March 15 2010 issue
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APPELLATION Corton, Burgundy, France Benjamin T. Weinberg
Charlemagne’s legendary hill is a unique example of Burgundian terroir.Burgundy’s manicured vineyards have been continuously farmed for more than 2,000 years, and such long-term attention to detail has led to a minute system of classification, each site having its own identity and its own place in the hierarchy of the region. In a sense, every vineyard is a specialist, producing terroir-driven wines that vary in some significant way from those grown just a few feet away.
What makes the hill of Corton different is that it’s the only appellation in Burgundy where both red and white grands crus are produced. Located at the hinge of the Côte d’Or, connecting the Côte de Beaune (where it technically resides) with the Côte de Nuits, the hill embodies characteristics of each region. Soils in Burgundy generally range from limestone in the north to clay and kieselguhr in the south, but the hill of Corton contains both profiles, adding to the complexity of the resulting wines.
The legend of the hill’s split personality is one of the most famous in all Burgundy. As the story goes, Emperor Charlemagne enjoyed Corton’s silky, spicy reds, but he was unable to keep his beard from dipping into the glass. His wife became so disgusted that she ordered white grapes to be planted on one section of the hill, where the vineyard became known as Corton-Charlemagne, quickly gaining worldwide recognition for its quality.
Today, vines run to within 100 feet of the tree-capped summit, at around 1,275 feet, and the grands crus are generally located within 820 feet of the crest. Starting in the commune of Pernand-Vergelesses to the north and continuing clockwise around the hill, the vineyards face east, southeast (where the most valuable Pinot Noir vineyards are located), and then south. Farther around the horn are the villages of Ladoix-Serrigny and Aloxe-Corton; the exposures there are south and southwest (where the most valuable white grapes are grown) and then west.
Corton is the Côte de Beaune’s only red-wine grand cru, accounting for around 42,000 cases per year. Although its Pinot Noirs are more powerfully rustic and less elegant than those of its Côte de Nuits cousins to the immediate northeast, that roguish heft is part of what gives these wines their distinct personality and charm. Red grapevines are planted mostly on the lower part of the hill, partially overlapping the white grand cru of Corton-Charlemagne, whose vines are planted on higher ground with cooler, west-southwest aspects and clay-rich soil. With about 25,000 cases produced annually, Corton-Charlemagne is legendary for its ageworthiness and its ability to command high prices. A third grand cru, called Charlemagne, is permitted for white wines, but these are usually marketed as Corton-Charlemagne. Several subdivisions, or climats, including Le Corton, Les Pougets, Les Renardes, Les Bressandes, Les Perrières, and Le Clos du Roi, are entitled to place their own names alongside Corton on grand cru labels. A small amount of white wine from farther down the slope or from different soil types is bottled simply as Corton Blanc, usually presenting a more viscous, riper profile.
My first encounter with the hill actually began in the spacious barrel room of Olivier Leflaive in Puligny-Montrachet. After exchanging pleasantries, Leflaive handed me off to his head winemaker, Franck Grux, who first took me on a tour of the domaine’s rows in Chassagne, Puligny, and Meursault, all at the southern end of the Côte d’Or. As we trod the soil of these subtly different vineyards, Grux pointed out the Plateau de Langres, a southwest-to-northeast ridge that defines one edge of the Côte d’Or. “Almost all vineyards in Burgundy face southeast or southwest,” he said, “and run down this slope toward the river Saône. Such differences in elevation and exposure, when combined with the varied soils of the region, are a large part of what defines us.” Grux tracked the ridge with his fingertip as it traveled northeast, then pointed toward a barely visible rise. “That is the hill of Corton,” he said. “It is a special place, but it is easiest to show you this in the cellar.”
We trooped back to the barrel room, where Grux poured samples of each of the Chardonnay parcels that he had vinified separately before combining the best lots into the estate’s Corton-Charlemagne. Some of these 2008 lots were more creamy, others more lemony, but all had the signature richness and delicacy that I’d come to associate with the area. The vintage already showed signs of being truly special.
Grux’s view of Corton as a unique treasure was echoed by many of my Burgundian hosts—especially those who had the good fortune to farm or purchase the hill’s grapes. When I asked the legendary Jacques Lardière, technical director at Maison Louis Jadot, for his impressions, he thumped his chest with his balled fist and said, “Corton? Almost impossible to describe. Wild and wooly, but also refined. Words are not enough. You must feel it in here.” He banged his chest again and looked at me expectantly, so I hit my own chest a couple of times and grunted. That appeared to satisfy him.
Frédéric Drouhin was a bit less inscrutable. Upon hearing of my assignment, his face lit up: “The hill of Corton? Mais oui, that is wonderful. It has perhaps the most beautiful vineyards in all of Bourgogne. But I am not an expert on Corton. For that, you must talk to Jean-Charles.”
And so I found myself the next day strapped into a four-wheel drive and zooming up the stony hill alongside Jean-Charles le Bault de la Morinière, owner of Domaine Bonneau du Martray. He is the largest landholder on Corton, with 27 acres of mostly Chardonnay that he crafts into his estate’s world-renowned Corton-Charlemagne. Bonneau du Martray also farms a small quantity of Pinot Noir, which doesn’t often make it out of France.
Le Bault de la Morinière kept one hand on the wheel as he pointed out various landmarks and points of interest. “The soil on the eastern side of the hill is very red and loose,” he said, his voice barely audible over the thumping of the tires on the unpaved road. “Perfect for Pinot Noir, but it can also lead to grimy windshields in even the best of weather, eh?” The pasty red dust can indeed cause even the most seasoned veteran of Corton to get lost, at least for a while. “We are on the red side of the hill where I do not own much property,” said le Bault de la Morinière as we rocketed up the slope. “So I do not recognize this road, but if we keep going up, I’m sure we’ll find something familiar.”
We drove up, around, and behind the hill itself, then through the town of Pernand-Vergelesses, where I found some of the most bucolic vistas in Burgundy. Returning to the cellar, we looked over maps and sampled the Corton-Charlemagnes. The contrast between our edge-of-the-seat ride and this sublime white Burgundy made me realize that such a dichotomy will always characterize the hill of Corton, which, beneath the hallowed vines, is just a rocky ridge, the middle joint of the Côte d’Or. Difficult as it is to fully comprehend, it’s equally difficult to navigate—until you figure out that all roads lead up to a place where uniquely spicy Pinot Noir and decadent Chardonnay occupy crazy-quilt patches of the same regal, vine-strewn slope.