Europe Articles & Reviews
Exploring Burgundy, France
T+L finds authentic Burgundy—one of the oldest wine regions in France—with a homegrown winemaker.
By Bruce Schoenfeld
My hotel in Beaune, the center of Burgundy’s wine industry, dates to the 16th century. Nearby is a working grape press built in 1571. The same stone ramparts have helped defend Beaune since shortly after Charles the Bold’s demise in 1477, and in the surrounding vineyards, traditional methodology has hardened into law. The pace of change is slow here, to say the least.
So I’m not surprised that Beaune looks just as it did when I last visited six years ago. Buildings in stone and earth tones surround the main square, which is fashioned as precisely as a movie set. Shops selling mundane items are impossibly beautiful. It’s an idealized rendering of a French medieval town adapted for modern existence. History suffuses the streets, to such an extent that I’ve always wondered if Beaune’s crowded past—full of Romans and dukes, cardinals and kings—leaves room for daily life. Can anything genuine happen in a place so flawlessly realized?
As I await the enologist Véronique Drouhin-Boss, one of the principals of Maison Joseph Drouhin, one afternoon at the Hôtel Le Cep—which itself appears to be a deftly calculated mix of character and comfort—it seems appropriate that I’m sharing lobby space with an Asian tour group. I can’t help but imagine their itinerary. “Friday: wine tasting in Beaune, followed by a typical Burgundian meal on the main square. Saturday: bus to Paris (Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower, bateau-mouche).”
So why am I here? Because Burgundy, once among my favorite of wines, has come to feel as static and predictable to me as Beaune, its unofficial capital. The area, a string of pretty towns in eastern France nestled below tidy hillsides, once delighted me. Accustomed to the formality of Bordeaux, where winemakers wear coats and ties, I was charmed by these farmers whose dozen different wines from the same kind of grape, Pinot Noir, had varied personalities, like children from the same family. I reveled in the sloping vineyards that lined the country roads for miles at a stretch, each subtly different from its neighbors. But these days, the upper echelon of Burgundies cost so much that they’ve become inaccessible to me, and to most everyone else who doesn’t run a hedge fund or play for the Yankees. The Burgundies I drink cost $30 to $100, and it has been a while since I opened one and felt a thrill.
To be honest, I’m tired of hearing pompous sommeliers and collectors cultishly revere these wines, even the best of which tend to disappoint as often as not, and see them breathlessly fondle bottles like my friends and I used to do with baseball cards. And yet, I can’t forget how a perfectly rendered Burgundy can make every other kind of wine seem awkward and obvious by comparison. And I can’t help feeling that, beneath this stage-set exterior, there’s an authentic Beaune waiting to be discovered.
I’ve come to one to find the other. I want to try to reconnect with the wines of Burgundy through its food and vineyards and people. And the best person to show me around is my old friend Véronique.
Within the hour, she and I are strolling through the center of town as I’ve done many times before, except that with her beside me, each block comes to life. Visiting Beaune with Véronique is unlike visiting it with anyone else. She grew up in the very center of town, in the house attached to the winery where her parents still live. There was wisteria climbing the courtyard walls, as there is now, and the bell in the steeple next door rang at 8:45 every morning to start the school day, as it still does. But steeped as she is in the tradition of the region, as Burgundian as anyone I know, she’s also a professional expatriate. She spends weeks each year in the Willamette Valley tending to Domaine Drouhin Oregon, the family’s Northwest property, making some of the New World’s best Pinots.
As a result, she sees Burgundy through a wider lens than many of her peers, who sometimes behave as though the airplane is still a daring invention. Even in this era of instant information and consulting winemakers who visit three continents in a week, Burgundy remains largely devoid of outsiders. The cultural cross-pollination that has informed modern enology just hasn’t happened here. You can taste that parochialism in the wines, which is a big reason why Burgundy cultists revere them. I can certainly appreciate that, but lately I’ve found myself looking toward Italy’s Langhe rather than Burgundy for the intellectual pleasure of wines that come from a single vineyard, to Oregon to slake my thirst for Pinot Noir, and to places such as Walla Walla, Washington, for the excitement of watching a young appellation evolve.
Véronique can sympathize. She’s genial and soft-spoken, certainly nobody’s idea of a revolutionary, but compared with the others here, she’s positively anarchic. At home in France, she’ll taste top Burgundies such as Bonnes Mares and Musigny with fresh appreciation; no New World Pinots, not even hers, are as refined. But she’ll also carry with her a renewed understanding that most consumers desire fruitier wines than Burgundy typically offers. “We need to make all our wines elegant, clean, pure, fruity,” she tells me. “I no longer like that barnyard smell you sometimes get in Burgundy. Some people call it part of the terroir, but it isn’t. It’s avoidable.”
And yet, for all that radical talk, she remains completely and unshakably Burgundian, as much a part of this place as those stone ramparts. When we stop before a window displaying a phenomenal number of cheeses, more cheeses than I’ve ever seen in a window in my life, she introduces me to the shop almost as though it were an old friend. “And here,” she says, leading me inside, “is my family’s fromagerie,” meaning not that her family ownsFromagerie Hess, but merely that it is the cheese shop—of all those in town—that the Drouhin family historically frequents. It is, I must admit, as beautiful a fromagerie as I’m ever likely to encounter, the one that would certainly grace the cover of a hypothetical French Cheese Industry travel brochure, and when we step to the counter a woman comes alive behind it and leans over and gives Véronique a peck on each cheek. Soon we’re tasting artisanal cheeses—crumbly, creamy, aged—while the shop owner offers commentary like a painter describing his various works. For the moment, at least, it’s the best meal I’ve had in Burgundy.
On Rue Monge, we stop at Charcuterie Raillard, an unremarkable storefront. Seeing it makes me wonder if force of habit is keeping Véronique a customer here instead of someplace around the corner or down the road. Then a reticent shopkeeper offers me a sample of jambon persillé, a simple slice of cold ham with parsley, and a spring terrine that seems to conjure up flavors from somewhere deep in the Gallic soil, and I understand that Véronique’s choice has again been unerring. And why shouldn’t it be? Why shouldn’t she know everything there is to know about these shops, and the shopkeepers inside them, and the shopkeepers’ parents, and even the farmers who’ve raised the hogs and cows? This is her terroir. A minute’s walk gets us to the house where she grew up and to the office of Maison Joseph Drouhin, where she makes strategic decisions about the future of its wines.
The cool, tranquil cellar at Maison Joseph Drouhin was constructed in the Middle Ages and leads to tunnels that extend below the city. In the tasting room upstairs we make our way through the family’s latest bottlings, but the wine that I’ve been eager to try is missing from the lineup. And I understand why. There isn’t enough to waste on tasting—and none available to buy, anyway, as the bottles were all pre-reserved. To commemorate her graduation from enology school in 1985, Véronique’s father purchased for her a small slice of the nine-acre Les Petits Monts vineyard, in Vosne-Romanée, a few rows of vines that happen to be located beside two of the world’s most famous vineyards, Romanée-Conti and Richebourg. The vines were a mess, but she helped nurse them back to health. Later, she added another similar-size parcel. Under French law, she’d need a separate facility to vinify the fruit, so she sells it to the family winery instead. Then she makes about 1,200 bottles of a separate cuvée, sold under the house label with her name listed as propriétaire.
Vosne-Romanée Les Petits Monts isn’t the most expensive of the Drouhin wines, but it has always been my favorite. Another reason I’ve asked Véronique to meet me is a not-so-secret desire to drink more of that wine. After a trip to the outdoor market the following morning, she proposes a drive to see the vines. We park and follow a path that leads up the slope right between Romanée-Conti and Richebourg, wine’s equivalent of Notre-Dame de Paris and St. Peter’s Basilica. These storied plots lie on relatively flat land, but once Les Petits Monts begins, the land becomes steeper—so steep that the rows can be worked only by horse. “The first time I saw that, I almost cried,” Véronique says.
At the top, we turn around. On a clear day, Mont Blanc is visible. We stand and contemplate the viticultural history before us, land that has looked the same for 500 years. Unlike America, where we grow up knowing that we can literally alter the world we see, much of Europe doesn’t change in one lifespan, or even 10. It’s a calming concept, removing as it does the need to accomplish anything more than preservation.
Other producers who own bits of Les Petits Monts—Forey and Mongeard-Mugneret and more—make wines that are appealing but not exceptional. But a bottle of Romanée-Conti—a single bottle!—is valued at as much as $5,000. The Drouhin Les Petits Monts costs $200 (though prices are rising), and in a superior vintage such as 1999 or 2005 it contains more than a hint of the same magic, that unquantifiable combination of essences that makes the best Burgundy so exquisite. Below us, we see cars stop and camera-carrying wine pilgrims race to Richebourg or Romanée-Conti or La Tâche. Véronique and I look at each other as coconspirators, comforted somehow that we know something they don’t.
My last night in Burgundy, I meet the Boss family at Le Jardin des Remparts, Beaune’s most ambitious restaurant. It’s set in an old house with walls the color of olive oil. Véronique and her husband, Michel, and their bright-eyed daughters, Laurène and Louise, are seated around a table when I arrive. (Arthur, a teenager, is home with friends making plans to start a rock band.) With imaginative amuses-bouches—escargot puffs and mustard ice cream and candied melon with caramel—and a first course of oysters atop beef tartare, I drink Drouhin Montrachet 2000. It’s lovely, but I’m primed for the main event: the 2002 Les Petits Monts, which I’ve had just once before.
When it comes, it is the color of a drop of water on the skin of a wild cherry. Les Petits Monts is typically a shy wine, and this 2002 spends several minutes in our glasses all rolled up in a ball. “In an ideal world, if I’m going to live for a very long time,” Michel says, “I’d start to drink this in 30 years.” As I make my way through my entrée of suckling pig with blood sausage and quince sauce, the wine begins to unwind. It moves slowly, like it may take those 30 years to get fully unencumbered. And then, at once, its splendor shines through like a beam of light, and with a sip I know exactly why I have come.
There is no wine as pleasurable as Burgundy when it is great. Weightless in your mouth, intoxicatingly aromatic, when it turns on its charm you can’t suppress a smile. And when you’ve been hiking the rows of the vineyard that afternoon with the winemaker herself, and you can feel the presence of both the place and the person in the wine, well, it’s an extraordinary moment. It makes me fall in love with Burgundy all over again.
Later that night, I walk through the center of town to my hotel. It’s only a few blocks, but I take a circuitous route that puts me on the edge of Place Carnot, the main square. It’s past midnight, and the town is quiet, and the square looks as beautiful as ever in the light of a half-moon. But those buildings, so unreal and stylized to me before, now strike me as warm and inviting. It seems remarkable that a few glasses of wine should have done this, but such is the power that place exerts on wine and that wine exerts on place. I clatter over the cobblestones, past the shuttered cheese shop and the charcuterie, keenly aware of a sensation very much like feeling at home.
Bruce Schoenfeld is Travel + Leisure’s wine and spirits editor.