The reason for our visit to Burgundy was to explore the highly acclaimed villages of the regions to become familiar with the many French wine appellations. For a region that only produces two varietals, chardonnay and pinot noir, the selection is extensive and the flavor profiles of the many AOC’s are so different.
We had three days to take it all in and hopefully gain at least enough knowledge to navigate our way through a French wine list with some degree of expertise.
If you have an interest in learning more about wine, studying the classics, in my opinion, is very important. And, sorting through the complicated system of French vineyard ownership, negociants and wine labeling is quite challenging indeed.
We attended a couple of interesting tastings of good wines that were very similar to what you would see in Napa or any other American wine region—tasting rooms with 5 or 6 wines poured. Domaine D’Ardhuy was one such producer as was Henri de Villamont…interesting tours with a new world approach.
Our most memorable and most enlightening adventures were the barrel tastings at some very well known and respected producers in the region—Bruno Clair, Champy (this winery dates back to the 1700’s), Louis Jadot and Nicolas Rossignol. More on these visits to come.
In France, it’s a complicated system of land ownership. One vineyard can have multiple owners. That’s why you’ll find different ‘labels’ or brands of wines that all boast grapes from the same vineyard. Ever try to understand a French wine label?!
The winemakers we visited produce wine from some of Burgundy’s most prized vineyards – charismatic chardonnays from Corton-Charlemagne, Aloxe-Corton, and Montrachet as well as the lovely expressive pinot noirs from Volnay, Vosne-Romanné, and Pommard to name a few.
I must say after visiting this region, navigating the French wines on a menu or in a wine store is no longer a giant guessing games as to what’s in the bottle with the complicated label.
The pinots from Pommard where the soils have more limestone are more powerful in structure than say the velvety soft Volnays which grow in soils with more clay. To get geeky for a minute, knowing where the specifics vineyards are in terms of AOC and placement on the hill can make a huge difference in the taste and quality of the wines. Premier Crus and Grand Crus are usually better tasting wines, but some of the producers make some nice table wines as well.
Bruno guided us on a delightful exploration of barrel samples. Lucky for us, a wine importer from Santa Barbara was present so we were afforded a very extensive tasting of the finest barrels.
The caves in France are a far cry from anything you’ll find in the new world. These wine caves are centuries old in many cases. Thick, black molds and fungus cover the walls and are actually appreciated for their aid in temperature control and the natural yeasts and nuances they impart to the aging wines in the barrels. Burgundy boasts some new ‘clean’ cellars but they are the exception rather than the norm.
Bruno spoke no English but the conversation was still engaging and lively as our tiny group was all Americans who spoke French (mine is quite limited).
The tastings were fabulous – luscious fruity pinots from Clos St. Jacques, steely expressive juice from Pommard and the elegant, velvety wine of Volnay.
We even experienced a blind tasting of several wines. The ‘contestants’ in this competition were one of France’s most well known wine negociants, the importer from Santa Barbara I mentioned earlier and an American making wine in Burgundy. I was given the job of holding the cork which was labeled with the mysterious wine’s origin.
I didn’t dare participate in the ‘test’ as my knowledge would have been too limited to compete, not to mention I was way too intimidated to compete with such accomplished palates.
I must say, it was great fun to watch the experts make their predictions about each wine’s identity. And, to make all us wine ‘neophytes’ feel even better, the experts all had different opinions about what the mystery wines were. I don’t recall that any of them guessed correctly. J Proof that we all have different palates and different interpretations of taste, not to mention the challenge of remembering hundreds of wines by taste only.
Bruno Clare is definitely a producer whose wines I’ll look for in the states. What a fabulous experience!
Another memorable barrel tasting was at Louis Jadot, a label very familiar to Americans who enjoy French wine. The winery has a fascinating history (so many there do).
Jadot is one of the largest owners of vineyard property in Burgundy, so some of the most highly prized wines come with his label. Our tasting guide was magnificent in guiding us through the barrels in Jadot’s massive cellars. Comparing a grand cru Corton-Charlemagne Montrachet to a premier cru Puligny Montrachet is an experience I won’t soon forget.
Another tasting that left a lasting impression was with Nicolas Rossignol, the fourth generation in his family to make wines and one of the noted new generation of Burgundy winemakers. We gathered around a wine barrel in his cellar and spent a couple of hours tasting wines from the 2011 vintage—wines that came from many of the area’s prestigious ‘name-dropping’ vineyards.
The historic Champy winery, which is headquartered in the heart of Beaune, was also a fascinating visit. We tasted some lovely wines here (loved the whites) and enjoyed a tour of the historic facility. The building itself dates back to the 16th century. The centuries old attic houses some of the winery’s original wine making equipment including two gorgeous, giant copper pots that were used for the first fermentation of the grapes. If only walls could talk!
Some good advice we received is to know the regions you prefer and then buy the wine based on what you see on the back of the label. Look for respected negociants – the wine ‘brokers’ who only deal in quality wines. Some include Joseph Drouhin, Louis Jadot, Joseph Faively, Bouchard Père et Fils to name a few of the most well known.
Our trip concluded with a brief stay in Paris where I had one of the most memorable meals of my life…so far! More on that soon.