One thing that has been a common thread throughout our traveling narrative has been the fact that we love to eat and drink, but more specifically, we love to eat and drink items which are exclusive to the area we're in. Especially food and beverages we already had been enjoying for our entire lives. Being able to try an Icelandic liquor that isn't exported so you can't find it anywhere else in the world? Dope. Being able to eat belgian waffles IN BELGIUM? Life changing. So one of the areas we have had earmarked since we started planning this European leg of our trip has been wine country in France. We'd been hearing the names for years: Burgundy. Champagne. Boujelais. Cotes Du Rhone. And then we were there. We were in Champagne. We were on the coast of the Rhone. We were lucky enough to spend multiple days in Burgundy, and doubly lucky enough to have Authentica Wine Tours as our guides.
Authentica Wine Tours offer multiple tours of the Burgundy wine region, ranging from crazy expensive full-day private tours of Côtes Du Nuis and Côte de Beaune to extremely affordable half-day tours, all of which include the most important and exciting part of drinking wine, TASTINGS. OH HOW I LOVE TASTINGS. When we were invited to join them on their Charm Tour during our time driving through French country, we jumped at the chance. Unlike the decision to rent a stick shift instead of an automatic when I hadn't driven a manual transmission car in almost twenty years (SO MANY STALL OUTS), this was a great one. The difference between a good tour and a great tour is in the knowledge and the personality of the guide, and ours, Léonie, was absolutely fantastic. We went on the tour expecting to see some beautiful sites and drink some delicious wine, but we ended up with a lesson in what makes Burgundy and it's wines special and a newfound interest in the wine-growing process. Don't worry, we saw beautiful sites and drank delicious wines, too.
After being picked up near the Dijon train station just after lunch, we met our tour guide Leonie and the rest of our group, a very nice family from Portland who were touring wine country before heading to Monte Carlo for the Monaco Grand Prix, and ascended our brand new Mercedes tourbus, with comfortable seating for 6 in the back and 2 in the front. This limits the tours to small groups, which is nice as you get to ask as many questions as you want (which I definitely did), and really allows you to get to know both your guide and your fellow wine aficionados.
As we began our afternoon along the Route Du Grand Crus, Leonie gave us a brief overview of the the very interesting history of the Burgundy region, which was originally passed from King John II of France to his son Phillip the Bold instead of his successor on the French throne and the original "Burgundy" was a rival to the French throne as it stretched upwards from where it currently is considered. The modern day Burgundy is only what was considered the "Duchy of Burgundy" in the 18th Century, and was greatly threatened in the past century by the economic depression after World War II, which caused some vines and soil to deteriorate. These had to be returned to their former glory before they could truly produce great wine again; Leonie spent time really impressing into us that the key to the wonder that is Burgundy wine is in the soil (known locally as the terroir), which had been cultivated for almost 1500 years. I was under the impression that when you bought Burgundy wine, you were buying Burgundy wine (ADMISSION TIMES: I thought Burgundy was a type of wine, not a region which had multiple grapes and created multiple varietals). OH NO. Each plot of land is separated by wine maker, and each soil has different properties, creating different flavor profiles and different varietals. She also told us how the names of the towns on the route have changed since they were founded in medieval times to reflect their most famous wine plots, no longer Gevrey or Morey, but now Gevrey-Chambertin or Morey-St. Denis.
As we wound our way through the tiny villages which made up the Route Dus Grand Crus in Côtes Du Nois, Leonie continued to expound on the history of the Burgundy region, we discussed what we looked for in a wine, and we learned a fun tidbit about our tour guide. The more she talked, the less she paid attention to where she was going, and we ended up getting lost. But this is not getting lost in a beehive of interstates and frustration, this is accidentally driving into the middle of French villages and vineyards that you would never be able to find without your own personal car and tour guide, and learning real details about exactly what life is like in the Burgundy region of France, as she lives in one of the smaller villages on the Route. At one point, we even passed her daughter walking home from school! This was one of the cathedrals we never would have passed if Leonie had been a little bit better at navigating and talking at the same time.
Our first stop was in a vineyard plot called Clos Des Ruchottes, where we got to actually put our hands in the dirt and touch the vines (Were we supposed to touch the vines? I AM NOT SURE. Did I though? I WOULD RATHER NOT SAY THANK YOU) which were future grand cru wines. It was then that Leonie truly imparted some knowledge about the Burgundy region and the wine growing process; one of the things both myself and Renee really enjoyed about this tour was that it focused less on the “Lucille Ball stomping grapes” part of winemaking and the actual growing of the grapes.
One interesting thing we learned was the Pyramid of Burgundy Wine, which I had no idea existed, and truly impacted the way we purchased wine for the rest of our stay in Burgundy, and certainly will as we purchase Burgundy moving forward. There are four levels, all of which are based on the terroir the grapes are grown in:
- Regional Appellation: These are the “worst” of the Burgundy wines, and can consist of grapes gathered from vines all over the Burgundy region. For example, a Bourgogne Chardonnay could be culled from a multitude of different plots throughout that region. This consists of 50.6% of total production, and is the ¨house wine” of Bourgogne.
- Village Appellation: Now we’re moving on up. These are from plots in specific villages, and are going to be better simply because of the specificity of the area which the grapes are grown. You might see a Meursault village appellation. Anything above regional appellation status must be given by the Committee of Agriculture, but with Village Appellation level wine, you know a little bit more what you’re getting. There is such a small emphasis on brand names, because the plots of the wineries let you know exactly what type of quality is in the bottle. This produces 37.9% of total production.
- Premier Cru - Yeah baby. Now we’re into the good stuff which is given the Premier Cru status by plot; some winemakers will wait for decades to be recognized as Premier or Grand Cru. These only represent about ten percent of all bottles produced in Burgundy, and are absolutely delicious. You can still get these for a decent price, but you’re looking at about forty-fifty Euros a bottle.
- Grand Cru - HELL. YES. This label is only given to the best plots, and is sought after by wine drinkers all over the world, as only 1.4% of total production is designated Grand Cru. To put this in perspective, there are approximately 200 million bottles of Burgundy produced on a yearly basis (3% of all the bottles in France), and of those, under 300 thousand are given this distinction. This is the kind of wine you pay a pretty penny for and pretend it’s the best thing you’ve ever tasted even if you’re not a wine person and it just tastes like grapes. But trust me. It doesn’t taste like grapes. It tastes like wood and earth and tobacco and dark berries. It tastes like the best wine you’ve ever had. It tastes like you want to become a “Wine Person” just so you can justify spending three digits on a bottle of alcohol you’re going to consume in the next two hours.
We had one more stop before we headed to our tasting, which was to take a gander at the Romanee Conti vineyard plot, which produces only about 300 bottles a year, and has sold bottles for upwards of twenty thousand dollars. No, we did not get to taste this wine. No, we did not steal grapes to make our own attempt at wines. Leonie described the flavors as “the taste of faded roses and silk”. I do not know what that means, but it sounds VERY EXPENSIVE.
Once we left Millionaire’s Alley, we had another thirty minute drive to a spectacular castle overlooking vineyards where we were able to taste seven absolutely delicious wines from the villages we had just driven through, and we were truly able to taste the differences between the levels on the Burgundy Pyramid. The Grand Crus (which we were lucky to be able to taste) were better than the Premier Crus, The Premier Crus better than the Village Appellations, and so on. Actually, there’s only one more distinction, so I’ll say it. The Village Appellations were better than the Regional Appellations. And we’re done. Tasting wine with a true professional, especially one who has such a connection to the area (she’s lived on the Route Dus Grand Crus for over thirty years), is a true pleasure.
From here we were whisked to Beaune, which was a great example of small French village in wine country, if that small French village was incredibly touristy and kind of boring. I think that time would have been better spent seeing another vineyard, perhaps MORE TASTINGS????, or even stopping at Côtes Du Nois, which seemed like a much more authentic example of a French wine country village. We took our hours worth of time in the city to walk and check out the Moutarderie Faillot, which should really call themselves the Moutarderie FAILlot (because they fail at being fun to visit) and simply walk around the city center until it was time to head back.
I went into the tour anticipating getting drunk on wine and taking some sweet pics of #vineyardporn for Instagram, and ended up with more information about wine than I thought possible and a new appreciation for the Burgundy region of France. Having driven us around the Champagne region the day before; the spectre of driving drunk hung over every tasting, and we didn’t end up learning anything about Champagne, just that it tasted bubbly and better than the Andre we usually drink on New Years Eve. If you’re ever in Burgundy, or for that matter any wine country, you should absolutely take a tour, it is infinitely more fun and informative than driving yourself around. If you’re in Burgundy, you should check out Authentica Wine Tours, and hopefully you’ll have Leonie as your guide. Just don’t talk to her while she’s driving.