Following Jefferson’s footsteps through the French vineyards

When Thomas Jefferson embarked on his grand tour of France in 1787, he claimed the journey was for his health. A broken wrist sent him 1,930 kilometres south from Paris to take the mineral waters at Aix-en-Provence, and on the way he planned to fulfil his professional obligations as America’s top envoy to France, researching French architecture, agriculture and engineering projects.

But when he chose to begin his three-month journey in the vine-covered slopes of Burgundy, Jefferson’s daughter, Martha, became suspicious.

“I am inclined to think that your voyage is rather for your pleasure than for your health,” she teased him in a letter.

In fact, Jefferson’s five-day visit to the Cote d’Or – a region famous even in the 18th century for its extraordinary terroir – was not accidental. After spending more than two years in Paris establishing diplomatic relations with the court of Louis XVI, Jefferson, a lifelong oenophile, had tasted his share of remarkable vintages. Now he was keen to discover the vineyards and cellars of Burgundy, and to study firsthand a wine making tradition that stretched back to the 11th century.

“I rambled thro’ their most celebrated vineyards, going into the houses of the labourers, cellars of the vignerons, and mixing and conversing with them as much as I could,” Jefferson wrote about the winemakers in a letter posted during his trip.

Although almost 225 years, a revolution, a vine-ravaging epidemic and several wars separate us from Jefferson’s wine tour, I discovered on a recent trip that it is still possible to explore the celebrated swath of vine-covered hills as the self-described “foreign gentleman” once did.

“The wines which have given such celebrity to Burgundy grow only on the Cote,” Jefferson observed in his meticulous travel diaries.

Like Jefferson, I traversed the region from north to south, from the Cote de Nuits to the Cote de Beaune, starting my tour at one of Jefferson’s first stops, the Clos du Vougeot. Founded in the 11th century, this vast 50-hectare vineyard was the Mondavi of its era, where, as Jefferson notes, the monks produced about 50,000 bottles of wine a year.

Today the Chateau du Clos de Vougeot houses a museum and the headquarters of the Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, an exclusive wine club. Inside, the cavernous cuverie, where the wine was fermented, is a testament to the monks’ industry, with four enormous 15th-century grape presses and immense wooden fermentation vats.

At the time of Jefferson’s journey, a few wealthy landowners held the majority of Burgundy’s vineyards, the largest being the Catholic Church. The French Revolution later carved large properties into small plots, and Burgundy remains a region of small producers, with some vineyards the size of a garden patch. Yet, with few fences or signs, the landscape is strikingly similar to what Jefferson described, the hills “more or less red or reddish,” “their sides in vines,” the vineyards “enclosed with dry stone walls.”

I stopped at the Clos de la Commeraine, a vineyard near the village of Pommard, whose wine sent Jefferson into raptures more than 20 years after he had tasted it. Here, amid 4 hectares of vines, stands a dainty 12th-century chateau, complete with a small vat room.

It is owned today by the Jaboulet-Vercherre family, and the estate’s wine is produced by Louis Jadot, one of Burgundy’s largest negociant houses. Yet the magic of the terroir endures, evidenced by the supple elegance of the wine I tasted.

According to local lore, Jefferson liked one white Burgundy, the Goutte d’Or, so much that “he bought an entire year’s crop,” said Louis-Fabrice Latour, director of Maison Louis Latour, a negociant house established in 1797.

Touring the cellars at Maison Latour is like entering a family safe, with dusty bottles of wine replacing jewels. The Latour family, which has run the house for seven generations, has saved almost every vintage since the end of the 19th century, a library of old wine that Jefferson would have envied.

In the tasting room, as we sampled Latour’s 2008 Goutte d’Or, I asked Latour for advice: What is the best way for someone passionate about wine to discover Burgundy?

“Take the time to discover an appellation, to visit the region,” he said. “Taste the differences between neighbouring vineyards. Ask questions. Be curious.”

In other words, be like Thomas Jefferson.

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