A Few Burgundy Basics
by Marla Norman, TCO Publisher
It’s quite chilly deep in the cellars of Maison Joseph Drouhin and the temperature continues to drop as we move through old tunnels. The cellars sprawl for miles underneath the city of Beaune, so we’re sticking close to our guide — without him we’d never find our way out of this labyrinth.
Originally excavated by the Romans, over 2,000 years ago, these sprawling caves were owned at various times by both the Dukes of Burgundy and the Kings of France. And as we marvel at the thousands of bottles and dusty barrels, the light suddenly goes out. For a few heart pounding seconds, in the dark, frigid tunnel, we can imagine the daunting task of those early winemakers.
BURGUNDY IN THE BEGINNING
Winemaking in Burgundy is an ancient art, dating back to at least 300 BC. Romans who conquered France, or Gaul, in 51 BC found that the Celtic settlers living in Burgundy were quite adept at winemaking.
Catholic monks arrived in 200 AD and began making wines for use in church services. By 910, Benedictine monks had founded the Abbey of Cluny, which ultimately became one of the most powerful and influential organizations in Europe.
Less politically oriented, the Cistercians monks established a separate order from the Benedictines and built an abbey they called Clos de Vougeot (pictured in the opening photograph). Devoted to manual labor and farming, the Cistercians planted vineyards and cultivated their fields. In the process, they realized that different sites within a vineyard produced different types of wines — thus creating the concept of “terroir.” The monks also invented a system to control temperatures during fermentation. Astonishing to think that many of these ancient techniques are still in use today.
However, it wasn’t until the early 1700’s that Burgundy wines were recognized. The physician for Louis XIV prescribed a glass of wine for his king each evening — and not just any wine, only that from the village of Nuits-Saint-Georges. The king faithfully followed his doctor’s orders, and his evening wine ritual was quickly copied by French and European aristocrats. Burgundy wines had finally arrived!
Today, of course, Burgundy famously markets the world’s priciest wine. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti holds the world record for the most expensive wine sold at auction. In the fall of 2018, two bottles of the 1945 vintage went for $558,000. The average price for Domaine Leroy Chambertin Grand Cru or Christophe Roumier Les Amoureuses will be well over $1,000 and can go as high as $21,000 depending on the vintage. There are numerous other examples. Suffice it to say that, although Burgundy accounts for only 3% of all French wine production and a mere 0.4% of global production (statistics from guildsomm.com) wine from this region generates huge interest and is always highly sought after.
WHERE TO TASTE
As you’d imagine, given the demand, cost and availability, tasting venues in Burgundy are almost non-existent. Even wine critics and importers have difficulty scheduling visits. However, after numerous trips to the region, we have come up with a few treasured spots for tasting that we can happily share.
Maison Joseph Drouhin
1 Cour du Parlement
Situated in the heart of Beaune, ostensibly Burgundy’s capital, Maison Joseph Drouhin is an impressive facility. An expansive wine shop offers a broad selection of Drouhin products and tastings.
The Drouhin family have managed their estate and wine production for the past 130 years. They are the largest producers in the region, with some 78 hectares (193 acres) across 90 appellations. Drouhin is also one of the major négociants in Burgundy, producing wine made from grapes purchased in various parts of the region.
Tours of the 2,000-plus year old cellar, with its miles of tunnels are available on weekdays and Saturdays. See the Maison Joseph Drouhin web page for more information.
Maison Louis Jadot
62 Route de Savigny
Also in Beaune is another large, highly regarded producer — Louis Jadot. Founded in 1859, the first Jadot acquisition was Clos des Ursules in Beaune. Since then, the Domaine has expanded its operations to control 270 hectares (670 acres) in Burgundy including Beaujolais Crus.
Tasting at the property winery is offered every weekday afternoon from 3:00-7:00 p.m. Visits to the cellars can also be arranged on request at email@example.com.
Domaine Rion Armelle et Bernard
8 Route Nationale
Founded in 1896, Domaine Rion is located in the legendary village of Vosne-Romanée. In addition to the Vosne-Romanée wines, the Domaine offers wines from Clos de Vougeot, Nuits Saint-Georges, Chambolle-Musigny and Meursault with six Premier Cru properties among them.
The Rion Cellar is open for tasting from Monday to Saturday by appointment. A number of tours are available, with a broad range of prices and experiences. A popular option is a visit to the Domaine truffle plantation. Cooking classes with truffles can be arranged as well. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Château de Meursault
Rue du Moulin Foulot
Sitting regally off the main highway to Meursault, just 15 minutes outside Beaune, Château de Meursault is one of the more impressive sites in Burgundy. Its cellars, dating back to the 12th century, contain some 800,000 bottles and more than 2,000 barrels. The estate consists of 65 hectares (160 acres) on the Côte de Beaune, with prestigious AOCs such as Aloxe-Corton, Savigny-les-Beaune, Beaune, Pommard, Volnay, Puligny-Montrachet and, of course, Meursault.
Individual tastings are offered at various times throughout the week. Cellar tours with visits to the Clos du Château followed by tastings can be scheduled as well. See the Château de Meursault website to make arrangements.
Maison Olivier Leflaive
10 Place du Monument
The grandson of Burgundy legend Joseph Leflaive, Olivier was co-manager of Domaine Leflaive along with his uncle Vincent and cousin Anne-Claude. In 1984, Olivier created his own company to produce Meursault and Chassagne-Montrachet. Patrick, his brother joined in as well, so they called themselves Olivier Leflaive Frères. The brothers also acquired fantastic vineyards: Chevalier-Montrachet Grand Cru , Bâtard-Montrachet Grand Cru, Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Pucelles , Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Folatières , Meursault 1er Cru Blagny Sous le Dos d’Âne.
The Domaine offers a 2 1/2 hour tour daily, except Wednesday and Sunday — frequently conducted by either Olivier or Patrick themselves. Arrangements can be made online at the Domaine web site.
The property also maintains an outstanding restaurant with a tasting menu. Choices of six, 8 and ten wines are available. Best of all, a staff sommelier serves the wine courses and provides background for each the selections. We’ve found the restaurant to be an excellent experience and good value.
Château de Pommard
15 Rue Marey Monge
The largest monopoly held by a single owner in Bourgogne today, Château de Pommard has endured a long, complicated history since its origin in 1726. More recently, the property has prospered under the management of Maurice Giraud who employed the Compagnons du Tour de France (craftsmen and artisans) to renovate the entire estate. Giraud also introduced the “Grand Vin” hand-blown “dumpy” bottle, based on the cast of an original mid-1700s Pommard wine bottle. In 2014, Michael Baum bought the estate becoming the first American to own a wine producing château in Burgundy.
Château de Pommard offers three tasting experiences, all of which include tours of either the Pommard vineyards or visits to the Clos Marey-Monge. See the Château website for more information.
53 Route de Beaune
For an unforgettable experience in both extraordinary Gevrey-Chambertin and authentic Burgundian cuisine, book a lunch at Maison Trapet. The property, which includes a guest house, sits up above the village of Gevrey-Chambertin. It’s small and tucked away, like many things in Burgundy — on our first visit we walked right by the gated entrance several times. Inside the restaurant are a few tables and, on cold days, a roaring fire. The rustic setting is a perfect accompaniment for the hearty, traditional meal and exceptional wines.
The lunch menu includes traditional starters: Gougère (instantly-addictive cheese pastry) and Dijon Jambon Persillé (ham in parsleyed aspic). The main course is a slow-cooked Beef Bourguignon served in heavy cast iron pots — so savory and tender it almost melts on your fork. A selection of superb local cheeses tops off the meal.
Each course comes with wine selections, usually beginning with Domaine Trapet Marsannay Blanc and moving on to three Trapet Gevrey-Chambertin: a Village, Premier Cru and Grand Cru. The lunch pre-fixe price is €69, but by our estimate, the actual value of the meal with the costly and almost impossible-to-find Domaine Trapet wines is closer to €200. See the Domaine Trapet website for more information and bookings.
Château Clos de Vougeot
Rue de la Montagne
While the Château itself no longer produces wine, Clos de Vougeot remains THE iconic embodiment of centuries-worth of Burgundy’s history. The property, which dates from the 12th century, is open daily. For a minimal fee of €7.50, you can visit the cellar, which at one time held over 2,000 wine casks. You’ll also see the enormous 13th-century grape presses, marvels of medieval engineering.
Touch screen displays provide historical information along the tour walk. At the tour’s conclusion, a 20-minute film retraces the original foundation of the Château by the Cistercian monks and its development until the French Revolution when the property was confiscated by the French state.
These days, numerous producers own different sections and even a few rows of the vineyards. So, as you dine and visit wine stores throughout Burgundy, it’s especially interesting to sample different interpretations of the same terroir.
Appointments aren’t necessary to visit Château Clos de Vougeot but additional details and many photos of the famous property are available at the Château web site.
We often begin our tours here. The historical presence of the estate is undeniable and the property itself is breathtakingly beautiful. But more importantly, after all, is that it all started here!