The Hidden Hill of Corton, source of some of Burgundy's best whites
There's something strangely familiar about the hill of Corton. You approach it along the A321 road north from Beaune, or south from Dijon, and all of a sudden it's impossible to miss the densely packed cluster of trees at the summit of the hill - the ceremonial hat of a Buddhist monk, the spiky mullet of an 1980s rock star.
Whether you lean towards rock or religion, the vines that head down from the trees mark out the appellation of Corton-Charlemagne and some of the great white wines of Burgundy in the shape of bottles from Bonneau du Martray, Faiveley and Coche-Dury.
These are the essence of clarity, steeliness, minerality, verticality … but priced accordingly. Luckily, the Corton hill is a microcosm of Burgundy itself - by which I mean it is maddeningly complicated but endlessly enticing. On it and around it lie the wine-growing villages of Ladoix-Serrigny, Aloxe-Corton, Pernand-Vergelesses and Savigny-lès-Beaune, and all are able to claim a slice of the hill.
It means that even in this hallowed spot, there are corners - where vines lie on north-facing slopes and on the lower foothills - where you can kid yourself that you are a pioneer, still able to uncover affordable and little-known bottles from this most famous of mountain rises.
The village of Pernand-Vergelesses offers the best chance of uncovering one of these. Like so many in Burgundy, it is made up of a motley collection of narrow dusty streets, red-tiled roofs, crumbling limestone crosses, statues of Madonna and child, all encased by dry stone walls, crammed into a corner of the hill deemed superfluous to viticulture. The magic happens behind closed doors, and out in the fields behind. It is the village where the mythic Bonneau du Martray cellars are found, and many of the winemakers own or rent a few vines of Corton.
More interestingly for the treasure hunter, it is also the only commune along the Côte d'Or to make both red and white wine on all four levels - grand cru, premier cru, village and regional. This reflects the fact that Pernand-Vergelesses is found at the meeting point of three valleys giving a variety of expositions and altitudes. The whites, in particular, develop a delicacy and finesse that are worth driving for, and nowhere more so than on a tiny "hill within the hill" known as la colline de Frétille. Where the peak of the Corton hill is covered in forest, here the hilltop is lower but flatter, offering a sumptuous plateau of chardonnay vines.
The best vines on this spot received their Premier Cru status just over a decade ago and today there are about 15 winemakers who bottle them. It was sommelier Gaêl Morand who first turned me on to them.
"I always say to my customers that if they are to try only one white Burgundy, it has to be this one. The wines are just below the appellation boundaries of Corton-Charlemagne and approach the minerality and verticality without the prices."
Morand's favourite is from Domaine Pavelot - an estate marked by a simple dark-red wooden door found on a quiet backstreet near the 12th century church, a sprig of wisteria growing off to one side of the front door.
This is where brother and sister Luc and Lise Pavelot make their wines, including a near-perfect offering from the Frétille hill bottled under "Sous Frétille".
The Pavelot family dates back more than 400 years in this village, with records of ancestors making and selling wine from the 17th century.
The current generation has taken over from their father Régis, and works nine hectares of organic vines that represent all four levels from regional to grand cru in Corton-Charlemagne, Pernand-Vergelesses and Aloxe-Corton. Both are graduates of Beaune's renowned winemaking school, and have worked internationally; Luc in northern California at Navarro Vineyards and Lise in the Loire Valley at Domaine Dagueneau.
"The brilliant thing about making wine in Pernand Vergelesses is that by having all four levels, from village to grand cru, it's like a winemaking masterclass, where you can see how complexity and depth builds up as the terroir changes," Lise Pavelot tells me. What to expect Domaine Pavelot, Pernand-Vergelesses Premier Cru Sous Frétille 2012 (pictured) Made from a tiny plot of chardonnay containing some of the oldest vines in the Pavelot family, this wine manages to combine rich ripe chardonnay stone fruits with the nervous, jumping-bean vigour of a tongue-cuttingly sharp white Corton. Aged in oak barrels, which give a hint of weight and toast. 95/100
Jane Anson is a Bordeaux-based wine writer