To Spit or to Swallow? That is the Question

Trip Start Aug 08, 2006
Trip End Oct 18, 2006

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Sunday, October 15, 2006

October 15-17
The sun had been shining brightly as the train pulled out of Paris that afternoon but, now evening was upon us as we pulled into Beaune. There was no service via the TGV so, the trip had taken nearly 4 hours on the local line. I alighted to a dark platform with very few other passengers following my lead. In fact, as best I could tell, there were very few passengers even left on the train by the time we reached Beaune. Most had made Dijon their final destination. I walked round to the front of the station hoping to find a taxi to take me to my hotel. The night was still and the street-side of the station wasn't very well lit. The lone streetlight partially illuminated the length of a mostly deserted parking lot and, alas, no taxis. I did however spy what appeared to be a city-plan posted on a large board near the edge of the parking lot. I went over to see if I could decipher it.
I had pre-booked my hotel for this, the last stop of the trip. As I tried to locate the address (or at least the street) on the map, a gentleman approached me and inquired, "You are American, yes?" Gee, what gave me away, Jacque? The two huge backpacks strapped to either side of my body? The baseball cap, perhaps? My general quizzical demeanor as I stare blankly at this huge map in the darkness for minutes on end with no apparent termination point to this clearly futile task?
Instead of any of that, I told him that I was looking for a taxi in order to get to my hotel and showed him the address which I had written down in my notebook. "Ah, yes. Usually there are taxis here," he said in a wonderfully upbeat, thick French accent. "But, apparently not just now. No matter. You can walk very easily. It is not more than five minutes." He showed me on the map how to follow the ring road around the old section of town. He told me it would be on the right hand side once I had traversed about half the circumference of town, pointing to the spot on the map. He was very helpful and very friendly. Who says the French hate Americans?
It took a bit longer than five minutes but, I found the place easily enough. And I didn't mind the walk. It was a beautiful, crisp night. I could smell the smoke rising from chimneys all around me. Those leaves that had already fallen from the trees crunched pleasantly underfoot.  I saw maybe one or two other pedestrians as I made my way around the old city walls and maybe one or two cars passed me in that same period of time. It was a pleasant walk. The temperature here now was certainly much more agreeable than Spain had been in August. Nevertheless, with two packs strapped on, it's never an entirely perspiration-free event hiking any sort of distance.
Soon I arrived at the spot which had been pointed out to me. I turned and made my way up the short pathway to the four-star hotel I had chosen to end the trip. I had been able to secure two nights of relative luxury for below the normal rate as the harvest was now over and we were entering the early part of the off-season. It was 8:30 when I checked-in. The woman at the front desk told me the restaurant would quit seating at 9:00 but, she could call over to let them know that I was coming if I liked. I thanked her and headed upstairs to quickly drop my bags, splash a little water on my face and change shirts. I was famished and did not want to miss out on this restaurant.
I hurried next door to secure my table, following the stone pathway between the two structures. There was ample outdoor seating tucked into little nooks between substantial shrubbery and a few fountains, all of which was lit beautifully with small lamps hugging the footpath. It was far too cool to seriously entertain the idea of dining alfresco but, it did look tempting. I entered the one-time residence, a grand mansion, and was greeted by the maître d'hôtel. He showed me to my table in one of the back rooms which looked as though it may have functioned as a salon in a bygone era. Each of the three rooms we passed through to get there held no more than five or six tables. There was only one other solitary diner in the salon with me, at a table on the opposite side of the modest sized room. The website through which I had booked my accommodations mentioned the adjoining restaurant was good. I hadn't imagined it was going to turn out to be one of the best places to eat in all of Beaune.
Service began with two amuse bouche, the first a lightly battered and fried single sweet shrimp next to half a cherry tomato and some sautéed garlic. The second consisted of a shot glass filled with sweet red pepper crème brulé. Both were very nice indeed. I'm not really sure what kind of greens those were that accompanied the escargot which followed but, they were perfectly wilted. The toasted sesame seeds and the unidentifiable, sweet, yellowish fruit served alongside, balanced the greens' bitterness nicely. The succulent, butter-drenched escargots, scattered in and around all of this, were magnificent. Burgundy is known for their snails and I can see why.
Inexplicably, the music being softly piped into the dining room abruptly went form the typical sort of classical dinner music you might expect in a pace of this caliber to Barry Manilow's "Copacabana." Never saw that one coming. I guess there are just some things about France that I'll never be able to figure.
Now, while describing to me the specials for the evening, I'm sure my waiter said one of them was, "lamb wrapped in a thin layer of pasta," which I thought intriguing. Turns out, what he really meant was pastry but, it was excellent all the same. The loin was heated to a pink, juicy center and the ragout of morels, porcinis and wood mushrooms with fresh thyme was just heavenly. All of this was paired with, what else, Bourgogne rouge - a 2003 vintage from a domaine with such a long name I didn't even attempt to write it down. It killed though.
Four more amuse bouche were delivered as palate cleansers. The spicy, coriander-covered popcorn (sounds weird, tasted great) was the best. But the pièce de résistance of this meal had to be the dessert. The base of the dish was a mango carpaccio on top of which were perched two chocolate tortellini, flanked by a scoop of Szechwan-pepper ice cream. The whole dinner had been amazing but, this dessert was hands down the best tasting and most inventive I had my entire time in Europe.
After dinner I took a spin around the courtyard out front once again. It was nicely framed by the hotel on one side and the restaurant on another, forming an 'L' shape. It made for an idyllic scene that, I'm sure, would have simply oozed romance in warmer weather. The clock was approaching midnight and everything was still and dark outside that little garden. Smoke from neighbors' hardwood fires lingered in the air and the chill soon drove me indoors. I was happy to retire though since I knew I had a big day of drinking, er, tasting ahead of me. But as I lingered that last moment outside, it struck me that I'd spent most of my time on this trip in larger cities and here I was now in a thoroughly enchanting little village. Don't get me wrong, I was glad to have seen the grand sites of the larger cities. But Beaune had already got me thinking that perhaps I would have to engineer another trip some day just to explore the small, out of the way villages of France. If this first night was any indication of what to expect, I felt certain I could get quite used to these sorts of locales.
I was up early the next morning to meet my guides for the next two days. I was feeling very proud of myself for having made it to the lobby by 8:30. I went outside to see if the red Land Rover that had been described to me via e-mail had arrived yet. It hadn't and as it was rather chilly out, I found a comfy chair in the lobby and settled in. 8:40, nothing. 8:45, uh, uh. 8:50, nope. 9:00, what's going on here? I checked my notes and groaned. Ah crap, you mean I could'a slept for another hour? Such is life.
So, when 9:30 rolled around I went outside again and the Land Rover promptly made its appearance. My guides were named David and Lynne Hammond, a lovely couple from England who had given up their marketing services business a few years back to, instead, lead tours of small, craft wineries here in Burgundy. David instructed me to climb into the front seat as the other couple on the tour was already sitting in the back. I climbed in as directed and as I turned to introduce myself the woman in the backseat slowly lifted her sunglasses, perching them atop her head and slowly announced, "We know you."
I looked at her and then at him and it hit me. It was Jill and Andrew whom I had met at the Riverside bar in Paris just two nights prior (I'm not making this up, really). There was probably an expletive uttered in sheer disbelief and then I offered, "What a small world! How are you guys?"
As David drove off, we thoroughly covered the various angles of the 'small world' principle. Then Jill and Andrew brought me up-to-speed on their trip since we'd last seen each other. I did the same and talk soon turned to the day's adventure ahead. David informed us that we would be visiting three different domaines, touring their cellars and tasting around 20 wines, both red and white, from varying appellations ranging from Grand Cru and Premier Cru to Village and Regional wines. This day we would focus exclusively on the Côte de Beaune, one of the five major sub-regions within Burgundy. It is comprised of roughly 5,000 hectares of vineyards in a relatively compact growing area extending form the village of Ladoix-Serrigny, north of Beaune, to the hill sides of the Marranges, south of Santenay. The variations in soil or "terroir" make for diverse wines full of character and quality from responsive reds to winding whites.
In fact, it was here in Burgundy that this concept of terroir was first developed. The friars who tended their vineyards in and around the area Monasteries noted that some plots of land, often quite small sections within a particular vineyard, would consistently yield better fruit, year after year. Being monks, and not having much else to do, they carefully studied those vines producing the most luscious fruit, along with their surroundings. They discovered that several different factors impact the ultimate taste of the wines including, the growing soil, underlying rock, the altitude, slope of hills or the orientation toward the sun, and microclimate (typical rain, winds, humidity, temperature variations, etc.) No two vineyards, not even in the same general area, have exactly the same conditions or, as the monks termed it, terroir.
This concept was what ultimately led to the French system of classifying wine regions; the aforementioned Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée. Today there are 450 different wine appellations in France. The Burgundian appellations are divided into four main categories. At the low end of the spectrum are the Regional appellations which make up 52% of the production and are usually simply labeled as 'Bourgogne.' Then there are the Communal or "Village" appellations representing roughly 34% of production each year. These wines will be labeled with the name of the village in which the vineyards are situated. Premier Cru (often written as, 1er Cru) appellations account for only 12% of all Burgundy and will bear the village name and the actual vineyard name. Finally Grand Cru, which constitutes just 2% of the total, will always carry the name of the actual vineyard. The two main grape varietals grown here are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. A limited amount of Gamay and Pinot Blanc is also grown and sometimes used for blending. The total average annual production of wine in Burgundy is 1.5 million hectolitres, representing about 2 million bottles. And we see only a tiny percentage of that shipped to the States. But that, of course, is why I came.
We would begin our day in the town of Meursault. As we made our way toward that picturesque village, we drove past mile after mile of vineyards covering hillside and valley alike. The views were stunning and we pulled over several times to get out of the car, ponder the scene and take a few snaps. Soon we found ourselves leaving the expansive vistas of grape vines and, after a few quick turns, were ensconced in a medieval town. It was all twisty-turny, narrow little roads lined with quaint brick houses and storefronts. We stopped short of an open gate that led into the smallish courtyard surrounded by buildings on three sides that made up Domaine Coche-Bizouard.
David introduced us first to the laziest dog on the Continent, a huge yellow Lab named Pierre - or some such - who could hardly be bothered to lift his head, much less greet us. The owner of the Domaine, Fabien Coche, was only a bit more engaging, owing more to apparent shyness and the obvious language barrier than to laziness. This I am sure of because after descending a few ancient stone stairs and ducking to miss knocking my head on the way into the cave, we began to taste the fruits of his labor.
We sampled nine wines with Fabien leading us from the lighter whites through to the boldest reds. David and Lynne translated expertly for us, explaining what exactly it was we were tasting with each new glass poured. They conveyed information to us regarding the vintage, the location of the appellations and approximately how long Monsieur Coche thought each selection should be cellared before it would reach its full potential.
My only other experience, to this point, with serious, day-long wine tasting had come on a visit to Napa Valley a couple of years earlier. I recalled getting pretty toasty on that excursion and now I wasn't really sure how to pace myself over the course of the day. So, I decided that expectoration was the proper strategy; at least early on. Now, if you haven't much practice spitting out mouthfuls of wine into the pretty receptacles which are invariably provided expressly for this purpose, it can be, how shall we say?, a bit off-putting. Not that it's any more difficult than tying one's shoes or blowing bubbles with chewing gum. It's just that it can be a little awkward at first in the company of strangers. It goes against the grain of all the deep-seeded social graces I have ever been taught. But one thing I learned quickly, once you do decide to spit, you'd better really commit to it. Go to expel those juicy contents and waiver even in the slightest and you run the risk of a bad spit, wine dribbling down your chin or, worse, spotting that nice new cardigan of yours. No, once you lean in over that spittoon, you've got to take dead aim and let fly with authority. In no time it seemed second nature to me and really rather enjoyable as a matter of fact.
As we went along I made copious notes on the sheets that David and Lynne had provided for us. I'd been told that at the end of the day we would have the opportunity to purchase any of the selections we had tasted at Domaine prices. Even though we were drinking these wines young (1 or 2 years in the bottle for most), everything was good but, there were differences. The Aligote was merely fair by comparison as this lower end Regional white tends to be. Several of the Meursault whites were very good and a couple were definite stars-in-the-making. The Pommard Vielles Vignes was outstanding as well.
What I learned as we went along was how to taste these young wines for possibilities rather than their current character. Almost without exception, we were imbibing wines that were meant to be cellared for several years (8-10 in many cases) before they would reach maturity. So, I began to learn how to judge the structure of a wine at this stage. I learned how to anticipate the profiles that were likely to develop in the bottle based upon the clues given in the glass now. For example, fully developed, ripe fruit on the palate means you're dealing with a wine that, in all likelihood, has the potential to transform itself over the ensuing decade, softening and taking on the classic Burgundian traits of flowers and minerality. The Meursault 1er Cru Charmes we tasted was already showing these mineral characteristics along with almonds and a touch of butter. It was one of the best glasses of white wine (of any varietal) I've ever tasted.
After nearly an hour in the cave, we bid adieu to Monsieur Coche and Pierre the sleeping dog, piling into the Rover once again. We were now on our way to Monthelie and our second winery. As we drove through the French countryside I was taken aback by the explosion of color that the vines provided on this sumptuous autumn day. It was like someone had taken a Vermont forest and lowered the tree tops to waist high. The vineyards just seemed to roll on forever. We stopped once or twice out of sheer photographic necessity. I just couldn't pass by that little hamlet in the distance without capturing it on film, or the stone huts standing detached in the clos where field hands seek refuge from the intense summer sun. And speaking of 'clos', I was interested to learn from David that the etymology of this word derives from the stone enclosures originally used by Catholic monks to delineate the various plots of land with the best terroir.
We soon arrived at our second stop for the day, Domaine Bouzerand-Dujardin. Upon our arrival, we were led on a short tour of the facilities by the winemaker, Ulrich Dujardin. That may be overstating things a bit. What we actually did was shuffle into the large shed behind his house which is situated above the ancient cave where the wine rests once in barrel or bottle. Inside the shed was a large, metal, trough-like structure that stood about five feet high and was eight feet or so long. Inside, I believe, was a mechanism for de-stemming and smashing the grapes. The resulting product is then transferred to one of the huge fiberglass tanks at the other end of the shed which are used in the initial fermentation process. We could see the juice, along with the lees, sitting inside the enormous upright cylinders, no doubt working their magic.
And that was it except for a lot of hoses and other miscellaneous odds and ends of the trade. No huge factory, just the shed out back. I couldn't believe it. These guys make wine? Wine we would actually want to drink? I couldn't wait to taste it and see what quality of product such minimalism was able to produce.
We descended into the cave with Ulrich in the lead, directing us between row after row of barrels. David translated again and half way along asked us if we would like to have a barrel tasting of last year's vintage? Gee, no. I think I'll pass on this rather unique experience to go see if I can't find a way to wedge my head between those barrels over there. You carry on without me though. Just shout when we're moving on. A ridiculous question indeed.
The wine from the barrel was much lighter and the acidity more pronounced than what one expects form a more mature version. But even at this early stage, it was very pleasant. I couldn't wait to see what the finished product would taste like with a year or more in the bottle.
We made our way around the corner and found a little tasting station in place there; a small table with 9-10 bottles of white and red arranged in a similar manner to that at the first domaine. Curiously, this was the only domaine where no spittoon was provided. Instead, Ulrich encouraged us to employ the méthode à l'ancienne and spit between the barrels onto the small pebbles that lined the floor. This, we were informed, would just allow the wine to seep into the soil. So, when in Rome... However, there was much less expectoration this time 'round. Especially once we delved into the reds.
I'm not so sure these wines' longevity will exceed those from the previous domaine but, at this early stage the mostly '03 and '04's were much more lively and approachable - very fruity, yet still balanced, fun wines. My favorites were the '02 and '03 Monthelie 1er Cru "Les Champs Fulliots." The '02 was still very delicate but full of potential. I was told it could handle another 10 years in the bottle, easy. The '03 was bigger, more fruit-forward. It was drinkable now or could be cellared for no more than 4-5 years. Much like the first domaine, I made several notes to assist me later at the wine store. We thanked Ulrich profusely for his truly gracious hospitality and for our oenological lessons and piled into the Rover once again.
Even though it marked the end of my trip, I had been looking forward to these two days nearly since the idea for the whole excursion hit me. Wine tasting in one of the most famous regions of the world just seemed the natural way to wrap it all up. So far, things were definitely measuring up to my expectations. The food and, of course, the wine I anticipated would mesmerize. What I hadn't counted on was the beauty of the French countryside. The colors, as I said, were stunning this time of year. But more than that, the rolling hills, interspersed with quaint villages every so often, revealing themselves unexpectedly like Brigadoon as we crested a hill or rounded a bend, seemed to just go on forever. Such a pastoral expanse is to be expected, I suppose, but the sightlines these hills afforded caught me a bit off-guard. Forevermore, it will be those vistas I will recall when anyone utters the words, "wine country."
After a pleasant 30 minute ride through such environs, we arrived at a decent sized outpost with nothing else in the immediate vicinity, seemingly for miles. It was here we were to lunch. As we entered, I was confused. The décor seemed a bit more Boca Raton than Burgundy to me, owing to the abundance Rattan furniture and pastels in the color scheme. However, we were seated at a nice big table near a window with lovely views of that enchanting countryside. David and Lynn assured us the cuisine on offer here was as authentic Bourgogne as one could find in the region. It did not disappoint.
The menu was extensive but, I fairly well ignored it once our server finished explaining the chef's specials for the day. I began my meal with the game-meat terrine in puff pastry, paired with a heavenly glass of white. At first, I wasn't sure the wine would go but, David had ordered a bottle for the table and assured me it would. To my surprise it worked like peanut butter and jelly (a very fancy pb&j). For my main, I ordered the salmon which was served in a grain mustard sauce. By now, David had guided us toward a bottle of red that was even better than the outstanding white. Again, the pairing was divine (for those of you who only drink white wine with your fish, salmon with Pinot Noir is one of the classic pairings and you must try it).
The meal had been sumptuous; deftly prepared and bursting with subtle flavors. I couldn't have asked for a better lunch. I was sated. Didn't need another bite. And then they wheeled out the cheese trolley. There was no use even trying to resist. It was as if Lex Luther himself had emerged from the kitchen clutching an enormous portion of Kryptonite and I was the man of steel (or the stomach of steel, as it were). And so, four lovely selections of artesianal, un-pasteurized cheese made their way from trolley to plate to my gullet. Divine.
We lingered a few minutes more over coffee to, ahem, fortify ourselves against what would doubtlessly be another round of delicious wines to come. Then we were off to our third domaine of the day. As it happened, this last vintner was housed in a little village called Remigny which, is near Santenay and Chassagne Montrachet, as far south in the region as we would go either day.
Domaine Pascal Borgeot is quite an old winery. It was established better than 100 years ago but, has undergone significant modernization in the past 15 years or so. Their vineyards occupy approximately 17 hectares and produce a range of wines; some 17 whites, 10 reds and 2 crémant (what the French call all of their sparkling wine produced outside of the Champagne region), all done in the purest style of Burgundy. Because their facilities are spread across some distance on multiple locations, the modern equipment added in the recent past (including two pneumatic presses, two tractors, their own bottling and labeling line, temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks and the purchase of over 100 new barrels each year) allows them to take full advantage of their vineyards themselves, while retaining the traditional style of wine making.
This place definitely stood out as being a larger operation than the two domaine's we had visited earlier in the day. Even so, the proprietors still took the time to show us around. We were led through a huge cave containing row after row of barrels containing wines in various stages of finish. We passed through to some of the oldest underground rooms which had been, rather oddly I thought, staged with old wine making equipment in the center of the floor. It looked more like a still-life than an actual working vinification sight. And indeed, that's what it was. Next we crossed into a dusty space with a large tasting table, made out of an old barrel, at its center. But we didn't actually taste any wine here, though it looked to me like the perfect location to do so. Just another bit of theater for the tourists. "Oui, Francois. I agree we need somesing else here to hold z'ayre attencion. But what?" "I know, Reneé. What about some dusty old bottles on ze ledge over zere. And we put ze cob webs around zem." "Magnifique Francois! You are true genious."
Admittedly, it was a bit hokey but, I was snapping away with my camera just the same, eating it up. I was thinking, I'm in a wine cave. In France! Does it really get any better than this? Our guides directed us upstairs and into an odd garage of sorts where the tasting flight had been laid out. Why we didn't use the haunting space in the cellar is a mystery to me. Didn't want to disturb the cobwebs, I suppose. In any case, we dug in and began sampling the seven or eight wines they had on offer for us.
We were treated to a very nice selection of Santenay including, the rarely available 1er Cru white, as well as the Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne Montrachet 1er Cru. The whites exhibited the most minerality of any wine we had tasted so far - very nice. I gave three stars to three of the reds as well. A good showing overall but, as we neared the end, I could tell my palate was starting to grow a bit heavy as my head grew light.
We took our leave from Domaine Pascal Borgeot and headed for the Cave des Vielles Vignes in Mersault - the wine store where we were able to purchase bottles at domaine prices - very near to where we had started out that morning. Once we arrived, I put my tasting notes to god use scooping up two cases in all of assorted reds and whites.
With day one in the books, David and Lynn dropped me at my hotel where I bid adieu to Andrew and Jill. As it turned out, they ended up not continuing the tour the next day as Jill wasn't feeling well. After a brief rest, I set out to see what Beaune looked like in the daylight. 
I was able to thoroughly cover the town in less than an hour. Each turn provided charming views of rugged stone buildings lining the quiet avenues. The center square was almost terminally picturesque. There was an old-fashioned band shell and a beautiful carousel set amidst green lawns which were interspersed with a few trees and plenty of park benches. Ringing this old world idyll was all manner of restaurants, cafés, ice cream parlors and various other shops. The square was sparsely inhabited, neither noisy nor crowded. Here, life seemed to just go by like a boat floating downstream on a calm river.
A few streets over I found a wonderful poster shop filled with old originals. I spent nearly an hour in there pouring over these early forms of print advertising. There was a section dedicated to wine & liquor prints, another pertaining to the promotion of travel destinations (mostly throughout France, like Lyon or Marseilles), and yet another for all manner of household goods. The amazing thing about these posters, to me, is that whether for cake flour or cognac, each one is a singular work of art. I mean, show me the last Pampers ad you wanted to frame and hang on your wall. See my point?
After pawing through a couple of thousand posters, I realized how hungry I had become. I made my way back to the square headed for a restaurant I had clocked earlier. I knew what I was going to have for dinner that night before I even saw the place. In fact, I knew what I was going to have for dinner that night before I even arrived in town. There was simply no way I could come to Burgundy and not have Bouef Bourgonion at least once. So, I'd been checking the menus posted outside of the nicer looking establishments as I wandered around, deciding that Restaurant Les Chevaliers looked like a winner. And man, was it ever.
I started with another Burgundian classic, Oeufs en Murette which is composed of poached eggs on toast points, slathered with an intensely flavored red wine reduction. It was creamy, tart and sweet all at once. So simple, so balanced, it was the epitome of French country cooking. Next, the Bourgonion arrived looking exactly as I had pictured it. The beef was fork tender from hours of braising in red wine. Throughout, the stew-like dish was studded with fresh white mushrooms, pearl onions and real lardons. It was, in a word, heavenly. To accompany the meal I ordered a ½ bottle of Louis Jadot's '95 Beaune Theurons (this large negocient known for its Beaujolais has a facility near the edge of town). By the end of the meal, the wine had opened up to become quite entrancing, Too bad it hadn't been opened an hour or so beforehand to breathe. Oh well. It was a great meal all the same.
And what's better, I ask you, after a fine meal than to take a stroll among the dark and deserted bi-ways of a town built in the middle ages. For my part, nothing. Except perhaps doing the same in a seaside port but, let's not get greedy. I stalled a few minutes by a large campanile in the middle of town, making photographs of it in the low light and then proceeded to my hotel.
The next day passed much the same as the previous had except that in place of Andrew and Jill a gentleman in his early thirties from New York joined us. Erik, I believe he was called. A nice enough fellow - polite, quiet, fine by me. With a morning chill to brace us early on, we drove north from Beaune to the Côte de Nuits, where we would visit three domaines on a schedule similar to the day before. The first of which was located near Vosne-Romanée.
Before heading to the winery, we took a slight detour to see the clos where the grapes are grown for the famed Romané-Conti. This is perhaps the rarest and most expensive of all the Grand Cru produced in Burgundy. It was fun to see where these grapes are grown and dream about cracking open a bottle of wine that bested my monthly mortgage payment in price but, soon I was ready to stop dreaming and start tasting.
So, we made the short drive down a country road to Domaine Michel Noëllat & Fils. The estate covers some 17 hectares and produces 17 different wines from very prestigous appelations including Morey-Saint-Denis, Chambolle-Musigny, Vosne-Romanée, Echézeaux and Clos de Vougeot. Each is traditionally produced and matured in their patulous cellars.
We entered what would be the grandest of all the tasting rooms I would visit and were seated at a high table with bar stools; one of five or six clustered in the middle of the room. The walls were lined with shelves and upon them rested bottles from various vintages dating back quite some way. I could see that several of the wines we were to taste (all reds at this estate) had already been decanted in preparation for our arrival.
We tasted five wines here, going back for seconds of some varietals from early in the flight to help compare and contrast with later ones. Both the '02 Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru "Les Suchots" and the '03 Clos de Vougoet Grand Cru scored four stars in my book. This was some serious Pinot Noir and I was glad this had been the first stop of the day when our pallets were fresh. We lingered, making the most of the tasting without overdoing it. Eventually we had to go. But not before selecting a case full of various bottles to ship back home.
We back tracked a bit down the road toward Nuits-Saint-Georges, the largest and best know town in the Côte de Nuits. Domaine Bony, our second stop, is a quaint little family run operation, quite a contrast to where we had just come from. Fabienne Bony took over from her father in 2001. He had founded the six hectare winery in the 1960's, producing several appelations in small quantities. The wines they produce are typical of Nuits-Saint-Georges, intense, ruby red in color with a muscular bouquet. The complex flavors tell of cherry, black current, fur, truffles, and various spices. Yet, at the same time, they are all very approachable, unpretentious specimens. Fabienne tends her own vines, harvests, presses, matures and vinifies the wines herself (with a little help, of course). So it wasn't a complete surprise that, after our tour of the wine making facilities, we were ushered into her house and seated at the kitchen table for our tasting experience.
The Bourgogne Pinot Noir was lovely for a regional appelation and a steal at €6 a bottle so, I decided to take a half case home with me. The '02 Nuits-Saint-Georges Village tasted of currents and blackberries; slightly tart at this stage but, with another year or two in the bottle it appeared things would come together nicely. The '04 Vosne-Romanée, on the other hand, was already very fruity but, structured enough to lay down for ten years easy. The real surprise of the tasting, however, had been the first wine poured for us. It was Fabienne's '05 Bourgogne Rosé. This pink elixir changed my mind about what a rosé could be. Everything about it was light from its hint of sweetness to the just detectable berry notes. And at €5 a bottle, I couldn't help but scoop up another half a case of this gem.
We thanked Fabienne for her hospitality and loaded up the Rover one more time. It was now approaching the lunch hour and our over abundance of aperitifs had piqued my appetite. David guided us through the countryside to Savigny-les-Beaune where we found the little restaurant called Le Morgan.
Named after the make of automobiles known for their hand-crafted roadsters, it was a modest looking, chef-owned and run establishment. In fact, the chef came out to greet us as we were the first to have arrived for lunch. Via Lynne's translation, I learned that he was the only one in the kitchen at the moment so, everything we were about to eat, we could be assured, had been prepared by the chef himself.
I began my meal with Escargot Bourgogne, simply done in butter and herbs. This paired wonderfully with the bottle of white David had selected to start us off. I was told that the chef's Bouef Bourgonion was prepared country-style and, even though I'd had the same dish for dinner the previous night, I ordered it to learn about the contrast in styles. This version was a little less saucy and the beef held together more instead of falling apart at the brush of a fork. The flavors were equally intense though. I was in heaven. Of course, our second bottle, red this time, only served to elevate the dish. Soon it was time to push on to the final domaine.
We drove twenty minutes or so north to a lovely village called Fussey which stradles the Hautes Côtes de Beaune and the Hautes Côtes de Nuits. There we found Domaine Marcillet, a ten hectare operation run by the husband and wife team of Rémi and Nadine Marcillet. They established their winery 14 years ago, preferring to use a combination of new and traditional methods in their wine making. The result is a range of exceptionally good value wines for both reds and whites.
With the two wine makers leading us, we poked around the facilities for bit, watching some of their workers empty one of the huge fermentation tanks. We then headed to the cellar for the tasting. This time we weren't among the barrels. Rather, they had created a very nicely appointed little room with a long wooden table easily able to seat a dozen or more for their tastings.
Our first wine was an '05 Bourgogne Aligote that tasted of green apples and had notes reminiscent of a California Chardonnay. Next, we sampled an '05 Savigny-les-Beaune that had very nice structure for a young wine. There was just a hint oak coming on, as well as some butter. Neither was overpowering the equally restrained apple and apricot flavors that rounded out the profile. From there we moved on to the reds, sampling three from the '04 vintage; a Hautes Côtes de Beaune, a Hautes Côtes de Nuits and a Savigny-les-Beaune. Each was nice but, needed a bit more time in the bottle to my taste. The first was the best of the bunch though. It was a light Pinot Noir with a hint of grass on the nose and a tinge of cranberry on the palate. I figured it might open up if decanted in advance of serving so, I bought a bottle to share with my parents upon my return. All the other wine I'd purchased so far was going to be shipped (couldn't really figure a way to carry four cases with me on the plane) so, I wouldn't see any of that for weeks while it was on the slow boat to America. I also decided to get a bottle of their Savigny (the white) for myself to enjoy on the train ride back to Paris.
Suddenly I realized that was it. We were back in the Rover and heading for Beaune and the train station. I stared intently at row after row of the beautifully colored vines as we drove past. I tried to fix in my mind images of the traditional Burgundian black and gold tiled rooftops. It's not the kind of thing one can soon forget but, I was taking no chances.
At the station, I bid a fond adieu to David and Lynne. I thanked them profusely for a wonderful introduction to Burgundy. Then I took a seat on the platform and waited.
Within 30 minutes or so the train to Paris came chugging down the line and rolled to a stop in front of me. I climbed aboard, found an empty compartment and settled into one of the window-side seats. It was early evening and the sun was already beginning to set.
As dusk turned to dark, we rolled past Dijon. I had the iPod in shuffle mode and "Skyway" by the Replacements came on. This particular tune has long been my go-to song whenever I've felt homesick. I found it fitting and curious at the same time that it should present itself now. I watched the landscapes out my window change from the wine country to sprawling, non-descript suburbs. At times it looked as if we could have just as easily been making the trek between Minneapolis and St. Cloud. And then without notice we would breeze past a 400 year old cathedral or a small, distinctly French village and I'd be brought right back to the reality of my location. And I was leaving - going back to the familiar. But what I was leaving, it occurred to me, had become a new sort of familiar to me; the prospect of new discoveries around every corner, each day a unique experience unto itself, being surrounded by fine art, music, food and wine.
And speaking of wine, I decided to pull out my bottle of Savigny and crack it open (that bottle opener I'd procured in Nice was still coming in handy). I had no drinking vessel so, I 'sipped' straight from the bottle. I also jotted notes intermittently about the lessons I'd learned over the past couple of months as I got good and drunk. It was a bittersweet sort of reflection given the context but, I determined a few things as I sat there. I determined that it is better to believe than to hope. That we can not do this alone. That fear is simply a trick of the mind which needs to be overcome.
I had begun this trip attempting to live in the moment - a good exercise, if impractical one hundred percent of the time. It taught me that those discoveries which each day had held anew for me while traveling, didn't need to be left behind. Every day holds that potential if you open yourself to it, no matter where you are. And I decided that I didn't need to have it all figured out right now. The past three months had been a good start to asking myself some very elementary questions about what it is I want going forward. That's farther than some people ever get. Perhaps best of all, I decided that I was a good person. Flawed, but deserving of a resilient faith in my ability to follow the path. I must remember how important it is to un-complicate one's life in order to see - to truly see.
I put away my notebook after a while in lieu of the bottle. Happy and filled with optimism, I made my return to Paris as the train slowly sputtered to a halt. A last leg would take me from here to the airport in Frankfurt. My journey was over, in one sense. And in another very real sense, it had just begun.
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