When the word “Burgundy” is mentioned in wine circles it conjures up images of quaint Medieval walled towns with cobblestone streets, miles of vines stretching to the horizon and most importantly the world’s greatest (and most expensive) wines. A world closed off to all but the privileged few with the resources to enjoy them. But dig a little deeper and you discover a world of down to Earth farmers, tied to the land through family and a tradition that stretches back for centuries. I was welcomed into that inner circle when I traveled to Burgundy as part of a professional two-week trip.

Burgundy lies just under 300 kilometers southeast of Paris in the area bordered by Dijon in the north and Mâcon (just north of Lyon) in the south. The region is divided into the Côte-d’Or (Côte de Nuits in the north and Côte de Beaune in the south) and in the outer regions, Chablis, the Côte Chalonnaise and Mâcon. The Burgundians were originally a Germanic tribe that settled the area in the 4th century AD. They were allies of the Romans during their occupation of Gaul (present day France.) It was the Romans that brought vinifera to the region but it was the Church during the Middle Ages that developed and delineated the region into its terroir specific appellations of Grand Cru, Premier Cru, Village and Bourgogne for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. And it was the Church that held most of the land until the French Revolution. That’s when the Napoleonic laws of inheritance (designed to prevent the re-accumulation of land and power by the Church and Aristocracy) inadvertently created the patchwork of ownership of the vineyards by multiple winemakers that we see today. This came about by requiring all land and inheritance to be divided equally among all children instead of the previous tradition of leaving all wealth to the oldest son.

Fast forward to my trip: Sunday morning I was on the high speed train to Dijon to rendezvous with the rest of my party. It was rainy and overcast when I reached the terminal; typical Northern European weather for this time of year… but hey, it’s always 55% and sunny in the cellar. After meeting our host, Steve Pignatiello we all got introduced and packed our gear into the rental van and headed south towards the Côte-d’Or and one of Burgundy’s holy of holies – the Clos du Vougeot. It’s the largest single vineyard (Clos referring to a walled vineyard) in the Côte de Nuits. Originally a Cistercian monastery it was eventually auctioned off and now is collectively owned by more than 80 owners. The original Chateau and grounds are now a museum and home to La Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, an international brotherhood of Burgundy winemakers and lovers of Burgundy. Our visit was cold and chilly but impressive nonetheless. (Some of the most gigantic wine presses I’ve ever seen in my life there.) It’s a must see when in Burgundy. After a quick tour and some wine book purchases we took a rainy drive through the Grand Cru vineyards of Chambolle- Musigny and on to more hedonistic pursuits – a tour and tasting of Francois Leclerc’s cellars in Gevrey-Chambertin, the Côte de Nuits most northerly village. After a tour of the his cellars we joined Francois for a wonderful dinner and multiple vintages of Leclerc Gevrey-Chambertin going back to the 1970s. Close to midnight we said our goodbyes and journeyed south to the small village of Pommard and our tiny hotel which would be our headquarters for the remainder of the trip. When we arrived it was pouring down rain and the hotel was dark. Keys were left for us with a welcome note in an envelope by the front door telling us to make ourselves at home. (The Burgundians are cool like that.) A warm room and a soft bed awaited – I was asleep before my head hit the pillow…

The next two days were front-loaded with visits with Anne Parent (Domaine Parent in Pommard) Anne’s ancestors helped Thomas Jefferson with the importing and planting of the original vineyards at Monticello. After what was our most cerebral tasting with Anne we were treated to lunch in the nearby village of Volnay. The restaurant was a former wine cellar, complete with arched ceilings and a working fireplace. Escargot with Corton Grand Cru for starters followed by what else… Coq au Vin. After lunch we all left ready for a nap but that was not in the cards. Driving south toward Chassagne-Montrachet we had an appointment with Claudie Jobard at her domaine in Demigny. Her mother, Laurence, has the reputation as one of the best oenologists in France being winemaker for Joseph Drouhin for over two decades. She trained her daughter well. Working mainly in Rully, a part of Burgundy not as famous as Pommard or Chassagne-Montrachet, her wines offer real value. After our visit to Demigny we headed south into the setting sun to the Mâcon and Pouilly-Fuissé. It was dark when we reached Domaine Joseph Burrier and the Chateau de Beauregard. This is Chardonnay country and Joseph Burrier has been one of the top estates for over five centuries. After a great tour and tasting with finished with a “light snack” of terrine and salad with the obligatory cheese course. As we drove back toward Pommard everyone remarked on how lucky we were to be in Burgundy and how warm and welcoming everyone had been.

The week was filled with visits to all the winemakers with multiple tastings, great lunches and dinners with the winemakers in their homes A visit to the Hospice du Beaune (Burgundy’s second holy of holies) finished out our week and the fantastic Beaune market left agape at everything we Americans had been missing out on all these years. Our nights were filled with general camaraderie lots of impromptu karaoke after dinner and on the drives home. Anne Parent and Jean-Luc Joillot in Pommard, Robert Arnoux/Pascal Lachaux and Christian Clerget in Vosne-Romanée. Paul Jouard in Chassagne-Montrachet, Christiane, Marc & Maude Patriarche and Marie-Anne and Marie-Laure at Bouzereau-Gruere in Meursault, Chantal Tortochot and the Camus Family in Gevrey-Chambertin and who could forget Francois Servin in Chablis…all opened their homes to us, sharing their hospitality and the fruits of their labors.

These people have definitely perfected the art of living. They say that France is a nation of walls. That much is true – the ancient cities and villages remind us of a past where walls were necessary for protection and survival. Gates greet you at most of the homes in Burgundy. Don’t be fooled though; once they get to know you – you’re “in.” They’re a warm and generous people tied to an ancient tradition of winemaking. As we made our way north towards Champagne and Paris I felt a little sad to be leaving. From now on, every time I open a great Burgundy wine I will think of them…