"Nothing much happens here..."
Columns 23 June 2020

How I survived lockdown in deepest Burgundy

From a brush with the gendarmes to a rapidly-emptying cellar, Nina Caplan chronicles a surreal but well-nourished two months hunkered down in the remote Burgundian countryside

Words by Nina Caplan

Photography by William Craig Moyes

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Locking down in Burgundy sounds like the ruse of a sozzled old roué: have the chauffeur whisk you down to the château, then hunker down in a cool, sane cellar with the last of the La Tâche while the world goes mad outside.

Unfortunately my Burgundy lockdown was nothing like that. The ‘château’ is a small townhouse with no garden and a surfeit of bored teenagers, in the part of the Côte d’Or that that hasn’t had vineyards worth mentioning since phylloxera. And there are no grands crus in the cellar.

There is, at least, a cellar. This is an 18th-century house, and Enlightenment-era Burgundians had their priorities straight. Whatever else they lack, the houses round here have dedicated space for a generous wine collection. Yes, it would be nice if the stepkids had some fresh air, but then we’re surrounded by fields…

Nina Caplan: "Obsessing about what to drink with dinner is usually a pleasure..."

For two months from mid-March, we were not allowed out without a signed form stating our reason for leaving the house, our address and, oddly, our place of birth (oh, the Gallic passion for administration…). Disobedience meant a €135 fine. Exercise was limited to a 1km radius and while shopping was allowed, it had to be vital: les achats de première necessité. In my very small town – a pretty place of stone houses and working fireplaces, that last had money in the 19th century – it takes five minutes on foot to reach the countryside. Over the weeks, the wheat and barley grew; lambs appeared; creamy Charolais cows glared at us as if wondering whether our paperwork was in order. People called out bonjour from a prudent distance. The bakery was open every day and the local supermarket never ran out of toilet paper. Nothing much happens here anyway, so as long as you weren’t a teenager deprived of your social life, everything seemed pretty normal. With one important exception.

"Charolais cows glared at us as if wondering whether our paperwork was in order"

Wine in France is certainly considered a première nécessité, so wine shops were permitted to open and wineries continued to sell. The only problem was the commute. Technically, I could get what I needed down the road. But I couldn’t get what I wanted. Our supermarket’s wine selection skews towards €3 bottles and the worst of bag-in-box, while the better bottles sit around for months, waiting to disappoint the foolish optimist with their tired, stewed flavours. The same negociant names reappear across different regions’ labels almost as frequently as the obligatory sulphite warning.

I fell into my favourite wine shop like a desert wanderer finding an oasis

This is both the advantage and the disadvantage of a clearly-run system. Unlike friends and family back in the UK, I didn’t need to fret about ways to stay safe; insofar as the French government could take care of that, it had. So I worried instead about wine. Obsessing about what to drink with dinner is usually a pleasure rather than a concern – that much the pandemic had changed. My husband, meanwhile, an excellent cook, became so obsessed with planning what to eat with whatever I was worrying about drinking that he would wake up plotting menus.

And what menus: grilled duck in redcurrant and cream sauce with the last of our Caves Bienvenu Les Mazelots 2015, a climat in the lesser-known northern Burgundian region of Irancy, where they make great Pinot Noir that we peasants can still afford; new-season asparagus and roast lamb with coriander, accompanied by glazed carrots and flageolet beans with mint and shallots, with JM Cazes’ 2015 Domaine de L’Ostal Minervois La Livinière, which opened like a flower when decanted. I was sent a bottle of Krug’s glorious Grande Cuvée, the new 168th edition, to sample during a Zoom discussion with Olivier Krug; to help down the rest of the bottle, Craig made an asparagus loaf that was the envy of Instagram. The teens might be expiring from ennui, but we were eating and drinking like the plague-fleeing story-tellers in Boccaccio’s Decameron – and that capacious cellar was rapidly emptying.

In France, the rule is generally that what is not forbidden is allowed. Was that the case here? And did I want to take a €135 bet on it? In the end, I was saved by the printer. Children learning online need to print out their work; our nearest supermarket does not sell printer cartridges. I fell into the Cave de Sombernon, my favourite wine shop, like a desert wanderer arriving at an oasis. The piles of gleaming bottles! The kindly, knowledgeable owner! How I had missed discussing wine with someone whose only connection with me was our shared interest in this very subject. As Camille and I chattered happily, the door dinged and two gendarmes walked in. In the shadow of their guns and bullet-proof vests, the shine on those bottles dimmed. I clutched my permission form and my dead ink cartridge and sweated.

I needn’t have worried. They were in the shop for the very same reason I was, and my great regret is that I was too busy having conniptions to check what wine they bought.

Lockdown in France eased in two stages: first we were allowed to travel 100km, so we drove to the Irancy vineyards (distance: 93.5km). Thanks to that trip and my newly unrestricted access to Camille’s shop, the cellar is now reassuringly full. Then the country opened up fully, and this week we are off to Bordeaux, to check it’s still there. There is little good to be said about the horrible illness that is upending our lives. But my youngest stepdaughter, from tiny sips of our nightly libations, has developed an impressive palate and a heartening interest in the subject. Wine is ever the provider of silver linings, and if Nora grows up to be a wine-lover as a result of these strange months of deprivation and excess, that will certainly be one.

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