les Cras, I could see clearly how Chambolle tucks in at the foot of the rock face and the steep hillsides that look out across the Sâone Valley and protect the vines against the weather from the west.
|Even on this hot day, I could feel the breeze coming from the Combe d’Ambin, the narrow valley that slices through the range of hills behind the village. It is the only significant break in the hills behind the Côte de Nuits vineyards. In the summer it can act as a funnel for hailstorms, putting Chambolle’s vineyards at particular risk. But it also has a benign side, providing just enough cooling air to lengthen ripening times.|
Viewed from the valley along the Route des Grands Crus, Chambolle presents another storybook scene. The tower of the church rises above the slate roofs of the village. In front, an ocean of vines fills every conceivable space. And there is always vineyard activity, even at the height of summer. Small cars or white vans parked by rows of vines indicate that someone is hidden in the vines—at this time of year, checking on the vines’ growth or pulling the branches away from the grapes to provide maximum exposure to the sun.
The 480 acres of vines in Chambolle-Musigny are a soft interlude in the range of great vineyards in the Côte de Nuits—a moment of indulgence before the rigors of the wines of Vougeot, Morey-Saint-Denis or Gevrey-Chambertin. The name of one of the village’s premier cru vineyards suggests something of the character of the wines: Les Amoureuses—the lovers. What name could better sum up the wines’ hedonistic character?
Tales vary on the origins of the name. Some say Les Amoureuses describes the nature of its wines, the most voluptuous expression of the voluptuous Pinot Noir. Christophe Roumier, one of the village’s major growers, suggests another: "Sully, the finance minister to Henri IV in the early 17th century, had a great number of mistresses. He was also a devotee of this wine, and would drink it in considerable quantity." Sully would have a good deal of agreement for his devotion. Ask many Burgundian producers and they will tell you that whatever other wines they may admire, they have a soft spot for the charms of Chambolle-Musigny. In politically incorrect France, they are happy to describe the wines as "feminine."
The almost somnolent air of the village hides a surprising amount of history and historic monuments. The name "Chambolle" is Roman, deriving from Campus Ebulliens, which means "the field of bubbling water." It refers to the creek, the Grône, which flows through the village. Now it is chaneled underground, but it can still flood, as shown by a plaque on the wall of the old café (now closed), which indicates the high water marks reached in 1900, 1979 and 1983. "-Musigny" was tagged on long after Roman times, to associate the village with its most famous vineyard.
For centuries, the village belonged to the monks of the abbey of Citeaux, out in the flat lands of the Sâone, and the founding monastery of the Cistercian order. As was so often the case in Burgundy, it was the monks who developed the vineyards of Le Musigny and Bonnes Mares. A leper colony was established close by because of the area’s fresh air.
Frederic and Philippe Drouhin of Maison Joseph Drouhin.
What is now the parish church was built in the 16th century when the village became a separate entity. The treasures of the church are its beautiful frescoes, drawn by an artist of the Flemish school. In charcoal and halftones, they were never finished, but their shadowy nature makes them even more mysterious. Just outside is a lime tree, planted in the reign of Henri IV, 400 years ago.
A story is attached to the statue of Christ that stands in the small square by the church. If someone in Burgundy looked particularly down on their luck it was common in the past to say to them, "You look like the Savior of Chambolle-Musigny," because the modest outdoor shrine depicting Jesus portrays him as an emaciated figure. Today Jesus is even more emaciated than in the past, as the stonework is in urgent need of repair. Mayor Baudrion told me "we are looking for a benefactor with 10,000 euros to spare."
The church forms the heart of the village, along with two other grand buildings. One is the former Maison Grivelet, built in 1709, and now a luxurious hotel, Château André Ziltener. The other is the ancient winery and cellars of Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé, dating from the 15th century and built by the village’s first benefactor, Jean Moisson. His descendant, the Baroness de Ladoucette, runs the domaine today.
Normally, nothing much happens in Chambolle-Musigny. It is a mile off the main route from Dijon to the south of France. Hills and vines have kept it small and compact, a tight collection of buildings. There is none of the bustle of Nuits-Saint-Georges, nearly four miles down the road. There is a post office, an infant school and a score of signs announcing tasting rooms, one hotel and one restaurant. In another part of France, this would be a poor place indeed. But in the heart of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, the 300 citizens of Chambolle-Musigny have been made rich by their wines.
As we taste his wines, Roumier puts forward his description of the wines of the village. "Chambolle’s character is distinctive. It’s elegant, fresh with fine tannins. They are the most delicate wines of the Côte d’Or, the most perfumed," he says. Next door, Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier talks about the differences within the village: "In the northern part of the appellation, next to Morey-Saint-Denis, the wines are more structured. In the south, the wines are softer, more voluptuous. The north has deeper soil, in the south the soil is thinner and the rocks are closer to the surface."
The village’s two grand cru vineyards epitomize these differences. Bonnes Mares is at the northern end (part of the vineyard is actually in Morey-Saint-Denis). Le Musigny is at the south end, hard against the Clos de Vougeot. Not that they are far apart—you can walk from one to the other in less than 20 minutes.
Mugnier’s house is grand, the 19th-century Château de Chambolle-Musigny. The driveway sweeps up to an imposing entrance; a dog sleeps on the steps in the sun. Mugnier’s ancestor, Frédéric, purchased the house in 1889. He has 10 acres of vines, an average holding for Burgundy. But Mugnier has only been making wine since 1985. "Before that," he explains, "the vineyards were managed by Faiveley. Our family business was liqueurs, not wine."
His cellar is typically Burgundian. It is underground, stone-lined and ancient—properly humid and cool for the perfect maturation of wine. Rows of 250-liter barrels contain a bewildering array of different wines, small parcels that have been vinified separately and may be blended later. In some cases there are just two or three barrels of a single wine—the total production to be sent to markets around the globe.
Vineyards as far as the eye can see from Chambolle-Musigny
Mugnier moves swiftly from barrel to barrel, drawing out samples for tasting. "I like the 2001 wines," he says. "They are very complete. Balanced, with a lot of class. Vintages that are too hot or too dry lack acidity. The secret of a great vintage is to have balance in the climate, because that will give balance to the wine. Vintage 2000," he continues, "is pleasant, full, with plenty of fruit but it doesn’t have the potential for aging that I find in the great 1999 or in the 2001."
Another grower who likes 2001 is Christian Amiot: "It has wonderful balance, attractive acids and good structure. It is a classic," he says. His 17.2-acre Domaine Amiot-Servelle was formed when he married Elisabeth Servelle, whose family had vines in Chambolle. He himself is a "foreigner": "I come from Morey-Saint-Denis, where my father is a vigneron."
The cellar is under his house, two small circular-ceilinged rooms, one arranged as tasting room for visitors. To give some idea of the scale of Amiot’s admittedly superb production, he tells me that he has only made 600 bottles of his 2001 Les Feusselottes premier cru, "and I will sell it all to my friends."
The Domaine Georges Roumier (named after Christophe Roumier’s grandfather) was founded in 1924. Roumier runs it on almost biodynamic lines, avoiding insecticides, herbicides and heavy mechanization, which compacts the soil. "But I don’t follow all the rules of biodynamie," he says, "I do it my way."
In this, he is part of a movement in Chambolle away from chemical-based viticulture. Other growers besides Roumier are working in the same way. Philippe Drouhin is a convinced biodynamist. He is in charge of viticulture for his family’s Beaune-based négociant house, Joseph Drouhin, which owns 6.9 acres in the village. "We have been fighting against nature for too long," he explains. "Nature always comes back with an answer. We should work with nature rather than against it."
He and his brother Frédéric, who is CEO of Drouhin, meet me at the Le Musigny vineyard to talk about vines and their family affection for the wines of Chambolle. On the downhill side of the narrow lane is Les Amoureuses; uphill is Le Musigny. "This is where we find the best expression of Pinot Noir," says Frédéric. "It is our favorite in the Côte de Nuits. We like to work on the balance and the texture of the tannins."
A low-flying plane—spraying vines further up the hill, maybe 100 yards away—interrupts our conversation. For the Drouhins, spraying a small plot and the impossibility of avoiding contaminating the next door block shows how important it is for everybody in the village to work along the same lines.
The local growers’ union recently agreed that all the village growers would follow lutte raisonée, which means the minimum use of chemicals, and then only when necessary. With such fragmented holdings in the village—a few rows here, a few rows there—it was obviously essential that everybody agree on at least the minimum standards.
Back in the village, it is time to visit the grandest estate of them all, the Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé. With its high roofs and dark windows, the house, tucked under the neighboring church tower, is Renaissance in style. There have been changes to the building, as commercial director Jean-Luc Pépin points out: The entrance archway has a fireplace; once this formed part of a room before the present entrance was knocked through a mere couple of hundred years ago.
There have been inevitable changes to the winemaking over the centuries, and even in the last few years. Under vineyard manager Eric Bourgogne and cellarmaster François Millet, the wines have risen to heights that glorify the quality of their vineyards. The domaine owns seven-tenths of Le Musigny and one-fifth of Bonnes Mares, plus smaller amounts of premier crus. It also produces the only white wine in the village—Musigny Blanc. There are 31 acres in all.
Inside the cellar, I am amazed by the tiny amount of wine produced. The whole production of 2001, maturing in barrels, would fill one small corner of a cellar in Bordeaux. I am not one to support high prices, but here I can begin to understand the laws of supply and demand.
History and modernity combine well at the Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé, as they do in general throughout Chambolle-Musigny. At first sight, it seems as if the village is still stuck in the Middle Ages. Because the village is its wine, and the wine is out in the world, that clearly is not the case. Export orders and computer-generated sales have arrived.
But tradition remains strong. In particular it remains in the patchwork of vineyards, each one producing wine with a different characteristic: the voluptuousness of Les Amoureuses, the austerity of Les Cras, the structured style of Les Baudes. This is tradition with a reason. And if a village such as Chambolle-Musigny can show that tradition can have a reason in the 21st century, then the world and its wines are better for it.
To read this article in its entirety, pick up the November 2002 issue at your local newsstand or wine retailer.