All Roads Lead to Beaune

Among enophiles, it is often said that all roads lead to Burgundy—that, as one’s palate matures, it invariably gravitates to the elegant, subtle wines of Burgundy. (This is also a road to financial ruin, but that’s another issue.) In my case, the journey began and ended in Burgundy: My interest in wine was sparked by a visit to this gently hilly part of central France a decade ago, and the region’s wines remain my touchstone. I’d adore the wines even if Burgundy were a hideously unattractive place; the fact that it is thoroughly charming makes the wines all the more appealing. There is no other wine region I enjoy visiting as much as Burgundy. No matter how many times I go there, the quaint villages and historic vineyards never fail to put a stupid smile on my face.

But I don’t just love Burgundy for what it is; I also love it for where it is. With Paris three hours to the north; Geneva, Frankfurt, and Milan several hours to the east; and the Alps visible in the distance on clear days, Burgundy feels like the crossroads of Europe (even if the map indicates otherwise), and for whatever odd psychological reason, this just makes me all the happier.

Within Burgundy, all roads—or most of them, anyway—lead to Beaune, the low-key, picturesque town that serves as the hub of the local wine trade. With its twisting, cobbled streets and soaring medieval architecture, Beaune possesses the DNA of a tourist trap—all the more so since it also happens to be located right off of the A6, France’s main north-south highway. But while Beaune is a magnet for visitors, it doesn’t go out of its way to cater to them. The business of Beaune is wine, not tourism, and while wine brings in tourists, the town is refreshingly short on kitsch and seems to go out of its way to avoid prostituting itself to the invading hordes. The Place Carnot, the (circular) town square, has a few gift shops but is otherwise devoid of tourist accoutrements. The two cafes that open onto the place are both poignantly unattractive establishments that pull in a slightly raffish local crowd. St. Mark’s Square it ain’t. For me, anyway, this unflagging authenticity is a big part of Beaune’s appeal.

Beaune sits squarely in the middle of what is called the Côte d’Or, the 30-mile stretch of land that encompasses Burgundy’s finest vineyards. On a map, the Côte d’Or bears a vague resemblance to a watch, with Beaune as the timepiece (the town proper is, in fact, round—it is encircled by medieval walls and a very modern ring road) flanked by two thin bands—the Côte de Nuits to the north and the Côte de Beaune to the south. The Côte de Nuits is red-wine country, the Côte de Beaune is predominately white, and both areas are home to some of the most fabled vineyards in all of winedom.

There are two main grapes used in Burgundy: pinot noir for the reds, chardonnay for the whites. After that, things get … complicated. In fact, Burgundy is arguably the most complicated wine region in the world. It is here that the notion of terroir—the idea that a wine is, at heart, a reflection of the soil and environment in which the grapes used to make it were nurtured and that some sites are more naturally endowed than others—took root and became the organizing principle. Over several centuries, the vineyards were carved up according to intrinsic quality, which eventually led to their being officially categorized according to intrinsic quality.

Within Burgundy’s 101 appellations, there are currently 623 premier cru vineyards and 33 grand cru vineyards. Not only that: Nearly all these vineyards are shared by multiple producers. For instance, the 20 acres that comprise Le Montrachet, the grandest of the Côte de Beaune’s grands crus, are divided among 17 different owners. That, anyway, is the figure I was able to obtain from my friend Stéphane Thibodaux of Domaine des Comtes Lafon, a venerable estate in the village of Meursault that owns an impressive chunk of Le Montrachet. He got the number by looking at a map of the vineyard hanging on the wall above his desk, but he hastened to add that the map was published in 1998 and that a few vines may have switched hands at some point in the last eight years. Indeed, it appears things may have changed: Several days after speaking with Stéphane, I received an e-mail from Allen Meadows, aka Burghound, the leading critic of Burgundy wines. Here’s what Allen had to say: “With respect to the number of owners (not producers), as far as I know there are exactly 16 at the present. You should know though that Fleurot keeps selling, and they have so little now that there will probably none left at some point soon. And I believe that Gagnard has now transferred 100% of his ownership interest to his two daughters, which are married to Jean-Marc Blain and Richard Fontaine-Gagnard. In any event, to arrive at the 16, I eliminated the old man and counted Blain and Fontaine as two.”

If all this seems a bit confusing and opaque, things turn positively Byzantine when it comes to figuring out who does what with the vines they own. For instance, some Le Montrachet owners, like Lafon, grow the grapes and make the wines themselves. Others, however, opt to sell their grapes, usually to major negociants like Louis Jadot. Still others simply lease out their vines. The arrangements are maddeningly complicated, and this is just one small vineyard among many. It is enough to give you a headache even before you’ve had a sip of wine.

Visiting the vineyards seldom clears up the confusion (the individual parcels are not staked out; people just know what they own), but it provides some great sightseeing.

Whether the vines are full of ripe clusters or stripped bare, driving along the narrow roads that cut through Burgundy’s vineyards is about the most exhilarating experience a wine buff can have. To stand at the edge of Le Montrachet and to realize that this vineyard has been bearing grapes and giving pleasure for hundreds of years (Thomas Jefferson sang its praises)—and will presumably be doing so hundreds of years after all of us are gone—is a humbling experience, as well.

One can’t survive in Burgundy on wine alone, of course, although some people seem to try. But while Burgundian cuisine has long been regarded as perhaps the earthiest and most satisfying of France’s regional cuisines, Beaune is surprisingly thin on quality restaurants. Apart from Lameloise, a former Michelin three-star located in the town of Chagny, seven miles south of Beaune, Burgundy’s best restaurants, such as L’Espérance and Georges Blanc, are on its periphery. That said, Beaune’s most popular restaurant is a very good one. Ma Cuisine, located down a cobblestone walk just off the Place Carnot, is a small, modern bistro run by the engaging husband-and-wife team of Fabienne and Pierre Escoffier. She does the cooking, he runs the dining room. Ma Cuisine is to the local wine trade what Spago used to be to Hollywood: the industry canteen. The food is quite appealing—Fabienne makes a benchmark jambon persillé—but it is the wine list that is the main draw (that, and the chance to mingle with star winemakers, many of whom are regulars). Pierre knows his stuff and carries wines from many of the region’s most celebrated producers at prices that are, at least as Burgundy goes, very fair.

I made the obligatory pilgrimage to Ma Cuisine during my most recent visit to Burgundy, over the third weekend of November. This is the weekend known as Les Trois Glorieuses, a three-day post-harvest celebration that begins on Saturday with a black-tie dinner in the village of Vougeot; continues with the annual Hospices de Beaune auction on Sunday afternoon; and concludes with an all-afternoon bacchanal in Meursault on Monday. In all my trips to Burgundy, I’d never managed to be on hand for the Trois Glorieuses. I fully expected to leave Burgundy Monday night determined to make it an annual thing.

Don’t know your premiers crus from your négotiants? Click here  for a glossary.