More Wines of Yesteryear: French Edition

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In this post I’m toasting some marvelous vins perdus, bygone French wines, stirred to reminiscence by Covid-sheltering time. This usually happens after a leisurely dinner, when I’m sitting at the table and sipping the last of the day’s wine. When that wine happens to be French, so, usually, are the memories. Remember, I’m a geezer, and like almost all of my generation, the wines I learned on almost all spoke French.

Wine Glass on Apple iOS 13.3

One recent dinner of not-quite boeuf bourguignon featured a lovely bottle of Bouchard Côte de Beaune 1er cru, a blend of wines from several of Bouchard’s vineyards. Bouchard is one of the great négociant houses, and in my youth was internationally famed as a prime source for fine Burgundies. So back then I didn’t hesitate for a second when I was invited to join a group of journalists to visit Bouchard’s cellars and vineyards in celebration of – if my memory is accurate – Bouchard’s 175th harvest or year of bottling or something significant like that. Senior moment: I can recall the wines, but not the reason.

This was a stellar trip, kicked off by a spectacular dinner and equally fine brandy in a soigné rooftop restaurant overlooking the panorama of Paris. I have no idea how the neophyte journalist I then was got invited to join that small group of otherwise distinguished wine writers, but I knew I was happy.

And I continued so for the rest of the trip. It rapidly became clear to me that this junket was not the usual fare for wine journalists. As we meandered around Burgundy, visiting and tasting in cellar after cellar, talking to growers and wine makers, and dining extremely well night after night, we noticed that at each dinner, among the many good wines that were poured, there was always one very special one, either an older bottle, or a special vintage, or a particularly prized cru. No one grew blasé, and we looked forward with real eagerness to each night’s revelation.

At our farewell dinner, the pièce de resistance turned out to be a forty-year-old bottle of Bouchard’s Vigne de l’Enfant Jésus, a monopole and one of Bouchard’s most esteemed wines. You can guess our anticipation as the wine was poured and we swirled and sniffed – heaven! – and finally sipped. The entire table, until then babbling noisily, was awed to silence for a few moments. Until one of my colleagues, with characteristsic New York irreverence, broke the silence with “I’m drinking the baby Jesus’s velvet pants!” Crude, but in its way quite accurate, and much appreciated by our French hosts.

Wine Glass on Apple iOS 13.3

Back in the present, that dinner table conversation about Burgundy led Diane and me to talk about our favorite Burgundy firm, Drouhin. Drouhin, I think, doesn’t get enough respect: Its wines are so consistently good that many critics just take them for granted. Drouhin is still a family-owned concern, and the whole family works single-mindedly to achieve the elegance that has become the hallmark of their wines.

About ten years ago, I was invited to spend a long weekend in Beaune visiting their cellars and vineyards. This was a very different experience from the Bouchard trip, much more en famille. I was the only guest, for one thing, and each day a different Drouhin ferried me around to vineyards and through cellars and answered, with great patience, my endless supply of questions.

I remember particularly a conversation with Veronique Drouhin, who is in charge of most of the winemaking in Burgundy and in Oregon as well. There she works with many young interns, mostly students from UC Davis, and when I asked her about the differences between working in Oregon and in France, she provided a book’s worth of information, which I still wish she would write up and publish. What I remember most strongly of that long conversation was her account of the greatest difficulty she had encountered in working with young American winemakers.

“The hardest thing,” she said, “is teaching them to do nothing. Whenever an instrument says that something – sugar, acidity, alcohol – is a little abnormal, they want to intervene, to do something to correct the reading. I try to teach them to be a little patient, to wait a bit and whatever it is will probably correct itself, whereas whatever correction you make can only be corrected by another correction.

“They are all very strongly technologically trained, and it is very difficult to persuade them to trust the wine. But you must trust the wine!” That remark, for me, summed up in a nutshell the whole difference between Old World and New World approaches to winemaking.

My last dinner on this trip was literally en famille, with the patriarch Robert Drouhin and the whole family. Now, this was a great honor, and when I realized the wine that was being poured with no fuss was a 1966 Bonnes Mares, I was flabbergasted! I had mentioned casually to Veronique that Musigny was for me the sweet spot of all the Côte d’Or, and now the family was giving me one of France’s ne plus ultra wines. I have never forgotten its depth and savor and elegance: a wine and an experience of a lifetime. With no fuss made.

Wine Glass on Apple iOS 13.3

The French, of course, are capable of very great fusses when the occasion warrants. One such was the restoration of their emblematic windmill at Moulin-à-Vent, an event I attended that was called to mind by a bottle of this year’s Beaujolais that we’d enjoyed recently with another dinner at home.

In 1999, the citizens of Beaujolais had been working on restoring the long-defunct mill’s machinery all winter. A fête had been scheduled for a day in normally windy March to mount the sails and operate the mill again, for the first time in decades. Journalists from all over Europe and the US had been invited.

France’s most prominent yachtsman and his racing crew had been asked to mount the sails on the mill’s great arms, and we all watched as they swarmed over the rigging and expertly spread the sails – just in time to receive, in a small Burgundian miracle, the first breath of wind in five days. A huge cheer went up from press and locals alike as the great arms began slowly to turn and the old mill came back to life.

A raucous afternoon of picnicking, eating, drinking, singing, and general jollity followed. Much fine Beaujolais was consumed that day, especially Jadot’s great Moulin-à-Vent, Château des Jacques, and along with it many slabs of jambon persillé and slices of saucisson rosette de Lyon. Nowhere near as glamorous as a Parisian restaurant, of course, but perhaps even more authentically French.

3 Responses to “More Wines of Yesteryear: French Edition”

  1. Ed McCarthy Says:

    Tom, Your memory is quite fine. I had similar experiences with Bouchard an Drouhin. Unfortunately, in our move from Long Island back into NYC, most of my old notebooks got misplaced or thrown out in the process .But I do recall the visits, and the Drouhin visit was perhaps my most memorable visit to Burgundy ever, It had to have been 20+ years ago; patriarch Robert Drouhin was present at the big dinner. A few other journalists were present; don’t ask me to name them. My memory fails there. Veronique was quite young; I am not certain that Drouhin in Oregon even existed then. But I do recall the excellent visit, and the great wines. The Drouhin family really knows how to entertain. Burgundy visits were always so much more intimate than those in Bordeaux. I remember visiting Ch. Haut-Brion, Ch. Margaux, and Ch. Mouton-Rothschild, but they were never “family” visits. Bordeaux has always been more corporate. But your column brought back pleasant memories to me. Well done, as usual. Thanks for writing it.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      These days, we all need all the pleasant memories we can get. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  2. john wion Says:

    Such a lovely article, Tom. What experiences you have had (and can still remember :)).

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