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Exploring Burgundy, France

Place Carnot, Beaune's main square.

Photo: Andrea Fazzari

My hotel in Beaune, the center of Burgundy’s wine industry, dates to the 16th century. Nearby is a working grape press built in 1571. The same stone ramparts have helped defend Beaune since shortly after Charles the Bold’s demise in 1477, and in the surrounding vineyards, traditional methodology has hardened into law. The pace of change is slow here, to say the least.

So I’m not surprised that Beaune looks just as it did when I last visited six years ago. Buildings in stone and earth tones surround the main square, which is fashioned as precisely as a movie set. Shops selling mundane items are impossibly beautiful. It’s an idealized rendering of a French medieval town adapted for modern existence. History suffuses the streets, to such an extent that I’ve always wondered if Beaune’s crowded past—full of Romans and dukes, cardinals and kings—leaves room for daily life. Can anything genuine happen in a place so flawlessly realized?

As I await the enologist Véronique Drouhin-Boss, one of the principals of Maison Joseph Drouhin, one afternoon at the Hôtel Le Cep—which itself appears to be a deftly calculated mix of character and comfort—it seems appropriate that I’m sharing lobby space with an Asian tour group. I can’t help but imagine their itinerary. “Friday: wine tasting in Beaune, followed by a typical Burgundian meal on the main square. Saturday: bus to Paris (Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower, bateau-mouche).”

So why am I here? Because Burgundy, once among my favorite of wines, has come to feel as static and predictable to me as Beaune, its unofficial capital. The area, a string of pretty towns in eastern France nestled below tidy hillsides, once delighted me. Accustomed to the formality of Bordeaux, where winemakers wear coats and ties, I was charmed by these farmers whose dozen different wines from the same kind of grape, Pinot Noir, had varied personalities, like children from the same family. I reveled in the sloping vineyards that lined the country roads for miles at a stretch, each subtly different from its neighbors. But these days, the upper echelon of Burgundies cost so much that they’ve become inaccessible to me, and to most everyone else who doesn’t run a hedge fund or play for the Yankees. The Burgundies I drink cost $30 to $100, and it has been a while since I opened one and felt a thrill.

To be honest, I’m tired of hearing pompous sommeliers and collectors cultishly revere these wines, even the best of which tend to disappoint as often as not, and see them breathlessly fondle bottles like my friends and I used to do with baseball cards. And yet, I can’t forget how a perfectly rendered Burgundy can make every other kind of wine seem awkward and obvious by comparison. And I can’t help feeling that, beneath this stage-set exterior, there’s an authentic Beaune waiting to be discovered.

I’ve come to one to find the other. I want to try to reconnect with the wines of Burgundy through its food and vineyards and people. And the best person to show me around is my old friend Véronique.

Within the hour, she and I are strolling through the center of town as I’ve done many times before, except that with her beside me, each block comes to life. Visiting Beaune with Véronique is unlike visiting it with anyone else. She grew up in the very center of town, in the house attached to the winery where her parents still live. There was wisteria climbing the courtyard walls, as there is now, and the bell in the steeple next door rang at 8:45 every morning to start the school day, as it still does. But steeped as she is in the tradition of the region, as Burgundian as anyone I know, she’s also a professional expatriate. She spends weeks each year in the Willamette Valley tending to Domaine Drouhin Oregon, the family’s Northwest property, making some of the New World’s best Pinots.

As a result, she sees Burgundy through a wider lens than many of her peers, who sometimes behave as though the airplane is still a daring invention. Even in this era of instant information and consulting winemakers who visit three continents in a week, Burgundy remains largely devoid of outsiders. The cultural cross-pollination that has informed modern enology just hasn’t happened here. You can taste that parochialism in the wines, which is a big reason why Burgundy cultists revere them. I can certainly appreciate that, but lately I’ve found myself looking toward Italy’s Langhe rather than Burgundy for the intellectual pleasure of wines that come from a single vineyard, to Oregon to slake my thirst for Pinot Noir, and to places such as Walla Walla, Washington, for the excitement of watching a young appellation evolve.


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