If you’ve been considering going to the Burgundy wine region in France – do it. But, if you’re like me, you probably haven’t really thought about making a trip to France specifically for wine. As Americans, we are so quick to agree to go to Napa and Sonoma, and maybe even Tuscany, but French wine? Sounds intimidating. Maybe, but find a good wine tour, and it will be totally worth it.
This blog post is finally being published three months after our trip to Burgundy. It’s not because I wasn’t excited to share this trip, or because I didn’t have a great time (I had the best time)…but rather because I wanted it to perfectly reflect how amazing it was. Timmer and I wrote this post together. I wrote more of the anecdotes, and he wrote more of the nerdy wine facts. So you will either learn a lot about Burgundy wines, or you will fall asleep (hehe, just kidding)! This was a labor of love, so we hope you’ll enjoy reading it and then go treat yourself to some French wine. Also, read about Beaune here.
A Lesson on Burgundy Wines
The concept of terroir in Burgundy wines started in the Middle Ages by the Cistercian and Cluniac monks. It’s simple: the terroir determines the wine. Different soil types, locations, amount of sunlight, etc. could dramatically influence the wine. Each climat (a very specific parcel of vineyard, as first laid out by the monks) has its own signature and character; one climat will differ from the climat merely 20 feet away on the other side of the road. In Burgundy, there are only single grape varieties for its wines – pinot noir for red wines and chardonnay for whites.
The vineyards of Burgundy sit majestically along a stretch of mountain slope running north to south and facing to the east. At the base of these slopes are the villages from which their wines are famous. The collection of slope is known as the Cote d’Or, the golden slope, likely named for the color of the vineyards’ leaves in the fall, but also potentially because of the prices these wines can sell for.
From the top of the slope the soil is mainly limestone/rocky, and at the base mainly clay, with varying combinations of the two in the middle. Because of this, Burgundy wines are classified based on the specific plot of land where their grapes are grown, as designated by the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlee). There are 4 tiers of the classification system: Regional Bourgogne, Villages wines, Premier Cru vineyards, and Grand Cru vineyards. For example, refer to the map below. The grapes grown in a vineyard within the yellow area of the map will always produce a village wine. Grapes grown in a vineyard within the red areas produce wine with a Grand Cru designation (and price tag).
There are only 33 designated Grand Cru vineyards, and these are on the mid-slopes of the hills where they get the best sunlight and water drainage – the perfect mix of limestone/rocky soil transitioning to the clay. All of this can seem confusing and intimidating, but that is where Youri Lebault and Bourgogne Gold Tours truly made the day approachable, and with their teaching and guidance, truly spectacular.
Bourgogne Gold Tours
With the history and prestige that comes with Burgundy and its world famous wine, it can be intimidating to approach, and a little help goes a long way. With anything, but especially when visiting wineries, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. This definitely held true on our wine tour in Tuscany. Tim’s rule of wine tastings in Napa is still a good rule abroad: wineries with a “buses park here” sign is a red flag! So when planning our trip, we knew we wanted to find a tour, and more importantly a guide, that could truly show us Bourgogne in its truest form (and drive us around, so we could drink lots of wine).
After scouring travel websites and google searches, we came across Bourgogne Gold Tour (BGT). They offer a range of tours, from half day tours to a multi-day tours tasting all 33 Grand Crus, with options for English, German and French. After a background check on Trip Advisor, we felt like we had found the perfect tour. I mean, it’s not often that a tour on Trip Advisor has a perfect five star score and raving reviews. From the moment we reached out to BGT about scheduling a tour, they were on the ball making sure that we had the perfect, bespoke tour of Burgundy. Youri Lebault is the founder of BGT, a native Burgundian and wine scholar, and the author of two books on Bourgogne, and we were lucky enough to have him as our personal guide for the day. His passion for sharing the wines of burgundy was contagious from the moment he picked us up at our hotel in the morning.
As we said earlier, Burgundy wine with its classifications, history, climats and terrior can be a lot to grasp. Before we started our day of wine tasting, Youri took us to the top of the slope, the hautes, which look out over the towns of Beaune and Aloxe-Corton. With the morning fog draping the vineyards below, it truly was breathtaking. Youri didn’t bring us up there just for the view, but also to give a us a crash course of all things Burgundy. That way, we would be old pros at the tastings to follow. We stood atop the slope in the fog, as he broke down burgundy for all of us to understand, with maps and charts and the breathtaking view, as the perfect visual learning aids. Viola! By the end of the stop we had a whole new understanding of burgundy…and we were more than ready to drink some wine!
Our first winery on the tour was a small, family owned winery called Alain Brune. I love small family owned wineries and this was no exception. This winery was so small that you would never find this place on your own, but it was a true gem! There is no website, no contact info on google and apart from a phone number, no information on yelp. Alain didn’t speak much English, so Youri helped translate, and let me tell you, the guy was funny! He started working in the wine business when he was twelve, and you can just tell he is so passionate about his wines. He was so proud to share his work with us.
We tasted 5 wines in his cellar, beneath the house he lives in. He does everything from the farming of his vineyard sites to the vitrification, bottling, and production himself. We started with regional level chardonnay which was delightful, followed by a Nuits-Saint-Georges and Gervrey-Chambertin village classified wines, that were bright and delicate pinot noirs. We followed that with a Premier Cru Les Millandes Morey-Saint-Denis that was complex and seemed to linger on the palate forever. Our last bottle was a Grand Cru Clos De Vougeot, and that was spectacular. The wines were really great, and we had such an awesome time with Alain.
Lunch at Castel de Tres Girard
Our next stop was a spot that Youri picked for us because it’s “where all the winemakers meet for lunch” – Castel de Tres Girard. The restaurant had a modern elegance feel to it, and just as Youri told us, we found ourselves surrounded by local wine makers and vineyard managers. The air was buzzing with excitement and filled with the sense of friendship and familiarity. The food was delicious (try their perfect egg and salmon), but it was really cool to see the locals gathering together for lunch and wine. We all had the 4 course lunch tasting menu, which paired perfectly a bottle of Marsannay Premier Cru Chardonnay from Domaine Fournier.
Route des Grand Cru
The Route des Grand Cru runs through wine villages, wineries, and the most prestigious vineyards of Burgundy. We drove through part of this on our tour and had to stop and take a picture in front of a Romanee-Conti vineyard, and of course the cute horse. Romanee-Conti: IYKYK (if you know, you know).
The next stop on our Burgundy wine tour was the private cellar of Jean-Claude Boisset, specially arranged by Youri. The Boissets began as wine traders in Burgundy, and have grown to what is now the Boisset Collection, with several estates in France, England, Canada and California including wines like Buena Vista, Raymond, LVE (John Legends new wine project). They even own the Oakville Grocery, one of our favorite spots in Napa.
The tasting took place in their gorgeous private family wine cellar. This cellar would be the perfect setting for a dinner party (see pic below). They even had a fully equipped catering kitchen at the back of the tasting room. In the cellar, we were surrounded by a collection of wines dating as far back as 1865 Richebourg Grand Crus. All of the wine in this cellar are set aside for the Boisset family (i.e., not for sale). However occasionally they will release some of these wines for auction.
Here we tasted nine wines, all Premier Crus and Grand Crus, with one of them being from 1996! David, our Boisset host, taught us a little about each of the wines from the wineries that make up the Boisset collection. It was fun to taste with someone with such a great palate. When he wasn’t impressed with the 2007 Charmes-Chambertin Grand Crus (despite all of us thinking it was great), he slipped back into the depths of the cellar. He returned with a special bottle of 1996 Forge De Tart. It was remarkable!
We were able to walk through the older part of the winery where wine is still being produced, and through the newly renovated part where the white wine is being aged. The winery is in a former convent, and the garden of the nuns is beautiful, even in the frosty cold.
Chateau de Meursault
Our final stop was Chateau de Meursault and this was definitely the biggest of the wineries we visited. As we pulled up to the property, surrounded by vineyards of chardonnay and a beautiful park, the Chateau emerged from the fog and we saw an aw-inspiring building built in the 1600s. We were greeted by our personal guide Gregory, arranged by Youri and BGT to lead us through the cellars of the Chateau. The cellars are some of the biggest and oldest in Burgundy, which can hold at capacity up to 800,000 bottles of wine and 2,000 barrels. We wandered through the labyrinth of stone cellars, dating back as far as the 12th century, with wines that looked they had been there maybe as long. We emerged from the maze of caves to a private tasting room where we were joined by Gregory and Youri for the last tasting of the day.
On the table sat four Premier Cru Chardonnays and three Premier Cru reds, plus a Corton Grand Cru. The wines were outstanding, and each seemed to top the last. For good measure, they brought out an extra Grand Cru Chardonnay for us to taste – a perfect last surprise of the day.
At the end of the day, we left with a happy tummy full of wine, a bunch of “souvenirs” (i.e., wine to be shipped to Germany), and a better understanding and appreciation of Burgundy wines. It was day full of wine and culture that truly encapsulated all the wonders that Burgundy has to offer. Youri and BGT provided the perfect first exposure to Burgundy, and we can’t wait to go back as soon as we can!
To learn more about Burgundy Wines
Before heading out to France, we had both listened to The Everyday Guide to Wines of France (get your copy here). We loved having a bit of background before going to Burgundy, and it made us all the more excited for some Premier Crus and Grand Crus. Additionally, Timmer had just finished reading Wine and War (get your copy here). For any of your history buffs and wine lovers, Timmer definitely recommends Wine & War because it shares the stories of wine lovers during WWII.