Today’s Tuesday random topic is wine, specifically wine from Burgundy. It took me a while to publish a post about wine because as a French national, I take wine very seriously and it’s an intimidating subject because no matter how much you learn, there’s always so much you don’t know. So this post is about my relatively short experience with Burgundy and you should bear in mind that I have no academic or professional background in the wine industry. Now that I have that disclaimer out of the way…
My earliest memories of alcohol involve Champagne and Martinis. I only got around to enjoying wine in my teenage years, when I was allowed a glass from time to time. I remember enjoying some really light Italian Rosato and, of course, the occasional glass of Champagne. My tastes evolved and for a while I enjoyed white wines, before I had tasted enough glasses of good red wines to actually appreciate them. I remember being such a poseur with my glass of red wine as a sixteen year-old. I guess my parents’ very liberal education with alcohol proved effective in terms of responsible drinking because I never got drunk and I have never felt the need to keep drinking to the point of disorientation. So I never tried to get drunk… Boris Vian says it all in his song. (And here is the translation in English).
Burgundy is a great introduction to wine. The region is smaller than Bordeaux so there is less to remember at first, and though bigger than other regions, it holds much more notorious wines than Alsace, Loire or the wines in the south of France. On the other hand, despite its small size, Burgundy is one of the most complex wine regions in France, for reasons I will go into below, so even though you can quickly memorize the names of the villages on the bottles of wine and place them on a map, it’s a region that lets you know you’ve got a lot to learn.
Burgundy, as a rule, has almost exclusively Pinot Noir grapes for red wines and Chardonnay grapes for white, so that at least takes one variable out of the equation when it comes to understanding what you’re tasting. Finally, vineyards in Burgundy have been delimited since Medieval times and the étiquette, the label, abides by very specific rules : name of the estate, the “Château”, name of the vineyard, the “climat”, name of the producer, vintage year, alcohol content and it should also state if it is, in declining rank of prestige, a Grand Cru, a Premier Cru or a Village, in which case there will be no mention of quality on the label. If you are very curious, you can Google the labels of Burgundy wines, there are so many websites out there explaining them.
The “Climats” are worthy of a longer explanation. A climat is a specific parcel of land, in real life delimited by stone walls and registered on a map of the region. These parcels were delimited in medieval times by monks who noticed that wine from one parcel did not taste the same as wine from adjoining parcels. The reason for this, modern science has now explained, is that the combination of soil, slope, micro-climate and altitude all combine to cause the grapes to grow differently. As a consequence, you could by a wine from one parcel and pay over two hundred euros for it, and a grapes that grew no more than a few hundred meters away might yield a wine that costs no more than forty euros. It’s the same as real estate: location, location, location.
Going to Burgundy for a wine tour is a great experience. I did it with friends and fidanzato in tow, so I know that it can also be very romantic. The police love to stop tourists in rental cars who have been tasting the local wines, so hire a driver if you can. For 200 Euros a day, a driver can take you everywhere, from the Châteaux to the smallest vineyards, and with enough people in a large van, it can be quite affordable. You will certainly appreciate the wine tasting better since you won’t have to worry about drinking and driving and where exactly your limit lies.
In my experience, it is better to start touring with a famous estate: we started at the Château de Chassagne-Montrachet. There is usually a wine tasting lesson with an experienced bilingual sommelier. This first lesson will give you the necessary foundation you need to read the labels, understand the aging process (young wines that are meant to be aged can taste quite harsh when they’re not ready to drink), basically all the basic information you need to feel comfortable when wine tasting for the rest of the wine tour. Not all French people are equally exposed to wines, even they need to learn the basics at some point, only a few very lucky ones do not need to take this first lesson.
Once you have had this first wine tasting experience, go and explore the different estates and châteaux, but you may want to plan which order to do it in in advance, as there is a lot of choice. Usually, the driver (if left to his own devices) might follow a linear path. Unfortunately, the big city, Beaune, is right in the middle of the 5 wine producing regions of Burgundy. To my knowledge there is not a correct way of tackling it. Maybe you should explore the estate of a wine you have already had. You could also go to a wine shop somewhere else before you visit and try to find out which wines taste the best to you, so that you have an area you prefer to visit.
My personal itinerary : Fixin, Gevrey-Chambertin, Morey-Saint-Denis, Chambolle Musigny, Vosne Romanée, Mercurey, Chanzy.
What this means :
Fixin : A bit special, not for everybody, but some really amazing wines if you can find anyone open when you visit.
Gevrey-Chambertin : Something for everyone in this area, very famous, one of the references for the Burgundy area. You will find bottles at well over a hundred euros, and a few more approachable prices in the 30-euro range. Of course the “Village” quality will usually be lower, but you can have some unhappy surprises in this category unless you have received some decent advice.
Morey-Saint-Denis : A prestigious region, with mostly red wine production (96%), although I have a weak spot for the whites here, and not just because they’re as rare as diamonds.
Chambolle Musigny : Very feminine wines from this area, light and easy to drink, which is rare in the Burgundy region whose wines are often complex, full-bodied and designed to be aged. Wikipedia interprets wines from this region as “floral”, which I suppose is accurate..
Vosne Romanée : One of my favorites, but that’s normal since this is one of the most prestigious names in wine in the world, even if it is slightly overshadowed by its neighbour, Romanée-Conti. Expensive but very very good, if you have the patience to wait for them to age.
Mercurey : One of my fidanzato’s favorites, at least when he gets to choose among the more expensive varieties. Mercurey’s are powerful and strong and the taste is notably different from neighboring areas. A good example of how the taste of the grapes from one village can be completely different from that of its neighbors.
Chanzy : We stopped here at the recommendation of our driver, and bought a couple of bottles of white wine to drink at home when we got back. The wine was very good given the extremely affordable price tag, but nothing to compare to the depths and quality of the reds we had tasted elsewhere during the day.
If you intend to buy wines while you are there, you should know that there are no minimum amounts. Just because you go to the château doesn’t mean that you have to buy an entire case. In many cases the tastings are also free, but some of them – especially the most famous wines and the smallest producers (who can’t afford to give it away for free) – will require a participation of between 5 and 15 euros for the tasting.
If you choose to buy wines, you will find better prices here than almost anywhere else, with only a few exceptions. This is for two reasons. The first is that they are not selling through a merchant who needs to make a margin. The second is that they are selling wines that are still quite young, and you may have to store them for between one and ten years before they are good to drink. The people you are buying from are obviously experts in the matter and will advise you well.
We have developed a relationship with a couple of producers from Burgundy since our trip there, and so we order form them every year, even though we haven’t been back to visit them. They remember us, and we feel as though we have a personal connection to the wines that we buy because we went to the place where they are born. It’s a nice personal touch that you get to feel every time you uncork a bottle.
Burgundy is a good place to go broke eating. We splurged twice, with very memorable results as a consequence, but it’s not something you should do every day. Aside from the effect on your wallet, I feel that something this special might get taken for granted if it wasn’t reserved for special occasions. My memorable restaurants : Le Jardin des Remparts and Le Relais in the Hôtel de La Poste. Burgundy offers a great choice of delicious restaurants for all price ranges but strangely, my two most memorable experiences were among the most expensive ones. I must be high maintenance! To be fair, these two restaurants are less expensive than Parisian restaurants – everything is relative.
I had a great time in Burgundy – it’s a feast not only for two of my favorite senses (taste and smell), but also for the mind, as there is more to drinking wine – especially the exceptional wines that are to be found here – than lifting a glass to your lips and worrying about the wine stain it leaves behind. I’ll write more on this subject, I hope to tackle Champagne and Bordeaux, but in truth I have barely scratched the surface – you could write a book (and several people already have) on each of the villages and its wines – and Bordeaux is a much bigger subject than Burgundy!
A subject for another post another time, but a recommendation I will leave for you here: When we are in Paris, we often go to a wine bar that is our personal favorite place for Burgundy wines in the city of lights. The place is called L’Ambassade de Bourgogne, and while you may find it small compared to the beautiful places we visited in Burgundy, I assure you that this is merely because all the space has been taken up by bottles of the best wine shipped from Burgundy to Paris. Philippe (the owner), has been a fount of knowledge for us when we were just discovering the region and its wines, and he’s forgotten more about wine than I will ever know. You can find the Ambassade at 6, rue de l’Odéon, Paris 6th. Tell him I sent you.
This post is also available in: Chinese (Simplified)