18 July 2009

Beaune, Day Three

At some point this afternoon, we had the unmistakable feeling that we were dreaming. We were bouncing around off-road in a Renault Expert amidst some of the most famous vineyards on the planet with the sun shining through intermittent clouds, a panorama of Burgundy spread out beneath us. It seemed almost too good to be true.

We woke up early this morning and decided to make haste from Reims to Beaune in order to catch the last hour or so of Beaune's extensive Saturday market. We zoomed out of Reims at around 7:30 AM and motored south, following the prompts our our invaluable GPS system. After a couple of hours of driving through one village after another, we discovered that our GPS directions were set up with an option to avoid toll roads. Normally we prefer the scenic route, but in this case we really wanted to cover the 200 or so kilometers between Chammpagne and Burgundy in as short a time as possible. Shortly after we changed the GPS options, we found ourselves roaring along a French toll road at 130 k/h, making far better time, and ultimately reaching the center of the Burgundian wine region shortly before noon.

At a friend's recommendation, we're staying at the Jardins de Loïs. We'll be hard-pressed to stay at a nicer place during this vacation. Ostensibly a B&B, JdL includes just four guest rooms in a beautifully renovated structure. Our room is big and bright, with a terrace overlooking the gardens. Another perk is our location: we're three minutes by foot to the center of Beaune. We never got around to eating breakfast today, so after we checked out the market, we settled into a cozy brasserie for coq au vin, boeuf bourguignonne, and a cheap '93 Jadot Passe-Tout-Grains. This place was completely generic-- indistinguishable from any one of a dozen places just like it in this town, but we absolutely loved it. It was barely 60° F this afternoon, and the food was just what we wanted-- simple, hearty, and authentic. The staff made our day by speaking French to us slowly and deliberately in a way that made it possible for us to understand every word.

After lunch we headed to Savigny-lès-Beaune for our tasting appointment at Domaine Pierre Guillemot. Pierre's son Vincent represents the sixth generation of his family to make wine in Savigny-lès-Beaune with the Guillemot name. He looked like a kid to us, maybe 20 years old or so, but he's been groomed to make great wine for his entire life. He took us into his cellar and pulled fresh bottles of all of his current releases for us to try. We've only tastes Guillemot's wines back to '01, so Vincent also pulled an '86 Savigny-lès-Beaune Dessus Les Golardes and a '73 Serpentieres so that we could see how these wines evolve. It was fascinating to speak with Vincent about his family's vineyards, and how each parcel of vines expresses Pinot Noir differently in the glass. He graciously loaded us into his car and drove us up into the vineyards above the village. By visiting each site, we were able to actually see the differences in the vines and the soil. Vincent's tour gave us a sense for Burgundy that we've never gotten from books. Compared to the U.S., where a person or corporation buys a parcel of land, gives it a name, grows grapes on it, and then makes wine, Burgundy is very fractured and confusing. From the eleventh century on, Cistercian Monks identified and demarcated vineyard sites based on the hundreds of soil types that exist here. With centuries of experience, they were able to study trends, and they found that some vineyards produced consistently superior wines. Fewer than forty vineyards in all of Burgundy are classified as "Grand Cru", and the wines made from those grapes represents only 1% or so of all the wines produced in Burgundy. Over the centuries, those vineyards have been divided many times among heirs, and now a single vineyard might be owned by dozens of producers. Vincent took us to Le Corton, where we saw for ourselves how this Grand Cru vineyard is divided into many parcels, including the portion that belongs to his family.

Vincent's English was infinitely better than our French, but we discovered that there were certain concepts, like the passage of time, that he could not express in English and we could not express in French. It forced all of us to choose our words more carefully. After hours of tasting and touring, we invited Vincent to join us at a local bar for a beer. We sat outside, and he told us about his travels to the U.S.-- his impressions of cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, and his fondness for some decidedly modern-styled Pinot Noir from California (especially Etude) that's the polar opposite of his family's traditionally-styled wines.

Maybe it's because we've visited small producers who are neither selling wine in a tasting room nor hosting hordes of tourists, but our tasting experiences in France have been remarkable-- far beyond what we ever dreamed possible.

We made our way back to Beaune for dinner. Several friends have told us that despite the Michelin-starred restaurants in town, their favorite place to eat in Beaune is Ma Cuisine. The menus in the window looked superb, but we were sorry to learn that Ma Cuisine is closed on Saturdays and Sundays-- the only nights we'll be in Beaune. On a whim, we headed to Piqu'Boeuf, a popular restaurant among locals that specializes in Charolais beef. We spent the rest of the evening there, with courses that featured several local specialties. There was raviole d'escargot... potatoes cooked with a very rich, pungent local "moutarde", a deeply beefy Charolais entrecôte with cèpes, and wedges of Brillat-Savarin and Époisses de Bourgogne that were fabulous with our Pommard. Again, there was not an English speaker in the place, but the staff were very gracious about speaking slowly and deliberately to help us understand. Note: it looks innocent enough, but Snails lurk beneath this pretty puff of pasta.

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