Tasting through Burgundy
Date: Monday, May 21 @ 06:10:12 MDT
Burgundy and me
Most of us know how to visit a winery, don't we? You walk into the tasting room and try to wangle a taste of as many of the producer's best wines as possible.
But in Burgundy, the business of visiting to taste is very different indeed. The places where Burgundy is made have in most significant cases remained virtually unchanged for centuries.
The typical Burgundian wine producer operates in a dark, damp, low-ceilinged stone cellar that can be found only by those with an intimate knowledge of village backstreets and the courtyards and passageways that lie behind and beneath them. Why, even the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, the most famous and best endowed Burgundian wine estate of all, keeps half of its fabulous wines maturing in a subterranean cavern accessible only by what is virtually a trapdoor.
Nor are the really interesting wine domaines in Burgundy particularly interested in receiving visitors. They can generally, after all, sell every bottle they fill. An almost infallible rule for tourists in Burgundy is that if they are invited to taste by signs outside an establishment, the wines therein are unlikely to be interesting.
So the first challenge is to make an appointment to taste at a worthwhile address. Expecting to taste without an appointment is futile. Burgundian wine producers are busy, hands-on introverts who do not need adulation. An hour spent showing you their wines means an hour less tending their wines and vines, which they all do personally. There are none of Bordeaux's teams of workers here. A few helpers perhaps, but the name on the label is almost invariably that of the person who did most of the work.
We wine writers have better access than an unknown visitor perhaps, but even for us the Burgundian welcome is measured. Indeed a fellow wine writer recently exclaimed with more than a hint of exasperation, "Why is it that in Burgundy they never ever ask you for lunch?" In this respect Burgundian vignerons much more closely resemble cautious farmers than anything remotely like a public relations person. In fact, I have found that the more urbane and more famous the producer, the more effusive the welcome.
Talking of lunch, it is vital to remember that the lunch hour, possibly two, is sacrosanct. Very few vignerons would welcome a visitor who arrived as late as noon and only exceptionally cooperative ones would agree to an afternoon appointment that began before 2 p.m. or after 4:30 p.m. This makes for some rather relaxing tasting days compared with the madness of tasting one's way round a more competitive wine region, where my tasting day could and has run from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. without any break for solid matter. Thus, the visitor to Burgundy needs to remember to make his own arrangements for lunchtime, whether by booking at a convenient village restaurant or by buying provisions for a picnic -- before all the shops close at noon, of course.
But even once you have your itinerary in place (last-minute arrangements are unlikely to work), more homework is still needed. Some villages such as Vosne-Romanee and Gevrey attempt via a map in the main square and a printed map in the tourist office respectively to locate individual wine producers but this is rare. You will typically be armed only with an address, and the typical vigneron's premises are signaled with nothing more (and often less) than a modest nameplate. You can save valuable time in a hard-pressed day by scouting around the village backstreets in advance -- during lunchtime perhaps? -- to locate your eventual destinations.
Let us assume however that you have found your vignerons. And have turned up at the right time, and so have they. Although almost all of those under 40 speak English and occasionally other languages, many of the older ones speak nothing but French. You'll be looked up and down and then taken down into the cellar or cave, at some point collecting glasses and the all-important wine thief (pipette), because most of the tasting in Burgundy is done straight from barrel. And here we encounter one of the great professional obstacles for anyone who writes tasting notes.
A Burgundian cellar is full of barrels and very little else. Barrels on their sides, as they all are here, are round. There is not a flat surface to be found. The vignerons will roam all over their cavernous cellars to present you with samples of their wines from the most basic Aligote or Passetoutgrains up via village wines and premiers crus to grands crus, each one dribbled into your glass from their pipettes -- and you will have a devil of a job balancing your glass and notebook. You will be presented with a spittoon, but you will be expected to pour back what remains in your glass, often into the vignerons' own glasses unless you demonstrate that you too can unerringly find the bunghole hidden under the barrel stacked above the one you're tasting from.
Because the wines will be presented to you upwards in order of quality (which sometimes means that a great premier cru such as Clos St. Jacques in Gevrey may well be served after a lighter grand cru such as Charmes-Chambertin) it is vital that you don't gush with too much enthusiasm about the first few wines. Reserve the superlatives for the wines dribbled into your glass at the end. And you might also assume that whites will always be served before reds, but this is far from an infallible rule. Many producers serve their whites at the end, especially if they are very smart ones, believing they are much more testing than reds out of cask.
You can be sure that you too will be tested, as a taster and a visitor, and that you will be participating in something that feels like an ancient rite. Because that, as so much in Burgundy, is precisely what it is.
Friday, May 11, 2007