Despite being an active partisan of Italian wines, I retain a deep love of French wines, especially the great French red wines. In my youth, I thought Bordeaux was king – and besides, Burgundy was way more expensive then. But now, the situation has completely changed: Bordeaux prices have caught up with or surpassed those of Burgundy, while winemaking in Burgundy is reaching new heights. Moreover, climate change is helping Burgundy achieve more good vintages than ever before, and at the same time many Bordeaux reds are tasting increasingly industrial to me – and yes, I am talking about classified growths. So I have been turning more and more often to the great Burgundy villages when I want a change of taste from my frequent Italian tipples. Ergo, Chambolle Musigny.
For me, the village of Chambolle is the sweet spot of the whole Côte d’Or. Opinions obviously differ about things like this, but for me Chambolle’s red wines have the greatest finesse, the loveliest, most complex fruit, the subtlest nuance of them all. Its two Grands Crus vineyards, Le Musigny and Bonnes Mares, are normally completely out of my price range, but the few times I’ve tasted either of them persist in my memory as moments of total palatal bliss – most notably, a lunch with the Drouhin family in Beaune a few years ago, at which they poured a 1968 Bonnes Mares. I don’t know which was my dominant feeling: honor at being so treated, or sheer ecstasy from the taste of that great wine.
While I don’t have any Musigny or Bonnes Mares in my “cellar,” I do have a few bottles of Premier Cru Chambolle Musigny, and since Mortality has been looming over my friends lately, I sought consolation in a bottle just the other evening. I opened a 2004 Drouhin (regular readers will know my long-standing esteem for the house of Drouhin), decanted it and let it stand for about two hours before drinking it with a broiled top-quality strip steak. Bliss again, and a great respite from quotidian cares. The wine’s aroma was heady of bitter chocolate, tobacco, and dark, dry fruits. The palate was that and more, with mushroom and mineral notes interwoven with all that fruit and tobacco and chocolate. Diane and I sipped and savored and made that bottle last as long as we could, despite the temptation to just bathe in it.
I know the village of Chambolle doesn’t loom as large in wine folklore as its neighbors, Vougeot and Morey Saint Denis, or the further distant Vosne Romanée or Corton. I guess that’s the only thing that has kept its prices from passing beyond all human reach. That narrow stretch of Burgundian hillsides that we call the Côte d’Or runs from a little south of Dijon to a little south of Santenay, a distance of only about 30 miles, regularly punctuated by different villages with at least slightly different terroirs. Chambolle lies in the middle of the northern half of the Côte de Nuits, which is the northern half of the Côte d’Or (the southern half is known as the Côte de Beaune).
If you drive south from Dijon on Route Nationale 74, which runs the length of the Côte d’Or, you’ll pass many famous wine towns. Before you reach Chambolle are Marsannay, Fixin, Gevrey Chambertin, and Morey St. Denis. Just south of Chambolle lie Vougeot, Vôsne Romanee, and Nuits Saint Georges. This is obviously great wine country, and Chambolle Musigny’s sparse, pebbly, limestony soil is typical of the meager soils on which great wines grow. Plots are characteristically small – Le Musigny totals only a little over 10 hectares, and Bonnes Mares 15 – and are frequently divided among many owners, as is typical in Burgundy. Production is very limited, by law and by the quest for excellence as much as by nature: Hail is frequent here and can be very destructive – thus the always substantial price of good Chambolle Musigny. I can only say that the examples I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy have been worth it.
Lest you think I’m simply raving, let me close this post with Clive Coates’ summary words about the Grand Cru Le Musigny (Côtes d’Or, p. 105):
At its best the red wine can be quite simply the most delicious wine to be found in Burgundy. Speaking personally, and I am not the only one, it is the summit of achievement. With its vibrant colour, exquisitely harmonious, complex, profound bouquet, the blissful balance between tannin, acidity, and the most intensely flavoured fruit – all the petits fruits rouges you could reasonably imagine – and its incomparable breed, depth, originality and purity on the finish, a great Musigny is heaven in a glass. Would that one could afford to drink it more often.
Now that’s enthusiasm! I’ll only add that the “lesser” wines of Chambolle Musigny are, in proportion, just as profound and moving. It’s a special occasion wine for sure, but one capable of making an occasion special.