September 28, 2010. Our palates seized the day. Up early and on the road, a two-and-a-half hour drive transported my brother and I from the French speaking region of Switzerland…through the massive Jura Mountain Range…to the flat, foggy farmlands of eastern France. Our destination? Beaune. The capital of Burgundy (Bourgogne) wines. Intending to immerse ourselves in one of France’s famous wine-producing regions, we held fast to our raison d'être for this long daytrip—a search for vin de Bourgogne (namely Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the two most widely produced Burgundy varietals) and remarkable French gastronomie. We found both.
Upon our arrival in Beaune, I immediately sensed the deep-rooted history of this medieval municipality, once home to the Dukes of Burgundy. Glimpses of lofty stone walls that once surrounded the small fortressed city added to the mystique, as did charming French homes, shops and restaurants that encircled this municipality. Our first sortie was Alain Hess fromager, a delightful cheese and wine shop located in the center of Beaune (and highly recommended by my brother from a previous trip). I picked up some of their specialty mustards to bring back home (including a tangy basil Dijon variety by Edmond Fallot) and my brother snatched up a creamy, naturally sweet cow's milk cheese, bejeweled with plump, golden sweet raisins: Régale de Bourgogne.
Then our growling stomachs and hunger for the pursuit of culinary genius led us to another favorite of his (also in the town’s center): a restaurant aptly named Ma Cuisine. Upon entering this neat bistro, the region’s well-known wineries came to life; branded wine boxes, methodically constructed into cabinets and tables, creatively embellished this charming abode in its entirety. The menu and wine list also brought the terrain and local produce to light and we ordered an earthy-nosed, tart-cherry-tasting Pinot Noir—Domaine Faiveley Mercury Clos Des Myglands 2008.
We casually sipped and savored the essence of Burgundy terroir while snacking on olives drenched in rich olive oil as we tore into rustic, dense, spongy French bread. My first course of Saumon Tiede arrived, sparingly topped with dill and gently seized by a bed of fresh tomato tartare underneath. Fresh salad greens with nourishing fennel and olive oil also adorned my plate; I ate every last bite.
My next course—Queue de Cabilland heu le d’ollive—a light, white fish sprinkled with chopped dill and enveloped by an underlying rich, sweet ratatouille, was suitably accompanied by tender green beans, cauliflower and mashed potatoes. My brother dined on tender seared scallops and lightly-dressed greens. Our lunch spanned over an hour, allowing ample time for the wine to open up beautifully.
We ended our afternoon repast with dessert—two soft cheeses smothered and mixed with sugar. Délicieux.
Our journey for an unforgettable meal did not disappoint.
Our journey for an unforgettable meal did not disappoint.
With our palates warmed, we sauntered a few blocks in in the cold fog to find La P’Tite Cave, an intriguing dungeonesque-like wine tasting shop. Open for business during the early afternoon (a rarity in France—many shops close for two hours during lunchtime), we ducked our heads and entered this hole-in-the-stone-walled wine grotto. The friendly proprietor greeted us (she remembered my brother from a previous visit) and set about choosing our flight of Pinot Noir. We moved into the cavernous tasting room and she graciously poured five different wines, providing us with a range of vintages and Pinot from various appellations d'origine contrôlée (AOCs). These wines, made from grapes grown in different appellations of the region, consistently reminisced of a deep, rich earthiness; embodying the clay soils so prized in this famous area. Before we left, she happily chatted about the local territory, giving us a great tip for the day: 2005 was a great year for Burgundy grapes due to the high number of sunny days.
With this piece of advice in mind, we set off for our final adventure of the day. Heading to the tourist office, we found our English-speaking guide from Safari Tours and joined a small, diverse crowd of wine tasters from around the globe. We hopped on a van for a visit to the village of Meursault, located just eight kilometers south of Beaune. On our way to this magnificent destination, our guide drove through the low-sloping Burgundy hills, transporting us past small twisted gnarly vines, speckled with amber and yellow shades of autumn, and provided us with note-worthy tidbits about the area. This foggy region does without a lot of sun throughout the year, and the symmetrical rows of pygmy-sized trees we saw lining the hills produce smaller grapes that ensure bigger flavor. With the harvest in full swing, laborers hand-clipped fat bunches of these treasured dark-purple Pinot grapes, hauling in their bountiful clusters by hand in buckets. Hard work, I’m sure.
We continued our drive through this terroir-conscious region, our tour guide explaining that France doesn’t allow vineyards to be irrigated. This can result in outrageous economic variance in the price-point of Burgundy vineyards. He pointed out vines growing on a hill where the land sells for as much as $1,000,000 Euros per hectare (about 2.5 acres); then to some vines below growing on flat terrain that only go for about $35,000 Euros for the same amount of acreage because there is no drainage in the clay soil, resulting in too much water. Another local nuance to consider is the varying soil content. Certain villages like Pommard yield stronger flavored wine due to higher amounts of iron oxide in the soil.
We drove through these iron-rich hillsides, past the charming villages of Pommard and Vornay, before arriving at our final destination of Château de Meursault. This stunning domain, which owns 60 hectares of vineyards in surrounding villages, also houses a diverse collection of art which we viewed on our way down to the complex room of cellars that lie beneath the chateau. After submerging ourselves in the depths of the dark, dank cellar, we walked along stone floors and ducked under archways to pass thousands of naked, dusty wine bottles that lined the cellar walls. We made our way through the barrel room, home to 800 barrels of dregs; their magenta bellies stretched endlessly. Then we finally found our way to the tasting rooms.
Sipping our way through three shadowy rooms, we tasted a variety of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and at the end of the day, 2005 trumped. I took home a bottle of Chardonnay: Domaine du Chateau de Meursault Mersault 1er Cru 2005; and a lovely bottle of Pinot: Domaine du Chateau de Meursault Beaune-Cent-Vignes Premier Cru 2005. These clean, well-balanced, ripe souvenirs, brimming with the subtleties of the local terrain and exuding degrees of rare sunshine, were worth transporting back to the U.S.
At the end of the day, even though our palates were worn, we were better for the experience. We drove; we ate; we tasted, and we learned. The Burgundy hillsides and local terroir came to life for us—bottled into magnificence. A day seized and well done.
All Text and Photos Copyright © 2011 by Elizabeth in SLO. All Rights Reserved.