Smack in the middle of Burgundy, or Bourgogne as they say in France, you’ll find a small town once occupied by monks. They were skilled winemakers and also established a type of land categorization according to the quality of wine made on the land; it’s still used today. What would those monks think if they knew Beaune is now (hundreds of years later) home to some of the most expensive wines in the world?!?
Beaune is a small town, the quaint center of Burgundy’s wine industry. Other than wine, it’s most known for what many consider to be an architectural gem, the Hospices des Beaune (now Hôtel-Dieu), an early 1400’s flamboyant gothic style building with a rainbow of glazed tiles decorating it’s roof.
Our hotel was a five minute stroll to the epicenter of the city. Although Lynn would prefer a bicycle for exploring, “a pied” (by foot) worked just fine and got us to the Circuits du Vignobles, a very cool trail system just outside the town. A map with descriptions of the various walks is posted for convenience, trail signs too.
Our strategy is to secure a wine tour when first visiting an area. We’re finding the knowledge conveyed by a skilled guide invaluable. François from Chemins de Bourgogne accompanied us our first afternoon, targeting the Côte de Nuits north of Beaune. While I could go into grave detail about the soil, vineyard aspect and more, I’m heading straight for the grapes: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Neither of us knew how to identify a Chardonnay leaf from a Pinot. Check this out- the first secondary vein on a Chard leaf travels along the edge of the leave just off the stem. (Secondary veins are the ones that come off the primary vein, which runs the central length of the leaf.) On a Pinot leaf, it’s inward and readily identifiable, not on the edge. Also, the circular space surrounding the stem is narrower on a Pinot leaf versus Chard.
From our start in Beaune, François drove us through vineyards, pointing out key appellations throughout the valley. We obtained a grasp of the overall picture, the villages dotting the landscape, and premier and grand cru vineyards scattered about. Note to self- tape record the speaker next time!
Burgundy is an area with extremely fractured vineyard ownership. As a result, there are huge wine style and quality differences within a single vineyard. We can thank the French laws of succession for this; they established ‘forced heirship’. Assets could not be passed to your spouse. The bulk of a deceased person’s estate had to go to the children thus the vineyard was either given to the only child or split up between the kids. Some vineyards have up to 80 different owners, some of the owners have just one row of vines. Crazy, loco, très bizarre.
Getting Into the Weeds
One village that stands out is Aloxe Corton (pronounced ah-loss core-tahn). Although it’s in the southern most end of the Côte de Nuits, we passed and discussed it in detail with François, and were lucky to taste one.
The “Corton” hill sits behind the town; it’s western slope is home to the only Grand Cru red wines in the Côte de Beaune. It’s a large area (90 hectares) with many “climat” owners producing many different styles and qualities of wine. Climat is defined by the Burgundy Wine Board as “…land with precisely defined limits benefiting from specific geological and climatic conditions”. Sometimes a climat is referred to as a plot.
Each climat owner on the Corton hill is permitted to use “Corton” in their name on the wine label. There are about 24 climats but just over a handful deserve the name (so I’m told). That’s where the “many owners producing many different wine styles and qualities” comes into the picture. Not all Grand Cru are necessarily worthy of being called a Grand Cru.
For example, you can have one person producing a top-notch, fabulous Grand Cru with his/her part of the climat, while the person owning the next few vineyard rows is a slacker producing a much lower quality wine. Yet the slacker has access to the Corton Grand Cru name. The Burgundy appellation system and how it works is all very complicated and confusing. I continually read and re-read to make sense of it. Oh, by the way, did I tell you Aloxe-Corton is also an appellation? (See notes below for more information about Burgundy 😉
Back to François and our tour- A special touch was pulling over on a dirt road that only a 4X4 can access, opening the back of his Landrover and introducing Ratafia. A new drink for us, it’s a mixture of marc brandy and unfermented grape juice. François made a point to note that marc brandy is not blended with wine but freshly pressed grape juice, because Burgundians like their wine too much to blend it with anything!
Generally when making Ratafia the marc is about 70% alcohol. When blended with the grape juice it ends up being 17 or 18%. The one we tasted was a refreshing 13.5%, an exception and the choice of the particular producer. If we could readily find lower alcohol Ratafia like this, it’d certainly be a staple in our house.
After consuming a spirited discussion about this beverage, we headed to Domaine Armelle et Bernard Rion, making wine in the town of Vosne Romaneé since 1896. All their wines are from plots in the Côte de Nuits just north of Beaune.
All wines were quality with individual characters. Noting the Chambolle Musigny Les Echezeaux 2013, it’s aromas of red plum, lilac, dried twigs, mushrooms and a hint of leather- a favorite of ours. Then the Vosne Romaneé Cuveé Dame Juliette 2013 offering the feminine side of Pinot Noir, a blend of three plots of old vines from the same area. And a lovely Meursault from a vineyard Alice acquired in 2010 (no picture unfortunately).
Five wines and multiple tastes of truffle infused pate de porc later, need I say more?! The family took up truffle hunting in 1988 complete with the Lagotto Romagnol breed of dog (they have a few). Production includes “Truffe de Bourgogne” preserved in Cognac, Truffle Pate, and vacu-sealed truffles.
If looking for a smaller winery with very good wines and where intimate exploration (in English) can be had, Domaine Rion is a stellar choice.
More About Burgundy and Wine
Burgundy generally has a northern continental climate with very cold to cool winters, and warm to hot summers. Summer rains, thunderstorms, and hail are frequent. There are five wine growing regions in Burgundy from North to South:
- Furthest north, famous for it’s Kemmeridgian limestone soil (tiny fossilized marine shells formed during the Kemmeridgian period when Chablis was under a shallow ocean)
- Only white wine made from the Chardonnay grape
- Wines range from austere, razor-sharp acidity with green plum fruit (basic Chablis) to riper citrus with slightly softer and creamy texture and greater concentration of mineral aromas and acidity (Premier and Grand Cru wines).
- Spring frosts are a climatic hazard for vineyards
- Composed of the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune.
- Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes.
- There are no Grand Crus but don’t let that stop you, excellent wines including the sparkler, Cremant de Bourgongne.
- Lower priced, good value, very drinkable wines.
- Chardonnay, Aligoté, and Pinot Noir grapes.
- Prominent Premier Cru wines include Givry, Mercury, and Rully.
- Generally warmer climate.
- 80% planted to Chardonnay, the remainder is Pinot Noir and a minuscule amount of Gamay.
- Good, reasonably priced wines.
- Chardonnays exhibit more stone fruits, citrus peel and dry herbs compared to the clean and acidic Chablis in the north.
- If you’ve had or heard of Pouilly-Fuissé, you’ve had a Chardonnay from the Mâconnaise!
- Gamay (primary), Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Aligote grapes.
- Majority of wine produced is red, ranging from fruity, zippy and floral to tannic and full-bodied.
- Situated between the Massif Central (west) and Alps (east) resulting in warmer summers.
- Granite, clay, and limestone soils in northern areas, whereas clay, and sandstone soils dominate southern areas.
- Home of Beaujolais Nouveau, released the third Thursday of every November.
- There are 10 Beaujolais Crus (Cru in Beaujolais refers to a whole wine producing area. Wines are generally fuller-bodied with aging capabilty. Regulations stipulate Crus cannot release a “Nouveau”.)
- Winemaking technique of semi-carbonic maceration is widely used. (Here is a nice discussion about the topic which explains the difference between semi-carbonic and carbonic maceration.)
What is a Grand Cru? A great wine, historically the best. Interesting to note in Bourgogne, Grand Cru status is given to the vineyard versus in Bordeaux, it’s given to the Chateau.
What is a climat? “…land with precisely defined limits benefiting from specific geological and climatic conditions”, whereas a lieu-dit is “a geographical place with boundries”, per the Burgundy Wine Board. I’m not sure what the difference is, semantics I guess. Both can also be referred to as plots.
Beaune Travel Tips:
Hôtel de la Cloche – Reasonably priced hotel, good location for exploring Beaune on foot.
Parc de la Bouzaise – 10 to 15 minute walk from the town center. Stroll through the park and enjoy the plethora of trees and vegetation on your way to walk or hike through vineyards. Kid friendly too with a petting zoo and small lake with canoe rentals.