11 March 2014
As we left Plumpton in the drizzle, spirits were high: here we were off to visit some of the most important winelands of France, a heady prospect for any wine student! We made our way through the now driving rain to the Eurotunnel, crossed the channel, then continued on towards our base for the night: Reims. The entire group then had a quiet night of reflection and reading to ensure bright eyes and bushy tails for our first visit of the trip: Champagne Drappier.
Drappier is a rather lesser-known Champagne house in the UK, which is surprising considering both the heritage of the place and the quality of the wine. We were treated to a tour of their cellars (ancient and extensive), their winery (state of the art) and their bottling station (efficient). Champagne Drappier is one of the foremost exponents of the large format bottle, and some of them defy belief, being equivalent to 40 normal bottles! The visual highlight of the tour, however, had to be the Ovum “barrel egg”. A real eye-opener as this author in particular has only ever seen them in concrete! The group was then treated to a fabulous tasting of the various wines produced on site, ranging from thrillingly dry zero-dosage varieties up to more familiar, richer styles. After an invigorating picnic lunch, the group then made its way to Dijon.
After checking into the Hotel de Jura, the group then marched along to the École Supérieure de Commerce (ESC) Dijon, site of one France’s leading masters courses in Wine Business. We came equipped with all manner of non-French wine with which to tutor our counterparts in the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) systematic approach and ultimately to take part in the annual Milanowski-Wilson wine tasting cup. The tutorials went well, with New Zealand Chardonnay, Valpolicella ripasso and German Rieslings on offer to delight the palates of the ESC students. What went less well was the Milanowski-Wilson cup, in which we offered very little fight, leaving the ESC student to win, yet again. There were no hard feelings with students from both wine courses mixing together in a nearby wine bar afterwards.
The real reason for which we were in Dijon, judging at the Effervescents du Monde championship, began the following morning. This wine competition is gathering renown throughout the world as one of the very best and most rigorous assessments of the world’s sparkling wines. We arrived at the Lycée Castel hospitality school, which is the venue for the competition, and took our badges. Each student was assigned to a different tasting panel and sat and judged 10 wines according to the strict tasting regime they had been trained in. The wines were expertly poured by the trainee sommeliers from the Lycée, allowing the judging to commence. The method for judging at the Effervescents du Monde is designed to minimise personal preference as far as can be possible, whilst giving space at the end for any comments which the judge should wish to impart. After the first flight, we were recessed for ten minutes to allow our palates to recover, and then we returned. After all the wines had been judged, there was a twenty minute hiatus to speak to the other judges and mingle a little. Then came the great reveal: all the wines which had been judged that day were placed around on tables, with their covers off. When everyone had finished trying the wines on offer, we were led upstairs to a restaurant which was catered for by the students of the college. This being a French catering college we were offered such delights as snail profiteroles, pork terrine and coquille saint-Jacques. All accompanied by some delicious local Burgundy wines. Not bad way to finish a hard morning’s tasting.
The first evening was given over to relaxation and city exploration, for the most part following the La Chouette (The Owl) tourist trail around the city to explore the sights. Medieval Dijon is stunning. The group were abstemious to a man in order to preserve our precious palates for the next day’s judging, and an early night ensued.
The following day we were back to judging at the college, followed by another delicious lunch provided by the team behind EDM. Then we were off to Kriter, one of the largest sparkling wine producers in Burgundy. The site is vast. Truly huge. They produce a mind-boggling number of bottles each year, ranging from the very cheap to the premium. The experience was humbling coming from Plumpton: at Kriter they have single tanks which our entire production would not even fill half-way. The guides were extremely patient with our limited French and conducted concurrent commentaries in English for our benefit, which was most kind. Walking around the airport-size facility at Kriter made us work up quite an appetite however, which was fortunate as the ensuing meal was one to remember!
We left the Kriter site and drove along the route des Grands Crus towards our final destination – Beaune and the famous cellars of the Patriarche wine company. This company has been in operation since the 14th century and has the cellars to prove it. As we descended down through the former convent to the dark vaults beneath Beaune, we had little idea of the scale of their subterranean operation. In the past, they had moved the roads of Beaune to extend their cellars, and they now cover over 1.25 hectares under the town. At the end of the marathon amble past thousands of wonderful bottles being cellared, we came to the final tasting of the day: the wine of Kriter. It was very instructive to see what large-scale wine producers can achieve when they apply themselves to sparkling winemaking. After this final tasting, we stayed underground in cellars and were seated at our tables for a truly fabulous meal. The starter was river fish terrine accompanied by Chassagne-Montrachet, which led to a main course of bœuf bourguignon with Gevrey-Chambertin, followed by cheese with Pommard and crème brulée with Champagne. Throughout the meal we were treated to Burgundian singing and dancing by our hosts. The evening was fantastic, and led to a rather sleepy journey back to the hotel…
On the final day we finished judging at the Effervescents Du Monde and said goodbye to our fellow judges. As the Effervescent du Monde competition is held at the same time as the famous Hospice de Beaune charity auction, we then followed the hills back past the great villages of the Cote de Nuits to Beaune, where we queued in a very English manner amongst 600 wine lovers desperate to taste the new vintage of the Hospices de Beaune wines which were to be auctioned that weekend. There were 32 Pinot noirs and 13 Chardonnays to sample straight from the barrel, amongst which were many premier cru and grand cru wines. Many of these came from plots of less than 0.5 hectares, most were still undergoing fermentation; the wines were fresh with a lot of grip, to say the least! And the local cheese pastry delicacies known as Gougères were certainly needed to refresh the palate. It was wonderful to be part of this Burgundy tradition stretching back to 1859, and be amongst the first to taste these future greats.
Once we had made it through what felt like an underground wine gauntlet, we headed over to the nearby Palais des Congrès for the 141st “Fête des Grands Vins de Bourgogne” organised by the association of Burgundy wine growers. This was a unique event which allowed us to taste new and past vintages of almost all regions and villages within Burgundy, ranging from AOC wines to Grand Cru. We were privileged to have Fabrizio Bucella, a wine columnist and enthusiast of Burgundy, to navigate us around the 3000+ wines available for tasting.
Ian Warborn-Jones 2nd year BSc (Hons) Viticulture and Oenology student
Harvey Burdett 2nd year FdA Wine Business student
Since the original 400-acre College farm was bought back in 1919, Plumpton College has certainly seen a lot of changes.