It's the dirt that makes me love Burgundy so.
There's an earthiness about the place that is entirely lacking in France's other great wine region Bordeaux. The people who own Burgundy's fabulously expensive plots of vines also tend them personally, which I find both admirable and reassuring. They not only get their feet dirty, which can happen to even a casual wine country visitor, they get their hands dirty too. There is dirt under their fingernails, and dirt engriming hands calloused and deeply lined by years of vineyard labour. But these are also hands which regularly rest on the steering wheel of the latest Mercedes, typically ferrying its owner to another plate-by-plate infusion of Michelin stars. Making wine in Burgundy today means making money in serious quantities. Only the vineyards of Champagne to the north are worth more. And many an infant burgundy flies out of the cellar even at a cost price approaching 100 dollars a bottle.
Dirt is particularly and literally important on Burgundy's most hallowed patch of vines, the 20-mile strip of vineyards which slide south-east down a ridge of gentle, almost imperceptible hills to the Route Nationale 74 and are known casually as the Côte d'Or, the slope of gold. So lucrative, so important, and so fought-over is it that it gives its name to a whole département, the heartland of Burgundy. There have been vineyards here for at least as long as the monastic tradition that dominates it architecturally and they have been producing exceptionally fine wine for centuries. Over those centuries the special character of each vineyard has emerged, either as reality or, just as commercially significant, accepted folklore. With each human match and despatch, the ownership of the tiny strips of vines in these vineyards subtly shifts, as a result of both the post-Napoleonic requirement that all inheritances are shared equally between brothers and the continually changing pattern of family alliances through matrimony. Just a few square metres of dirt are enough to cause a village rift if they were rated a Grand Cru in the famous, mid-nineteenth century classification of Burgundy vineyards. And even Premier Cru vineyards are so valuable they are often shared between dozens, sometimes scores, of different owners.
Every now and then someone comes along and tries to write a definitive guide to who owns what in Burgundy, but it's too fluid a subject for hard covers. A constantly updated register on the Internet that would take account of every funeral and every wedding might work. This, incidentally, is why so many Burgundian wine producers have two names: one honours the husband's vineyard holdings, the other the wife's dowry of dirt. Every bottle of burgundy should carry a back label charting the relevant family tree.
But the other sort of dirt that's so appealing about Burgundy is village gossip. In Bordeaux the gossip tends to be about salon talk about money, but not in Burgundy. These are hearty folk. Basically farmers who happen to farm one of the world's most valuable crops. Their pleasures are visceral rather than cerebral. Even one of the region's rare intellectuals such as Jacques Seysses of Domaine Dujac (whose son's Biology degree just completed at Oxford is regarded as mere useful groundwork for the serious business of helping run the domaine) will stop his exposition on tannin levels to contribute to speculation on some local liaison. In the dirt-floored cellar of the Bocquenet family on the edge of Nuits-St-Georges, a domaine built up by an almost spherical cellar worker who eventually managed to buy a few acres of well-placed vines, his son Daniel accords the ultimate compliment to his broker, an American based in Paris: 'He speaks very good French, he knows toutes les histoires de fesses, and he tells all of them to us!'
Fesses, incidentally, are what Burgundian vine growers place on the seat of their incredibly noisy tracteur-enjambeurs, tractors specially designed to bestride their carefully tended rows of neatly trimmed vines. They have been used to spray treatments of questionable ecological merit on Burgundy's vines whenever rot or some nasty fungal disease threatens. One brave agronomist, appropriately enough called Claude Bourguignon, plucked up the courage to tell Burgundy's vine growers that their thin topsoil had, after decades of attention from the agrochemical industry, become one of the most impoverished in the world. Today more and more growers are turning to gentler preparations and remedies, and Burgundy's drama queen Madame Lalou Bize-Leroy has even embraced Steineresque biodynamism - all ground nettles and phases of the moon.
So what does it look like, this corner of France, tucked so conveniently just off the crossroads between eastern France's two main autoroutes? (And, less conveniently, nearly two hours' drive north of Lyon airport. The flight from Stansted to Dijon via a comfort stop in Lille has, perhaps not surprisingly, been discontinued.) Only so beautiful that one September day nine years ago, while wandering round the village of Bouilland up a little green valley from Savigny- lès-Beaune, it suddenly hit me how much more genuinely rustic rural France is than rural Britain. I resolved then and there to nag my husband into agreeing we should buy our own slice of French countryside. (It seemed foolish for a wine writer to look for a holiday home in a region that houses the world's greatest concentration of intriguing wine producers, but that's another story.)
I can testify, however, that early autumn is the perfect time to visit Burgundy. The vineyards are full of pickers - still real humans rather than machines in Burgundy's heartland, all so remarkably cheerful that I'm convinced that ripe grapes release some Prozac-like compound into the atmosphere. The village backstreets are lined with busy courtyards and open doors, the atmosphere heady with grape juice, yeast, alcohol and carbon dioxide from open wooden vats full of grapes bubbling away like cauldrons.
Burgundy's villages are its heart. There are few great houses and even fewer grand châteaux. Peasant prosperity rules instead, and that's peasant as in proud paysan, or smallholder, rather than the English concept of bovine ignoramus. Villages with names familiar from the world's grandest wine lists consist of an anarchic, organically grown jumble of solid mediaeval constructions and their more recent, flower-bedecked neighbours, all in Burgundy's specially soft, pale apricot-tinted stone. But the real riches lie beneath many of these houses, in dirt- or gravel-floored cellars full of barrels - except in Puligny-Montrachet where the water table is too high and the cellars tend to be above ground. These wine enterprises have been kept with varying degrees of skill by the same families for centuries, but there is an air of real confidence in the region at the moment.
Wine has made Burgundy rich but, too often over the last 50 years, for the wrong reasons: because red and white burgundy is scarce rather than necessarily great. Now that virtually every vine grower and wine producer has had some rigorous formal training, and now that the international wine consumer is better educated and more discriminating, the average quality of burgundy has taken a sudden leap upwards - helped by a run of good vintages. The last real washout was in 1984, and the financial crise of the early nineties is well and truly over. Nowadays Burgundians feel they deserve those Mercedes that spend so much time in their garages.
This is not the torrid south of France. We are north of the great shutter divide here. Roses ramble freely up many a wall. The Alps are not so far away (you can see Mont Blanc on a clear day) and this is definitively a window-box zone. There is so much rain that many village streets are flanked by their own wide, limpid stream. The grass is deep green and very soft. Indeed the climate is the reason the wines are so distinguished. Made from delicate, early-ripening vines, Chardonnay and particularly Pinot Noir, they demand relatively cool weather to express the all-important geographical variations between different plots of land, or climats. Plant them further south and they tend to ripen so fast that subtle flavours have too little time to develop in the grapes.
The Côte d'Or is centred administratively on Dijon, but vinously on Beaune with its cobbled streets, Gothic Hospices and myriad tourist traps. Traffic is kept out of the centre by the usual one-way boulevard, in this case circumnavigating what remains of the city walls and Château de Beaune housed within - until recently the property of the Bouchard family but now, the subject of much local speculation, being tarted up by an incomer who made his fortune in Champagne. The city centre houses a fine Saturday morning market, for Burgundians care deeply about what they eat. The classic dishes are a good indicator of local tastes and appetites: jambon persill‚ nuggets of sweet ham set in parsleyed aspic; oeufs a la meurette, lightly poached eggs in a rustic mixture of wine, onions, lardons and, the ubiquitous croûtons. Beaune, and increasingly its surrounding villages, seem to have dozens of shops selling wine and associated paraphernalia - that corkscrew made of a varnished vine root that you never realised you needed.
If you are without a car, you may well decide to stay in Beaune and either join a wine tour or hire a bike (see below). The Hotel Le Cep is probably the best bet, replicating monastic grandeur passably well. Last time I stayed there it seemed to have been taken over by bicycling Americans trying to combine culture with keeping up their pulse rates. They would stagger in to the lobby each evening in mud-spattered lycra having spent the day cycling through the vineyards studying their tour group's maps strapped to the handlebars in rainproof plastic folders.
More tranquil and at one with the essentially rural nature of Burgundy would be a small hotel in one of the wine villages. Les Magnolias in Meursault, thoughtfully decorated and run by Englishman Tony de la Rue, is one of my favourites. From here you can virtually spit into the courtyard of the world-famous white burgundy producer Domaine des Comtes Lafon. Rather quieter and simpler, similarly without a restaurant but with even better breakfasts, is a pretty little manor house in the backstreets of Aloxe-Corton which was once called the Hotel Clarion. Its owner-manager Christian Voarick (related, of course, to the wine producer Emile Voarick) has renamed it Villa Louise after his similar establishment in Somerset West near Cape Town. It opens directly on to a lovely garden and family vineyard. You could happily bike or walk through wine country from most of these country hotels, for the slopes are very gentle and the backroads too narrow and winding to appeal to fast cars.
For a region so obviously dominated by the vine, Burgundy has until recently been surprisingly difficult to penetrate as a wine tourist. Each village is typically home to hundreds of vine growers, scores of whom also make wine themselves instead of or as well as selling their grapes to the négociants or merchants for blending. Of these family-owned enterprises selling so-called domaine-bottled burgundy, those which make really good wine tend to be able to sell every bottle at least three times so are not generally pleased to find their work or, especially, mealtimes interrupted by hopeful tourists at the door.
The local tourist and wine boards have at long last cooperated however to produce a booklet listing 200 vine growers prepared to welcome visitors and give them a tasting of at least one, and sometimes many more, wines. The list contains some notorious underperformers but about 60 of them are extremely respectable. Check names in a good wine guide such as Anthony Hanson's. (See below for more details). The Château de Meursault guarantees a range of wines in pretty surroundings, plus a silver tastevin to keep, for 50 francs.
There is an etiquette to visiting any Burgundian wine producer. Firstly, the cellars are generally cool to cold. The Burgundian grower reaches as automatically for a jumper or jacket as for a pipette before gving visitors samples from the barrels in his or her dank dungeon. If you are liberated and health-conscious enough to spit, then establish where you are expected to spit beforehand. Perfectionists like Anne Gros of Vosne-Romanée (daughter of François, niece of Jean, cousin of Anne-Françoise, each with their own range of wines) sternly reprimand even their best customers if they spit on the floor, however common the practice elsewhere. Bear in mind that you will be given samples in ascending order of quality - say basic Bourgogne, through Village wines up through various non-classified vineyards towards Premiers Crus and even possibly Grands Crus. Don't rave too unguardedly therefore about the first few wines you are given. The more measured your response, the more likely you will be given a sample of something higher up the scale. Barrels which need to be topped up because samples have been taken from them will be marked with chalk, or a stone from the floor, or a coin. It is polite to offer to pour back what remains of your sample into the bunghole each time.
Bear in mind that Burgundy is like Oxbridge. It has had centuries to develop strange pronunciations and exceptions to every rule. Montrachet is pronounced 'Mon-rashay', Aloxe is 'Al-ohss', Monthélie 'Mont-lee'. All the producers disagree about exactly how to spell the hundreds of different vineyards. And a recent highflown blind taste-off of Burgundy's greatest white wines against some of the New World's finest Chardonnays suggested not only that some Premiers Crus can taste better than many a Grand Cru, but that Robert Mondavi's Chardonnay Reserve from Napa Valley tastes better than any of them. But then some wines are just better at winning competitions than others.
Burgundy's canals also open up the possiblity of an entirely different kind of holiday, although they reach only the southern end of Burgundy's wine country. Friends of mine have raved about this way of visitng Burgundy but it doesn't appeal to me somehow. Not enough dirt.
Where to stay
Hotel Le Cep, Rue Maufoux, Beaune (tel 03 80 22 35 48)
Where to eat
Le Régalade, just north of Beaune (tel 03 80 22 45 95)
How to get about
Bourgogne Randonnées near the rail station in Beaune (tel 03 80 22 06 03) has 200 bikes for hire as well as suggested routes.
Canal boats for hire. Details from the tourist board in Dijon (tel 03 80 50 90 00) or, for a wine-related barge tour contact François Everson of the 'St Louis' (fax 03 80 49 00 67).
Wine producers to visit
Try http://www.bourgogne-tourisme.com/ and see if you can find the brochure From Vineyards to Winecellars from the Comité Régional du Tourisme, BP 1602, 21035 Dijon
Wines to buy
Grands Crus are now a ridiculous price but Premiers Crus are looking rather a bargain compared to many equivalent red bordeaux. Best buys are probably simple Bourgogne Rouge and Blanc from good domaines which specialise in grander wines of the relevant colour. These are not wines that the world's connoisseurs are fighting over, yet the best are honest expressions of a beautiful corner of the world.
See my recommendations from more than 500 burgundy 2000s in purple pages.
What to read
Burgundy by Anthony Hanson (2nd edn, Faber 1995)
4 February 2002