WINE TASTING:THE TOUR BEGINS in wine school, where Sacha Renard gives a crash course in how to appreciate wine – in particular, Burgundy wine. He has his work cut out: our small group consists mainly of drinkers whose sophistication rises to little more than ordering Pinot Noir instead of “just red wine” in the pub – except for Stevie Bobes, our guide/ translator/chauffeur for the week, a laid-back but knowledgeable Californian who lives in Burgundy and has an MA in wine.
That itself will give you a clue as to how complex this wine business can be, with Burgundy wines being the most enigmatic of them all. But we are game, and understand a little more after five sybaritic days of sniffing, swirling, sipping, and spitting. And, of course, savouring wines with a succession of gourmet meals.
One of the first things we learn is that virtually all Burgundy reds come from the Pinot Noir grape, and all the whites from Chardonnay. And that French people are baffled by our habit of choosing wine by grape variety, since how the wine tastes will depend on a host of factors – what appellation it has, what domaine produced it, what vintage, how old the vines are, what climat (see below) it came from. And so on.
By the end, we can speak a little wine: “It’s very aggressive, but with hints of oak,” or, “I’m getting truffles . . . hmm, and, it’s very long in the mouth.”
But the only way to make sense of the difference between the thousands of wines produced in the region – there are 3,800 wine-growers in Burgundy, many making hundreds of different wines – is to “practise, practise, practise”, says Cecile of the Burgundy Wine Board (BIVB).
Well, okay. Practising makes for a very pleasant holiday. If you fancy yourself an epicure, a week or so’s break in Beaune, a walled town with a population of about 20,000 in the heart of the Burgundy wine region, is a pleasant way to train. You can take a car – or bike, or walk – to the Route des Vins to visit the picturesque red-roofed wine villages dotted around the countryside nearby.
But to start, right in the heart of Beaune is Maison Joseph Drouhin, a company founded in 1880, currently being run by the fourth generation of Drouhins. Its headquarters are worth a visit for their history alone; some of the Roman walls on which the building rests are still visible, in cellars built from the 12th to 15th centuries for the kings of France and the dukes of Burgundy. The Drouhins have vineyards from Chablis down to Mâcon and a domaine in Oregon in the US, run by the firm’s winemaker, the elegant Veronique Drouhin.
We finish our tour in a brightly lit room tasting a selection of wines including some that would cost well over €100 a bottle in Ireland; even to our indiscriminating palates, they’re pretty fine. Places such as Donnybrook Fair and Mitchells in Ireland stock them at present. And from this summer the Drouhin cellars will be open to the public once a day for a tasting tour costing €21 per person.
Beaune is a picture-perfect small French town, from the cafes on the square to the classic carousel in the village centre to the Hospices de Beaune, the original medieval hospital with its distinctive tiled roof. A good time to visit would be in November, when there’s a three-day festival around Beaune’s famous wine auction, conducted by Christie’s. Started in 1859, the auction raises funds for the Hospices. But there’s plenty of action year-round, from a Festival du Film Policier in spring to a blues boogie festival in December, as well as a bread, cheese and wine fair in October. Not surprisingly, Beaune is packed with lovely restaurants, often family-run; when we wondered how Le Comptoir des Tontons had managed to make lentils so delicious, Pepita, chef and co-owner with husband Richard Grocat, popped out to explain that coffee, anise and elderflower were among the magic ingredients.
A short drive from Beaune is Château de Pommard, which has been turned into a satisfying tourist attraction by its current owner, Maurice Giraud: giant Salvador Dali sculptures adorn the courtyard and there’s a colourful art gallery and restaurant. For €21 a head, visitors get to visit the château’s wine museum, tour the cellars and taste the wine. These range from a Grand Vin du Château de Pommard 2003 – which, apparently, will be very tasty 20 years from now – to a very drinkable 2009 Burgundy Pinot Noir, described in the château’s brochures as an entry-level wine.
On our return journey to Lyon airport, we overnight in a chambre d’hôte in the village of Fuissé (as in, Pouilly-Fuissé). La Source des Fées is a beautifully converted maison de maître, a 13th-century manor house with a 15th-century extension. Its rooms and suites have every modern comfort, and a design that combines striking modern decor with rustic chic. Owned by three friends, it has a cave in a small outbuilding where host Gerald guides us through the domaine’s fresh white wines before chef Florence serves a hearty meal in the stone-floored diningroom.
Fuissé is a small village with what seems like dozens of domaines, each producing wine: many are open as early as 8am for tastings. Cramming in a last-minute visit to the Château de Fuissé, we meet Benedicte Vincent, the fifth generation of her family to produce wine here. The Vincent family’s domaine produces four appellations, Pouilly-Fuissé, Saint-Véran, Mâcon-Villages and Mâcon-Fuissé, which can be found in Ireland at O’Briens wines.
Many of us are familiar with the names of some Burgundy wines – Nuits St Georges, Meursault, Chablis, Côtes de Beaune, Pouilly-Fuissé – without understanding the important distinctions between bottles that bear that label. People who take their wine seriously will appreciate a wine tour of Burgundy better than beginners – but for novices, it’s a pretty good place to start.
Frances O’Rourke travelled to Burgundy courtesy of the EU’s Discover the Origin campaign, which aims to raise awareness around five Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) products
WHERE TO STAY
Hôtel de la Poste, Blvd Clemenceau, Beaune, hoteldelapostebeaune.com, tel: 0033-380 220 811. Sophisticated four-star in the centre of Beaune overlooking the ramparts, from €165. Best Western Hôtel Henry II, Faubourg Saint-Nicolas, Beaune, henry2.fr, tel: 0033-380 228 384. Comfortable three-star a short walk from town centre, from €108.
Hôtel Rousseau, Place Madeleine, Beaune, hotel-rousseau.com, tel: 0033-380 221 359. Historic budget hotel in walking distance of the train station, from around €35 a night per person.
In Fuissé: La Source des Fées, Route du May, Fuissé, lasourcedesfees.com, tel: 0033-385 356 702. Village chambre d’hôte (guest-house). From €118-€158.
WHERE TO EAT
Les Caves Madeleine, Rue du Faubourg Madeleine, Beaune. Friendly, long trestle tables. Lunch around €30.
Le Comptoir des Tontons, Rue du Faubourg Madeleine, Beaune, lecomptoirdestontons.com. Delicious food made by chef/owner
Pepita Grocat. Lunch from €25.
La Table de Pierre Bourée, Route de Beaune, pierre-bouree-fils.com. Hearty welcome, lovely food in restaurant where you can taste – and buy – its Gevrey-Chambertin and other wines.
WHAT TO SEE
Hôtel-Dieu, Hospices de Beaune, hospices-de-beaune.com. Museum in former hospital built in 1443. The town’s most distinctive building.
Athenaeum, Rue de l’hôtel-Dieu, Beaune, athenaeum.com. Bookshop-cum-wine-store where you could get happily lost for hours.
Alain Hess Fromager, Rue Lieut Dupuis, Beaune, fromagerie-hess.com. Bring a freezer bag so you can take some of Hess’s brilliant cheeses home. Look for Brillat-Savarin, a cheese that’s 75 per cent fat but irresistible.
HOW TO GET THERE
Aer Lingus flies from Dublin to Lyon-St Exupéry airport. Lyon is 158km from Beaune. There are frequent trains from the magnificent Calatrava-designed Lyon train station.
Know your wine
Go to wine school:The Burgundy Wine school has courses lasting from two-and-a-half hours to five days, for beginners to advanced, costing from €50 for a three-hour session.
Walk, cycle, or drive along Burgundy’s wine road: there are five itineraries along which “cellars with open doors await you”, according to Burgundy tourism. See bivb.com.
What is a climat? Like “terroir”, but specific to Burgundy, It’s a precisely outlined plot of land with particular geological conditions which – along with the skill of the winemaker˜ – yields wine different from that of another climat.