Many years ago, on my first trip to Santa Barbara wine region (Santa Ynez valley, California), I discovered Burgundy wine for the first time. And I’ve kept rediscovering it. I prefer it to Cabernet and other similar varietals as it has less tannin and (to me) it sings its story rather than screaming it over a loudspeaker.
So on my last trip to France, I made a point of visiting the Burgundy (Bourgogne ) region. I had spent some quality time in Bordeaux on prior trips (and have explored the key California wine regions) but somehow my compass was always pointing to Burgundy. There was a lot of pent-up expectation as I had read that the single-grape French Burgundy wine is in a universe of its own. Yes, there are the very famous Bordeaux wines (Lafite-Rothschild, Margaux, Latour, etc.) BUT I had heard that for the true wine connoisseurs, Burgundy wine is silk to Bordeaux’s velvet. Note: Tasting French wine in the U.S. is a hit-and-miss affair as wine could get roughed-up during transportation and some wine stores don’t store them properly. So my flirting with Burgundies in the U.S. didn’t count.
A short train ride from Paris, and a rental car pickup later, we arrived in Dijon. The plan was to start with Dijon, one of the two key wine hubs in the region and drive south to Beaune (second key hub) and further south the wine route. One of the first things I did was to go to a wine store and get my first introduction to Burgundy wine. I asked for a flight of 7-8 wines and started sampling from the least expensive. I was disappointed with the first ones. As I tasted more, I was still not fully enamored. Even the most expensive ones left something to be desired. I was perplexed. I speak French semi-fluently and being passionate and inquisitive, I bombarded the vendor with questions. What I found out was that quantity of wine produced in Burgundy is very limited and the demand is very high. So for better-quality wine, there is a waiting list of three years or more. And because of the demand, even mid-range Burgundy wine is very expensive and inaccessible. I’m not making this up…. the vendor told me that even “he” has a hard time getting his hand on premium wines. I left his place doubtful.
On the way from Dijon to Beaune, we stopped at some of the most famous wineries (Gevrey-Chambertain, Vosne-Romanee, etc.) and some smaller and less known places. I asked the owners and spoke with locals. The first vendor’s response was validated…
The vineyards in Burgundy are really tiny. If you’ve been to Napa or Bordeaux, you’d be shocked how small these lots are. On top of that, wine producers limit their wine production. And as the quality is really high, the pent-up demand pushes the prices up and the availability down.
I also had an interesting life lesson…
The level of sophistication and knowledge of “terroir” is so high that wine producers distinguish and rank the wine produced on the same slope by two neighboring tiny lots. There is not the same sense of “industrialization”, “mass-production” and “profit” that one sees first and foremost in Napa (not trying to bad-mouth Napa as I like the region) and to a lesser degree in Bordeaux. I asked local producers why they’re not producing more considering the high price and strong demand. The answer I got was: “Why should we? We produce enough to pay expenses and live a comfortable life”. And THAT was a big lesson for me. That is the essence of French living, the joie-de-vivre. I would see women on hill-tops painting or relaxing with children. People here weren’t worried about economies of scale. They weren’t skipping vacations to just work a bit more and save for retirement. Wine producing know-how here passes from generation to generation. They are children of this land. They haven’t turned this love and passion into a carefully measured science experiment as (not-to-name) other regions have.
I left the region musing over the fact that perfection can’t be rushed and perfection is never perfect. Sun, soil, water and wind are all unpredictable. The seeds these French wine artists nurture each carry a different story and unravel it differently. So all these artists can do is respect life, let it flow at its own pace and live it with love and passion.