A trip to one of the world’s premiere winegrowing regions is as much a lesson in history and geology as it is in passion and flavour
The French call it Bourgogne, while the rest of the world knows this area — a string of pretty towns in eastern France nestled below tidy, pocket-sized verdant vineyards — as Burgundy.
The name sounds better in French, non? Complex and elegant, with a finish that resonates on the tongue, rather like the wines produced in this region whose winemaking tradition dates back to the 11th century.
It was a hot, hot day last July and I was bouncing along, heading north from the city of Beaune in a tiny car with my guide, oenologist Jean-Pierre Renard, through the Côte De Beaune and Côte de Nuits, two of the most-revered wine-growing regions in the world. These sub-regions comprise a thin strip just over 50 kilometres long, and Renard was providing an overview of the viticultural history of the whole area, which was part geological, part historical and part political.
As we passed through such storied Grand cru plots as Le Montrachet, Renard explained how Burgundy’s history reflects a thousand years of winegrowing experience, beginning with the monks at Cluny Abbey in the Maconnaise region in the south of Burgundy. When the French Revolution came along in 1789, church properties were divided up, resulting in today’s 4,600 wineries, most with tiny vineyards of five to 10 acres.
As if on cue, Renard slows to a stop alongside the famous Romanée-Conti vineyard — which produced its first vintage in 1232 and whose pinot noirs are among the scarcest and most expensive in the world — to watch a worker manually cultivate the soil with a plough pulled by a horse named Mickey. They do this to avoid compacting the soil with use of tractors. Watching the methodical rhythm of the great beast, whose breeding dictates he not shake his head and jostle the vines, is mesmerizing.
Burgundy’s rhythm is like that. Every experience is meant to be savoured, from the standard two-hour allotment for lunch to the unhurried tastings that take place in the cool, dark, enveloping humidity of the cellars, which are frequently conducted by third-, fourth- or even fifth-generation winemakers.
There’s little the people here don’t do with great finesse and, to that end, Renard takes me to a picnic spot overlooking the charming village of Pernand-Vergelesses, pops the trunk and produces five pinot noirs to taste. They’re all from the Côte de Nuits region, which is most famous for its reds, and all share the barnyard, mushroom, spicy, silky feel with hints of cassis that characterize pinot noir, but among them are subtle differences on the nose and the palate — expressions of the unique terroir that make these wines so revered.
As we tasted, he talked at length about terroir. It’s a word I heard more frequently than almost any other during my trip. It is the soul and the essence of Burgundy. Terroir comes from the French word terre, which means “land,” and it refers to the unique characteristics that the geography, geology and climate impart on the grapes specific to a region.
In Burgundy, there are 100 terroirs which have been defined and delineated, and form the basis for the different appellation categories, or AOCs.
Renard also talked about clos, climat, soil and sub-soil, and the mess in my head began to unravel — somewhat. The problem is that Burgundian history, geography, geology, politics and whatnot are maddeningly complex.
About the only thing that is blissfully straightforward are the grapes, of which there are only two principal players. White wine is chardonnay and red wine is pinot noir, and they are the ultimate expression of both — pure and unsullied, absent of any blending with other varieties.
With at least that much worked out, we headed back to Beaune and the Domaine Loïs Dufouleur. The Domaine produces, in particular, rich and subtle red Premier Crus, and owner Philippe Dufouleur guided me through a tasting in his cellar before I took to my suite in a centuries-old stone outbuilding that Dufouleur and his wife, Anne-Marie, have converted into a charming and luxurious bed and breakfast.
Food in Burgundy
Dinner that night was at Restaurant Le Cheval Noir, and would prove to be the first in an unbroken string of exquisitely prepared and plated multi-course meals. Burgundians are almost as obsessive about food as they are about wine, and they cling to tradition with the same energy. As such, you’ll find no gastronomic trends. As for the oft-repeated phrase, “the French eat well but they eat tiny portions,” it certainly wasn’t my experience.
The cuisine of Burgundy is rich, in part to complement the region’s full-bodied wines and, in part, because it is home to one of the world’s finest breeds of cattle, the Charollais, plus Bresse chickens and France’s biggest herds of goats, from whose milk chèvre is made.
Lunch and dinner typically begin with a gougère — a delightful cheese puff — followed by a whimsical amuse-bouche like gazpacho in a shot glass or a slice of pâté. Escargots are a mainstay entrée, cooked in Chablis, stuffed with butter, garlic and parsley and finished in the oven. Oeufs en meurette — poached eggs in a red-wine reduction — ought not to be missed, nor should jambon persillé, in which chunky cured ham and parsley are suspended in aspic.
Perhaps the most classic mains of all are boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin. They are as they should be: robust, flavourful and meticulously prepared. Follow up with a selection of local cheeses, including the lusciously pungent cow’s milk cheese Époisses and the milder Cîteaux, made by the monks at Cîteaux Abbey.
Finally, though usually served before or in place of cheese, is dessert. Though not the norm, one afternoon at the restaurant at the Hôtel Le Montrachet I had the most decadent and delightful experience of being served not just dessert (strawberry gateau), but also pre-dessert (a macaron, a fruit jelly and a toffee confection) and post-dessert (a miniature fruit parfait). Whoever wrote about tiny portions must not have visited the same places I did. No meal in France is complete without wine paired with each course. Indeed, eating, drinking and touring the countryside are gloriously intertwined, and crumbly stone villages intermingle with meticulously preserved châteaux.
One of the most spectacular of these is the Château du Clos de Vougeot, built in 1551, which is the headquarters of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin. Inside the cavernous cuverie, or fermentation room, are four massive 13th-century grape presses and a spectacular open-beam ceiling. The vineyard was founded more than 900 years ago, when monks started experimenting with grapes because nothing else would grow in the poor, rocky soil. The vast, 124-acre vineyard is the largest single vineyard in Côte de Nuits with a Grand cru designation.
Similarly well preserved and exquisitely restored is Château De Pommard, the largest private vineyard in Burgundy. The château’s museum showcases a rare collection of ancient tools used by winegrowers through the ages. It also has on display an excellent visual explanation of the domain’s terroir, as well as an original mechanical self-basting rotisserie in front of a large fireplace, which is a marvel in medieval slow cookery.
Another gem, considered to be one of the finest examples of 15th century architecture, is the Hospices de Beaune, a hospital built for the poor and needy in 1443. A charity wine auction has been taking place there on the third Sunday in November since 1851. The wines are auctioned by the barrel and last year the record price was US$526,080.
Burgundian Farmers and Winemakers
As grand as these châteaux are, it was while exploring the crumbly villages, walking amongst the vines, feeling the dirt and hearing the farmers take pride in their wines (while giving all the credit to their terroir) that I felt most connected to the place. Typically, you can’t just drop in at the small wineries but, if you call ahead, and it’s not harvest time, you’ll be welcomed with friendly informality. These winemakers are generous with their time and expertise, and there are few places I’d rather spend an hour than in the cool humidity of a wine cellar, tasting wine with a barrel for a table, the way they’ve done it in Burgundy for 900 years.
It is often said all wine lovers come to Burgundy in the end, as their wine education reaches its pinnacle. Certainly, when it comes to what’s in the glass, Burgundy red has a subtle, silky, sensuous quality, with a finish that makes you long for more. And burgundy white is generous and delicious, citrusy and mineraly, with wonderfully fragrant notes.
But, more than that, Burgundy is about the soil and the men and women who work it. Spending time with them, learning about winemaking, walking amongst the vines and learning the history and geography leads to a heightened enjoyment of the wine, the food and the place, and the synergy they create.
The French President Charles de Gaulle once said: “I have a certain idea about the Burgundians, and it’s that they are among the most pleasant people in the world with whom to spend a few days.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of Avenue Calgary magazine.