Thursday 27 June 2024

A Pause to Sip Wine in Burgundy, by Carol Drinkwater


A statue of wine-pickers in Puligny-Montrachet

A few days ago, I set off from our Olive Farm overlooking the Bay of Cannes in the south of France on a nine-hour drive to our northern home east of Paris situated a few miles west of the border to the Champagne region. As I was travelling alone, I decided to take the timing at my own speed rather than my husband's more hurried pace. In fact, I decided to break the journey with a stopover when and wherever the mood took me. I love such open-ended choices. It feels more like an adventure than a journey. The sun was shining; it was a very warm day. I made five hours without any stress and pulled up in Beaune for petrol and then decided that I would take my pause there. Not in the city centre - it has a one-way system which takes some patience and negotiating. 

Beaune is the wine capital, the epicentre of Burgundy in the Côte d'Or department, also known as the Slopes of Gold.

I checked into a modest hotel on the outskirts of the city. It had an outdoor swimming pool alongside which they were serving dinner accompanied by a choice of fine Burgundy wines. I ate my meal beneath the stars while sipping an excellent Beaune red. Perhaps it was the headiness of the fine wine but I decided that the next morning instead of heading directly to the motorway I would investigate a few of the neighbouring villages along the Burgundy Grand Cru route and try to discover a little of the local wine history about which I am fairly ignorant.

The following morning, I was again blessed by beautiful sunshine, beaming 25C. Perfect for a little motor along the lanes flanked by ancient plane trees. The vineyards were humming with life. The byways were slowed by tractor traffic.  

The cabs of these "speciality" tractors are high off the ground. The body looks very narrow. I assume they are designed specifically for vineyards and are used only for work in vine fields. The tyres roll either side of the vine rows, with the main body of the machine straddling the plants. The design, I think, is to avoid bruising the grapes. 

Most of the tractors I travelled behind were transporting wide-winged spraying machines filled with insecticides, which was a little troubling to see. It must be spraying season.

I had set my mental compass for Puligny-Montrachet, ten kilometres south of Beaune. Here is where some of the world's most famous white wines are produced. This meticulously kept village with a population of less than 500 inhabitants is a pilgrimage site for many wine connoisseurs. 

Looking about, it seemed that everyone was earning their living through the production of this first-class wine because I was hard put to find a café for a morning cup of coffee and I did not see a single shop. Not so much as a tabac to purchase a copy of Le Monde. Eventually, I came across a lovely bar with outdoor terrace shaded by vines. Hélas, they shrugged, they were only serving wine. Even for me a little after nine in the morning is a bit early to imbibe!

Puligny-Montrachet seemed to exist solely for the produce of its vineyards. All the buildings, clusters of houses and caveaux selling or offering dégustations of the local wines are constructed from the local stone, which is pale in colour, almost white, and very elegant. A caveau, by the way, is historically a vault or a sepulchre where families buried their dead. In modern times here, they are used as wine-tasting cellars. Due to the thick stone walls, they keep the wines ideally cool.

The village of Puligny-Montrachet has two squares, in one of which I drank my morning coffee while watching the world (less than a dozen people!) go about its day. The postman dropped by delivering a couple of parcels to the house alongside the cafe-bistro where I was seated. Four elderlies from Yorkshire cycled by and then decided to stop for coffee. Cycling is a big tourist attraction in this sleepy and very leafy area. Cycling and wine-tasting. The thought of this combination brought some comical images to mind.

As I sat sipping my coffee, I wondered about the history of this lovely settlement which covers a mere 7.28 km2 and yet has a highly-prized international reputation for producing some of the very best wines in the world. The Montrachet whites are produced from the Chardonnay grape. Their reds are pressed from the Pinot Noir or Pinot Nero variety.

The Chardonnay vines were first planted in France in and around Chablis, which is north of both Puligny-Montrachet and Beane. Chablis is yet another town along this Burgundy Grand Cru route that seems entirely dedicated to its wine-production. The Cistercian monks who founded Pontigny Abbey in the Chablis region planted up their Chardonnay vineyards in the 12th Century.

                                                                         Abbaye de Pontigny. 

I got chatting to the lady who was serving the coffees. She told me that the mother monastery for the Cistercians in this region is Cîteaux Abbey in Saint-Nicholas-lès-Citeaux. I confess I hadn't heard of it till I made this little stopover. Founded on Saint Benedict's Day (21st March)  in 1098, this was the original house of the Cistercian fathers and it is still occupied today by thirty-five Trappist monks. In the Middle Ages, they produced cheese and, she told me, they still sell their famous cheese.

The monks were originally gifted lands which they planted up with vines to produce wine for the celebration of their masses. However, the priests soon began to understand the rudiments of viticulture and how different grape varieties are affected by the soil and weather etc.

If you are visiting Chablis or the tiny village of Pontigny, do take the time to visit this marvellous and inspiring medieval holy site. It sits alone in its fields and seems quite timeless. It is no longer a monastery, and there are no monks working the fields, hoeing their vineyards, but it remains very impressive. It is quite a humbling moment to stand within the abbey walls and remind oneself that Thomas Becket was amongst its illustrious visitors. Becket, when twenty, spent a year studying in Paris. Later, he studied canon law in nearby Auxerre.
The abbey, originally founded in 1114, was partially destroyed during the French Revolution but was restored at the beginning of the twentieth century and was used until the outbreak of WWII as a cultural centre for writers.

Burgundy wine history dates back to somewhere around 50 BCE. The Celts were producing wine in Burgundy before the Romans arrived and conquered the area. The Romans continued the tradition and gave licences for inhabitants to produce their wines. 

I have written extensively in my two Mediterranean travel books The Olive Route and The Olive Tree about the founding of the oldest city in France, Marseille, in the 6th BCE by Greeks from Asia Minor, from Foça/Phocaea along the coast of what today is Turkey. These Greeks brought with them not only the tradition and cultivation expertise for olive growing and the production of olive oil but also for wine. The founding of Marseille, Massalia, as it was originally called, was a transforming moment for Provence's Mediterranean shores and then, as the knowledge travelled northwards, for what much later became  France.

I think it is probably accurate to say that it was when the Catholic monasteries took over that Burgundy wines really began to come into their own. 

Saint Vincent is the patron saint of vineyards and viticulturists. His holy day is 22nd January. Every year since 1938 a traditional festival is held over the weekend that follows his saint's day. If you happen to be visiting this region in the winter you might chance upon these Saint Vincent Tournante celebrations, which every year take place in a different village. Next year, the hosting village for the 81st event is to be held over the weekend of 25th and 26th January 2025 is Ladoix-Serrigny. 

Here is the poster for next year's village celebrations. I found it online and apologise for the fact that it is very small. I hope you can see it. I also don't know who to acknowledge for its copyright.

The weekend celebrations begin with a procession, a cortege, between vineyards on a frosty late January morning. After the procession comes a high mass which is followed by a banquet during which some TWELVE THOUSAND bottles of wine are uncorked and offered for tasting. The festivities are titled Saint Vincent TOURNANTE, which translates as turning, because each year a different wine-growing village hosts the celebrations. This allows Burgundy to honour its many appellations.

Now that I have discovered these celebrations I will certainly try to return for them. The word Ladoix in old French means a spring, a source. Ladoix is predominantly producing red wines over a surface area of ninety hectares. The village boasts a thirteenth-century church and eleventh-century chapel. The wines though little known are considered to be excellent. I look forward to discovering the village.

Before I set off for the motorway to continue my journey I made a very brief stop in Mersault which also produces some of the most famous white wines in the world. I pulled into the parking outside Les Caves du Vieux Pressoir. Founded in 1978, this wine outlet offers a vast range of quality wines from the region. I bought modestly: six bottles of Bourgogne Aligoté and two magnums, one of Chablis and another, a red, from Montrachet.

In these few hours I felt I had dipped into the history and traditions of one of France's most esteemed agricultural regions.

In case you would like to read more on my travels to discover the history of olive cultivation and my trips around the Mediterranean - I spent seventeen months travelling alone for these two books - here are the jackets. The titles are available in the United States through Open Road books 

Or in the UK, they are published by Orion ...

Happy travels and happy wine-discovering days.

Friday 7 June 2024

Magnificent Men and Disastrous Machines. By Judith Allnatt

This is the story of Percy Pilcher, a man who could have beaten the Wright brothers to their record of first  flight in a powered aircraft if only he had made one crucial decision differently.

Born in 1867, Lieutenant Percy Pilcher was a British inventor and a pioneering aviator. He developed and flew several hang gliders, romantically named The Bat, The Beetle, The Gull and The Hawk. Unfortunately, the ideas evoked by these names, of speed, fast directional control, soaring and hovering were incredibly difficult to achieve with the materials and technology available at the time. Percy, a bachelor, was supported by his sister Ella who stitched the cotton and silk wing canopies of his ‘aerial machines’ and assisted at test flights, each one of which must have been a terrifying trial to watch.

Model at Stanford Hall showing the fragility of the construction.

To achieve flight in Pilcher’s hang glider the craft was pulled along by horses with a rope and geared pulley attached to the glider, until it lifted off the ground as a kite would. The pilot's arms rested on leather supports and he held on to two struts to maintain his position. Once airborne the craft was hard to manoeuvre and was prey to the vicissitudes of the wind, which might gust or change direction any time. A flight was typically between 20 or 50 feet above ground -  high enough to be extremely dangerous. As materials were basically cloth and bamboo, there was nothing in the structure to protect the pilot from impact. Nonetheless, Pilcher took the risks and broke the world distance record in 1897, flying 820 feet in The Hawk in the grounds of Stanford Hall, Leicestershire.

Pilcher was determined to invent a tri-plane capable of powered flight and, with the help of motor engineer Walter Wilson, developed an internal combustion engine to power it. On 30th September 1899 his plan was to demonstrate its flight to potential sponsors in the grounds of Stanford Hall but sadly the engine’s crankshaft had broken. Having dined with those who might support his work and allow it to move forward, and finding hundreds of people had turned up at the estate to see his flying attempt, the pressure on him to provide ‘a show’ must have been immense and he considered flying The Hawk instead. 

Despite windy conditions, he had managed several flights successfully in the morning that day, but in typical British style for September, the afternoon had been wet and stormy. In the crowd were other military men whom he wanted to impress and even local school children who had been given the day off to see the flight. When the weather improved, he decided to go ahead, not realising that the sodden fabric of the wings was putting awful strain on the bamboo structure. Two attempts were unsuccessful because the line attached to the machine broke, the third achieved lift off. The local paper, the Rugby Advertiser, reported the accident that ensued: 
"The Hawk moved forward and took flight but crashed when a “cross-bar” behind him snapped in a sharp gust of wind as Pilcher moved his body, in standing position, to one side or the other to navigate . . . the apparatus was seen to collapse in the air, turn over and fall to the ground – a distance of about 20 feet – with a thud, Mr Pilcher being under the wreckage. His devoted sister was one of the first to reach the scene . . ."

Pilcher had broken both his legs and was concussed. He died two days later having never regained consciousness. 

Had Pilcher lived to fit his engine to his tri-plane during the following weeks as he’d intended, experts expressed the view that he would certainly have been the first man to achieve engine-powered flight. Instead, no one was crowned with those laurels until the Wright brothers flew the first powered ‘heavier- than-air’ craft in 1903, achieving an impressive distance of four miles, and were credited with inventing the first successful aeroplane. 

Pilcher’s death, four years earlier, robbed him of that more elevated place in aeronautical history but we must salute his creativity, tenacity and courage. As the inquest reported: ‘. . . he had lost his life in perfecting what, if he could have proved a success, would be some good to the world’. 


To see actual models of Pilcher’s amazing aricraft, visit the Percy Pilcher museum at Stanford Hall, Leicestershire. To see video of the National Museum of Scotland's model being made visit