To celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary, my wife and I recently travelled to Paris and Burgundy. We arrived in Beaune, the medieval capital of the classic wine-producing area, on the high-speed train out of Gare d’Lyon via Dijon.
Our first stop in Beaune was the cellars of Bouchard Aine et Fils, a negociant–not to be confused with Bouchard Pere et Fils. “Aine” means uncle (“Pere” of course is father), and generations ago, one of the Bouchard brothers apparently broke off to start his own company. Today they are totally separate companies–with a similar name!
After a brief wait in an elegant mansion exhibiting fine furniture and historical displays, we headed down to the “caves”–where the action truly is. As soon as you start down the staircase, you can’t help but notice the mold and mildew on the walls, the heavy dust all over the bottles…we were in wine heaven!
Our guide told us about the use of the five senses in tasting wine. There was a different room in the cellar for each sense (except hearing), with a tasting table–and a treat for us–in the middle of each room. Hearing is all about the sound of the cork coming out, the clinking of glasses, the laughter of friends. Our first taste would be in the Seeing room, and it was Pouilly Fuisse, a chardonnay white from the Macon region of southern Burgundy. (It turned out to be our favorite bottle, and the one we bought.) Here our guide showed us the chart of wine colors, and explained that good whites will start out a light straw in color, achieving a rich yellow as they age, whereas reds will do the opposite, starting a rich purply plum color, moving over the years toward a tawny brick red, the color of the terra cotta tiles outside the chateau window, he told us.
The most fun room was Smell, where he took the lids off a score of jars and asked us to guess what was in them. They were grouped by fruits, florals, spices, and richer masculine smells like chocolate, coffee, and what we swore was tobacco, but turned out to be simply smoke. He explained that good wines being aged will move through the groups, starting out fruity, and only developing tastes from the last group over 10 or 15 years.
By the time we hit the central tasting table in the Touch room, we were well into tasting subtle and complex Pinot Noirs as our guide told us about the pyramid of quality. At the bottom, wines would be labelled simply “Burgundy” or the French version of that word, “Bourgogne.” These are regional wines which could include grapes from any vineyard there. Next up are town appellations, such as “Pommard” or “Volnay.” Above that, the bottle will be labelled with a specific Premier Cru vineyard name in addition to the town, and at the apex of the pyramid, you’ll have a Grand Cru vineyard.
Ironically, I can’t even remember what demonstration they had for what you would think would be the most important sense, Taste, but Touch was neat: Several rolls of different fabric, which you ran your fingertips across, were meant to indicate the mouthfeel of different wines: rough canvas illustrated the bite of newer wines with sharp tannins, while velvet indicated the smooth mouthfeel of a well-aged fine wine.
PART II will be about our bike ride through the vineyards! See you next time. — Dave