On the eve of the French Revolution, the future President of the United States of America visited the great wine regions of our country. “Le Figaro” has resumed its route.
On February 28, 1787, one must imagine Thomas Jefferson, Ambassador to Paris of the United States of America, leaving his residence at the Hôtel de Langeac, avenue des Champs-Élysées, to visit in turn Auxerrois, Burgundy, the Rhône Valley, Provence, northern Italy, Languedoc, Bordeaux, Nantes, Angers, Tours and Orléans before returning to Paris, full of use and reason, on June 10.
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Along with the one accomplished at the same time by the British agronomist Arthur Young, this tour of France recorded in his travel diaries constitutes an essential and moving testimony to the state of the kingdom in the last years of the Ancien Régime. In his autobiography written on the eve of his life, the man who had become the third president of the United States in 1801 reported that he had undertaken this journey on the advice of his surgeon. The waters of Aix-en-Provence were supposed to cure his broken wrist – an unfortunate aftermath of a gallant affair of which he does not say a word. While crisscrossing France along the rivers and on the roads aboard a sedan pulled by two horses, Thomas Jefferson also wanted to observe the bridges, ports, roads, grants, canals and locks which had been watching over since 1747 the general inspectors of bridges and roads. Owner of a plantation at Monticello, Virginia, Mr. Plenipotentiary Minister of the United States of America was also versed in the art of gardens, botany, agricultural engineering.
But the primary motive for his journey at the end of winter and spring of 1787 was the vine and the wine, of which he wanted to know everything and learn everything. Racing towards Burgundy in his four-wheeled horse-drawn carriage at the rate of 90 kilometers a day, Jefferson skimmed over Champagne, where he returned in April 1788 for a crossing of the Montagne de Reims and the Côte des Blancs. On March 7, after passing through Dijon where a bottle of Vosne sold for 4 pounds delighted him, he finally reached the famous coast, north and south of Nuits-Saint-Georges, whose wines made lovers of France, Prussia, England and America.
Like anyone who knows where and how the aroma of fine wines is born, Jefferson first observed the soils. “The plains are rich reddish-brown soil, mixed with many small pebbles. The base of the coast is compact rock covered by about a foot of earth, half of which is mixed with small pebbles. The soil is red and of average quality“, he noted in his notebooks (1). Trained biochemist, descendant of a winegrower established in Burgundy at the time of the visit of the United States Ambassador, wine producer in Beaune where he vinifies pinot and chardonnay harvested from ouvrées that he cultivates with care, Philippe Pacalet is not surprised by the American’s interest in what we now call soil life. “Back then, people worked the land with animals, not from the cab of a tractor. They paid great attention to him“. Visiting the pinot noir plots of Clos de Vougeot, the winemaker recalls that it was the monks of Cîteaux who transformed the poor soil that covered the sedimentary rock into heavy clay over seven centuries of hard and silent work – a work that ended four years after Jefferson’s passage with the confiscation and sale of the vineyards and the Château du Clos de Vougeot by order of the Assembly.
“It is a place of prayer”
Hostile to the monarchy and to clerical power, mocking dogma like a blackbird, the traveler who was the main drafter of the United States Declaration of Independence in 1776 did not have a teasing word to say about it. respect to the Cistercians who have patiently worked for centuries the 50 hectares of vines enclosed by a wall of dry stones so that the kingdom of God may come sicut in caelo et in terra, on earth as in heaven. Today like yesterday, we enter the vineyards of Clos de Vougeot as in the cloister of a monastery, without daring to be strong-minded.
There is something vibrant and energizing in the Burgundian air, capable of making the most blasé of deists call the angels familiar. Philippe Pacalet likes to start the visit with the sources of the Vouge, which gives its name to the place. Who will believe it? This river which flows into the Saône is 33 km long. The age of Christ.
Firmly convinced that chance is the providence of fools, Philippe Pacalet judges that the waters of the basin built by the monks at the height of its source, under the hillside of Musigny, have something baptismal about them. “I like coming here. It’s a place of prayer“. In the age of the Lumières and the devastating irony of Voltaire, the considerations of the Minister Plenipotentiary of the United States of America on French viticulture were more rationalist and more skeptical, sometimes satirical. There are very old usages of which he could not understand the permanence. He did not rate wines, as the incomparable Robert Parker would, but he was fond of classifications. He immediately spotted the location of what were not yet called grands crus, a distinction that appeared in 1937 with the appellations d’origine contrôlée (AOC) born at the instigation of Senator Joseph Capus and Baron Pierre Le Roy, supported by Henri Gouges, a winemaker from Nuits-Saint-Georges. After leaving the Côte de Nuits, passing Beaune to the south and visiting the Côte de Beaune, today mainly renowned for its white wines made from Chardonnay, Thomas Jefferson has forged a certainty for himself. “It is interesting to note that the best wines in red, as in white, are produced at the two ends of the coast lines, namely: Chambertin on the one hand and Montrachet on the other.“.
Philippe Pacalet observes that the United States ambassador was more sensitive to quality than to performance, which he noted without comment. “The idea of yield is very modern. At the time, we knew that by pulling on the volumes, we risked producing piquette. The monks had to be satisfied with harvesting 15 hl/ha“. Nowadays, a quality yield like that of Clos de Vougeot is established on average at around 45 hl/ha, that of Romanée-Conti at 35 hl/ha. With 15 hl/ha, as in 2021, the winegrowers feel they have been cursed.
“Wine, a subject for daydreaming”
Certain commercial aspects, however, caught the attention of Thomas Jefferson, who intended to buy wine for his Parisian cellar and even have it shipped to the United States. “Chambertins, Vougeots and Beaunes are the most full-bodied wines that withstand transport and aging well (…) Volnay is the best of the other red wines“, notes the American ambassador. In his Beaune cellar where he has his wines tasted in barrels, pipette in hand, Philippe Pacalet sheds light on the subject. “Grapes that ripen on thick clay give rise to powerful and muscular burgundies, with aromas of violets, capable of lasting for a long time.“.
Wine is definitely something to dream about. Past Montrachet, Jefferson continued his journey… Chalon-sur-Saône, Tournus, Mâcon, Vinzelles… “The people of Burgundy and Beaujolais are well dressed and they look well fed»… After Lyon, where the almond trees were in bloom, the former governor of Virginia reached the hillsides which descended steeply towards the Rhône, this torrent tumbling towards the south.
Drink with Jefferson
In Burgundy, Thomas Jefferson, however fond of white wines, gave his favor to reds, and the advantage to Chambertin sur Montrachet. To salute his great memory, it is permitted to uncork the 2015 vintage of Clos-de-Vougeot by Philippe Pacalet. A Côte-de-Nuits with dense raw material, with a powerful mouthfeel of blueberry and black cherry, haunting like Bach’s fantasy in G major, floral like the hair of a Venus by Botticelli, both very complex and very harmonious. Characteristic of the clay, fossils and limestone pebbles of its climate at the bottom of the hill, it is a high-class wine, produced by a winemaker who makes the bold choice of low yields (35 hl/ha) and vatting using whole grapes. The man has gone ever further in terms of finesse and elegance since the time he vinified at the Prieuré Roch estate – some of us are haunted by the memory of the Nuits-Saint-Georges Premier Cru Le Clos des Corvées 1999 , the burgundy of an eternal springtime of the soul, the wine of a morning of the world always starting over.
(1) “Thomas Jefferson in Bordeaux and in some other European vineyards”, by Bernard Ginestet, Mollat, 1996.
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Clos de Vougeot Pinot Noir
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