Three of VinConnect’s top customers and I recently traveled to France for a quick trip to three of its most venerable wine regions — Champagne, Burgundy and the Northern Rhône. That’s a lot of ground to cover in only six days, but we were overdue for a trip and looking forward to what the travel would bring.

Monday — Champagne (larger houses)

Our first stop was at the famed Champagne Taittinger for a private tasting and tour of their incredible underground chalk caves. I was interested to learn that they consistently use 9g of dosage in their wines, regardless of vintage conditions. My favorite wine of the tasting was the Comtes de Champagne 2007, which was simply glorious. A great visit to kick off the trip!

Private tasting salon at Taittinger

Private tasting salon at Taittinger

After a brief, delicious lunch at Le Jardin Les Crayeres (the more casual bistro to the well-known, quite formal 2-Michelin star Les Crayeres). we did a tour and tasting at Billecart-Salmon. Hospitality manager Jerome Lafouge took us on tour of their various cellars around the town of Ay, including a brief moment to view the exposed chalk cliffs lying just under the thin layer of topsoil.

Chalk cliffs outside Billecart-Salmon

Chalk cliffs outside Billecart-Salmon

While my favorite wine was unsurprisingly the Cuvee Nicolas Francois 2002, I was once again particularly impressed with the NV Suis Bois — barrel fermented with no malo, this shows a rich palate and very long finish and represents a great value.

Champagne Philipponnat (buy direct) was our next, highly anticipated stop. Here we enjoyed a brief tour of the cellars, then a long walk among the vines of the famed Clos des Goisses vineyard. Export Manager Antoine de Boysson’s detailed discussion enabled us to appreciate the uniqueness of this plot, with its rich soils, steep slope and nearby river bend creating a microclimate unlike any other in Champagne.

The famed Clos des Goisses hill

The famed Clos des Goisses hill

Afterward it was back to the cellar and tasting room, where we sampled the full lineup of Champagne as well as some vins claire from barrel. I was particularly impressed by the Blanc de Noirs 2009, a relatively recent addition to the lineup, and the 1522 Brut Rose 2007.

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Barrel tasting vins claire with Antoine de Boysson at Philipponnat

We dined that evening at the Hotel Les Avises of Domaine Jacques Selosse. Managed by a team from the 3-Michelin star Maison Pic, the food was delicious, the wines divine (Selosse Champagne, of course), and the service impeccable. What a lovely experience and incredible value for the price.

 

Tuesday — Champagne (growers)

We began our day of grower Champagnes by visiting the Cote de Blancs village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger and the house of Pierre Moncuit. They produce a range of non-vintage and vintage wines at various dosage levels, so there was plenty to taste. My favorite of the lineup was the Brut Vintage 2006 — with 9 years on lees and 6g of dosage, this showed as very layered and complex — delicious.

Champagne Pierre Moncuit

Selections at Champagne Pierre Moncuit

En route to Burgundy, our next visit was in the Aube, the southernmost region in Champagne, nearly 100 miles and a world away from the epicenter of Reims/Epernay. Here the villages, vineyards, and life in general, are more rustic — it’s a hard-working area whose diligent cultivation has supplied the major Champagne houses with fruit for more than a century. But it’s also here where the Grower Champagne movement is most evident, with dozens of small families now producing wines under their own label for the first time in their history.

Champagne Dosnon is just one of these houses, and our visit there was simply magical. A vineyard tour up dusty, bumpy roads, a long discussion of the history and geography of the region, and a cozy private tasting on some barrels in their simple cellar office — just a wonderfully personal and interesting experience. All of the wines here were delicious, particularly the NV Recolte de Noir and the NV Alliae, both wines with zero dosage whose long time spent on lees yields great depth and richness.

Vineyard at Champagne Dosnon -- guess who farms organically?

Vineyard at Champagne Dosnon — guess who farms organically?

Moving on to Beaune, we dined at one of my favorite restaurants anywhere, Ma Cuisine. Classic rustic French bistro cooking, a cozy setting surrounded by winery folk, and an excellent Burgundy list always combine for a wonderful evening.

 

Wednesday — Burgundy, Cote de Nuits

Kicking off two very busy days in Burgundy, we headed north to the village of Nuits-St.-Georges to visit with Domaine Henri Gouges. Here we enjoyed a great cellar tour and a tasting of several bottles of recent vintages, as well as a few older. For me the highlight by far was the chance to taste a couple of bottles of the Gouges blanc, made from an unusual white grape unique to this estate (curiously known as “Pinot Gouges”). I think of it as a sort of albino Pinot Noir, made from vines 60+ years old, and produces a rich wine with stone fruit flavors and great minerality. What a treat to taste something so unique and delicious — I’m definitely putting some of this in my cellar.

In the cellars at Hubert Lignier

In the cellars at Henri Gouges

We were able to simply wander to lunch at another of my favorite restaurants in Burgundy, La Cabotte in Nuits-St.-Georges. Located on the pedestrian mall in the center of town, it’s a small, rustic dining room with contemporary food, great service and of course a great wine list rich in Burgundy.

Following lunch it was another short walk back across the creek to Domaine Faiveley. One of Burgundy’s larger negociants, the house has thrived in recent years under the leadership of Erwan Faiveley, who took over from his father at the tender age of 25. Here we had a lovely tour and tasting in their traditional, rustic cellars. Most impressive was the Charmes-Chambertain Grand Cru 2015, with great depth of flavor, balance and elegance.

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Rustic cellars at Domaine Faiveley

Our next stop was with  Domaine Hubert Lignier just up the road in Morey-St.-Denis. One of the more classic producers in the region, Lignier struggled through some ownership dislocation several years ago but has gotten back on track recently. We were able to sample a variety of 2015 reds in barrel, with the most impressive not surprisingly being the flagship Clos de la Roche Grand Cru. In terms of value, however, I was thrilled by the Morey-St.-Denis Vieilles Vignes 1er — great elegance, length and structure.

Fresh cuttings at Hubert Lignier

Fresh cuttings at Hubert Lignier

For dinner we were thrilled to have secured a precious reservation at La Lune, which has rapidly become the hottest table in Beaune.  The place in tiny, with maybe 15 seats total at a handful of tables and another 6 at the counter, and is staffed only by a solo chef and a single server.  From our seat at the counter we were able to watch the entire meal unfold, and marvel at the chef juggling several tickets and multiple dishes simultaneously.  Serving incredibly fresh dishes in a fusion of Japanese and French cuisines at ridiculously reasonable prices, I’ll do whatever it takes to get back there on my next visit. 

Tiny kitchen at the fabulous La Lune in Beaune

Tiny kitchen and solo chef at the fabulous La Lune in Beaune

 

Thursday — Burgundy, Cote de Beaune

A very busy Thursday began in Beaune with a visit to the cellars of Domaine Clos de la Chapelle (buy direct).  We did a tour of their cellars shared with their neighbors Maison Champy, and were able to taste a broad range of their recently bottled 2015 wines.  Since acquiring the estate a few years ago, proprietor Mark O’Connell has made significant investments in moving the farming more organic/biodynamic, and the results are now showing up in the wines. The 2015s are fantastic across the board, with my favorite being the namesake Volnay Clos de La Chapelle monopole, which was silky, round and luscious.

Domaine Clos de la Chapelle

Entrance to Domaine Clos de la Chapelle

Our next stop was just a few blocks away at Maison Camille Giroud, where winemaker Carel Voorhuis gave us a cellar tour and tasting. As a mid-sized negociant they have a broad range of wines, and we enjoyed doing a comprehensive tasting of wines from village-level to Grand Cru and across several villages.  The highlights for me were the Vosne-Romanee 1er les Chalandins 2015 and the Chambertain Grand Cru 2015, though a bottle of village Pommard 1989 tasted blind at the end showed beautifully and demonstrated the ability of these wines to age impressively.

We stopped in for a quick lunch at another of my Beaune favorites, Caves Madeline, where we dined with Vincent Clement, proprietor of the fantastic Beaune wine shop Athenaeum, and sampled a variety of his recommended up-and-coming producers.

Moving south, our next visit was my first ever to Domaine du Courcel in Pommard.  One of Burgundy’s most traditional producers, we were thrilled to be hosted by winemaker and local legend Yves Confuron.  Here we largely tasted 2014s which were still yet to be released, reflecting the winery’s more traditional nature.  The wines were across the board impressive — while definitely showing as youthful, they were nonetheless drinking quite well now with the potential to evolve for decades.  Here the Les Grand Clos des Epenots 2014 was probably my favorite, but I’ll definitely be seeking out older vintages of any of these wines on lists when I next visit France.

Tasting with Yves Confuron at Domaine du Courcel

Tasting with Yves Confuron at Domaine du Courcel

The final stop on this busy day was a late afternoon appointment in Saint Aubin at the inimitable Domaine Hubert Lamy.  Despite the 5:30 start time we found a way to sample more than 20 wines, mostly 2015s from barrel but also several bottles from other recent vintages as well. While the 2015s were indeed very impressive, my favorite was the Saint Aubin En Remilly 2014, which had come together in bottle just beautifully. These are fantastic wines showing great transparency and terrior, at still-reasonable prices, and are definitely worth seeking out.

Cellars of Hubert Lamy in St. Aubin

Cellars of Hubert Lamy in St. Aubin

 

Friday — Northern Rhone (Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu)

Traveling from Beaune to Ampuis meant a transition from the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay of Burgundy to the Syrah and Viognier of the Northen Rhône valley.  And what better way to mark the change than with a visit to Domaine Georges Vernay (buy direct), the birthplace of Condrieu? Proprietor Paul Amsellem took us through a tasting of the 2015 whites and 2014 reds, which were impressive across the board.  I was in fact blown away by the flagship Condrieu Coteau du Vernon 2015, which showed incredible minerality and great richness in the outstanding 2015 vintage.

Paul Amsellem leading a tasting at Domaine Georges Vernay

Paul Amsellem leading a tasting at Domaine Georges Vernay

Lunch at another favorite Auberge de la Source.  Located atop the hills of Condrieu, in the past I’ve gone principally for the wonderful views of the vineyards and along the Rhone river valley.  But a recent ownership change has brought new life to the menu and cooking, and our lunch was quite good indeed.  I’ll definitely be back on my next visit.

Our next visit was to the esteemed estate of Domaine Clusel-Roch in Ampuis. Best known for their Côte-Rôtie wines, we tasted several of their current release 2014s. The house style is definitely one of elegance and balance rather than extraction and power, so if that is appealing I strongly suggest you seek these wines out.

Domaine Clusel-Roch

Domaine Clusel-Roch

 

Given that it was late afternoon on Friday our tasting options were somewhat limited, so we dropped into the stylish, modern winery of Vidal-Fleury.  They were kind enough to share a lovely impromptu tasting, highlighted by some single-vineyard Côte-Rôties that were simply delicious.

Vidal-Fleury Wines

Wall of wine at Vidal-Fleury

From there we traveled on further south, to the towns of Tournon Sur Rhône and its neighbor the famed Tain l’Hermitage.  Staying at the Hotel de la Villeon in a stylishly renovated 18th century villa was a great pleasure, as was our lovely dinner at Le Cerisier in Tournon where Thierry Allemand’s Cornas Chaillot 2013 was a lovely accompaniment.

 

Saturday — Northern Rhône (Hermitage and Cornas)

Saturday morning began with some much-needed exercise, as we arose early to hike the hill of Hermitage.  I always enjoy walking among the vines, pausing periodically to see how the light, exposition and views constantly change as you ascend.  We were surprised to find a tremendous amount of replanting going on the vineyards of Chapoutier, where one out of every four or five vines had been pulled out of the ground.

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Looking across the vines of Hermitage

 

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View from the top of Hermitage

Once back down the mountain we were able to inquire about that specifically, as we dropped by Maison M. Chapoutier for our last visit of the trip.  The tasting room here is fabulous, with a large bar and expertly-trained staff that took us through more than a dozen wines.  They were generous enough with us to share healthy pours of several of their top bottlings, and I was blown away by the Le Meal blanc.

Unfortunately then it was time to pack away all the special bottles we compiled during our travels and catch the train back to Paris.  Another fantastic trip was in the books, and I can’t wait to get another group together to do it all again sometime soon.  I am thrilled that VinConnect has such a great group of wine enthusiasts as customers, as their passions for the people and wineries we partner with is what drives our work every day.

 

Author Kevin Sidders

I was on more than a dozen mailing lists of Napa Valley producers and was frustrated that I couldn’t buy my favorite European wines the same way. I hatched an idea, developed a plan, and am building a business that I hope will change the industry for the better. I spend a lot of time on my road bike to enable indulging my passion for wine.

More posts by Kevin Sidders

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