The Corton and Corton-Charlemagne vineyards are situated in one single block, though they straddle the notional border between Pernand-Vergelesses and Aloxe-Corton. They stretch between ‘En Charlemagne’, next to Pernand-Vergelesses, and ‘Le Charlemagne’, towards Aloxe-Corton. To have a plot of vines of this size in one contiguous block is unusual in the extreme, but that it should be the original plot, owned by the Emperor Charlemagne, is absolutely extraordinary.
Bonneau du Martray’s Corton-Charlemagne is a difficult wine to describe. This is particularly true when it is young. It can take a decade before it will say something more than “Stony. Wait.” But even with age it does not bloom in the same manner as the Montrachets do. In a way, it tastes like theoretical astronomy: we know that black matter exists, we can sense it, but we have no manifest proof of it. It’s a very beautiful agony.
In Making Sense of Burgundy, the best modern prose written about Burgundy, Matt Kramer is similarly cryptic: “Corton-Charlemagne is a wine of texture. It should give the sensation of heaviness without actually being heavy. Each mouthful is its own universe of flavor, never capable of being fully explored… Although Chardonnay has proven the ideal vehicle, one is not drinking Chardonnay with Corton-Charlemagne: One is drinking terroir.”
Even Jean-Charles, who has been at the domaine for every harvest but one since 1969, struggles to explain the mystery of his vineyard. “Something in Corton-Charlemagne fills your palate, but it changes very quickly into something impalpable. What is it made of? It’s difficult to qualify. It doesn’t saturate, it doesn’t blanket, nothing occupies a space of overt power, yet, at the same time, it is incredibly intense. It’s a very real sensation, but it doesn’t fit with the usual descriptions of wine… It is equally as impressive as the Montrachets. But it is of a different order.”
For lack of words, Jean-Charles has turned to painting: “Montrachet reminds me of Veronese: sumptuous, full, but at the same time balanced. Rubens comes to mind for Bâtard-Montrachet: the sensuality. But when I think of Corton-Charlemagne I have to go to a very different place. I find that Vermeer expresses it perfectly. His subjects are modest, nothing really: a girl with a turban, a woman reading a letter. And what is revelatory is only the light. That’s what is happening, I think, in Corton-Charlemagne.”
There’s more to it than analogy. With its west-facing slopes, Corton-Charlemagne is actually —physically— a wine born of unusual light. “I don’t know what effect it has on the vines”, Jean-Charles says, “but they function by photosynthesis. If they are getting good light, there’s a good chance that they are responding sympathetically.”