Here’s the thing. I was filled with some trepidation around the thought of wine tasting in Burgundy.
There is a friend of mine, French and not only extremely knowledgeable about wine, but also IN the wine business. He imports some of the best Burgundy and Bordeaux out there. And yet, there he was, telling me about how “unwelcoming” the wine folk at Burgundy were. He relayed a story about how he had visited an estate, presided over by a little, old lady and he had asked if he could try before purchasing.
“No, you buy first, then you can try,” was her gruff response. This to a guy who would have 1) clearly spoken to her in French and 2) clearly shown his knowledge and seriousness about buying. Well, with a logic like that, you can’t blame me for having felt nervous about my time in Burgundy.
Then, even if you’ve mustered enough courage and decided to visit a few places, there’s the “sur RDV” aspect of it all. That is, “on appointment”. Unlike the tourist-friendly places in say, Australia, you can’t just rock up to a winery and say, hey how’s it going.
The Temple of Terroir.
Now, so far it’s just been about approaching a winery. I haven’t even covered the actual conundrum of when you’re in Burgundy, what do you taste?
The terroir is a Burgundian temple and as a result, you have lines drawn so distinctly in the climats* (a term unique to Burgundy that refers to a specific vineyard site comprising vine plots, grape variety, its microclimate, specific geological conditions and winemaker know-how) that a row of vines just steps away from each other can produce a different wine altogether.
*Wine geeks – if you’d like to get into the technicalities of appellations, climats and lieux-dit, I’ve got a couple of links below.
This means that there are 1247 climats in Burgundy, each of which can have many different winemakers tending to it, meaning endless choices!
So. what can one do, especially when you don’t know Burgundy like the back of your hand? No worries, I’ve got you covered!
Just note that this article is for novices or people not familiar with Burgundy wines. People who just want to taste some good wine with no added stress. Experts – move right along.
Ok, you’ve got your wine map, guide book, wine app, all in hand, so where to start?
Select Your Targets.
This could be based on what’s featured in guidebooks, online and even better, what your knowledgeable friends recommend.
Or if you strike a chord with your friendly wine bar owner, you can ask him/her if they have any producers to recommend. In my case, the owner of La Parenthèse (very charming courtyard and cosy home-style wine bar in Beaune), told me that “the only one worth checking out here in Beaune is Joseph Drouhin”. Yes, he definitely knew what he was talking about!
The producers featured in the tourist office guidebooks, take it with a pinch of salt or do further research – they might be just of those who paid to be in there.
The Michelin guide lists Wine Merchants and Estates with useful information on types of wine available to try, opening hours and whether appointments are needed. I also checked out Rick Steves guidebook as it’s written from a layman’s perspective and he advises on the “friendlier” places to visit.
Feel the vibe.
Or it could be as simple as what you see when you’re at a village. Assuming you’re driving the Cote D’or stretch (see my Driving the Route des Grand Crus for more), you’ll make stops at wine-growing villages with many places offering “degustation” opportunities.
Take a peek and see how you feel. I always find it somewhat comforting to see other customers on site, as it then reinforces that wine tasting is welcomed there.
Remember, whether you walk into a wine shop in Beaune or an estate in a little village such as Volnay, feel the vibe. Warm and welcoming, stay. Else, no shame in walking out.
A Tale of Two Tastings.
As an example, the caveau in Puligny-Montrachet. While it was recommended in the guide books and had good reviews online, we felt like we had walked in into someone’s back office when we were there. The standard bonjours were exchanged but we didn’t get a feeling that they were interested to do a wine tasting (it’s a paid tasting by the way, so it’s not like we’d be tasting for free) so we made a quick exit.
On the flip side, we walked into a small caveau in Chambolle Musigny (I mention this place again at the end of my article), the lady was busy with another customer, so we walked around. I noticed that there were empty wine glasses on the table and a clear sign stating the price for tasting and indicating that it would be free if a purchase is made.
So as soon as the lady was ready, without skipping a beat, I asked if I could taste wines and mentioned upfront that I would buy something.
She went on to explain with great passion the various climats and appellations that she wanted us to try and it was an overall lovely experience.
You need to feel comfortable with the ambience and “uncool” as it might sound, picking a tourist-friendly place for your 1st few tastings is a good idea. You’re likely to get better service and information is clearer, that is, you’ll know immediately if you can taste for free or need to pay etc without having to stand around wondering how you can start.
And you start honing your wine tasting skills.
So you’ve picked your place, what next?
Get to the point. Say “I’d like to do a tasting. How can it be done?”, leaving it open for them to advise you if it will be a paid tasting or free (with purchase or not).
Then maybe give more information about your tastes. You might like wines that are more elegant, or robust, maybe more fruit-forward, maybe more mineral, or maybe you haven’t figured it out yet.
No problem, just do this.
- Ask what is the focus or “speciality” of the place or the labels that are being carried. For example, Mersault does produce red, but the appellation is focused on top-quality white wines, so naturally, you’d want to try the whites from this region.
- Indicate how many wines you’d like to taste. Maybe 3-5? So that they can plan the step up for you. If it’s a paid tasting, they are normally clear on how many wines is included in the tasting.
- If you’re somewhat familiar and know what you like, ask to focus on that. For me, I would say something like a bold and balanced wine, full of flavours, like those from Gevrey-Chambertin, for example. Then they’d get an idea of my tastes.
4. Then again, this is the perfect opportunity to try unfamiliar tastes, so don’t hesitate to leave it to the staff to suggest based on point #1 above.
From Regional to Grand Cru.
When you’re tasting wine, it’s best to have comparisons – settle down somewhere, be prepared to buy and try to taste at least 3-5 wines.
You might have seen the words AOC on some French labels. That’s Appellation D’Origine Controlée, which essentially refers to a classification system. There are 4 recognised classifications in Burgundy.
In order of ascending prestige, it goes from:
- Regional (simply stating Bourgogne on the label)
- Village (e.g Vosne-Romanée)
- Premier Cru (e.g Vosne Romanée Premier Cru Les Suchots)
- Grand Cru (e.g Romanée-Conti)
You’re unlikely to be offered to try a Grand Cru, unless perhaps at bigger places, for example, I was offered to try a Corton Grand Cru when I visited the Chateau de Meursault (mentioned again at the end of article), which worked because I ended up buying that bottle.
So try to make sure you’re provided with a good range across the classifications when you’re tasting.
I’m not going to get into the details of how to taste a wine, see this article from Wine Folly but in short:
1. Look – the hue, the vibrancy, the opacity. Consider the “legs” if you’re so inclined to start guessing about the alcohol level.
2. Smell – the world’s your oyster here. Take an initial sniff without swirling, get a sense, then swirl and sniff again. If you’re very into it, remember that sniffing along different parts of the glass releases nuances in aroma. Identify smells, experiences, food pairings – go however deep you want, but give your fellow tasters a chance to make their own opinions too.
3. Taste – take a good amount in, and swirl it in the mouth (you might even do this vigorously!), feeling the texture for tannins, acidity, overall texture or body.
You can choose to spit out the wine when you’re done but personally I think if you swallow, you can assess the finish better.
Feel free to share your observations with your host, or ask them what the main characteristics are just to see if they correspond with what you think. An expert can discern or suggest notes that you might not think of, so this is a good way to learn as well.
Et en fin…
Take some time to think, I assure you all the places I went to, the people were more than happy to leave us alone as long as we wanted for us to decide.
For me, I would buy the best I could afford or was willing to pay. If I am lugging wine back, it better be something special that I cannot find or is way more pricey in Singapore.
Suffice to say, I only bought back Premier Cru and Grand Cru this time.
If you’re buying more, many places can ship, so check about the final costs including taxes and so on.
Et voila, c’est fini!
Suggestions on Places to Taste Wine:
I had good experiences at the below, and for some of them, I did not visit personally but they were recommended by oenophiles, I just didn’t end up making it there.
Places I visited (all walk-ins, no appointment made):
We ended up here because we simply had to visit the iconic Clos de Vougeot chateau. As we drove away, we noticed this building located down the road and decided to drop in.
Big, bright and modern, the staff were welcoming. They focus on 5 producers but across 80 appellations, so plenty to look at before engaging with the team. We tried about 4 wines based on our taste profiles, and what we were looking to buy. No fee was paid as we bought a bottle.
2. Le Caveau de Chambolle Musigny
One that we just stumbled upon. Actually, this caveau is located in the same building as a restaurant I had really wanted to visit, but was closed on the day I wanted – Le Millesime.
But the caveau was open when we happened to be there, and my experience is described above. Again, we tasted for free because I made it clear that I would be buying something.
Another one that we went to specifically to visit the building because the Michelin guide mentioned that it was one of the most photographed buildings in Burgundy.
Ended up having the most amazing time – not so much just because of the tasting, but because of what we did after. See my article on Six Steps to the Perfect Picnic in Burgundy.
Again, no fee, but I was very clear that I was looking for a white to accompany my picnic, so he just let me try before I bought.
Highlighted in the Michelin guide, this estate makes their own wines, including 18 Premier Crus and 3 Grand Crus. I noticed that there was a group of people doing what looked like a lengthier paid tasting, but a helpful staff told us that if we wanted to buy something, she could look for suitable wines for us to try without having to pay to join a group tasting.
We tasted 5 in total, including a Grand Cru, which we then went on to buy. Naturally.
5. Chateau de Chassagne Montrachet
Another unplanned drive by. A huge space, very modern, with a couple other groups doing a tasting. Luckily someone was on hand to help us, and I noticed that if we were doing a tasting, they wouldn’t entertain anyone else, so people had to wait.
We paid for this one – 12 euros each where we tasted 5 wines. Interestingly, even though we bought a bottle, our fees were not waived. Which basically makes me think I should have asked in advance if we were to buy, would the fee be waived. If you go here, do try asking and let me know!
Recommended by experts and guide books (appointments might be needed, check online for more info):
- Joseph Drouhin – producer
- Mon Millésime – wine boutique
Morey St Denis – Domaine Arlaud and Caveau des Vignerons
Chambolle-Musigny – Amiot-Servelle Estate
Vosne Romanée – Armelle and Bernard Rion who sell truffles in addition to wines
- Domaine Comte Senard. I wanted to do a wine tasting lunch but my plans didn’t work out. Sounds like a good experience though.
- Domaine D’Aloxe Corton
Volnay – Domaine Henri Delagrange
Gevrey-Chambertin – Philippe LeClerc
Pommard – Domaine LeJeune
Extra Reading for Wine Geeks :