Table Art: When All There is to Do is Taste

Trip Start Jun 12, 2006
Trip End Nov 28, 2006

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Monday, October 23, 2006

He Said:

Aside from drinking wine and eating foods cooked in wine, there's not much else to do in Beaune. A city in the heart of Burgundy, it basically divides two of the regions most famous clusters of vineyards - Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits - but more on that later...

We arrived rather late in the evening in the middle of a rainstorm, and quickly found accommodations recommended in our scavenged Rick Steves book. Beaune is not very big, so we were only steps away from the town center where we sat underneath an awning, ate croque monsieurs (croque messieurs for two sandwiches?), watched it rain, and drank what turned out to be two glasses of Burgundy that were borderline terrible. We opted out of two more and headed home for some TV. Between my translations and Alli's lip reading, we successfully managed to comprehend an entire episode of CSI New York or NYPD Blue or something where an estranged son kidnapped his own sister in order to demand ransom money from their parents.

On Saturday morning we enjoyed the much-anticipated morning market, which, as we learned by oversleeping in Provence, isn't called the 'afternoon market' for a reason. We sampled homemade candies but didn't sample the homemade goat cheese. They wouldn't allow us to sample the homemade wine, so we didn't stay at the market too long. We went to the Musée du Vin, a museum displaying the history of wine, especially as it pertains to Burgundy. While it was mildly interesting, again, no tastings were given, and my main intellectual reason for going was not fulfilled. I really wanted a simple explanation for how and why wines from the Burgundy are named, and as we joyously discovered, that requires tasting them.

The Tourist Information office directed us to a place called Vin Sensation, which was the best recommendation they could have given. We enrolled in a wine tasting course, which basically translated to a: stupid, English-speaking beer-drinkers course for how to not look like an idiot in Burgundy. Our instructor was patient with us, though some of her ridiculing chortles were uncorked by our most absurd remarks, such as asking about wines from the region of Beaujolais, which are made from inferior grapes. Most of the time, though, she did all of the questioning. And in reality, we did learn a lot, especially the naming process.

Burgundy only comprises about five percent of France and is formed by five different wine-growing regions along the Côtes d'Or, or Golden Slopes, which are seemingly named for the color of vineyard leaves in fall. The two that grow the most of the red wines (a surprising minority to white wines here) are the Côtes de Beaune vineyards to the south of Beaune and the Côtes de Nuits vineyards to the north of Beaune. Within the regions are villages, sometimes hyphenated with the name of its most famous vineyard. The local maps and train stations are all marked with some of the most famous wine varieties in the world that also happen to be towns, and seeing them reminded me of dub room conversations with Dave B. - Vosne-Romanée, Gevery-Chambertin, Nuits-St-Georges, Aloxe-Corton, Santenay.

We tried them all, though I have to say that with at least some hesitation. There are four classes of wine in Burgundy beginning with the regional wines that simply say "Burgundy" on the label, followed by the village wines that display the names of the village, then the premier crus, and finally, the grand crus, which are grown on the best locations of the slopes. When I say we tried them all, we tried at least the village varieties with some grand crus thrown in the mix for good measure. No '97 Gevery-Chambertin from Trapet, but we did taste some really good stuff and began to acquire a wine vocabulary to suit our noses and palettes in the process.

Our second tasting led us to the Marché aux Vins and a series of underground caverns. This time we had no help, and unfortunately, there were almost too many wines to comprehend all at once. Despite the terrible cups that didn't allow us to smell or see the wines' colors, we did our best. Some tasted not so good. Some tasted good. Some tasted better. We knew we must have been on the right track when the wines that tasted the best were the ones that cost the most.

That night we were anxious to put our tasting to the test and pair something with a great meal. The foods of Burgundy are my absolute favorites when it comes to French cuisine, so we went to a restaurant on the main square for some coq au vin (chicken in wine), boeuf Bourguignon (beef Burgundy), and escargots Bourguignon (snails in hot garlic butter). The restaurant looked perfectly French with high, red wine walls; vintage poster ads; and a big, brassy chandelier hanging in the center of the room. The place was packed, the kitchen was slow, and I had had better Burgundian food before; but, we enjoyed a slow, relaxed meal the French way. After all, they call wine and food paraphernalia "Table Art" . We wound up having a few carafes of the house red wine, which was of course a...

... Bordeaux. We couldn't quite justify a €60 bottle of Burgundy for our €30 palates that had just graduated from 15.

She Said:

When we decided to go to the Burgundy region, it was under the pretense that "touring" would be somewhat exclusive to wine tasting and vineyards. I was also excited to try some of the regional cuisine with some down time before we headed to Paris. We arrived to Beaune after dark in the pouring rain, so I had no idea how beautiful the landscape was as we quickly walked to our first hotel of choice. After we checked in and dried off, we headed back out to grab a quick and easy dinner before taking hot showers and calling it a night.

We woke up the next morning to an ominous sky, but the rain had stopped. I was happy we had a break in the weather because, to my delight, there was an open market going on right down the street. Looking at fresh produce, bread, flowers, clothing, and jewelry never gets old to me. I could, however, do without the game vendors selling skinned pigs and the goat cheese vendors stinking up the whole lane (Jamie and Jen, that picture was for you guys). So we walked around and saw what Beaune's market had to offer before taking a scenic rampart walk and appreciating more beautifully changing leaves.

We went to a folk wine museum to give ourselves a better understanding of the history of winemaking in Burgundy before jumping into tasting. I tried to grasp the history and naming/classification systems of Burgundy wines, but was slightly disappointed at finding only minimal explanations with more tools and costumes on display from medieval winemaking times. There was a cool display showing the evolution of the wine bottle. But overall, the museum was sort of a bust as far as education goes, so we decided to go for the real thing. We signed up for a wine tasting for dummies type of course, and had a picnic lunch in the park.

There were four people at the tasting (including us) with a sommelier giving the hour long course. She had an AV with good slides of regional maps, classification systems, and catch words for describing the aroma and tastes of wines. She was, however, a bit of a wine snob and did more asking than telling. You know those teachers who ask questions about material they are about to teach to get an idea of who knows what? Well, that's really all she did, and I began to wonder if it was for her own amusement. She smirked at our wrong answers and only offered the right ones after we all struggled. I definitely learned a lot, so I can't say she was all bad, but I really wasn't a fan of her style and wondered if I could have learned more had she not been borderline patronizing.

For dinner, we went to a traditional Burgundian restaurant for some local cuisine and wine. Unfortunately, we chose a restaurant where finding a reasonably priced bottle of Burgundy was out of the question, so instead (wine people may want to turn away for this), we ordered a carafe of Bordeaux. I got a traditional coq au vin dish (chicken in wine sauce), and Chad got beef Burgundy. We worked off our delicious meal as we ran home in the rain!

We woke up to what began as a beautiful day, so we decided to walk outside of town in search of some vineyards. We first came upon a nearby park with a beautiful pond surrounded by colorful trees and vineyards in the distance. It was one of those beautiful and peaceful days where the sun was shining (finally), the birds were chirping, the ducks were quacking, and the leaves were falling. We walked further down the main road and found our first vineyard. There were no grapes, but the leaves on the vines were all different colors and the rows of them were stunning. We ended up in another vineyard and were proud of ourselves for recognizing the classification of grapes and wine produced there.

We headed back into town and went to our second wine tasting, only this time, it was a self guided tour through candlelit caves with 18 wines to taste. We got a tasting cup and a description of the wines and headed down the dark labyrinth to the barrels. There were four Chardonnays and fourteen Pinot Noirs. Needless to say, we were in serious need of a palate cleanser by the time we got to the last wines (which were the best ones). We used the spittoons like professionals and tried to use some wine-speak as we half jokingly and half seriously described the wine to each other and made some notes. It really just comes down to preference anyway, and after we were done, we went for lunch with a carafe of a red regional wine. We toasted to our next, most anticipated stop for Chad, Paris...
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lambs on

Beaune was one of the last stops on our backpacking trip around Europe and North Africa in the mid-70s, so this entry of yours really tugged at some memories. We were there in the fall, too, and I well remember the golden leaves of the vines. Because it was nearing the end of our travels, we had very little money left and couldn't partake of wine sampling (not free in the Burgundy region, unlike other wine-producing regions of France). We stayed at the youth hostel and ate very simply. Only years later did we have coq au vin and boeuf Bourguignon in France...and they were prepared by our American friend who is a fabulous cook.
Again, thanks for the memories.

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