I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I, a wine-lover and Francophile living just on the other side of the Alps, had never been to Burgundy. Obviously, I was familiar with fabled names like Montrachet, Richebourg, Puligny, Echezeaux; I’d had the opportunity to uncork a bottle now and then; and I had heard countless stories and comparisons between the Langhe (particularly the areas of Barolo and Barbaresco in my beloved Piedmont) and Bourgogne: small producers, terroir, crus, limited production. Only last week, however, did I finally get in my Fiat 500 with my Pinot Noir-loving husband and cross the Mont Blanc to arrive in Beaune, the fairytale capital and heart of Burgundy.
I suppose it would be helpful to provide a little background information. This week-long voyage Français was organized around a couple of friends’ wedding in Cognac – an Italian transporter of French barriques and the daughter of a Cognac producer. The stuff of movies. To take full advantage of this unique opportunity, we decided to make a mini ‘wine vacation’ out of the week, spending three days in Burgundy, two in Cognac, and two in the Rhone…and a lot of time in the car. The idea was to finally see some of the places first hand we’d been reading on labels and studying in books for so long, perhaps bringing back a few bottles to restock our cellar as well.
Upon arrival in Burgundy, we met my French counterpart Amanda for dinner at Ma Cuisine in Beaune, the highly-esteemed-must reserve weeks in advance-quintessential Burgundian restaurant. Fabulous local fare, jaw-dropping wine list and exactly the sort of rustic ambiance you hope for and expect when you arrive in what is widely considered the wine capital of the world. A bottle of Saint-Romain 2010 from Alain Gras offered a pleasant accompaniment to my salad of seared Saint-Jacques (scallops), and aile de raie (literally wing of ray). During the meal a couple of very VIP glasses arrived at the table as well, compliments of a generous group of Amanda’s former clients and Burgundy fanatics. (Merci!) A slice of rhubarb tart for dessert and my introduction to the region was pretty much perfect.
I think it’s important to emphasize that in Burgundy, as perhaps many of you already know, it’s not as easy as just popping up at any domaine hoping to taste some of their precious nectar. Prior organization, and connections, are essential. I was particularly grateful that Amanda had scheduled her trip to Burgundy to meet with current and potential VinConnect winery partners during the same days in which we had planned to be there. Amanda is very modest about it all, but she’s pretty much got the “in” in Burgundy, having worked closely with many of the most elite producers in the region organizing the annual Burgundy celebration La Paulée with Daniel Johnnes in the USA. Thanks to her familiarity and charm, Amanda organized appointments for us at four different domaines: Pierre Yves Colin-Morey, Bouchard, Dujac and Mugneret-Gibourg.
One thing that struck me particularly about the experience at each of the domaines was that all tasting was done standing up, generally in the cellar directly from the barrel, as most of these minuscule, super sought-after vignerons don’t have any bottles of the current vintage left. Though Italy is still not anywhere near Napa Valley in terms of winery tasting room pizazz (perhaps a good thing), there is generally a tasting space of some sort, even if only a makeshift table in one of the unoccupied rooms. Occasionally you can luck out and get a barrel tasting as well, but these sorts of things are generally reserved for trade. Instead, in Burgundy, the free-standing spittoon and pipette are pretty standard measure. As is mold. I had heard stories of the centimeters of mold growing on French cellar walls, but somehow was still a bit taken aback when I actually saw those rows of old bottles and corner walls completely covered with a soft grey fur. I suppose it’s part of the French charm.
For me, one of the most fascinating and charming things about wine is that each producer, vineyard, and bottle has its own unique story and style. Pierre Yves Colin-Morey branched off from his father’s (Marc Colin) domaine in 2005 to begin making his own wines alongside his wife Caroline Morey. The domaine is crafting amazing mineral-driven wines from celebrated vineyards like Chassagne-Montrachet, Corton-Charlemagne and St. Aubin. Pierre Yves is one of the young rising stars in Burgundy and is doing some amazing things with Chardonnay. Though he didn’t have any of the 2010 left to purchase, he left us with a souvenir bottle of St. Aubin 1er Cru “Les Champlots” – the hand-applied wax that characterizes each of his 80,000 bottles was still warm.
Bouchard was undoubtedly the largest establishment we visited. It is in fact one of the largest domaines in Burgundy, but also boasts one of the most prestigious patrimonies of vineyards with 130 hectares of vines in the Cote d’Or, 12 classified as Grand Cru and 74 as Premier Cru. The Château is located in the heart of Beaune, the romantic below-ground XV Century cellars of the castle holding bottles over 130 years old. We tasted through an array of 1er and Grand Crus, red and white, guided by Morgan, the export manager. As the domaine produces 90+ different labels, I was particularly impressed by Morgan’s ability to provide detailed descriptions of each wine, vineyard and vintage. As this is one of the more visitor-friendly domaines, Bouchard has a well-organized and well-stocked wine shop that’s definitely worth a visit.
At Dujac the winemaker Diana Snowden (the American daughter-in-law of founder Jacques Seyesse) tasted us through a fine selection of unlabeled half-bottles, including a 1999 and 1996 Clos de La Roche – a very special treat. Due to warm weather conditions and vigorous crop in 96, Diana told us that the wine is now at the perfect stage for drinking, with delicate inviting perfumes. Dujac practices biodynamic farming in all their vineyards, but doesn’t really make a big deal out of it. It is considered the best choice for making good wine, in full respect of the soil and the vines.
Mugneret-Gibourg was a delightful discovery. This domaine au féminin is ably managed by sisters Marie Christine and Marie Andrée, together with their mother Jacqueline. This charming and capable trio took over the entire operation with the passing of patriarch Georges in 1988. The feminine influence is apparent, both in the organization of the winery and the style of the wines — indisputable elegance. As they were bottling the 2010s that day, we tasted through the 2011s from barrel. I was frankly surprised by the use of almost exclusively new oak, which was practically undetectable upon tasting. Marie-Andrée says the secret is in working closely with the tonnelier to achieve the perfect toast.
Besides personally visiting producers, I believe the best way to understand a wine is to visit the land in which it is produced, to see the hills (or relatively flat land in the case of most of France) on which the vines thrive, touch the soil, feel the sunshine in a vineyard. Once you’ve achieved a sort of sympathy with the grapes, understanding the culture of a wine growing area is essential. Where there is good wine, there is generally pretty outstanding food as well.
For our last evening in Burgundy, we decided to splurge and booked dinner at Le Montrachet located in the charming village of Puligny Montrachet. Perhaps I’m biased, but I generally prefer Italian cooking to French, and often tend to find la cuisine Française a bit exaggerated with too many sauces and, though greatly appreciated in moderation, too much butter. After a string of excellent meals in Burgundy, I was once again proven wrong (pleasantly so) and everything was delightful from start to finish. The restaurant was very welcoming, service was impeccable, and our table enjoyed a beautiful view of the terrace and gardens. The highlight for me, however, was the cheese. After the main and before dessert, an unassuming wicker basket-cart rolled up alongside the table proffering a glorious selection of fromage, from soft goat’s milk cheeses to strong Roquefort and pretty much everything in between. I like to think that the cholesterol consumed in that single plate was pretty much cancelled out by all the antioxidants in all the red wine I’d been drinking. If not, it was worth it anyway.
The next morning after a ‘light’ breakfast at our charming bed and breakfast L’Octroi Saint Jacques, we headed out, saying farewell to the enchanting city of Beaune and its Côte, having at least cracked open the door to the world of Burgundy, and with the hope of returning very soon.
to be continued…