Vineyard worship – a modern pilgrimage

In the early twenty-first century we have a huge diversity of places of worship. There are religious ones of course but then we can choose between Abbey Road in London, NW8 (zebra crossing as cult object), Santiago de Compostella (too many layers to discuss here) and even the studios in which Strictly Come Dancing is filmed. Winelovers have cults of their own. Quite often these focus on winery brands, Ch. Latour to DRC to Biondi-Santi to Penfolds Grange and many more.  But in a way more interesting is the vineyard itself as a cult object.  On the face of it one vineyard is usually very similar to any other – a collection of trained vines, normally in strict rows, grass, cover crop or bare earth  between the rows, and that is it.  But despite the relative uniformity, the greatest vineyards are properly places of awe and amazement.  They enrich the pleasure of what is in the glass, they have their own particular combination of earth, sky and human intervention and they bask in the reflected glory of the wines which originated here, in this patch of earth.  All this makes them most special places to winelovers. 

In July 2018 Janet and I undertook a small pilgrimage of our own, a holiday to the Côte d’Or, the northern Rhône and finally the southern Rhône.  This page is devoted to the pictures of the great vineyards that we visited. 

Côte d’Or – viticultural majesty on a human scale 

Winery visiting is more difficult in this central section of Burgundy for simple economic reasons. There is already a shortage of wine to sell and so there is no need for the winery owners to throw their doors open to visitors. But, on the other hand, the landscape is so evocative, the villages and architecture so attractive and the scale so small that visiting the Côte d’Or is still a real treat for the wine lover.  It costs nothing to drive, cycle or walk through some of the world’s greatest vineyards. The pictures below are of Le Montrachet, the eight-hectare Grand Cru vineyard which was attached to the names of two adjacent villages, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet, sharing the reflected glory.  You can tell how prestigious and profitable the vineyard is by the grand stone gates proclaiming those who own these highly desirable rows of vines. The restaurant Le Montrachet below the vines is pretty fabulous too and you can at least drink Premier Cru wines from the village by the glass at accessible prices. On a sunny day this was indeed a wonderful wine pilgrimage. Janet appeared to love having not one but two waiters looking after her! 

Côte du Py, Morgon

Away from the glamour of the Côte d’Or, Morgon in the Beaujolais region has another vineyard worthy of our awe and reverence. It is only an hour and a half’s drive south but viticulturally many things have changed: variety, soil and training system. The vines you now see are Gamay, the soil is no longer limestone and clay-based but schist and granite. Equally, serried ranks of guyot-trained wines on wires have given way to rows of freestanding bush vines.

Most Beaujolais is of course an everyday quaffing wine, made to be drunk while it is fresh and young.  But some of the individual village wines, the so-called Beaujolais crus, make wines of real intensity and they are ageable. Top of the list is the impressive hillside known as the Côte du Py in Morgon AOC.   Lunch in Fleurie was a humbler affair too, but just as welcome. 

The majestic slopes of the Northern Rhône

Our southward pilgrimage continued to the Northern Rhône: no shortage of iconic vineyards here. As you travel south the first major site is the steep terraces of Côte Rôtie AOC, vines clinging on to the slope for their very lives.  When you get out of the car you immediately realise that they are coping not only with the slope but also a strong, drying wind.  The training system is designed to deal with this. Called eschalas, basically you tie the vigorous, long stemmed bush-trained vine to a single pole.  It can be made stronger by tying two singles poles, one vine on each, together at the top. The most dramatic view is as you approach from the north (I was driving at the time!), these photos are from the south.

Fast drainage on the slope, very poor soils, direct exposure to the afternoon sunshine on a predominantly south-facing slope,  and constant wind makes for extremely tough conditions. All these explain why Syrah ripens perfectly here but with relatively low potential alchohol (13-14%) while retaining high acidity.  Very similar conditions hold in neigbouring Condrieu AOC, home of the Viognier grape variety.

Further south, at the southern end of the Northern Rhône is the grandest vineyard of them all, the hill of Hermitage, also an AOC.  Apparently before the motorway was built the holiday route to the south passed by at the bottom of the hill, as the railway still does. As a result generations of French families were able to admire one of their viticultural treasures, suitably adorned with advertising from the big producers who have plots on the hill. It is still the case that one of the best views of the vineyard as a whole – barring the use of noisy and enviromentally-damaging helicopters – is from the platform of the station at Tain l’Hermitage. Of course, the really iconic image here is of the chapel on the top of one of the hills. I love the way it now has a modern accessory – just in the same way that we cannot be separated from our smart phones! 

Châteauneuf-du-Pape

CNP to its friends does not have one defining landmark, nor one vineyard which towers above others in quality.  But it still has star quality which chiefly gathers around the rounded stones which mulch some of the vineyards, the genuinely awe-inspiring old vines and the soft, rich palate of its wines.

While we touch on vineyard soils, in the picture below of a cross-section of the soil, note the substantial layer of clay about two metres below the surface (lower middle part of the picture). That clay is what allows this otherwise fast-draining soil to hold enough moisture to provide water to vines through dry summers. The rolled stones may be a big draw for the tourist but in an increasingly warm period they are less-and-less valued for their heat-retaining quality.  As Ralph Garcin, director winemaker of Ch. de la Nerthe (the fine eighteenth building also features below) says: the stones’ ability to hold the heat of the day and release it at night is exactly what he doesn’t want. In the search for elegant, balanced wines, he would much rather have cool nights to retain acidity and freshness in the wines.   

The one remaining tower of the Avignon pope’s summer residence in the town itself, the ever-present Rhône in the near distance and the near-deafening rasp of the cicadas in summer complete the picture and this vinous pilgrimage south through eastern France.  Travellers with more time on their hands could of course add Champagne to the north and Bandol to the south.  Now, Reims to Bandol, slowly, with multiple stopping points, there’s a true vineyard-worshippers dream!

  

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