There is an old French proverb that says, “In water one sees one's own face; but in wine one beholds the heart of another.” Maybe that’s why so many fall in love with the stunning wines of Burgundy at first sip.
When you slowly inhale the deeply scented Pinot Noir and taste its restrained yet sensuous beauty, it is not just the juice of the grape you are savoring but the dedication of the winemaker. For months and years the vines will have been pruned and tended so sunshine, rain, time, soil, and nature could tell the story of the terroir. Unlike in America where it’s quite common to drink a glass of red wine by itself, this is a wine that’s not meant to be solitary. In France, food -- utterly corrupting, mouthwatering, scrumptious food -- is always wine’s happy companion. So begins a love affair that you won’t want to end.
Because Burgundy is a hedonist’s delight.
Photo courtesy Chablis Daniel-Etienne Defaix
It has the ability to capture the imagination and seduce you with its romantic scenery and history. It is quintessential France, or at the very least, the fairytale wine region so many envision when they think of France. Perfectly preserved medieval villages and castles and cathedrals sit on hilltops like stone diadems; fortified farms dot the countryside; white Charolais cattle stand amidst wild flowers whose rainbow of blooms weave in and out of emerald green fields like an embroidered tapestry; and enclosed vineyards slumber in silence behind smooth limestone walls.
Despite her considerable physical attributes, it’s the sensuous pleasures of the table that ultimately make you succumb to Burgundy’s charms. Maybe that’s what makes the people so open hearted and friendly. It’s certainly why it’s my favorite wine itinerary. Whether it’s a grande-mère cooking for her family in her fermette kitchen or Paul Bocuse in one of his culinary Meccas in Lyon, the cooks of Burgundy have, for centuries, created a way of living and eating that begs you to take time and indulge in a moment of pure satisfaction. The cuisine can be both opulent and rustic, but it’s always decadently delicious and unabashed in its use of luxuriously creamy butters and heady sauces slowly simmered with ruby and golden-hued wine.
If you want to taste and discover all that Burgundy has to offer, you must visit the incredible wineries for a gustation, or tasting, take a walk through the vineyards with the winemakers, bask in the beauty of the landscapes, and enjoy the regional specialties served in the small restaurants and farm kitchens.
The greatness of her wines has slowly evolved over more than 900 years and each row of vines is a testament to the centuries of cultivation, done first by dedicated monks, and later, by passionate winegrowers whose descendants still till the soil in search of perfection.
There is so much to love about this region’s wines the only drawback is there aren’t more of them. But, if you know which sub region or appéllation to look for, or which winemaker to choose, you can find phenomenal wine for a reasonable price.
Despite its use of single varietals to make its wine, the range of styles produced in Burgundy is extensive. In the far, cold reaches of the north is Chablis (a village and sub region), where the Chardonnays rarely see oak and range in style from a steely, mineral, dry white that is clean and pure tasting, to a silken, honey-infused elixir wine with a backbone of refined acidity.
However, it’s in the Côte d’Or where one finds exquisite Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs that some say express the terroir of these two varietals like no other place on earth. These are emotionally stirring wines whose elegance and complexity can be breathtaking.
The reds in the Côte d’Or are some of the most enigmatic and alluring wines in the world and when they are well made, they can be so sublime they defy description. The aromatic qualities of truly great Pinot Noirs from Burgundy are legendary and have been referred to as intellectual or “thinking man’s” (or woman’s) wines because they posses such elusive and nuanced flavors and aromas.
As the wine rests in the glass it goes through subtle changes. What you detected on the nose and palate one moment, transforms and soon reveals new aromas and layers of flavor previously hidden. The wine’s deliciously earthy flavors of cherry, plum, and currant are beguiling and seductive and hold your attention. But there is always more in the glass to discover. Pinot Noir from the Côtes de Nuits can be earthy, velvety, and reveal mineral qualities not found in the Pinot Noirs from the Côtes de Beaune. These are ripe, fragrant, full-bodied wines with power and structure which make them long-lived. Once you have tasted a truly great Pinot Noir you are cast under its spell and will spend the rest of your life trying to understand its depths.
The white Grands Crus are also in a class by themselves, and for some, it’s the apex of what the grape is capable of, anywhere. In Montrachet, the best years produce highly perfumed wines with a range of complex floral and fruit notes that range from acacia blossom and orchid to toasted almond, caramel, toasted spice, and deep rich lime, peach, and apple. The texture is creamy and full bodied with a lingering silkiness that caresses the palate.
Just below Beaune and the Mâconnais, is the Côte Chalonnaise, whose wines are unbeatable for their style, value, and drinkability, in both red and white. This is one sub region where it’s easy to learn which wines to taste, just look for wines from the villages, whose names, except for Bouzeron far to the north, end in the letter Y. There is Rully, Mercurey, Givry, and Montagny.
Further south are the wines of Beaujolais, a place so temperate at times its climate feels more Mediterranean than Continental. Here, the wines are food friendly, easy drinking, and despite (some would say in spite of) the light bodied reputation associated with the name, defiantly individual and capable of complexity and aging.
The best way to taste the range of Burgundy’s wines is to begin in Chablis, far to the north, and taste your way south until you get to the end of Beaujolais. While north, you should pay a visit to Château Daniel-Étienne Defaix. Your host, M. Defaix loves to take visitors into the vineyards and show them the latest round of plantings, or guide them to his wine cellar for a tasting of several vintages. His Grenouilles Grand Cru, especially the 2004, is as good as they come, but for the money and the quality of the wine, it’s his Premiers Crus that will make you a convert; they are some of the best in the region.
Before you make your way south to Dijon and Beaune, you must make two stops: one to the southwest before lunch for a cheese lover’s delight, followed by a visit to the southeast for a memorable day spent with the ghosts of great historical figures. The first stop? A charming village that lends its name to the cheese Brillat-Savarin once called "the king of all cheeses." We know it as the A.O.C. designated cheese, Époisses. When in Burgundy you should never miss a chance to visit the châteaux and Château d’Époisses is a splendid example of medieval architecture with a moat, park, and tended gardens. After touring the grounds you’ll be ready for lunch, but keep things simple. Have a yeoman’s bite to eat--buy a fresh, crusty baguette in the village, some fruit, and a round of Époisses cheese made by the fromagerie responsible for reviving it from obscurity in the 1950s, Fromagerie Berthaut. Do like the locals do and select either a Chardonnay or Pinot Noir to go with your smelly treasure (Chardonnay goes better with the younger, firmer version of the cheese and Pinot Noir from the Côtes de Beaune for the oozing, creamy, aged version you have to serve with a spoon) and find a quiet spot for a picnic. Once you spread a bit of the cheese onto the bread and take your first bite, you will be in heaven and finish the entire round.
Once back on the road, head southeast to the picturesque, medieval village of Vézelay with its Romanesque basilica dedicated to Sainte-Marie-Madeleine. The central nave of the basilica is arresting when you first see it. Your eyes are drawn upward by the bright shafts of sunlight that shine through the hundreds of windows. Lining the upper reaches of the walls, the light illuminates the interior and creates a soft gold glow. The quiet and majesty of the space is arresting and you can sense the history and humanity it has witnessed. It’s as if each stone, arch, and statue is whispering to you about the figures that have passed through the imposing wooden, iron-clad doors. It’s easy to imagine how it must have looked in 1146 when St. Bernard de Clairvaux gave his blessing to Eleanor of Aquitaine and King Louis Capet to launch the Second Crusade.
A walk along the winding cobbled streets of Vézelay is an entertaining way to spend a day. Afterward you can take a walk to Rue Saint Étienne and enjoy a superb meal at Restaurant Saint Étienne and experience a typical Burgundian meal in a cozy restaurant that’s picture postcard perfect.
Gilles and Catherine Lafontaine are the owners, he is chef while his wife makes guests feel at home in their elegant dining room. In winter he prepares rich dishes like foie gras marinated in Porto and more hearty fare such as traditional roasted beef with an aromatic mustard crust. His beef is locally sourced, organic Charolais and his fish are wild caught, either fresh from local lakes, or from the sea. Spring and summer, he uses herbs and vegetables picked straight from his kitchen garden for light dishes such as grilled tuna marinated in Absinthe and Provençale ratatouille.