An introduction: I took these two pictures on Wednesday 2nd September. The plan was to write some drabble on the Thursday. On the Thursday I saw another picture, one that will stay with me forever, no matter how hard my brain works at burying it. And my useless vinous drabble became just that. And it still is.
This is a picture of some vines. Vines with grapes on them, grapes that have probably been picked this week. On the face of it, it’s not that special. No shortage of similar photos on instagram or twitter.
And this is a bunch of grapes. Same day. Probably picked this week too. Which, if you’re in the “not that special” camp rather illustrates the point. No shortage of grapes in the Côte d’Or.
The first lot is going to end up as 2015 La Romanée, Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair; the second 2015 Savigny Les Beaune, Aux Gravains, Domaine Mischief and Mayhem. Two different wines and, even more so, two quite different price points (though there will be less of the latter).
The 28 or so hectares of grand cru vineyards in Vosne make up what, to me, is the most special place on earth. It’s like a portal or, as Beloche says of the Ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark, a telephone line to God. There is a flavour – one that is almost physical in its intensity, almost sexual – and a depth of flavour that comes through this earth via the vines that is beyond description, beyond measure. Indeed it’s just beyond.
The vineyards of Savigny don’t quite have the same cachet. There are no signs on the walls requesting respect (I don’t think there are any walls) and there are no expensive-looking, privacy-windowed, people carriers parked up: just white vans and tractors. But there is an equal magic taking place right now in both vineyards. Right now there’s a sort of handshake going on. A baton being passed. The Man Upstairs has done his bit for 2015 (though the better vignerons down here have been tending their vines throughout the year) and, as each bunch, each grape, is picked, God lets go and we take over.
Wine, and Burgundy in particular, gets me religious. More accurately, it gets me thinking about God. My first wine theophany came from 2002 La Romanée and I’ve had a couple more since. How does a grape or, rather, a few thousand grapes, make something so beautiful, so elysian? Something that can move (me) like music or poetry or even love? There is clearly some sort of miracle going on here and it’s a particularly beautiful one as man (or woman) plays his or her role. You can’t just grow a few grapes and crush them; some love, attention and care is required. Not to mention a bit of knowledge of what you’re doing.
In the fields of France nearly all the crops are in. The grapes are coming in right now, and only the corn has yet to be harvested. Vineyards excepted, the main agricultural activity is ploughing and rolling. Corn, wheat and barley may well be more prosaic than Pinot Noir but there is a similar game, a similar partnership going on. Him and us.
Those of us that remember going to church on a Sunday will remember the Harvest Festival. I didn’t really get it at the time, and believed from a young age that a church – a building made by men – was just one of many media to the upstairs room. As it happens that still stands, and I am closer to God in a field of vines than I am in anything fashioned from stone. But, especially at this time of year, I can’t help but feel that our increasingly secular life is missing something, and that something is an understanding, an elementary one, of where it all comes from: Providence.
It is unlikely that I will be buying 2015 La Romanée: I didn’t work hard enough at school. I might luck out and get a taste of it at some stage. I will probably buy some of Fiona and Michael Ragg’s Savigny: this is one of the Côte d’Or’s understated gems and a domaine which, if owned and run by a French couple, would be on many more radars than it is now. Either way, I’ll give thanks when I drink it, and I’ll probably think of my family walking the vines in Savigny with Fiona, and of not daring to cross the wall into the vineyard in Vosne later that afternoon. And I’ll think of a little boy who I never knew, and give thanks again.