[Written for wine.com]
Do you have that one in Burgundy?
By Elizabeth Sagehorn & Don Lipper
Can’t decide whether to visit Burgundy or Bordeaux? The British author Roald (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) Dahl once described the sensory pleasure of drinking his favorite Burgundian vintage as “having an orgasm in one’s mouth and nose at the same time.” Pretty heady stuff!
Burgundy’s Cote d’Or (the section of highway 74 that runs past most of the preeminent vineyards in Burgundy) is compact and easy to drive down in about an hour. Visitors who actually stop and smell the vineyards will be pleasantly surprised not only by the extraordinary vintages available, but also by the deep-rooted history (vineyards have dotted the valley since Julius Caesar’s day), wide variety of local food, and wine-tasting opportunities.
While the Burgundy wine region spreads as far northwest as Chablis and as far southeast as Bugey, the heart of the region is the Cote d’Or (“Slopes of Gold”) and the center of the heart is Beaune. This tiny circular town still boasts sections of its original Medieval wall and moat. If you’re trying to get away from it all, this tourist Mecca is not the place to stay. But it is an ideal place to stop for a day or two and get your bearings before you strike out on your own.
The Beaune tourist center is on the south side of town, just across from the famous Hotel-Dieu (a charitable hospital run by the Sisters of the Hospices of Beaune from 1443-1971 – check out their remarkable veils, real Flying Nun stuff). The women in the tourist office will briskly help you make arrangements or reservations. If you’d like to get a brief course on the history of winemaking in the area, visit the Musee du Vin de Bourgogne. Located in the center of town, this former palace of the dukes of Burgundy thoroughly covers the history of Burgundian winemaking. (Warning: only about 10% of the exhibits have labels in English.)
There are three distinctive ways to explore the wines of the area. The easiest is to walk through town and stop at any wine-tasting house. You can’t throw a rock without hitting one. (The French word for wine tasting is “Degustation”.) The trick is finding a house that is fun. Most claim to have cellars that are several hundred years old. This ceases to be exciting after you’ve viewed one or two. They’re chilly, black with mold, and dank. You walk through their little museum, sit down in a rather bland room, taste wine poured by an indifferent and ignorant host and depart, completely under-whelmed. These places are usually free.
For a few dollars’ consideration, you can boost your entertainment level considerably. The Couvent des Cordeliers gives you a souvenir tasting cup and a scorecard to track your impressions of each wine. They use their candlelit (clean) cellars as the tasting room, significantly upping the ambiance ante. Each wine is perched on top of a barrel with printed information. Spittoons are discreetly placed in the shadows against each wall, but if you really want to feel like a native you can spit into the pea gravel. It’s a lovely, cool way to spend half an hour out of the sun. Once you’re finished, you can visit the gift-shop and purchase your favorite wine or ask the friendly and informative English-speaking host questions about what you’ve just tasted.
If you want to get out into the sunshine, we recommend taking a wine Safari-Tour. These tours run once or twice a day and last a couple hours each (make reservations at least one day ahead at the Beaune tourism office). They run from 175-195F ($25-28) each.
Tour #2 took us through the Cote de Beaune, the south region of the Cote d’Or. Our intrepid guide Bruno (who also owns Safari-Tour) navigated the minivan down the narrow winding paths of the vineyards with breathless ease. We visited the ancient villages and distinguished vineyards that comprise some of the most famous names in the region: Pommard, Volnay, Meuseult, Puligny Montrachet, etc. He spoke excellent English and was an endless source of information. He tailored his talk around the questions we asked and was happy to stop at a moment’s notice to admire a breathtaking vista or oblige a photo op.
Our second tour, #3, was guided by the equally knowledgeable Alain. This time we headed to the north and learned about the vineyards and wineries of the Cote de Nuits. Again, he was extremely knowledgeable and thrilled to talk about anything you were interested in. Both tours ended with tastings at local wineries.
If you want to strike out on your own, you can visit some of the wineries yourself. The tourism office offers a complimentary directory of the vineyards in the region, complete with phone numbers and in some cases email addresses. Unlike the U.S., most wineries don’t have regular visiting hours. The men and women who own them are also the same folks you see working in the fields, so a pre-arranged appointment is necessary. This takes a little more homework and can be hazardous to the ego of non-French speakers. It may take several rounds of phone calls and faxes before you can nail down dates. Don’t underestimate the language barrier either. Unless your high school French is passable or you can arrange to be met by an English-speaker, you may want to shy from this idea.
However your chose to explore this region, we’re sure you’ll agree with Dahl, that Burgundy, like its wine, is a pleasure for the senses.