A Year in Burgundy …

The Rock of Solutré is a limestone slope 8 km (5.0 mi) west of Mâcon overlooking the commune of Solutré-Pouilly and an iconic site of the Saône-et-Loire, in the south of the Burgundy, in France.

The Rock of Solutré (in background) is a limestone slope 8 km (5.0 mi) west of Mâcon overlooking the commune of Solutré-Pouilly and an iconic site of the Saône-et-Loire, in Burgundy, France.

What would it take to understand some of the world’s most sought after wines? A short lesson about soil and viticulture? A tour of a French tonnellerie? An afternoon with a winemaker? Perhaps, you could spend a year in Burgundy?

Ordinarily, I don’t enjoy many wine movies. They are long winded and miss too many of the tangible elements while striving to chase down the egos that control the current landscape. A Year in Burgundy – a film by David Kennard –  delivers an intimate and delicate view into one of the world’s most important and idiosyncratic wine regions – Burgundy, France.

As a winemaker – making wine on two continents – I understand the cycles of the vines, the time-sensitive oenology, and the stress of any and every vintage. It is an intricately woven fabric of sensations that many films have attempted to share, but very few have succeeded in presenting in a tangible and tactile way. Where A Year in Burgundy succeeds is in communicating this oft-overworked segment of wine culture. In a little under 90 minutes, Kennard delicately sews vitiviniculture with the quiet moments of the private lives of those who make the wines to reveal an imperfect yet elaborate braid that ties the community together.

Focusing on the practices of Domaines Cornin, Leroy, Perrot-Minot, Morey-Coffinet, Bruno Clavelier, Michel Gay & Fils, and Mortet, A Year in Burgundy also features importer Martine Saunier – who until 2013 imported many of these producers into the United States. The storyline follows the 2011 vintage through each stage of the grape-growing, harvest, and vinification.

A map of Burgundy. Note the compass. The region runs north and south.

As detailed in the film, Burgundy is not an easy place to grow grapes. Because of its northern latitude, the short growing seasons are mired by uncontrollable obstacles – frost in the spring, too much or too little rain in the summer, hail during the harvest. For those who make wine at all, it is a laudable accomplishment. For those who make some of the best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the world, it is often a run through the gauntlet.

Without complete and total attention to detail, and a healthy amount of prayer, one bad year could be devastating for the families that operate the wineries. After so many generations – and centuries of almost uninterrupted wine production – the producers in Burgundy understand the struggles. They celebrate them, much like they honor the myriad differences in their vineyards and wines.

Chardonnay grapes are harvested moments before a storm.

To paraphrase Michel Morey, of Domaine Morey-Coffinet in Chassagne Montrachet, The differences are what make Burgundy so exciting. No one winery or wine is the same as another. It takes a lifetime to understand a single terroir, and there are so many variations within the territory that no one person could ever understand everything.

Morey continues, “I think no one has a particular gift at the start. As little children, we grow up surrounded by the vines and wine and cellars, by fathers and grandfathers who talk about wine, and the aromas and the tannins. I think that even as a little child, even if you don’t taste it you start to get a feeling for the wine quite quickly.”

Dominique Cornin, of Domaine Cornin says, “Being a winemaker [in Burgundy], for me, is to be in touch with nature. It is above all, to be in control of your life. To be outdoors, in the sunshine – free! Even if there are difficult moments … well, that’s life.”

Much to the contrary, Christophe Perrot-Minot says there is nothing artistic about winemaking at all. “Growing vines is purely academic. For me, it’s all very rational. Wine is like cooking: the grapes are just ingredients, wine making is the cuisine.” His winery resembles a professional kitchen. You could (probably) eat/drink directly from the floor. Yet, there is a particularity of respect in his statement.

After the harvest, workers and winemakers have some fun.

Perrot-Minot adds, “Naturally, we love our vineyards. We love our terroir. We respect the work of each generation. Nonetheless, growing vines demands extreme precision and rigor. We shouldn’t get in the way of the wine. Our job is just to be a midwife at the birth of the wine.”

The nuances of territory are quintessential to understanding Burgundy. It is what speaks through the fruit flavors, the aging regimes, the media hype. For the land and the producers, making red and white Burgundy is everything, just as it has been, for centuries.

By the end of the film, the viewer (me, for instance) comes away with a romantic and eloquent emotional appreciation of what Burgundy is and can be – the struggles and the successes. Even without a glass of Burgundy in front of me – no one in Sicily imports Burgundy – I can (almost) taste what Kennard has worked so hard to reveal.

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