It’s early summer and I’m cycling along a narrow country lane gazing across a patchwork of green corduroy vines dotted with stone crosses. In the distance, neat villages of honey-hued houses rest in the folds of the landscape.
Suddenly the head of a giant Clydesdale horse appears above a stone wall. Even more startling, the magnificent beast is pulling an ancient plough between the narrow rows of vines on some of the most expensive vineyard land on Earth.
The wines of Burgundy, or Bourgogne (pronounced Boor-gone), may have celebrity status around the world but traditions die hard in this beautiful region above the Saone River in eastern France. Its aorta is the 60km-long Route des Grands Crus, which is home to 32 of the world’s greatest producers of pinot noir and chardonnay.
UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE VINEYARD PLOTS
In 2015, UNESCO granted World Heritage status to no fewer than 1247 tiny vineyard plots along the Cotes d’Or between Dijon and Santenay. These are not just pretty pieces of land but instead refer to a Zen-like combination of unique soils, stones, sun, wind and weather in concert with people so carefully nurturing the vines they create some of the world’s greatest wines. Many plots have names that date back to the Middle Ages, such as “Romanee” referring to a nearby Roman road and “Montrachet”, or “bald mountain”, describing a treeless hill with poor soil.
BEAUNE: A LIVING BREATHING HEART
The medieval town of Beaune with its ramparts, Gothic gables, labyrinthine cellars and ceramic-roofed, half-timbered houses is the living breathing heart of Burgundy and the place where powerful negotiants, or wine merchants, have conducted their business for centuries.
At its centre is the exquisite Hospices de Beaune or Hotel Dieu, which was founded in the 15th century as a hospital for the poor and which still holds the world’s most famous annual charity wine auction. You can take a tour or just peek into the Hospice’s interior courtyards as you walk along Beaune’s ramparts, which offer a fascinating perspective on its medieval heritage. On Saturday mornings a terrific farmers’ market spreads from the covered market to the square in front of the Hotel Dieu.
Two wine merchants, in particular, are worth visiting. Bouchard Pere et Fils is located inside the ancient ivy-covered fortress castle of Beaune built by King Louis XI to keep an eye on the powerful Dukes of Bourgogne whose capital was in nearby Dijon. A guided visit and tasting includes an exploration of the remarkable cellars where a false wall successfully hid their treasures from the Germans during World War II. Here, you’ll discover more than 2000 bottles from the 19th century alone. Ask to taste their flagship wine: Beaune Premier Cru Greves Vigne de l’Enfant Jesus.
Joseph Drouhin has also opened a public cellar door, the highlight of which includes a tasting and tour of their cellars that extend more than a hectare under the town.
VINEYARDS ON THE HILLS OF GOLD
Burgundy’s beautiful undulating Cotes d’Or, or Hills of Gold, beg to be explored. Yet this region doesn’t tout itself to the world like the designer wineries of California’s Napa Valley or even the grand wine chateaus of Bordeaux. In contrast, it is a very secretive place steeped in monastic winemaking traditions, which can make it difficult for outsiders to access.
BURGUNDY WINE SCHOOL
Enter the delightful Cristina Otel, founder of the Burgundy Wine School. She not only offers a crash course in its precious wines but also takes you all over the Cotes d’Or so that you can see, touch and taste why it is the Holy Grail for wine lovers.
She puts everything into perspective at her delightful atelier in Beaune. Pointing to a large map of the Cotes d’Or she explains how, in the Middle Ages, monks started cultivating vines on land the nobles gave them as a sort of ticket to heaven. Of course, these plots had the poorest soils but, interestingly, the Cistercian monks at Clos de Vougeot figured out that the best wines came from the very land where the vines struggled the most to survive. And, voila, the concept of Burgundy’s revered “terroir” was born.
You can still visit Clos de Vougeot’s grand Renaissance chateau with its giant presses but, since the French Revolution, the surrounding vineyards have been cultivated by local peasant farmers. That is the key to Burgundy. Tiny vineyard plots are still owned by small landholders who, admittedly, are doing well for themselves given the demand for fine burgundies around the world.
We taste an array of superbly structured chardonnays and pinot noirs from appellations that nestle next to each other along these hallowed hillsides. We even compare expensive grand cru wines (which, Cristina explains, come from well-drained plots high on the slopes) with village wines from the flat land at the bottom.
SHOW AND TELL WITH A DIFFERENCE
That afternoon she drives us, and a few select bottles of chardonnay, around the Cotes de Beaune (the southern section of the Cotes d’Or) to taste wines right where they were created. In a vineyard plot in Meursault, for instance, we dig our hands into the soil to feel its fine white stones. Then, sitting on the vineyard wall, we taste a Meursault wine to savour its rich and viscous texture. Just a kilometre away in Puligny Montrachet, we check out another vineyard where the limestone rocks are big and chunky and the soil flecked with minerals. Tasting a wine from this terroir, we cannot believe how different it is – flinty and mineral-like with little of the unctuous quality of the Meursault.
Now we are no longer just tourists looking at Burgundy’s, admittedly very pretty, vineyards and villages. Over the next few days we bike, walk and drive around more famous Burgundian appellations whose names evoke the very essence of fine wine – Gevrey Chambertin, Vosne-Romanee, Pommard, Volnay – and each reveals its personality to us, like idiosyncratic children of a noble family.
More than anything, though, we begin to appreciate just how much that soil and rock under our feet shape the wines we have come so far to taste.
Hotel le Cep is a charming historic half-timbered property in the heart of Beaune. Next door is Michelin-starred Au Loiseau des Vignes restaurant which serves dozens of the finest Burgundies by the glass. See hotel-cep-beaune.com
Ma Cuisine is a classic French bistro with an exceptional wine list. Passage Sainte-Helene, Beaune. +33(0) 3-80-22-30-22. Aupres du Clocher offers a superb lunch at great value in Pommard. See aupresduclocher.com
Le Montrachet is a classic Michelin-starred restaurant and hotel in Puligny Montrachet.
Unless you are a serious wine buyer, you are unlikely to gain access to the famous Burgundian domaines. Fret not, most have already sold out of their wines anyway. There are superb lesser-well-known wines available from similar terroirs. Look out for barrels with bottles beside the road in villages, which means you are welcome for tastings. Also check out the syndicats des vignerons (regional winemakers associations) which sell their wines at cellar door prices. Two great syndicats are in Morey St Denis (for reds) and Chassagne Montrachet (for whites).
The author was a guest at Hotel le Cep and Au Loiseau des Vignes.