We walked up to the door of a small wine cavern and knocked several times before a small, elderly French man hobbled out and started speaking quickly to us… in French.  When he finally took a breath, we clumsily explained to him in broken French that our French was…well, limited.  It quickly became evident that he didn’t speak a lick of English – not even so much as a word!  He smiled and laughed, and waved us through the wine cave to a barrel where he had set up a makeshift tasting table.  As he poured each wine, he spoke in slow deliberate French and pantomimed words and expressions until he was satisfied that we understood his description (or, at least until our smiling and nodding was exuberant enough to pretend that we understood).

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Surprisingly, this was fairly typical of many of our wine tastings while exploring the Burgundy wine region of France.  I’m no stranger to wine regions, and although I didn’t expect Napa Valley tasting rooms, I did expect something closer to that realm than not.

Boy, was I wrong.

Although you can find large commercial vintners, the majority of the producers in the region are small mom-and-pop type wineries.  I suppose this makes sense – there are only so many hectares of the coveted Burgundy soil which the famed vines grow on and many plots are passed down from generation to generation within the same family.DSC02816Burgundy includes the famed Cote d’or Vineyards.  The northern section of wine country from Dijon to Beaune is the Cote de Nuits, the part of Burgundy that is world renown for their pinot noirs.  The southern section from Beaune to Santenay is the Cote de Beaune, known for their top notch chardonnays.

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Which section did I explore?  Well, both.  Clearly!  

How does one decide between the worlds best pinots versus chardonnays?  They don’t.

On our first day in the region, we started our journey in Dijon and made our way south.  (You better believe that we stopped in Dijon to purchase some of their famous mustard.)  Now, it’s important to note, there are hundreds of small wine producers in Burgundy.  If you have specific wineries you want to visit, I would highly recommend that you make appointments in advance.  This said, there are hundreds of small wine producers in Burgundy.  So, if you choose not to remain on such a schedule, you’ll probably be just fine through some trial and error.  This is the route we chose (shocking for such a type-A planner, I know).  Basically, you drive about until you find a wine cave and then knock on their door.  The proprietor will answer and tell you if he or she is inclined to give you a tasting.  You’ll strike out occasionally, but we did just fine.  If you’re nervous about wasting precious time in this oenophile’s heaven, stop in one of the villages that have a tourism office (such as Marsannay) for maps of the region and brochures detailing the operating hours of each cave.

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We began our tastings in Marsannay.  As we were just getting our bearings, we walked into the first open door we found. It wasn’t a wine cave (where you can sample the wines from one specific producer), but was a distributor, Domaine de Beauclair, pedaling many different wines from multiple producers.  Not what we had in mind, but it was a free tasting and we were dying to try Burgundy’s famed reds, so we did.

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After, we drove down the road several more meters and found what we were in search of – a traditional wine cave.  The cave of Dame Claudine, to be precise.  The woman leading our tastings, likely Dame Claudine herself or one of her descendants, was friendly and was able to communicate the specificities of each of her reasonably priced wines in broken english.

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From Marsannay we headed further south on the Cote de Nuits to the small town of Mairie.  In Mairie, we stumbled upon Phillipe Leclerc’s cave.  This cave was vastly different from the one at Dame Claudine’s – it was large with rustic and medieval decor.

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As expected, the wines here were some of the priciest that we tasted in Burgundy.  After our tasting, we headed back to our B&B in Beaune with a belly full of red wine.

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Beaune itself is a charming small town which has been declared “the heart of Burgundy wine country.”  Because of that, the prices reflect it.  Prices for food and lodging weren’t too much lower than we had experienced in Paris.  We chose to stay at a lovely B&B on the edge of the small town, called Chez Marie.  I would highly recommend booking a room (in advance, they don’t have many) at this B&B when you visit Burgundy.  The rooms were spacious, breakfast was delicious and the proprietors, Marie and her husband, were charming and helpful.

The next morning we began our tastings in the southern most city on the Cote de Beaune, Santenay.  From what I saw, Santenay was delightful!  The town was filled with narrow, charming cobblestone lanes and colorful flowers.  Although the town didn’t offer as many restaurant and shopping options as Beaune, I would recommend considering staying in Santenay if you’re wanting a more sleepy and romantic Burgundy experience.

DSC02776Our first tasting in Santenay took place at Domaine Doreau, where we were lucky enough to have Gil as our sommelier.  Gil eagerly told us all about wine producing (and drinking) in the Cote d’ Or.

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After our breakfast of Chardonnay, we headed north to Meursault.  Meursault is a quintessential French town complete with a beautiful church and steeple to mark the city center.

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We had planned on enjoying one more tasting before lunch, but many of the small vintners close shop for several hours in the middle of the day, so we followed suit and enjoyed a traditional french lunch before having the aforementioned interaction with the elderly French gentleman in Volnay at the Chistopher Vandoisey cave.

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Next, we headed to a cave in Monthelie called Girard Doreau Viticulturer which had excellent white wines; however, it was our last stop further north in La Rochepot that was the most memorable.  We rang the bell to the tasting room at Denis Fouquarrand and was greeted by a 13 year old boy.  Our young friend led us through our tasting where we learned a bit about the family’s blends and a lot about his interest in American pop culture.  Only in France will you find a 13 year old sommelier-in-training!

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In La Rochepot we spotted a Chateau perched high above the town that we decided to hike up to.

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Luckily, the hike up the hill was worth it as the chateau itself was gorgeous and offered great views of the city below.

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I should note, that while we were in Burgundy, we chose not to take an organized wine tour.  We didn’t make this decision based on the hefty price tag (many were  $250+ USD per person), but because of the pace of the tours.  Most of the tours visited two caves and included lunch during a nine hour period.  With limited time in the region, we wanted to shoot for at least four caves daily.  Additionally, we enjoyed the freedom of exploring at our own pace and having the ability to change our schedule on a whim or due to a suggestion from another producer.  Based on my research of several wine tour operators, guided tours will likely take you to tour more commercialized vintners, but I found myself enjoying the strange off-beat experience of visiting the caves of the small and independent producers.  Doing it this way may not be for everyone since you can’t predict exactly how polished your tasting will be, but it made for an interesting experience.   If you have more than a day or two in Burgundy, I would recommend mixing in private tours with your own self-guided tours, so that you can experience the best of both worlds.DSC02751

How does Burgundy compare to any of the wine regions you’ve visited?