May 4, 2010 / 2:11 PM / 7 years ago

Vezelay wine: An exclusive link to ancient past

VEZELAY, France (Reuters Life!) - Vezelay is best known for a hilltop Basilica whose architectural genius is revealed by a dazzling display of sunlight at summer solstice.

Less well known is the local wine from this northwestern corner of France with its own AOC classification, a bit of spice, a fruity taste that is less “buttery” than a Meursault and fewer mineral tones than nearby Chablis due to soil differences.

One of the oldest wine-making areas in France, Vezelay’s current abbey -- once a top draw for pilgrims seeking the relics of Mary Magdalene -- was preceded by a monastery established during the Gallo-Roman times of the first century.

Although its saintly reputation failed to protect the area’s vines from being completely obliterated by the Phyloxeria vine illness from 1884.

Replanting began in 1975.

The allowed planting area is some 333 hectares (823 acres) around the villages of Asquins, Saint-Pere, Tharoiseau and Vezelay that in 1997 obtained the right to label their white wines Bourgogne Vezelay.

A similar request for red wines is pending.

Only about a third of the planting area is in use by a few dozen winemakers, most of them producing for the local cooperative Cave Henry de Vezelay.

Production remains small, or as they say in French “confidential,” and most bottles go to local restaurants and private buyers from all over France, Switzerland and Belgium.

Of the planting area some 80 percent is for white grapes, predominantly Chardonnay and the rest is Pinot Noir for reds.

There are also some Melon de Bourgogne grapes, better known in the western Loire Atlantic region as Muscat.

Pascal Brule is a small independent wine maker in the Vezelay area. He only uses Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

“I like melon with Port, not with my wine,” he said.

He was born in the Champagne area and worked in the local bubbly wine production, rising to become head of quality at Lanson-Pommery. But after a wave of takeovers and growth, he was fed up with his work. “I felt like a number, not a person.”

At first he moved to the Alsace, later to Rully before seizing a chance to take part in the rebirth of Vezelay.

The Burgundy area was not new to him as he obtained his wine-making diploma from the Beaune professional school in 1975.

He arrived in the Vezelay area in 1998 and settled on a house and cave in Sacy, a short drive away.

Brule proudly showed Reuters his two patches of vines near Vezelay - one on a hill opposite the village and another on the slopes beneath the Basilica - a patch of land with difficult access and hard to maintain due to the steep slope. The view is excellent, though.

He uses some seasonal workers but most of the work is done with his own two hands, which he also offers to other wine makers in the area in order to boost his income. He also runs a holiday home to make ends meet.

Later at his home at a round table with a small dog yapping away, he opened several bottles for tasting, offering the wine for a verdict on his life’s work.

“It reflects all my knowledge and experience.”

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