An Irish Knight in Burgundy

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Tootlafrance catches up with wine connoisseur, author and Chevalier Raymond Blake to talk about love, life and wine in his beloved Burgundy

Raymond Blake is the Wine Editor of Food and Wine Magazine. He has been interested in wine since as far back as he can remember: long before he reached the legal drinking age…

“I don’t know why but even at the age of 10, I was cutting articles out of the old Sunday Times supplement if I saw things about big fancy meals or wine,” says Raymond, one of Ireland’s leading wine writers, freelancing since 2000. “I was fascinated by it all. Obviously, I’d never tasted it, but I knew that wine could be aged in a cellar for a long time and I was very interested in history and I was intrigued by something that could age and improve over decades and that great vintages could be stored away for a long time.”

Pretty town, tasty pastries: An aerial view of Santenay

Pretty town, tasty pastries: An aerial view of Santenay

He and his wife – classical musician Fionnuala Hunt – are both committed Francophiles and they fulfilled the dream of many almost a decade ago: that of buying a home in France.

“My wife Fionnuala and I got married in 2000 and shortly after that, we started looking for a place to live in France and we weren’t sure exactly where. I had been to Burgundy on a number of occasions. Fionnuala had never been so we went there for a holiday in the summer of 2005 and quickly decided that this was the place we wanted to buy a house.”

Both were now lovestruck by the region and the house-hunting began in earnest. It didn’t take them long to find their new Burgundian home in the pretty village of Santenay in the Côte-d’Or department (the true ‘heart of Burgundy’) in November 2006. Amongst the important criteria, Raymond says, was the proximity to a supply of warm fresh croissants:

“We wanted a place that was in a reasonably-sized village – we didn’t want a place that was out in a tiny hamlet somewhere. People often ask how we chose where to buy the house and I’m only half-joking when I say that there had to be a boulangerie nearby because if there isn’t, then you might as well not be in France!”

Selfie in Santenay: Raymond and his wife Fionnuala are both freelancers and spend lots of time in their home in Burgundy

Selfie in Santenay: Raymond and his wife Fionnuala are both freelancers and spend lots of time in their home in Burgundy

Their local boulangerie is, he says, an excellent example of French baking prowess. They normally travel to their home in France by car in the summer, driving down from Cherbourg and then spending most of July and August in France. They’re planning on spending some more time there over the winter, flying from Dublin to Lyon. With Raymond’s work, he ends up travelling over on other occasions during the year; these would include harvest festivals and the local event in January called the Saint Vincent Tournante.

As soon as they bought the house, Raymond began to keep a diary of the joys and travails involved in purchasing a property in France. These notes formed the basis of his excellent book “Breakfast in Burgundy: A Hungry Irishman in the Belly of France“, which he launched in 2014 to very positive reaction.

“It’s very much a story; it’s our story of buying the house and renovating it, visiting the harvest, shopping in the markets, visiting wine-makers, buying wine, cooking boeuf bourguignon, entertaining the neighbours…”

The legalities involved in buying the house were made all the more smooth, Raymond says, by Dublin-based solicitor Ivan Healy of Beatty Healy Solicitors. Ivan is a fluent French speaker and one of the few solicitors operating in Ireland holding a Diplôme de Français Juridique (awarded by the Paris Chamber of Commerce).

Homegrown Harvest: Raymond at a book signing along with Santenay wine

Homegrown Harvest: Raymond at a book signing along with Santenay wine

“I couldn’t praise him highly enough,” says Raymond. “He’s acted for a number of Irish people who have bought property in France and he was just superb. When there was rising panic at our end and all sorts of issues to deal with, he was the man to keep calm and keep on top of the situation. So we were very fortunate in that respect and we were also very fortunate that the estate agent was remarkably helpful… he used to work in a wine merchant’s and we’ve become good friends since. It can be a complicated process, but we had great help at each end.”

Along with Bordeaux, the Burgundy region is one of the prime wine regions of France.

“Sometimes – almost tongue-in-cheek – I talk about Burgundy and Bordeaux as two different countries,” says Raymond. “In some respects, they almost are. The wine business in Bordeaux is very much an industry, whereas in Burgundy it’s much more artisanal in nature with smaller family holdings.”

That is not to say, however, that Bordeaux wine is all big business and no heart. Nor is it to say that Burgundy is all small holdings of contented farmers making very little profit.

“It’s more to do with scale rather than levels of industrialisation,” the former Clongowes Wood teacher clarifies. “For example, a highly-regarded Bordeaux Château might be 80 hectares in size. That sort of scale would be unheard-of in Burgundy – there’s no equivalent. The big négociants – the traders – might have that in total but it could be scattered over dozens of different plots. So the whole structure of the business is different, but a quality-conscience producer in Bordeaux is going to be producing excellent wine – there’s no question of that.

“It’s a similar story with organic wine: just because it’s labelled ‘organic’, it doesn’t necessarily make it a good wine. If the wine maker isn’t up to scratch, then no matter how many whistles and bells they attach to it, they’re not going to make great wine. With organic wine, remember that it’s the fruit that’s organic and after that, comes the wine-making process… but certainly in Burgundy at the moment, there’s a great emphasis on high quality wine and great care in the vineyard.”

Fields of Gold? Prices of land and wine in Burgundy have rocketed in recent years

Fields of Gold? Prices of land and wine in Burgundy have rocketed in recent years

Raymond isn’t the only one to notice the quality of Burgundy wine and prices for all wines in the region have gone through the roof in recent years – a trend that’s showing no signs of letting up as the image of the Bourgogne bottle continues to enjoy its hard-earned reputation for locally owned quality.

“Fashion plays its part too,” notes Raymond. “Fashion is also pushing land prices and wine prices to totally crazy prices in many cases.”

Raymond and Fionnuala have immersed themselves enthusiastically into life in Burgundy and have made many friends. Some Irish people suffer from the difficulty of making friends less easily when they are abroad and making friends in France is sometimes painted as a task that requires more effort than in other countries. What has his experience been on that front?

“I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on this… The French are more reserved (than Irish people), but not colder. In fact, I find French people to be formally polite. For instance with our next-door neighbours Joël and Patricia – who are now great pals and I couldn’t speak too highly of them – whenever I bump into them for the first time in the day, you can’t start talking until you’ve shaken hands or given each other the peck on the cheek; until you’ve formally acknowledged one another. You simply cannot start a conversation until you’ve done that. There’s a formal politeness there that’s sometimes, I think, misinterpreted as frostiness. But certainly, the people we’ve met have been fantastic – absolutely fabulous!

Inclement Weather: Hailstones in Raymond and Fionnuala's garden

Inclement Weather: Hailstones in Raymond and Fionnuala’s garden

“The other thing to bear in mind is that France is so huge and regional. I often say to people that it’s like a mini United States in many respects and what might be true for one region might be completely different for another. Think of the differences between Alsace and the South-West or Brittany and Provence. There’s huge regional difference there.”

Raymond’s immersion into local life saw him become a Chevalier du Tastevin. Just what is that and how does one go about becoming one?

“What happened was that as soon as we had bought the house, one of the producers I know from visiting the area said ‘Oh, we must put your name forward for Chevalier now that you’re here and you’ve put your money where your mouth is’. So that’s how it came about. In fact it happened just nine years ago so it was a great celebration and honour.

“The whole brotherhood of the Chevaliers du Tastevin was started in the 1930s as a means of promoting the wines of Burgundy and the whole lifestyle of Burgundy. I’m very much into that – I don’t believe in separating the wine out of the life that goes with it. You can’t really know and understand Burgundy wine without knowing something of the back story of it – the people who make it, where it comes from…

“So this brotherhood helps to promote that whole ideal. The headquarters is in the Château du Clos de Vougeot – the old Cistercian Monks’ winery. It was the Cistercian Monks and the Benedictine Monks who really put Burgundy wine on the map. They have members all around the world. We’re dedicated to fellowship and having a great time with food and drink!”

As for the language, Raymond admits to a terrible laziness when it comes to achieving full fluency: he’s not there yet, he says.

“I get by but I’m not great. I tend to be more of a vocabulary man and I tend to pick up words and they often come out as a ‘word-queue’ rather than a sentence. so all the right elements come out in a queue of words rather than a grammatically correct sentence. My wife would be better than me… In any case, I always say that after a bottle of wine, we’re all fluent!”

Cheers to that!

For more from Raymond on wine, humour and buying a house in France, see his Blake on Wine blog or click on the link below to see how to order a copy of his book “Breakfast in Burgundy: A Hungry Irishman in the Belly of France”.

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