Although experienced with the wines and wine country of Napa, Oregon, Italy, and others, the thought of approaching France’s Burgundy region still made me nervous. Without question, this is the home of some of the world’s most enchanting wines. Montrachet, Chambertin, Romanee, and Mersault draw a lot of attention and for good reason. But there are also the critics who call it overpriced, overoaked and overrated. How to sort it out?
One bite at a time. I took out a big one last month with a single day in Cote de Beaune. This is the southern part of Burgundy’s Cote d’Or. Cote de Nuit is the pricier Northern part and I’m saving that for my now-informed next visit.
When you plan your next trip to Paris, leave out a day to take the two hour train ride to Beaune (including the change in Dijon). Unlike your flights to Napa or Oregon, it’s only 30 minutes from the train’s arrival to tasting some great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. First up is the Village of Pommard. From there, you have 4 more villages over an 8 mile stretch: Volnay, Mersault, Puligny-Montrachet, and Chassagne-Montrachet.
Between towns, the density of vines is amazing – you will see the hills rise from across the fields and all are covered with rows of grapes. Signs point the way your way to the next tiny village center where you find a tasting room offering most of what comes from the local vineyards. They are easily found, even if you don’t speak French or read maps.
And when you get there, they speak English, are friendly and put their best foot forward with pours from their most reliable vineyards and makers. They are also happy to answer your questions and provide suggestions on wine, food or other local interests.
It is good to note what you are offered as many quality makers are represented in many of the villages in Burgundy and you will likely see some of the same names later on your trip. Examples include Henri Boillot and Louis Jadot, a mega maker. You will also get acquainted with key vineyards; such as Folatieres in Puligny-Montrachet and Caillerets in Volnay. This is useful when you see how many makers can get access to the grapes from a single vineyard.
The towns also have several makers who invite in the masses with their “Degustation gratuite” (free tasting) signs. You may not have tasted their wines but your new knowledge of the key vineyards will come into use when you visit the makers as they may well have a bargain from a top site. There is no guaranty that the smaller makers speak any English but a shared passion for their wines and common courtesy go a long ways toward a great visit. By keeping an open mind by sampling their range of wines you can find values that you would never expect to find in Cote d’Or.
A real nice thing is that by the time that you complete your last stop, in Chassagne-Montrachet, you are still only 20 minutes away from your hotel in Beaune. But the best thing, though, is the charm of Beaune. You will also find more tasting rooms, covering a wide range of Cote be Beaune wines. Many restaurants offer traditional Burgundy fare and hospitality without the Paris prices. Bistro Bourguignon is a great example with a friendly, English speaking staff and several local wines by the glass to allow matching reeds and whites with your food selections.
After dinner, a nighttime stroll around the ramparts of this old walled town will have you hooked on Beaune as a future destination. If your trip finds you waking to a Wednesday or Saturday morning, there is a bonus with Beaune’s market day. Local farmers bring their produce, cheeses and other specialties. Take your pick of these and pick up a loaf of French bread for a great light lunch for the train ride back to Paris.
If you want more than one day to get your feet wet here, consider renting a bike for a ride through the villages. The roads are pretty flat and the hills are just vine-covered views in the distance. The tasting rooms can deliver your purchases to your hotel as another convenience. Or think about driving through Cote de Nuit to Dijon. This is a second day of tasting and takes you to bigger town. That means more planning but a fast trip to Paris on the TGV will then be available.