Why I Love France Part 3: Fruit of the Vine

Oh I know that it comes as a great surprise to my friends that another reason I love France is the wine. And, after this past trip, I can say that Burgundy DOES produce some of the finest wine on the planet. And I should know, because I tasted a LOT of it.  For research purposes only, mind you.

Now, I thought I knew all about French wine before this trip. Well, not all about them, but enough to get by.  I understood that in France, the wine is named for where the grapes are grown, not the type of grape, like here in the states (although the French are starting to use the name of the grape for the wines that they export, boo hoo). Anyway, before our trip we decided to brush up on our Burgundies, both by reading about them and by tasting them (bien sur, how else are you going to learn, my people?) So I understood that Burgundies, unlike Bordeaux wines, are named for the villages where the grapes are grown, not for the domaine or chateau. So, a Meusault is made from grapes from vineyards in Meursault, etc. OK, that’s easy. And I knew that Burgundy wines were made from just 2 kind of grapes, Chardonnay for the whites and Pinot Noir for the reds. But the rest of it never really gelled before seeing the vineyards. So here’s my amateur explanation for anyone who is interested (everyone else can skip this section :)):

When you see a Burgundy wine label that just says “Bourgogne”, or “Bourgogne Pinot Noir”, the wine is made from the grapes on the flat part of the land, say on the side of the highway. Literally, the grapes grow along the side of the road, and in people’s back yards! Not that the wine is bad and I’ve had some that are tasty – it’s just that the vineyards aren’t considered the best of the best of the region by, well, people who know about these things.  Maybe kind of like the supermarket brands?  Only better.  A step up from that are the Villages. These are your Volnays, and Meusaults, and Chassagne Montrachets and Puligny-Montrachets etc etc. These vineyards are on the other side of the tracks, so to speak – they have a better position in terms of sunlight and drainage, etc. A step up from the Villages are the Premier Crus. They not only have the name of the village on the label, but usually they also the name of the particular plot of land, or vineyard where the grapes are grown. (well, some Villages have that and Premier Crus that come from multiple vineyards don’t, but I am trying to keep things simple). So, a label that says Savigny-Les-Beaune, Premier Cru, Les Serpentierers,  tells you  that the grapes were grown in Savigny-Les-Beaune in what’s considered a Premier Cru vineyard, and that vineyard is named Les Serpentierers.

And then there are the Grand Crus. They come from the bestest of the best vineyards, planted on the south-facing slopes, where they get the best sun and have the best position for drainage, etc.  We toted back several Grand Crus from Aloxe Corton. I need to make sure I don’t pop that baby by mistake on a Monday night…

Now, back to the trip. This all seemed a bit confusing to me before I was actually there. You can get a map of the vineyards and go to see where all of the grapes are grown, and being there helped me to understand a bit better. But tasting the wine, and getting a little history lesson from someone who grows the grapes and makes the wine, that was priceless. So here, finally, is my tale:

You can go to tasting rooms in Beaune or to wine shops to taste, but the best experiences are out in the villages themselves. This is what we did one day in Volnay. We were stuffed from another of our delicious epoisses lunch (with wine) so we took a hike in the vineyards, then decided it was time to try some more wine!

This is how it works.

You walk up to what is obviously someone’s house, ring a bell, and if the proprietor decides to answer and decides to let you taste, you’re given a few wines to try.

Our first door was opened by a wizened and we think rather tipsy old man, who let us taste some of his Volnay Villages. They were only 10e a bottle and pretty good so we bought some for his trouble and moved on. Our second attempt proved to be a much more enjoyable experience. A man answered our ring and seemed a bit grumpy – it’s busy season here because they are in the process of barreling the wine so, even though he had a sign that said “ouvert”, we were lucky that he answered the door. He too appeared to have tasted some of his own wares at lunch and seemed not all that thrilled that we kept him from his nap, but he soon warmed up, especially since we were speaking French and were from the US (he loves CA), We spent almost an hour learning all about Burgundy wines from someone whose family has been making wine for centuries. At least four in his case, he said…

It was pretty amazing to hear about how much they depend on the weather to produce a good crop, and just how much can go wrong. As he said, if you make a wine that is made from a variety of grapes, you can adjust your blend if one of the grape varieties gets the blight, or whatever. But in Burgundy, you have one grape. And it’s amazing to me how different the wines taste given that it is the same grape grown in basically the same geographic region. Terroir, as he said, is king.

His wine was superb and we bought 4 bottles (he gave us an extra), and he took my card so he could send us an email invite to a wine dinner in the spring that he throws every few years, featuring 10, 20, 40-year-old wines from his cellar.  Awesome!!  What a score! A serendipitous day…

We were both looking forward to our next day: our 8 wine! lunch at Table de Comte Senard. We walked around Beaune to work up an appetite before heading to Aloxe Corton.  The wine lunch was recommended by someone on Chowhound and I’m glad I took the advice, as it was a wonderful experience. We had our own personal “guide” for our 3 ½ hour lunch extravaganza. Our guide took us on a tour of the Domaine’s vineyards and the cave, and then explained each of the 8 wines we tasted throughout our meal of jambon persielle, poulet avec une sauce epoisses et trois fromages.

We chose to have him deliver the news in French, which to me is the best way to hear all about French wine, n’est ce pas? It was a thoroughly enjoyable meal, with it’s own serendipitous moment as we learned that a woman at the next table was from Maryland and she turned out to be the sister of a family friend (who is half French and has the envious job of leading tours in France several times per year). We bought a case of wine and had it shipped to me at work…shhhh.

We also tasted wine in the Chateau de Meursault, and while it was pretty cool to walk around the Chateau and the massive cave, the experience was a let down after our previous experiences, plus it cost 12e each! (Even though we got a souvenir wine glass).

Nah, I prefer the doorbell route. You never know what’s going to happen when you step inside, like the second hour long lecture we received from the Domaine owned by our Beaune apartment landlord’s family in Pommard. They were super busy barreling the wine when we buzzed, but when they found out we were staying in the Beaune apartment of their relative, they took the time to give us an up-close lesson in wine making. We watched as they took the freshly pressed (With their FEET, people, I am not kidding! They really do it all the old-fashioned way) wine from the vat and put it into barrels (they did use hoses).

We then tasted the 2010 wines that they had just bottled (they age their wines for 2 years; most places we visited age in the barrels anywhere from 1-2 years), and saw the bottling equipment. Everyone was running around and we felt privileged to have seen the process. So of course we bough several bottles of their Pommard Premier Crus (Les Grands Epenots and Les Poutures, in case you were wondering :))

So, there you go. This is why we come back from France with our suitcases full. 2 cases, 8 bottles for this haul. Not bad!

Nest up: the Paris Chronicles (after a brief musical interlude in St Petersburg   umm FL)

4 thoughts on “Why I Love France Part 3: Fruit of the Vine

  1. Man…I surely wish I had followed you guys about! Sounds like a fabulous (and tasteful) time!!!! (and you learned so much!). I wonder if my supposed trip to Napa next fall will be half as fabulous! (love what you are wearing too…from what I can see). Cheers!

  2. Wow, you guys are brave. I’m not sure we would be able to go up to a door and just knock on it, not knowing what will happen once someone answers! But look what you got for your courage ~ wine, better wine and really good wine, lol. Thanks for the tour, maybe one day I’ll do the real thing (wanna come and do the knocking?)

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