Fine burgundies, made for 300 years by a single French family, are all set to bring joy to Indian wine lovers. Julia Sherstyuk explains how this delightful circumstance has come about.
May 1815. Napoleon, returning to Paris from exile, makes a stop in the village of Mercurey, in Burgundy. A local winemaker named Prieur receives the emperor and serves him a red wine. Napoleon tastes it and exclaims: “This mercurey is excellent! Its colour reminds me of the ribbon that adorns the Legion of Honour and its nose of the ravishing aroma of victory!” Prieur proudly replies, “Sire, this wine is not even the best in my cellar.” Surprised, Napoleon asks, “Why not serve that one, then?” “Because I reserve it for special occasions only, Sire,” replies the winemaker.
Centuries later, Mercurey, a town in the smallest of Burgundy’s four wine regions called Côte Chalonnaise, is still home to proud producers of exquisite reds and whites vinified with the greatest care from the region’s emblematic grape varieties: pinot noir and chardonnay.
Burgundy’s winemaking tradition is a fortunate consequence of Julius Caesar’s invasion of Gaul. In Mercurey, the Roman conquerors built a temple to their fleet-footed god of commerce (hence the name of the town) and planted the picturesque slopes around it with vines, thus introducing the art of winemaking to the ancestors of the French.
In Mercurey, a local family of winemakers named Protheau had had assured the continuity of Burgundian winemaking tradition by producing wine for 300 years. For countless generations since 1720, when the first Protheau acquired a vineyard in Mercurey, the domain remained the property of the same family, never changing hands – until now.
Such an uninterrupted ownership is extremely rare in Burgundy where the vineyards belonged mostly (but not entirely, as proved by the case of the Protheau family) to the church and were tended by the monks. After the French Revolution all these monastic “clos”, dating back to the dawn of the Middle Ages, were confiscated and sold at auctions to the bourgeoisie, typically merchants, who had never owned land, let alone vineyards, before.
Since the Protheau family were from the very start independent winemakers and merchants of fine wines, they did not lose their domain during the Reign of Terror and the Revolution, carrying on their winemaking work till March 2018, when the domain, with its 49 hectares of vineyards and its 19th-century winemaker’s mansion – Chateau d’Etroyes – was acquired by a group of French investors.
Here’s where the plot thickens: the new owners of this unique domain in Mercurey happen to be the biggest shareholders of the oldest running (over two decades) winery in India – Grover Zampa Vineyards (GZV) which in February was named Winery of the Year by the Asian Wine Review 2018.
GZV owns wineries and vineyards in the Nandi Hills in Karnataka and in the Nashik Valley in Maharashtra and is the largest wine exporter from India to over 30 countries. The company is also the most awarded wine producer in India and has won 111 international medals since 2013.
One of the key figures behind both GZV and “Château d’Etroyes”, a new French company created to run the former Protheau domain in Mercurey, is India-born and France-raised, Ravi Viswanathan.
Viswanathan has a clear vision of future cooperation between the two entities on two continents. “We are looking to bring together the best of both worlds: Burgundy’s millennia-old traditions of winemaking and India’s much less restricted approach to the process, which is typical of the New World in general.”
A sort of exchange programme is in the pipeline. GZV oenologists will soon go to Mercurey to learn about the crucial role of terroirs and climats in the traditional Burgundian vinification process as well as about the straitjacket regulations of the famous appellations contrôlées. As for their counterparts from Château d’Etroyes, they will visit the Nashik Valley and the Nandi Hills to discover the challenges of grape growing in a tropical climate where irrigation, prohibited in France, is a must, in addition to even bolder experimentations like sub soil irrigation or previously unheard-of blends.
The projected result of such cooperation between the Indian and French teams is the creation of a special cuvée, tentatively named La Reserve de Bourgogne, with the mission to help Indian wine aficionados to discover the elegance and sophistication of burgundies, unjustly overlooked by foreign consumers. What will make this cuvée unique will be its readiness to pair optimally with Indian dishes (various curries for chardonnay, mild chicken masala and chicken tandoori for pinot noir) while not compromising on its Burgundian typicality.
“It is extremely difficult, though not impossible, to produce good quality chardonnay and pinot noir in India. Therefore, the logical approach for us is to produce them in our newly acquired domain in Mercurey, where the terroirand climatwill ensure their unmistakable taste of Burgundy, and then export them to India for an introduction to the ever-growing crowd of Indian wine lovers,” shares Viswanathan.
Another goal of the GZV- Chateaux d’Etroyes combine is to correct a historical injustice inflicted upon burgundies by… geography. Unlike Bordeaux whose port has for centuries seen the region’s precious nectar shipped to England and, later, to the French colonies in the Caribbean and the rest of the world, Burgundy has always been a landlocked province, a fact that significantly narrowed its wine distribution.
“Ironically, Bordeaux wines were not much drunk in France itself, and it was the first wife of Napoleon I, Josephine, who introduced them to the French court!” enthuses Viswanathan, who is also a history buff. “Born and raised in Martinique, Josephine was accustomed to Bordeaux wines and couldn’t do without them after becoming empress.”
As for burgundies, they were seen as the perquisite of a more restricted, albeit finer, niche group – European monarchs and popes, to whom the grand dukes of Burgundy and subsequently the French kings, offered barrels of pinot noir and chardonnay as diplomatic gifts of unparalleled elegance and value.
Burgundy wines, therefore, seldom left the European continent until relatively recent times. This is also the case of the former Protheau domain in Mercurey, whose bottles have been mainly circulating through domestic distribution channels. This will soon be changed, as the Château d’Etroyes plans to supply its wines to Indian restaurants in the 30 countries where GZV has already established its presence.
Another focus of the GZV-Chateau d’Etroyes partnership will be participation in the development of international oenotourism, flourishing in Burgundy. The winemaker’s mansion of the 19th century, after which the new France-based company was named, will be renovated and transformed into a hotel with fantastic views from the rooms of some of the oldest vines on the property.
Once they have been introduced to fine burgundies produced traditionally and sustainably by oenologists of Château d’Etroyes, and soon to be available in India, Indian wine lovers may well entertain the idea of paying a visit to Mercurey and Rully, the two villages where the company owns vineyards, and enjoy the pleasure of staying in a 200-year-old château.
However, the very first step for Château d’Etroyes is to take over the wine production, improve the vinification process and to distribute Mercurey’s reds and whites – worthy of an emperor’s table – in India and to the rest of the world.