May/June 2019 - Auxerre and Auxerrois

We set off from London on 30 May and 420 miles later (including the channel) arrived in the hilltop town of Langres for our first night. It turned out to be Ascension Day which is a public holiday in France. Twenty or so years ago the streets would have resembled a post-apocalyptic film set,  but the French seem to have adopted the modern first world custom of making sure that everyone can eat and drink at all times. The Auchan hypermarket in Bethune made the feeble gesture of closing at 20.00 instead of 21.00 but the bars and restaurants in Langres had no intention of spurning any euros that might be proffered.

After a perfect soft boiled egg and freshly squeezed orange juice at Le Belvédère des Remparts we set off for the town of Pupillin in the Jura, near the town of Arbois. This turned out to be a literally fruitless trip with no grower in town around to deliver on the Dégustation signs outside their cellars. Fortunately we stumbled on something rewarding on the way there.

Champlitte is a town and commune that is North East of Dijon and North West of Besancon. It was once considered an important wine growing area until the vines were devastated first by phylloxera and then WW1. In the 1970s a local cooperative society was formed to replant. We literally drove around and up and down the town looking for any sign of wine life. And fortune smiled on us and M Pascal Henriot welcomed us into his cellar.


It turns out that Pascal in a one-man wine region. He recreates the wines of Champlitte’s history and experiments enthusiastically and - here’s the big news - successfully. He makes Pinot Noir (naturally) and also a Gamay/Pinot Noir blend which throughout the Burgundy region was traditionally known as Passetoutgrains. (I always wondered what that was). The rising popularity and price of Pinot Noir (thanks partly to the film Sideways) mean first that blending is out of fashion and secondly that a lot of non-specialist producers have started trying to make Pinot Noir, often with mediocre results.

He also makes Chardonnay and a white Auxerrois which I had always wrongly assumed to refer to wines from around the city of Auxerre. It turns out to be a grape variety, with similarities to Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc, that makes a wine of low acidity which is particularly popular in Luxembourg, apparently. I’m not sure if I always see eye to eye with the people of Luxembourg but we are of one mind on this subject. I think I am going to regret not buying more, especially at €7 a bottle.

Following the waste of time in Pupillin, we had a picnic lunch by the cirque de Ladoye and then motored aimlessly in search of anyone who would sell us some wine. In a village called Saint Lothain we found La Maison de Rose a small and experimental producer who, unlike M Henriot in Champlitte, seems to have distinctly mixed results. To be polite I bought some rather perfumed Pinot Noir and jumped back in the car and pointed the wheels at Beaujolais.

Villié-Morgon is just to the south of the villages of Fleurie and Chiroubles. Alain Gauthier makes both Chiroubles and Morgon. His Chiroubles, given away for €7.5 a bottle, is typical of fruity Beaujolais Gamay. His Morgon is a little heavier and cost €8.0. The man himself was out, probably chatting to his vines, but a lady who may have been his wife or his sister or just a good friend leapt to attention as soon as we rang the bell and served us swiftly. Having been here before my only regrets have been not buying enough. I avoided that mistake on this occasion.

We stayed 30 minutes drive to the north, at La Courtille de Solutré, an attractive hotel with a deservedly popular restaurant. The next day, a Saturday, the wine tour began in earnest.

We arrived at Domaine Talmard at Uchizy at 9.30, hoping that people would be up but not out. We were initially wrong on both counts. The doorbell was unanswered but just as we were thinking about other producers in town, Mme Talmard, a diminutive but twinkly heroine, drove up and at once made us welcome, fussing about the danger that I would brain myself on the low cellar beams.


As usual their white Chardonnay was delicious with 2018 tasting better than average to me. At €6.25 a bottle it is laughably good value. I bought two cases of Macon Uchizy. As we were leaving M Talmard surprisingly appeared from the house in his vest. It was as if he had been hiding from us and transmitted the vague impression that he was cross with his wife for having sold us so much. This was not the last time that day that we found our value as customers a topic of debate within a family.


Mercurey is often written up as an underappreciated and undervalued Burgundy. If that isn’t playing our song I don’t know what is. The 50km from Uchizy to Mercurey is a pleasant drive, interrupted in our case by some swift analysis of the shelves of the local supermarket. Domaine Patrick Guillot offered some premiere cru with a nice label so we decided to look for him and found him without too much trouble on the west side of the village.

This is exactly the kind of family producer that we like and love to support. All his wines were utterly delicious. I bought some white which was a lesson in the depth that subtle oaking can give to wine and some red which reminded me that well made Pinot Noir fully deserves to star in a Hollywood hit movie. At €16 and €15 these were the most expensive purchases I made on the trip.


Then we pushed on to the village of St Aubin. Last year we met Elodie, the very pregnant daughter of Bernard Prudhon, who was both working in the vineyards and carrying boxes of wine up from the cellar. This obviously did the trick because this year we learnt from her mother that a baby daughter was born later that week. The 2017 white was lovely and a 2015 red (called Ban) was also excellent. €16 and €14 respectively.


Next we motored to the other end of the village to seek an interview with Gerard Thomas, a man with a reputation for disliking time wasters. Sure enough, we found a boy of around six playing in the front garden and he was keen to screen us. After warning us that the garden gate was bolted he demanded to know our business. Eventually he submitted our application to his grandmother who in turn assured us that she would summon her husband, Grumpy Gerald himself.

It turns out that M Thomas puts his money where his growl is, offering significant (16%) discounts to anyone who buys at least half a case: clearly it is the people who buy single bottles as a gift or a picnic wine that really shred his patience. I bought six of his Saint-Aubin Champ Tirant for €14.15 a bottle (€17 for time wasters). He also makes a wine from the area known as Dents de Chien which has a much flintier taste. This is also very good but slightly more challenging for the quaffers among us.

We stayed in Rully at the excellent Vendangerot hotel and, as we did last year, set off early for a three hour cross country drive to Villargeau, a wine-making family to the east of the Loire between the villages of Pougny and Donzy. (Donzy is slightly famous among French psephologists in that it has voted in line with the national result in every election since 1981 - this is a village with 1600 inhabitants).

Domaine Villargeau makes a number of excellent wines - a few Sauvignon Blancs, a Pinot Noir and a Gamay (called Chicago). Unusually, the quality of these different varieties is uniformly good which goes some way to explain why we bought six different wines between the two of us. The 2018 Sauvignon Blanc was especially zingy and fruity.


After lunch gazing at the ruins of the chateau de Druyes we drove through Coulanges to see if Le Clos de Roi was open. Once again all we found was a small child rattling the locked gate and sadly shaking her head. I wonder if the bouncers at Parisian nightclubs are now toddlers in dinner jackets. Think about it. It could work.

We again stayed in Vezelay where we had a good but slightly overpriced dinner. I had a good oeufs en meurette, decent pork caramelised in honey and ginger and a scandalous cheese board consisting of four curled up morsels of cheese and a pile of rabbit food for which they charged €8.50.

The next morning we found a rather deserted Irancy but visited a producer new to us, Domaine Benoit Cantin, who offered a fairly bland Pinot Noir but some really good Chablis. This is actually made by Domaine Gautheron in Fleys (a village just to the east of Chablis itself). I think we might be knocking on their door directly if we go back next year.

Finally we returned to Le Clos de Roi where an adult was waiting to sell us their excellent Pinot Noir for €7.55. Their more expensive wines are either oaked or blended and don’t work for me. En route to our final night in Troyes we walked around the small but agreeable city of Auxerre. While in the cathedral my mobile phone signal reconnected after several blank days. Truly, satellites move in mysterious ways.

Epilogue. To my wife. 132 bottles at an average of €9.15.