Due to its long history as a top growing wine region for chardonnay and pinot noir, Burgundy is obviously a place where many tourists want to go winetasting. However, unlike many New World wine locations, such as Napa and Sonoma, it is not always possible to drop by a winery to taste wine without an appointment. There are some exceptions, with more domains opening cellar door operations in the past several years, but in general, it is necessary to do some advance planning.
According to the Burgundy Wine Board (BIVB), there are 3890 wine producers in the region, along with 17 cooperatives, and 282 wine merchants. Despite these impressive numbers (Napa and Sonoma only have 1000 wineries between the two regions), many of Burgundy’s domains are tiny family operations, with wine that is allocated to distributors and exporters. This means they usually do not have much wine left over to sell to the casual tourist, and during years when Mother Nature decimates the vineyards with frost or hail, there is even less wine. However, it is always possible to go winetasting in Burgundy, as long as you have clear expectations and do a little advance planning.
Don’t Forget Opening Hours in France
I’ve always admired how the French take time to enjoy a leisurely lunch and/or just take time to relax and spend quality time with family and friends. However this means that many shops and domains are closed everyday between noon and 2pm and all day on Sundays. For Americans who are used to going winetasting any day of the week, including Sundays and over lunch, this can be a bit surprising. Again, this is why advance planning is necessary.
Following are six tips for successful winetasting in Burgundy:
Don’t Expect to Get into the Top Domains without Contacts and Prayer
Due to the high quality and scarcity of its wines, the most famous domains of Burgundy dominate rankings in the top 50 most expensive wines in the world. A recent glance at Winesearcher’s list shows Burgundy wines hold 68% of the slots, with prices ranging from $1200 to $50,000 per bottle. Therefore do not expect to visit theses wineries, with names like Domaine Leroy or Domaine Romanee Conti, unless you have good connections with their importers or known someone who can make an introduction for you. Saying a prayer to St. Vincent, the patron saint of winemakers, also couldn’t hurt.
Consider Hiring a Wine Tour Operator
There are a variety of reputable wine tour companies located in Beaune, Dijon and other locations that will schedule a private tour for a fee. Often this includes tastings of Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines, as well as lunch someplace along the way. See a couple of options HERE and HERE. The advantage of this method is that you don’t have to worry about driving and getting lost on the tiny back roads of Burgundy (though this can be fun too!)
Stop by the Friendly Burgundy Tourist Offices
One of my favorite aspects of France is the great network of Tourist Offices they have in every major town and some smaller villages. Just stop by and ask for a map, as well as information on which wineries are open for drop-in tastings. Though they may not be the most famous domains, they will be hospitable and open to tourists. Some may charge a tasting fee, whereas others will not. It is usually polite to buy a few bottles of wine if they have some available. Beaune, Dijon, Chablis, Chalon Sur Saone, Macon, Nuits St. George, and even tiny Gevery-Chambertin, all have tourist offices to help with tastings.
Watch for “Dégustation and Vente” Signs
As you drive through the small villages of Burgundy, keep an eye out for signs advertising “Degustation and Vente.” This means wine tasting and sales are available. The location may be a domain or a wine shop, and you may be charged a small tasting fee, but usually it can be a wonderful experience. Farmer’s markets will usually have a few booths where it is possible to taste local wine as well.
Schedule Tastings and Tours Online
Many of the larger domains, chateaux, and negotiants now offer the opportunity to sign up for advance tasting and tours online. Click HERE for a recent list, or go directly to the website of the winery to see if they offer this service. Though the prices are often the same or higher than Napa/Sonoma, the experience is usually worth the time, and often includes an interesting tour of a chateau and cellar. Some highly rated tours include Domaine Drouhin in Beaune, and Chateau Pommard and Chateau Meursault, about ten minutes drive south of the town. Other well-known establishments include Domaine Bouchard Aine et Fils, Domaine Bouchard Pere et Fils, Louis Jadot, Domaine d’Ardhuy, and L’Imaginarium.
Don’t Just Focus on the Cote d’Or
Though the Cote d’Or region near Beaune is considered to be the heart of Burgundy where the majority of the very famous domains are located, there are hundreds of excellent wineries in other regions of Burgundy as well. Drive one hour north of Dijon to the town of Chablis where you will find many exceptional wineries, along with the famous Chablisienne cooperative, where you can taste village level to Grand Cru wines.
South of Beaune is the Cote Chalonnaise and Macon regions, filled with charming villages, beautiful scenery and friendly winemakers. Two hours south is the region of Beaujolais that is still technically part of Burgundy, though they focus on the gamay grape more than pinot noir. However Beaujolais is definitely worth a visit with beautiful castles, friendly towns, and exquisite wines that are a great value. Though many people only know this region for its fruity Nouveau Beaujolais, they also make Cru wines with great concentration, complexity, and the ability to age for decades. Furthermore, Beaujolais is only 30 minutes north of Lyon, the gastromic capital of France, where you can dine at world famous restaurants.
Enjoy a Lazy Sunday
If you happen to find yourself in Burgundy on a Sunday, plan to relax and take some time to enjoy the moment, because very few establishments are open. Consider taking a hike through the vineyards in the morning, and then make a reservation for a long lazy lunch with wine, followed by a restful nap. Now that’s living the good life!