Andrew Harper's wine concierge, Hal Oates, recently visited the Burgundy wine country. Below he explains how to navigate its wine-labeling tradition, how to make the most of your wine-tasting appointments and details his three-day experience so you can follow in his footsteps.
A familiar cliché uttered by fervent wine collectors is that “all roads lead to Burgundy.” This is both a reference to the region’s location at the heart of France and a judgment that its legendary wines are peerless. For centuries, Burgundy has been a place in which to experience the world’s most elevated wines and cuisine, and for present-day epicureans, its status remains unchallenged.
Cistercian monks laid the foundations for Burgundy’s cru classification system and created its largest wall-surrounded vineyard, the Clos de Vougeot, in 1336. This historic vineyard continues to thrive near the village of Vosne-Romanée, and today the most prized grand cru vineyards are still to be found nearby.
Even compared to many other famous wine regions, Burgundy offers great scenic grandeur. Cycling or driving along the officially named Route des Grands Crus, you are treated to a succession of glorious, sweeping views. And navigating legendary villages such as Vosne-Romanée, Nuits-Saint-Georges, Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet is somewhat like appraising the wine list of a three-star restaurant on a large scale.
The town of Beaune lies at the center of the most prestigious part of Burgundy, the Côte d’Or. Most of the grand cru reds (Pinot Noir) come from villages in the Côte de Nuits to the north, while the most prized whites (Chardonnay) hail chiefly from villages in the Côte de Beaune surrounding the town as well as to the south.
While the most famous wineries of Bordeaux are referred to as “châteaux,” those from Burgundy are primarily called “domaines,” a designation similar to “estate” wines in California. Novices often bemoan Burgundy wine-labeling traditions, which are more complicated than the familiar protocols of American wineries. For example, front labels from the United States usually state the winery name and type of grape. Burgundy labels, however, normally display the village and specific vineyard more prominently than the actual winery. The type of grape is rarely mentioned since virtually any collector-level bottling is assumed to be either Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, and aficionados can distinguish the unique flavors and structures from different villages and vineyards.
Inheritance laws dating back to Napoleon have led to multiple owners for a single vineyard. The result is an array of producers sourcing grapes from the most famous of them, such as Le Montrachet or Echezeaux. More than 90 wineries release bottlings from the Clos de Vougeot vineyard alone, leading to immense potential for confusion. In addition, most domaines now offer numerous unique vineyard bottlings in order to build marketplace presence. To achieve a financially viable endeavor, an up-and-coming vigneron may craft as many as 50 unique bottlings, many of less than five barrels each.
At most revered Burgundy domaines, visitors may expect to taste 10 to 20 different wines, so I strongly recommend limiting the number of daily appointments to two. While devotees may wish to check off four or more wineries from their bucket list each day, such a pace will detract from the overall enjoyment and risks insulting the fastidious local winemakers. One surprising difference between tasting in Burgundy and elsewhere is that the normal order in Burgundy begins with red wines and concludes with whites. Also, private winery appointments normally focus on barrel tastings, as bottles from prior vintages are typically already promised to importers from around the world.
The timing of our recent trip was providential, as our tastings focused on the 2014 and 2015 vintages — both highly touted, with the latter rumored to be the best since the globally acclaimed 2005. Prominent flavors in Burgundy are typically less fruit-driven (especially compared to California wines) and feature more minerals, herbs such as lavender and adjuncts like oolong tea and truffles, which are particularly found in older vintages. Fruit flavors, such as pomegranate in the reds or citrus in the whites, begin to emerge after five to seven years in the bottle.
The settings for private tastings are often caves (cellars) below village houses that range in age from a few decades to more than four centuries old. A warning: Doorways leading to the most ancient caves can be less than five feet tall, something I learned the hard way.
Advance reservations for tastings are obligatory. In recent years, Burgundy has experienced burgeoning wine tourism, as well as soaring demand for prized bottlings from oenophiles worldwide. Since demand for the most coveted wines far outpaces the limited supply, tastings are frequently limited to international importers and wine critics. Indeed, grand cru bottlings have become so scarce that visitors may be asked to return any unfinished portion of the sample to the barrel!
In addition to private appointment options outlined below, Burgundy now has numerous less-prestigious wineries that welcome visitors without an appointment. This affords opportunities for travelers with only a casual interest in wine. Public tasting rooms and novice-level wine tours are also available in Beaune at large producers such as Joseph Drouhin and Louis Latour, but sampling rare premier cru and grand cru bottlings almost invariably requires advance booking and tasting fees.
From our base in Beaune we drove south toward the village of Meursault, making our first stop at the striking caves of Domaine de Montille, where we were hosted by Étienne de Montille himself. This domaine is one of the oldest in Burgundy, with origins that predate the French Revolution and a “modern” history that started with Étienne’s great-grandfather in 1863. Today it produces more than 30 unique wines, about half white and half red. We were thrilled by the overall quality and particularly impressed with the Chevalier-Montrachet and Vosne-Romanée, the latter of which was sourced from the Malconsorts vineyard adjacent to the fabled La Tâche vines.
For lunch we savored a picnic of artisanal bread and cheese — the latter from the famous fromager Alain Hess in Beaune — while taking in views over Le Montrachet vineyard, home of the world’s most highly prized and highly priced Chardonnay. I was astounded when a vigneron suddenly appeared with a horse and plough; later I learned that many of the most traditional local winemakers believe plowing with horses affords greater accuracy and less disruption to the hallowed terrain than do modern techniques.
Our afternoon appointment was with the gracious and soft-spoken Thibault Morey, proprietor of Domaine Morey-Coffinet in the heart of the quaint village of Chassagne-Montrachet. This stunning cellar dates back to the 16th century, and the wines have gained worldwide prominence for their tremendous quality, as well as for prices a fraction of those commanded by better-known domaines for bottlings from the exact same grand cru vineyards. Our barrel tasting provided a virtual tour throughout the Côte d’Or, enabling us to discern the nuances of the most renowned vineyards.
On our second day we headed to the Côte de Nuits, north of Beaune, to taste with the engaging Arnaud Mortet and his sister, Clémence, of Domaine Denis Mortet at their relatively modern winery and caves in the village of Gevrey-Chambertin. Exclusively focused on reds, this domaine is already coveted by collectors, and it recently received acclaim from the top French wine magazine, La Revue du Vin de France. Garnering ratings on par with the fabled Domaine Leroy and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Mortet has amassed a distinctive portfolio of wines in a relatively short period of time that feature grapes from the most prestigious premier cru and grand cru vineyards. We were mesmerized by his 2015 barrel samples, which Arnaud lauded as his “most stress-free vintage in a decade.” Our highest scores went to the ethereal Clos de Vougeot, Bonnes-Mares and Chambertin grand cru vineyard bottlings.
For lunch, we dashed over to Le Millésime, a stylish brasserie in the hamlet of Chambolle-Musigny. The name means “The Vintage” in French, and the wine list offers selections guaranteed to make collectors swoon. Veal with seasonal girolle mushrooms paired stupendously with a Corton-Charlemagne from Domaine Morey-Coffinet.
In the afternoon we visited Domaine Charles Audoin in the village of Marsannay-la-Côte. Proprietor Cyril Audoin is a fifth-generation winemaker and a jovial young man with a lovely American wife, Brittany. This domaine has produced wine continuously since 1850, and the original cellar is still used for barrel-aging. Refreshingly, most Audoin bottlings are priced under $100.
On our final day we enjoyed a more leisurely pace, focusing on two of the region’s emerging winemakers, both based in Beaune. We began with an array of superb wines crafted by David Croix for the négociant label Camille Giroud. Founded in 1865, Maison Camille Giroud is owned by a consortium of American wine lovers and managed by the proprietors of Colgin Cellars in Napa Valley. We met in the company tasting salon with Monsieur Croix, who has been at the helm for more than a decade. The wines are graceful interpretations of famed premier cru vineyards such as Les Porusots in Meursault and Les Vergers in Chassagne-Montrachet. Camille Giroud offers more than 30 annual bottlings, with the majority focused on Pinot Noir.
Next, we enjoyed a hearty lunch at nearby restaurant Ma Cuisine, which features delectable fare as well as one of the foremost wine lists in Burgundy. This is, understandably, a combination that attracts a veritable who’s who of high-profile winemakers and owners. Our scallops and grilled duck were both sumptuous when paired with Camille Giroud’s Corton-Charlemagne.
Our second tasting was hosted by the affable Ben Leroux in his private caves, conveniently located within walking distance of Ma Cuisine. Leroux crafts more than 50 distinct bottlings annually, including renowned grand crus from Bâtard-Montrachet, Clos de Vougeot and Bonnes-Marres. The number of bottlings might imply a large-scale operation, but the total output of Leroux is still far less than renowned boutique wineries in California. This means that the most-coveted wines are exported only in minute quantities, further increasing their desirability among collectors. Ben Leroux ranks high on any list of up-and-coming winemakers, given his talent for producing vibrant wines that deliver both finesse and sumptuous richness of fruit.
A blissful week of tasting in the Côte d’Or left me with a renewed understanding of why many of the world’s most devoted wine collectors eventually gravitate to Burgundy’s fabled grands crus. All roads do indeed lead to Burgundy!
Andrew Harper wine concierge Hal Oates, the founder of Porthos, can source rare Burgundy from the aforementioned wineries for your private cellar and can also plan a customized tour of Burgundy and private VIP tastings at collector-level wineries. Contact Hal and the Porthos team at [email protected].