Most of us know how to visit a winery, don’t we? You drive up, leave the car in the visitors’ parking lot, walk into the tasting room and try and wangle a taste of as many of the producer’s best wines as possible.
But in Burgundy, the business of visiting to taste, as so much else in Burgundy, is very different indeed.
One distinguishing mark, which has considerable implications for the visitor, is that the places where burgundy is made have in most significant cases remained virtually unchanged for centuries. The typical Burgundian wine producer operates underground 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 Romanée Conti, the most famous and best-endowed Burgundian wine estate of all, keeps half of all 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. Indeed it is an almost infallible rule for tourists in Burgundy that if they are invited to taste by signs outside an establishment, the wines therein are unlikely to be among the region’s more interesting. (Beware several of the larger Beaune merchants and their tourist traps, typically set with the most basic of wines.)
So the first challenge is to make an appointment to taste at a worthwhile address. Expecting to taste without an appointment is almost as futile as expecting to be invited in for a coffee by Eddie Murphy while on a tour of Beverly Hills. Burgundian wine producers are busy, hands-on, introvert farmers who do not need adulation or extra orders. 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, increasingly from outside France, but the name on the label is almost invariably that of the person who did most of the work.
A good starting point would be to go to the website of the generic body representing the wines of Burgundy. They have a special section where you can organise a tailor-made itinerary at http://www.vins-bourgogne.fr/index.php?site_id=4. Another ploy would be to go to their list of local tourist offices at http://www.bourgogne-tourisme.com/bref/otsi.htm. By no means all wine villages have them but Beaune, Nuits, Gevrey and Meursault do, for example. You could contact them for a list of local producers happy to receive visitors.
We wine writers have better access than an unknown visitor perhaps, but even for us the Burgundian welcome is measured. Indeed one of my longer-serving fellow wine writers exclaimed to me only the other day with more than a hint of exasperation, “why is it that in Burgundy they never ever ask you for lunch?” And it is true that 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 co-operative ones would agree to an afternoon appointment that began before two o’clock or after 4.30. This makes for some rather relaxing tasting days compared to the madness of tasting one’s way round a more competitive wine region where my tasting day could and has run from eight to eight without any break for solid matter. Thus, the visitor to Burgundy needs to remember to make their own arrangements for lunchtime, whether by booking at a convenient village restaurant (I list several of my favourites in the travel tips section of www.jancisrobinson.com) or in good weather by buying provisions for a picnic – before all the shops close at noon of course.
But even once you have your itinerary in place long before you arrive in Burgundy (last minute arrangements are unlikely to work), more homework is still needed. Some villages such as Vosne-Romanée 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 signalled with nothing more (and often less) than a modest nameplate. You can save valuable time in a hard-pressed day by scouting round 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 so bear this in mind. The generic Burgundy website sensibly asks you to specify your linguistic capabilties in advance.
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 likes to make notes of what they taste. 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, apparently at random, to present you with samples of their wines from the most basic Aligoté 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 almost certainly be presented with a spittoon, but you will be expected to pour back what remains in our 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.