Most people tend to associate French wine with the region of Bordeaux. The Bordeaux region is undoubtedly one of the top destinations for wine tourism attracting many aficionados from across the world. However, if you are willing to look further afield, there awaits you a charming & rustic wine region, which has for sometime been known to produce magical, knee weakening wines of the Pinot Noir grape that is bound to leave you spellbound for years to come- this is region is known to the world as Burgundy, but to the people of France as Bourgogne( pronounced-Boor-goon-yaay)
As influential wine writer Harry Waugh said “The First Duty of wine is to be Red…the second is to be a Burgundy”
Burgundy is the uncrowned champion, yielding some of the world’s most venerated wines
Part of the reason why this region receives far less visitors than its famous sister-Bordeaux, is simply because the winemaking here is still at its rustic & rural & complicated best; Burgundy makes less than a quarter of Bordeaux wines; the vineyards are fragmentally owned- meaning to say one winemaker can own several small parcels of land, some as small as 100 yards, in fact it is highly unlikely that any winemaker can own more than 2 ha of land in any one particular village. This alas, tends to make Burgundy vineyards the most expensive real estate in the world & incredibly confusing for many wine lovers across the globe, who tend to get daunted by its sheer (dis)organization. Many of the families living here are third generation winemakers, learning the techniques which have been handed down from their forefathers, their life revolves around making wines in a rather unpredictable climate (thanks to global warming) Finally, there is far too little information available online, making it difficult for a first time visitor or wine novice to plan a holiday here.
So when I had to accompany my husband to a conference in Spain, we decided to have a spend a little more time in France- explore this region & share with you some information that you could hopefully find helpful when planning a trip there
We rolled into Dijon on a cloudy afternoon from Paris. Dijon is the capital of Bourgogne and a city known for its rich cultural heritage, the resplendent Notre Dame cathedral & home to the world famous Dijon mustard & gingerbread. We used Dijon as the start point of exploring the wine region of Burgundy giving us easy access to the world famous vineyards in Cotes de Nuits region. We spent our entire evening walking through the cobblestoned streets of the town center marveling at the ancient buildings. It is sad that the stone Owl in the church of Notre Dame is said to bring good luck when touched upon & so we did the same. It was interesting to note, that the Dijon tourism board actually created an “Owl walk” where visitors, could follow the Owl stones on the street (similar to the Hollywood Walk of fame) taking you through interesting turns and narrow alleyways-each with a story to tell. Some noteworthy places to see include Les Halles-the historic fresh food market located minutes away from the Notre Dame Cathedral, stocking everything imaginable to French food-charcuteries, seafood, mustard, gingerbread, macaroons, fresh vegetables & fruits! Unfortunately, we reached the market too late(Note: open from 7am-1pm); We were recommended by the tourist office in Dijon to visit the Amora Mustard museum, but since we were pressed from time couldn’t get around to seeing it! However we did get to sample and buy Amora/ Maille mustard from one of the many little shops in the town center. Do be sure to try the Pain d’Epices or Spiced Gingerbread, which is delicious..
All that walking made us thirsty and we marched to the nearest bar to quench our thirst. Dijon is famous for its Kir– a delicious drink made with white wine grapes(Aligote) and Cassis( black currant) liquor served as an apertif. After a satisfying dinner in town where we tried Escargot Bourgogne(snails in a garlic butter parsley white wine sauce) washed down with a Kir royale and Red wine, we decided to call it an early night ahead of our mega wine tour the next morning
We signed up with Wine and Voyages to take us to visit the famous vineyards of Cotes de Nuit region. Unfortunately it was a rainy day..This was more than made up by our friendly & informative guide Christopher & the fact that we were the only two people on the group tour ensuring we hogged all his attention! While driving through the quaint villages of Cotes De Nuits, he carefully explained to us the basic of Burgundy wines-the appellations, the terroir( a word used very often here) Cotes De Nuits is better known for its aromatic( cherries & strawberries) medium to heavy bodied red wine made entirely out of a single varietal- Pinot noir grape. We were shown the legendary villages & vineyards of the Cote D’or region- Fixin, Gevrey Chambertain, Chambolle Musigny (where we stopped for our first wine tasting at Andre Ziltener), Vosnee-Romanee & Echezeaux . Our highlight was seeing the vineyards of Romanee Conti- whose wines are said to be amongst the most expensive in the world, drunk by the likes of billionaires & movie stars. Our final stop for tasting was at negociant- Moillard Grivot’s cellar room in the village of Nuits-Saint-Georges, this gave us the chance to learn about the wines coming from all the different villages of this region. With our head buzzing from all the great wine we made our way back to Dijon train station to take a train to the next stop in Beaune.
Our main reason for choosing to stay in Beaune was because it gave us a chance to explore the wine region of Cotes de Beaune. There are many things to do in Beaune (do note: by this I mean wine related pleasurable activities!) Famous negociants & producers such as Bouchard Pere Et Fils & Joseph Drouhin allow visitors to see their historic wine cellars some dating back to the 13th century, a cellar visit is usually followed up with a tasting of around 4-6 wines, giving one the chance to explore wines from the various regions of Burgundy. Beaune also houses Hotel Dieu, formerly a hospital, famous for its unique Burgundian-Flandish glazed tile roofing. The Musee du Vin, contains interesting information pertaining to the winemaking in Burgundy, the building in itself is beautiful. Beaune, as we discovered, is best explored by foot, its narrow streets aplomb with historical buildings, echoing with tales of wines & grapes. The smell of fermenting grapes permeated the air that afternoon constantly reminding us that we were in Burgundy’s wine capital! If that wasn’t enough there is even a wine book shop-Atheneaum dedicated to everything related to wine- from accessories, gadgets, maps, postcards, books, novels, glassware and wine selection
We signed up for a 3 hour wine tour with Vineatours. Our guide Brigitte promptly picked us from our hotel. We were driven through the villages & vineyards of Cote de Baune- Pommard, Volnay, Corton, Puligny Montrachet & Chassagne Montrachet( the latter two having the highest concentration of white Grand Cru vineyards) Our visit was followed up with a wine tasting at a winemaker’s cellar in Chassagne Montrachet. I was rather disappointed with the selection of wines used for the tasting-most were no more than 3 years old, hence extremely young, harsh & tannic
Not satisfied, we decided to visit Marche Aux Vins- a wine cellar which was formerly a church behind the Hospice de Beaune. The candle light, vaulted ceilings & endless array of Burgundian wines makes for an atmospheric tasting experience. For 10 Euro/head, you can get to sample over 15 different types of regional wines- most were average but we did come across a few noteworthy wines.The benefits of wine tours & tastings at cellars is that it gave us gave us a chance to sample wines from Grand & Premier Cru vineyards, which are usually unaffordable to the ordinary folk! It also reminded us how wine produced from the same region but two different vineyards 5km apart, tasted so different-bringing to light the importance of terroir or slight variations in the soil. We felt that Burgundy wines are terroir-fic: if you’re lucky to chance upon a bottle from a good winemaker, vineyard & drink it at the right age, it will leave you craving for more. The memory of the heady aroma of crushed strawberries, plum & horses will stay with you for years to come. In the hands of an average winemaker from the inferior vineyards, you have a somewhat lack luster & boring wine
Overall we found Burgundy a fascinating region which, given the chance, will willingly open its doors to you. Unfortunately we weren’t so lucky with the weather which at most times was rainy & borderline cloudy- we had to remind ourselves that September is usually the month between summer & autumn, hence such weather. On the plus side, we got to see the harvesting of grapes in the vineyards, which was fascinating. It was interesting to note that in some places we actually saw the grapes being sent to a garage-like/makeshift production unit/ home of the winemaker- going to say that wine making is still so rustic and plays such an important part in people’s lives here. We were lucky to stay in a B&B that served up the most heartwarming & delicious French food ( Restaurant T’ast au Vin)- Poached eggs in a Bourgogne/Red wine sauce, Homemade Foie Gras terrine with apricot jelly, Homemade profiteroles with Chantilly cream & Black currant parfait, all washed down with a fairly decent Bourgogne Village appellation Pinot Noir….
I shall leave you with a memorable quote: “Burgundy makes you think of silly things, Bordeaux makes you talk of them and Champagne makes you do them.”- Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
DECONSTRUCTING THE WINES OF BURGUNDY
Cote D’Or or golden slopes signify the narrow ribbon of Grand cru vineyards approximately 55km in length encompassing the Cotes De Nuits & Cotes de Beaune region of Burgundy.
There are only four grape varietals in Burgundy the most famous being Pinot noir found in the Grand & Premier Cru vineyards of Cotes de Nuits & Cotes De Beaune
Chardonnay is the white wine varietal. The vineyards in the villages of Chablis( North), Mersault & Macon( South) produce excellent steely Chardonnays
Aligote is a white varietal that is mainly used in the making of Kir & as we head further south into the Gamay is grown. Gamay goes into the making of the Beaujolais wine- a light red, with flavours of berries & cherries best drunk young. Producers are forbidden to mix different grape varieties, hence it is 100% single grape varietal
There are four appellations or gradings:
Appellation Bourgogne/ Regional– the lowest of the grades signifying that the wines are from the Burgundy region but no specific area in the region. The quality can vary drastically. More often than not, the grapes used in this wine were of below par quality. Having said that a good producer will ensure good quality
Appellation Village– the next level which implies that the wines are made from grapes harvested in one particular village in the Burgundy region
Appellation Premier /1er Cru & Appellation Grand Cru– the wines are made from grapes harvested from a specific vineyard, the name of the vineyard is clearly stated in the bottle
Quite often you will come across the word “Clos” in the label- the concept of the walled enclosures called ‘Clos’ come from the 13th century from the monks who spent most of their ‘spare’ time making wine
It is important to note French laws require that each vineyard be mapped out & awarded its quality status accordingly
HOW TO GET THERE
Burgundy is easily accessible by train from Paris’ Bercy station, the train ride usually lasts up to 1.5-2 hours. Frequency of trains is very good, almost every hour. The capital of Bourgogne is Dijon. Dijon is a great starting point for accessing the vineyards of Cotes-de-Nuits and Nuits-Saint-George
From Dijon I recommend that you head to Beaune to explore Cotes De Baune region and the many wine cellars of negociant’s and winemakers.