The “Terroir Whisperer” at Domaine de Villaine in Bouzeron, Burgundy

(May 27, 2019) It was only a 45 minute drive from my hotel in Vougeot to the small village of Bouzeron in the Côte Chalonnaise where I had a 10am appointment at Domaine de Villaine. I was greeted by winemaker, Pierre de Villaine, a slim man with a goatee and calm grey eyes. Even since tasting his Aligote several years ago in Beaune, I have been wanting to meet him, because he has an intriguing reputation of being a “terroir whisperer,” with strong beliefs in the benefits of organic and biodynamic farming, as well as the use of numerology to impact wine quality and energy.

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Entrance to Domaine de Villaine in Bouzeron, Burgundy

About Domaine de Villaine

The winery was started in 1971 by Aubert de Villaine, also general manager of Domaine de la Romanee Conti. Located in the village of Bouzeron in the Cote de Chalonnaise, Domaine de Villaine is a classic small Burgundian winery famous for focusing on Aligote – Burgundy’s other white grape, as well as the traditional Chardonnay and Pinot noir. Today they produce around 110,000 bottles per year, and own 30 hectares, as well as hold a lease on 6 more hectares. They focus on the appellations of Bouzeron, Satenay and Rully.

In 2001, Aubert persuaded his grandson, Pierre de Villaine, to take over daily operations. At first reluctant to leave his job as a lawyer in Paris, Pierre eventually got “infected by the wine bug” and agreed to take over as General Manager. He became fascinated by organic and biodynamic farming, as well as ancient numerology.

A Unique Cellar Designed According to the Divine Number

Pierre explained that they expanded the winery in 2015 to include a state of the art cellar based on the numerology wisdom of the ancient Egyptians, as well as the writings of Leonardo da Vinci. The ceiling of the cellar is filled with graceful arches “designed to link the ground to the sky,” and built according to the divine number of God, which is 1.618. The Great Pyramid of Khufu was also designed according to this number. This was all news to me, and is the first wine cellar I’ve ever visited that has been designed in this fashion. However, I looked it up online, and discovered that this is well-documented. See more information HERE.

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Barrel Cellar Designed According to the Divine Number

Winemaking at Domaine de Villaine

We toured the cellars first, and I was surprised to learn that Pierre ferments and ages all of his white wines, Aligote and Chardonnay, in large neutral oak foudres – meaning the whites are primarily unoaked with loads of pure fruit and terroir expression. He explained that the reason he does this is because the CO2 gases inside the foudres move around the wine forming an eternity pattern like the figure “8”, which is better for the wine and provides a higher level of energy.

Whites are produced in a non-interventionist fashion with a gentle pressing and then settling out in stainless steel tank overnight, before transfer to the large wooden foudres where they ferment with natural yeast and age on the gross lees for 12 to 14 months. In general he does not do battonage, but tops the tanks as needed. Minor additions of SO2 are made so that the total usually results in 25 to 35 mg/l – very low for white wine.

Pinot noirs are made in the traditional Burgundian fashion with fermentation in large open top oak barrels, pigeage twice a day, and then transfer to and aging in 30 to 40% new French oak for 12 to 18 months. Pierre said they usually do around 60% whole cluster. Again natural yeast is used, and very minimal SO2 — usually around 25 mg/l total for reds.

Before bottling both whites and reds spend time in a stainless steel blending tanks to marry wines from different plots and/or vineyards. This can last several weeks to several months. Then the wine is bottled and left to rest in bottle for a while before being sold around the world. Pierre said they export 65% of the wine to multiple countries, with the rest sold to restaurants and fine wine shops in France. In the US, Kermit Lynch is their importer.

Foudres for White Wines and Large Wooden Vats for Red Wines

Linking the Four Energies

Pierre spoke with passion about metaphysical properties that go into producing the wine. He explained that there are four energies that need to work together to allow both the fruit and the terroir to shine in the wine. These are: mineral energy, water energy, animal energy and vegetable energy. He said some of this is based on the ancient Celtic philosophies.

Though I did not understand a lot of his explanations, I could taste how everything seemed to come together in the wines. Both the whites and reds were vibrant, with amazing aromatics as well as ripe fruit and complex earthy terroir notes. Where oak was used, it was well-integrated, and all of the wines had both texture and energy. Following are my tasting notes and scores:

  • 2017 Bouzeron Aligote – very aromatic with lemon zest and minerals notes on palate with a touch of salinity; textured with a refreshing zippy acidity and a light finish. Delicate and delightful – 91
  • A side note on Aligote. Pierre explained that the only AOP for Aligote is Bouzeron. At the domain they use a 115 year old clone of Aligote that is pre-phylloxera. He has created a nursery to continue the cultivate the clone because the vine is already well-adapted to the terroir. It is “ massal selection,” and grows well on the hillside vineyards composed of limestone, clay and silt.
  • 2017 Cote Chalonnaise Les Clous Aime – 100% Chardonnay from multiple vineyards, pale straw in color with nose of honeysuckle, apple and lemon. Very fresh and juicy with enticing texture on the palate and zesty acidity. A wine of great energy and happiness – 92
  • 2017 Rully Les Saint Jacques – 100% Chardonnay from single vineyard. Aromatic floral nose, fresh kiwi on palate with a long juicy grapefruit finish and a touch of salt. Wow! This wine has lots of energy and personality. Pierre said it shows a “memory of the sea” that existed in the area in the past. Fell in love with this wine, but they were sold out – 95
  • 2016 Rully Premier Cru Les Margots – 100% Chardonnay from single vineyard. Ripe yellow apple on nose with creaminess on palate; rich and seductive with wet stone notes and a juicy high acid finish. Pierre said this wine is “digesting the fruit and letting the terroir come through…but the wine decides when it wants to do this.” – 92
  • 2017 Cote Chalonnaise La Digoine – 100% Pinot Noir from a monopoly vineyard. Very pale ruby color with a perfumed nose that reached out a hand to pull you down to a raspberry body with electric flashes of minerality. Light bodied and elegant but with exciting energy – very intriguing. 93
  • 2016 Rully Premier Cru Les Champs Cloux – 100% Pinot Noir from a single vineyard. Medium ruby purple; closed nose; black cherry and rhubarb palate; concentrated; tannic and young. Needs more time – 90 (Note: Pierre said I should come back to taste this wine the next day when it would have had the time to open up.)
  • 2016 Santenay Premier Cru Passetemps– ripe red maraschino cherry nose and palate; dipped in delicious dirt, with velvety tannins, rounded and concentrated body, and a long finish. A big and satisfying wine – 94
  • 2007 Aligote Domaine de Villaine – golden hue with pink tinge, butterscotch nutty nose, fresh and juicy on the palate with complex straw, oatmeal and a hint of white pepper on a long dry finish – 92
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Two of My Favorite Wines at Domaine de Villaine

Concluding Thoughts

This was a delightful visit and tasting, and Pierre was the ultimate gentleman host. I requested to purchase two bottles of wine to take home. Since I had already purchased the Aligote at the Hospices de Beaune wine shop, I decided to opt for a Chardonnay and Pinot noir that I thought could fit in my suitcase (later had to pay a penalty to Air France because my suitcase was too heavy). Since the Rully Saint Jacques Chardonnay was sold out, I opted for the 2017 Cote Chalonnaise Les Clous Aime, which I found delightful — especially since Pierre told me it was the local name for a happy wine.

I had already fallen in love with the monopole 2017 Cote Chalonnaise La Digoine, so I purchased this as well. It is rare that you can find such a light-bodied Pinot noir with so much character and flavor. The last one I had was a very expensive Faiveley. Pierre validated my choice by telling me a story of a famous British wine critic who had come to dinner at the domaine years ago to dine with Aubert and his wife. Aubert served an old La Digoine with an old DRC Echezeaux Grand Cru. At the end of the dinner, the wine critic admitted he had mixed up the two wines and thought La Digoine was the Echezeaux.

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The Winery Dog at Domaine de Villaine – Actually Quite Friendly!

 

Attending the Hospices de Beaune Auction and La Paulee

(November 2016) During the third week of November, Burgundy breaks into a non-stop party mood as visitors from around the world flock to the small town of Beaune to participate in a 4 day wine-tasting feast. This is all centered on the oldest wine auction in the world – the Hospices de Beaune Auction where the proceeds go to medical charities.

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The Hospices de Beaune in Burgundy, France

I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation to attend the auction as a member of the press. See article I published HERE, and was very impressed with the magnificence and pageantry of the event, which is always held on a Sunday.

Non-Stop Parties and Dinner at 1243 Bourgogne Society Wine Club

By invitation only, wine buyers from around the world usually arrive on Thursday evening and attend non-stop tastings at local wineries, which last all day Friday and Saturday. There is also the magnificent meal hosted by the Chevaliers de Bourgogne at the Clos de Vougeot on Saturday, though I did not attend this.

However, I did receive many invitations to winery tastings, and also enjoyed an elegant  evening at the famous 1234 Bourgogne Society Wine Club where I finally had the opportunity to meet Aubert de Villaine. Tall and inspiring, he was every bit the gentleman as we chatted briefly about his work in getting the Unesco World Heritage approval for the Burgundy climats, as well as grape growing in California.

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Inside 1234 Bourgogne Society Wine Club

A Most Sophisticated Auction

 The auction itself starts on Sunday afternoon, and is located in the small convention center in the middle of Beaune. A red carpet and curtains around the stage make it seems very regal. From my perch in the media booth above the stage, I could look out at the sophisticated crowd and listen to the eloquent French and English accents of the Christie’s auctioneers.

Auction Crowd Today

View of Auction Crowd from Media Booth

Outside the windows, there is a surging mass of humanity as large crowds press up again the windows, and also watch the event on giant television screens.  When I walked outside the sound of shouting and music filled the air, as everyone enjoyed the event with food and wine purchased from vendors around the square.

I couldn’t help but to compare this auction experience with others I had attended in Napa and Sonoma, where the auctioneers often wear cowboy boots, stomp their feet to get attention, yell, and tell jokes. This was quite the opposite atmosphere, with elegance and ceremony of the utmost importance. When it was complete, they achieved 8.9 million euros.

La Paulee – a 6 Hour Lunch to Celebrate White Burgundy Wine

After days of parties and the Sunday auction, you think things would settle back to normal, but no!  Monday is the day of La Paulee, which is held at Chateau Meursault, starting at noon and lasting until late in the night.

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Crowds and Band at La Paulee 6 Hour Lunch

I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation from Becky Wasserman, and attended with some great people who work on her staff.  They were all young and fun to hang out with.  Wisely, I booked a taxi to take me there and back, as I had been warned about the non-stop drinking of white Burgundy.

The huge hall of the chateau was filled with long tables, and we had assigned seating for the 5-course meal.  A band was playing French folk music on a stage, and the noise, laughter, and singing became louder each hour as people consumed more and more wine. There were multiple verses of the Burgundy wine song with much waving of hands and “la, la, la’s.”

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New Friends Singing the Burgundy Wine Song at La Paulee

Everyone was supposed to bring a bottle or more to share, and many winemakers would move up and down the aisles with huge magnums of incredibly expensive white Burgundy and pour it in your glass.  It was surreal; a cacophony of sound, color, and amazing wines that I will probably never taste again.  The food was also quite good, but that is only to be expected when dining in France.

I feel very grateful that people were kind enough to include me in these famous festivities, and hope that I may have the opportunity to attend again some day.

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Corton Charlemagne Served by Ms. Faiveley

3 Days in Burgundy

Originally published in the Huffington Post as A New Reason to Visit Burgundy.

After several days in Paris, when you begin to long for the beauty of the French countryside, head south to Burgundy. In addition to legendary wine and gourmet food, there is a new reason to visit – the recent UNESCO classification of the ancient vineyards laid out by the monks, called “climats”. This is unique because the climats and tiny wine villages that link them are considered to be a “living cultural landscape.” Visitors can experience this by walking through the vineyards, tasting the wines, and visiting the historical structures that played a role in establishing the Burgundian wine region, dating from the 11th century.

VINEYARDS OF BURGUNDY, FRANCE. PHOTO CREDIT: L. THACH, 2016

Only an hour and a half by train from Paris’s Gare de Lyon station, Burgundy is easy to travel to and explore. The distance between the capital in Dijon to the end of the Cote d’Or is only a mere 37 miles (60 kilometers). Pick up a rental car at the Dijon train station and you are ready to explore a whole new side of Burgundy. Following is a three day itinerary, from Friday to Sunday, with an overnight stay in Dijon and Beaune.

Day One: FRIDAY – DIJON

Abbey de Citeaux – Morning

After taking a morning train from Paris to Dijon, pick-up a rental car at the station and drive 15 miles south to the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Cîteaux, established by the Cistercian monks in 1098. This is where it all started, by the monks who would lay out many of the ancient vineyards and establish winemaking centers. Spend a couple of hours touring the beautiful grounds and ancient cloisters to see how the monks lived. Linger in the library where you can marvel at the beautiful old manuscripts, with colorful paintings and flowing script. Before departing don’t miss the gift shop that sells local honey, cheeses, and herbs.

ABBEY DE CITEAUX PHOTO CREDIT: L. THACH

Lunch with the Dukes of Burgundy

Back in Dijon, park your car in one of the many car parks and walk to Liberation Square in front of the Palaces of the Dukes of Burgundy (Palais des Ducs de Bourgogne). For lunch, select any of the charming side walk cafes spread in a fan shape around the square, and enjoy the water display and sparkling fountains in the center.

After lunch wander over to the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy, which houses a free museum open until 6pm. Dating from the 14th century, this grand structure is part of the Unesco designation because many of the regulations for the ancient vineyards were established here. The palace is home to the Musee des Beaux Arts (Fine Arts), which describes the history of the Burgundian dukes who were reputed to have more power than the Kings of France. Make sure to see the elaborate tombs of the dukes inside.

PALACE OF THE DUKES OF BURGUNDY PHOTO CREDIT: L. THACH

Medieval Town Center & Mustard Tasting – Late Afternoon

After checking into a downtown hotel, take an early evening stroll through the pedestrian only shopping area, and enjoy the many quaint shops brimming with local and international items. Don’t forget to appreciate the ornately carved wood-beamed buildings that decorate the heart of Dijon’s city center –one of the few cities in France that still has an intact medieval city center – miraculously sparred from the ravages of two world wars.

Make sure to stop at La Moutarderie Edmond Fallot, hidden in a small shop behind the church. Open until 7pm, they provide free mustard samples, and are the only producer that still uses real Dijon mustard seeds. If times allows, peak into the 12th century Église Notre-Dame with its huge arches, gargoyles and famous Jacquemart clock. The Tourist Office is also near-by, and you can pick-up a copy of the Owl Trail Walking Tour, to visit other historic buildings.

MEDIEVAL ARCHITECTURE OF DIJON. PHOTO CREDIT: L. THACH

Gourmand Dinner and Night Life of Dijon

The French usually don’t dine until at least 8pm, so the earliest you can reserve a table is 7:30pm. And it is important to make reservations in advance, especially on a Friday night, when venues fill up fast. Consider La Maison des Cariatides, located in a building covered with statues (cariatides), and built in 1603. The chic restaurant with wooden table tops is run by a young chef who just received his first Michelin star for creative local dishes, and a reasonably priced wine list. For a friendly, family-run option tryChez Leon with its quaint décor and rustic regional dishes, such as Andouillette and beef bourguignon.

Since Dijon is a university town, there are plenty of bars and night clubs. For elegant wine tasting try Dr. Wine or L’Assommoir Tome. For music consider the Blue’s Café or Deep Inside Club Rock. For something slightly different, head out to Peniche Cancale, a night club on a barge in the river.

Day Two: SATURDAY – Dijon/Beaune

Farmer’s Market Hopping in Dijon and Beaune – Morning

After breakfast visit two of the most famous Saturday morning farmer’s markets, by wandering through Dijon’s Les Halles Market. One of the largest markets outside of Paris, this one has both and indoor and outdoor sections filled with local cheeses, pates, spices, and much more. Then drive 30 minutes south to Beaune to experience a smaller and more intimate Farmer’s Market (Marche). Located in the middle of the village, this market features regional cheeses, such as Epoisses and Comte, and local meats like jambon persillé (ham with parsley.), as well as many other items, including clothes and souvenirs.

FARMER’S MARKET IN BEAUNE. PHOTO CREDIT: L. THACH

Enjoy a Michelin Star Lunch for a Great Price

Burgundy is home to 30 Michelin star restaurants with some pretty steep prices, but the secret is to book a lunch reservation when the cost is more affordable. In Beaune, try Le Benaton (1 star) where for €34 you will receive a set 3 course menu with several amuse-bouches. Set in a casual toy-box of a restaurant, the chef will probably stop by your table to see how you are enjoying the delicious dishes that arrive like a work of art, such as the Burgundian egg with mushrooms (Oeufs en meurette). For an even more incredible experience, drive 20 minutes south toMaison de Lameloise in Chagny for a 3-star Michelin lunch (€78) you will never forget. White table clothes, flowers, and exquisite oil paintings decorate the room while you are fawned upon by a bevy of tuxedo clad servers who describe each delectable dish in poetic terms. Expect fois gras lollipops as your first amuse-bouche, and then select from dishes featuring Bresse chicken, Charolaise beef, or lamb with figs.

Tour the Hospices de Beaune – Late Afternoon

After your leisurely lunch, check into your Beaune hotel for a rest, but make sure to awake in time to visit the historical Hospices de Beaune. Dating from the 11th century, this Unesco structure is adorned with a multi-colored tile roof and provides a glimpse into the daily life of the sisters who nursed and cooked for thousands of poor and sick throughout the centuries. Open daily until 6:30pm, April thru mid-November.

TAKING PHOTOS AT HOSPICES DE BEAUNE

Brassiere Dinner in Beaune – Evening

After your decadent Michelen star lunch, enjoy a casual dinner at one of the many brassiere restaurants in Beaune where escargot is the specialty. Le Carnot offers beef Bourgogne and steak and frites and has a great wine by the glass selection. Les Popiettes is also a small, relaxed bistro that specializes in Italian-Burgundy fusion dishes. If you’re still in the mood for an upscale restaurant check out Ma Cuisine or 21 Boulevard.

Wine Bar Hopping in Beaune – Late Evening

Rub shoulders with the winemakers at one of Beaune’s many great bars. One of the most popular is Maison du Colombier with intimidate seating inside an old cellar, a changing selection of wines by the glass, and tapas if you’re still hungry. Route 66 is more casual, serving beer, wine and charcuterie platters. If you want something more elegant, the bar at Loiseau des Vignes has a wide selection of wines by the glass.

DAY Three: SUNDAY – Beaune/Dijon

Visit UNESCO Climates in Puligny-Montrachet – Morning

On Sunday morning worship in the vineyard, by making the short 8 mile drive (12 kilometers) to the village of Puligny-Montrachet. Visit the historic climats (vineyard plots) that make up the five Grand Crus of Montrachet. Stroll past the ancient walls that guard each “climate,” and make sure to stop at Chevaliers-Montrachet on the upper slopes for a great photo op and view of the magnificent vineyards that produce the most expensive chardonnay wine in the world.

Hike UNESCO Climates in Vosne-Romanee – Late Morning

Next head north towards Dijon and stop at the tiny village of Vosne-Romanee to hike amongst the world famous “climates” of La Tache, Richebourg, and Echezeaux. Park in the square in front of the church, and then walk the short distance to join the other tourists taking photos in front of the ancient stone cross that marks the Romanee Conti vineyard. This is the home of the most expensive wine in the world, but do not expect to visit Domaine Romanee Conti, because it is closed to visitors. However, if you have time, hike to the top of the hill for an amazing view.

THE FAMOUS CROSS OF ROMANEE CONTI VINEYARD. PHOTO CREDIT: L. THACH, 2016

Visit Clos de Vougeot – Where the Monks Tasted the Soil

Then drive or walk through the vineyards to the Unesco World Heritage site of the Clos de Vougeot, open 10am to 5pm on Sundays (rare in France!). Here you can visit the home of the 12th century abbey built by Cistercian monks who tasted the soil to help them determine the differences between the “climates.” Today it is also the home of the Brotherhood of the Knights of Tastevin, who celebrate Burgundy wine.

DANCING IN THE RAIN AT CLOS DE VOUGEOT. PHOTO CREDIT: L. THACH, 2016

Lunch with Napoleon’s Wines

Finding an open restaurant on Sundays can be challenging in France, but consider driving 5 miles up the road to the village of Gevrey Chambertin. Reputed to be the favorite wine of Napoleon, the pinot noir in around this village is rich and velvety. Opt for a casual lunch at Le Clos Lenoir 1623, a quaint restaurant in an old farm house, or Au Clos Napoleon further up the road in Fixin, with its own wine cave. If you want to stay in Vosne-Romanee, head to another winemaker favorite, La Auberge de Petite for traditional Burgundian cuisine such as escargot and rabbit.

Photo Op at Chambertin-Clos de Bèze– Afternoon

On the drive back to the Dijon train station, take the small scenic road, D122 that winds through vineyards between the villages of Chambolle-Musigny and Gevery-Chambertin. Part of the Route des Grand Crus, this section takes you past a smorgasbord of Grand Cru vineyards, including the nine that include the famous name of Chambertin. Make sure to stop at Chambertin Clos de Beze to take a photo, with the well-known stone hut in the background.

PHOTO OP AT CHAMBERTIN CLOS DE BEZE. PHOTO CREDIT: L. THACH, 2016

If You Go – Hotels

In Dijon, the Grand Hotel La Cloche is located in the down-town pedestrian area and an easy walk to all of the sites and restaurants. In downtown Beaune, consider Hotel de Luxe le Cep, with spacious rooms and gracious service. Or if you want to stay in the vineyards, Les Deux Chevres in Gevrey Chambertin features rooms decorated in French antiques, or stay in a 16th century castle at Chateau de Gilly near Vougeot.

Winetasting Options

Burgundy has over 3000 wineries (domaines), so if you have more time, consider a cellar tour. However, make sure to book in advance online or at your hotel, because many domains are not open to the public. Some good options that will take advance reservations include: Domaine Drouhin, Domaine d’Ardhuy, Domaine Bouchard Aine et Fils, Domaine Bouchard Pere et Fils, Chateau Meursault, Chateau Pommard, and Louis Jadot. No appointment necessary at Domaine Philippe LeClerc and Chateau Corton C., as well as some wine shops that offer tastings and a few small wineries that advertise with the sign, “dégustation,” which means “tasting.” For a more comprehensive list, check out the Beaune Tourism website tasting list.

CHATEAU CORTON C. PHOTO CREDIT: L. THACH, 2016

Working Harvest in Burgundy

Originally published in the Huffington Post as How Harvest in Burgundy is Different.

(Fall 2016) Even with ten years of harvest experience under my belt from stints in Napa, Australia, and my own small vineyard in Sonoma, I was still not prepared for how different harvest time is in Burgundy. While working there this past autumn, I encountered some very unique differences, with Polish pickers, pick-up truck parties, and hovering helicopters, as just a few of the unusual occurrences.

WORKERS HARVESTING GRAPES IN BURGUNDY. PHOTO CREDIT: L. THACH

Since I moved to Burgundy at the beginning of September, it was only a few weeks later that harvest erupted into full swing. Suddenly the vineyards were swarming with grape pickers and the ubiquitous white vans that delivered them to and from the fields. Shops, and even some restaurants, would close at odd hours, as their owners headed off to the vines. Parking became challenging, as everyone competed to find a space in the narrow streets of the villages before heading to the vineyards. But above it all, there was a glorious feeling of excitement, trepidation, and hope, as everyone helped to birth the 2016 vintage.

Experiencing this for the first time, over the course of about three weeks, I noticed nine distinct differences between harvest in Burgundy verses California.

1. They Don’t Pick at Night

In warmer regions of the world, such as Napa/Sonoma where I live, most harvest occurs in the very early hours of the morning. This is because it is cooler then, and the wine grapes can be better preserved, and rushed to the winery for crush without sugars rising and acids falling. Near my house in Sonoma, the crews arrive around 2 in the morning and pick until 7am. Large spotlights are set up in the vineyard so the pickers can see better in the dark. Indeed, once a friend of mine visiting from NY showed up on my doorstep late at night exclaiming that alien spaceships had landed in the field. I had to explain to him that it wasn’t a Martian invasion – just night harvest in California.

In Burgundy, however, where the climate is cooler, harvest occurs during the civilized hours of 8am to 5pm, in general. Workers arrive around 7:30 for a harvest breakfast of coffee with croissants, bread, and jam, and then squeeze into the white vans to be driven to the vineyards.

PINOT NOIR GRAPES IN BURGUNDY READY FOR HARVEST. PHOTO CREDIT: L. THACH

2. They Use a Small Bucket and Pannier, Instead of 40-Pound Lugs

Once in the vineyard, each picker is given a pair of secateurs and a small bucket, and then the supervisor assigns them a specific row to pick. Instructions are provided on only picking healthy bunches, and leaving unripe or rotten bunches on the vine. Once the buckets are full, a “pannier” – usually a strong man; I never saw a woman do this – hoists a large cone-shaped basket on his back and walks down the rows so the pickers can dump their buckets of grapes into his basket. He then takes the full basket to the tractor where, in a move that would cause OSHA inspectors to faint, he climbs a ladder and then leans over to dump the grape bunches into a large plastic bin. People on the tractor sort the bunches again, and throw out any bad ones for additional quality control.

This is quite different from Napa/Sonoma where pickers cut the best bunches and put them in a plastic bin, which when full should not weight more than 40 pounds. The worker then carries the bin to the tractor and dumps into a larger plastic container.

PANNIER DUMPING GRAPES IN BIN ON TRACTOR. PHOTO CREDIT: L. THACH

3. Majority of Pickers are from Poland

Though it is not legal in Burgundy to volunteer to work harvest, as a researcher I was allowed to “assist” with harvest at a small domain for two half days. Whereas in America, the most highly skilled pickers are often the migrant workforces from Mexico, in Burgundy, the best pickers are the migrant workforces from Poland.

When I arrived at my appointed domain at 7:30 in the morning, I was introduced to the other 16 workers. Twelve were from Poland, two were from France, one was a visiting winemaker from Argentina, and another person was from the UK. I was the only American.

Once we arrived in the vineyard and I was given my assigned row, I was dismayed to see how quickly I feel behind the others. To my surprise, the fastest and best picker was a 72 year old woman from Poland who had been working the Burgundy harvest for 35 years. She had sparkling blue eyes, fuzzy blond hair, and a huge smile in a suntanned face filled with appealing wrinkles. Though she didn’t speak any English, she exuded happiness and energy. I immediately felt drawn to her warmth, and so did everyone else, who appeared to know her well.

All around me, people chattered in Polish, while I concentrated on trying to find grape bunches in a village level pinot noir vineyard that had been decimated by the frost. I was amazed at how small the crop was.

THE FASTEST AND BEST GRAPE PICKER – AGED 72. PHOTO CREDIT: L. THACH

4. Wine and Brie Break at 9:30

After picking for an hour and a half, a break was called and everyone crowded around the tractor with its plastic bins brimming with grapes. To my utter surprise, unlabeled bottles of pinot noir wine from the domain were opened and everyone passed the bottles around. No cups were in sight, and everyone was drinking directly from the bottle.

When it finally reached me, I saw many eyes upon me. Would I drink from the bottle or not? Throwing caution to the wind, and remembering that alcohol killed most germs, I hosted the bottle to my lips and took a big swig of pinot noir at 9:30 in the morning. After all, “when in Burgundy, enjoy Burgundy!”

Then a large bag of sliced French baguettes with thick slices of brie was passed around. Everyone munched on these, swigging more wine to wash it down. Then after 15 minutes, it was back to the vineyard. The only issue for me is there was no bathroom break, and I didn’t see the portable outhouses that are set up for harvest in the vineyards of California. Reminder to self – do not drink so much coffee before harvest in Burgundy.

MORNING WINE BREAK DURING HARVEST. PHOTO CREDIT: L. THACH

5. Backbreaking and Knee Needling Work

The reason I only worked two half days harvesting in Burgundy (even though I was invited to work two whole days) was because by noon I could barely stand up straight or walk. Whereas in California our vines are pruned so the grape bunches are waist level or higher, in Burgundy the vines are very small and near the ground. Many of the grape bunches are dangling just above the limestone studded earth.

There are only two options to pick – either bend over and strain your back, or squat down to the ground until your knees and thighs are screaming. I vacillated back and forth between these two methods, but could only last until noon each day. The following days my muscles were so sore, it was hard to walk without lots of Ibuprofen. So much for my zumba classes and workout at home.

GRAPE BUCKET AND SECATEURS. PHOTO CREDIT: L. THACH

6. Two Hour Lunches and Harvest Dinner Every Night

When talking to the Polish pickers who could speak English, they told me that one of the best aspects of working harvest in Burgundy were the meals. Not only did they receive unlimited free wine to drink, but also they were served 3 meals per day – and the food was good. Huge lunches and dinners, that usually the women of the domain would spend days preparing.

After lunch, which included wine, most workers would take a nap on the lawn, before grabbing their buckets to head back to the vines. That evening, they had another scrumptious dinner to look forward to, and most nights it turned into a small party. Several of the Polish workers told me they considered harvest in Burgundy to be their vacation each year.

7. Housing or Tents Mandatory

Under French law, harvest workers must be provided with housing or a place to pitch their tents. If they chose tents, the domain must also provide showers and toilets. In California, we are starting to make progress on this issue, with some wineries offering harvest housing, but not all. We still have some way to go to catch up with the more hospitable system in France.

When I asked how it worked, I was told that if workers elected to stay in their own tent, they were paid around 11 -12 euros per hour plus meals. If they decided to stay in housing provided by the domain, they were paid around 9-10 euros per hour plus meals, since the house was part of their wages. Though hourly wages for harvest workers in California are usually higher than this, we don’t often provide the housing and meal benefits that France does.

VIEW OF BURGUNDY VINEYARDS FROM HARVEST TENT CAMP SITE. PHOTO CREDIT: L. THACH

8. Helicopter Patrols

Another major difference with harvest in Burgundy is the helicopters that hover over the vineyards counting the number of workers. Their purpose is to insure that no one is hiring illegal workers, or using more workers than approved. The opportunity to work harvest is a special one, and requires much paperwork to be completed by the domain. If a winery is caught using the wrong number of workers, they may be fined.

9. Parties, Music and Celebration

Though we usually have big harvest parties in California at each winery when harvest is complete, it seems that there are parties every evening during harvest in Burgundy. It is possible that this is due to the wonderful dinners and wine that are provided each night after picking

However, even more amazing for me to see and hear were the pick-up truck parties and bands that wove through the tiny village roads with horns honking and workers cheering when harvest was complete. I ended up behind more than one truck complete with a piano, accordion, and workers singing with loud abandon. It was impossible not to smile and feel the sheer joy and exuberance that pervaded the air as everyone celebrated the birth of a new wine vintage in Burgundy.

WINES FROM BURGUNDY. PHOTO CREDIT: L. THACH

How to go Winetasting in Burgundy – 6 Tips for Wine Tourists

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.

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Wine Tasting at Chateau Mersault

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.

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Infographic on Burgundy Wine Statistics. Source: BIVB

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:

  1. 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.

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Highly Allocated Wines from Domaine Romanee Conti

  1. 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!)

  1. 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.

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Entrance to Small Family Winery in Gevery-Chambertin, Next to Tourist Office

  1. 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.

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Tasting Room Sign for Domaine Jean Chartron in Puligny-Montrachet

  1. 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, Veuve Ambal and L’Imaginarium.

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Winetasting at Veuve Ambal in Beaune

  1. 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.

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Gourmet Food of France at Michelin 3 Star Restaurant Lameloise

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!

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Friends Hiking in the Vineyards Near Romanee Conti

Hiking and Yoga in the Vineyards of Burgundy: My Favorite Trails in Vosne Romanee

(Autumn 2016) Probably one of the best things about living in the tiny village of Vosne Romanee in Burgundy was the opportunity to hike through the famous vineyards. Instead of going to the gym, as I would have in California, I took time each day to do some yoga in my small rental house (gite) and hike through the vineyards just outside my door. Sometimes, I also did yoga poses in the vineyards, and took the time to meditate in such beautiful surroundings.

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Roading Leading to Romanee Conti Vineyard and Hillside Trails

Leaving my house, I would turn left and in less than 5 minutes, I was at the intersection of eight of the most famous grand cru vineyards in the world: 1) Romanee Conti – home of the most expensive pinot noir in the world, marked by the famous stone cross; 2) La Tache – my namesake vineyard, 3) Romanee St. Vivant, 4) Richebourg, 5) La Grand Rue; 6) La Romanee – smallest grand cru in Burgundy; 7) Echezeaux and 8) Grands Echezeaux. In addition, there are many famous Premier Cru vineyards, such as Les Chaumes and Les Suchots, as well as delectable Vosne Romanee village vineyards, such as Les Colombiere. I love how the Burgundians name each vineyard, no matter how small.

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Map of Vineyards Near Vosne-Romanee

Multiple Trails through the Vineyards

Over the course of three months, I hiked multiple paths through the vineyards, because there are small roads connecting all of them and climbing to the top of the hill (see map). Also, many of the vineyards are surrounded by small stone walls and marked with stone monuments or crosses. Most have stone name plates as well.

You will not be alone, as the vineyards attract many tourists to take photos in front of the stone cross of Romanee Conti. If you go there, you will probably be handed a smart phone and asked to take a photo of the tourists. This happened many times to me. In addition to tourists, there are many locals who bike, jog, or walk through the vineyards for exercise – just as I did. Following are three of my favorite vineyard hikes.

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Hiking in the Vineyards with View of Vosne-Romanee

  1. Aux Raignots Panoramic View Trail (or the Picnic Table Trail)

If I was craving some good exercise and a great view, I would leave my gite and turn left to walk up the street towards the corner of Le Grand Rue and Romanee St. Vivant vineyards. Then I would continue up the road past Romanee Conti and La Romanee on my left. The road branches to the left as you continue up hill. Halfway up you will come to a stone bench, which is a great place to pause and look at the view, with La Tache spread out below you. Often I observed couples there sharing a glass of wine and/or kissing.

Continue up the hill and make a sharp turn to the right, passing Aux Champs Pedrix Premier Cru vineyard, until eventually the paved road ends and you see a small dirt road at the top of the hill on your right. Follow this to a group of trees with two picnic tables. Then turn to look at a view that will take your breath away. All of Burgundy is spread out below you, and you can easily see Clos de Vougeot museum in the distance. After taking some photos, consider doing some yoga poses and then sit on the picnic table to meditate, as I often did. It is a wonderful place for peace and contemplation.

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Hiking Up to Picnic Tables

  1. The La Tache Trail

If I was in the mood for a shorter hike, I would leave my gite, heading towards the vineyards, but turn left at Rue de La Tache.  I always took the time to stop and enjoy the beauty of the two different sections of La Tache, as well as the pink stucco house with gardens that has a perfect view of this vineyard. One time I saw a horse with plow tilling the soil in La Tache. Then I would continue south past Aux Malconsorts (what a name for a vineyard) and continue walking in the direction of Nuits St. George. After hiking for a mile or so, I would turn around and return to the village in a circular route, turning right at Les Chaumes.

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La Tache Vineyard Name Carved into Stone Wall

    3. Clos de Vougeot Trail

It is about a four mile round-trip hike from Vosne Romanee to the ancient cloister of Clos de Vougeot. For this, I would first walk to the church square in Vosne Romanee, and then turn left, taking the road through the middle of Romanee St. Vivant. When I arrived at the famous cross of Romanee Conti, I would turn right, walking past Les Richebourgs. Then take a right at the next road for a short distance before turning left to cut across the vineyards of Les Suchots and through multiple sections of Echezeaux and Grands Echezeaux. You will see Clos de Vougeot in front of you, rising up through the vines like some ancient ship floating on top of a vineyard sea. One day I hiked this trail in the rain with my friend Barbara, who was visiting from Germany.  We decided to take this fun photo of dancing in the rain on the stone walls of Clos de Vougeot.

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Clos de Vougeot Sailing Across the Vineyards

Other Trails to Hike in Burgundy

In addition to the trails near the village of Vosne Romanee, there are many other hiking trails through the other famous Grand Cru vineyards of Burgundy, including further north near Gevrey Chambertin and south near Puligny-Montrachet. A list of these hiking trails is available at the Beaune-Tourism website.

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My Friend Barbara Dancing in the Rain Near Clos de Vougeot

Burgundy Vineyards Part of Unesco World Heritage

In 2015, UNESCO recognized the vineyards of Burgundy as a Cultural World Heritage site. Also referred to as “climats”, because each vineyard is unique, they are considered to be a “living cultural landscape.” Many were laid out by the monks as long ago as 11th century. Today on the Road of the Grand Crus, there are 1247 “climats”, with many opportunities to hike, bike, or walk through the vineyards.

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With Friend Barbara at Chevaliers-Montrachet

Visiting the Unique Cellars of Philippe LeClerc in Gevrey-Chambertin

(Sept. 2016) Hidden off a narrow road in the tiny wine village of Gevrey-Chambertin is the entrance to a Burgundian winery called Domaine Philippe LeClerc. Located in a 13th century building with yellow limestone walls covered with flowing baskets of colorful flowers, the domain is not only the home to some very excellent pinot noir wines, but also houses a cellar crammed with antique winemaking equipment and a bizarre collection of taxidermy animals.

Entrance to Philippe LeClerc Winery

Entrance to Philippe LeClerc Winery in Gevrey-Chambertin, Burgundy

I visited here twice with relatives during my three months in Burgundy, and both times we were welcomed by a friendly employee who encouraged us to visit the museum in the cellar first (free of charge), and then come back upstairs to taste some wines (€10 euro charge, refundable with wine purchase.)

About Philippe LeClerc

The owner, Philippe LeClerc, was born in Gevrey-Chambertin and raised in a winemaking family that sold their wine to negotiatants. When he took over from his father in the 1970’s, he decided to take the business in a new direction and bought an old building to establish a winery where he could sell directly to consumers. Around the same time, he started collecting old winemaking equipment and taxidermy animals – both items that people were glad to part with, because neither was in vogue.

Over the years, Philippe was able to purchase some of the surrounding buildings, which had old cellars – a common architectural feature in Burgundy. He connected several of the caves so he would have room to store his wine, and then began to display his collection.

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Inside the Wine Musuem of Philippe LeClerc

One of the Few Tasting Rooms in Burgundy Open on Sundays

Today visitors are welcomed to stop by seven days a week between 9:30am and 7pm to tour the cellar and museum for free, and then to enjoy a wine tasting. These long opening hours are rare in France, especially when most businesses close for two hours during lunch and are rarely open on Sundays.

With such welcoming hours, it would be expected that the wines may not be up to par, but this is not the case. Philippe owns vines in some of the top premier cru vineyards in Gevrey-Chambertin, including the famous Les Cazetiers and Les Champeux vineyards. Sustainable practices are used, and many of his pinot noir wines are aged for 22 months in French oak barrels. The wines have won awards and wine critics have rated many in the 90’s.

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Wine Tasting at Domaine Philippe LeClerc

Unique Cellars with Stuffed Animals and Antique Wine Equipment

Upon arrival visitors are encouraged to take a self-guided tour of the cellars, which generally takes about an hour. Descending a steep stone staircase, long arched hallways stretch out in multiple directions, and dusty bottles can be seen sleeping in side caverns. Turning a corner, a large baronial dining room comes into view with tall antique red velvet chairs and wooden tables rescued from monasteries. All along the wall are stuffed animals, including badgers, fox, deer, small boar and a mountain cat.

Then, descending into another cellar, a huge lighted tunnel comes into view. Collections of antique winemaking equipment line the walls, as well as a suit of arms, and hundreds of other bizarre antiques that Philip has collected over the years from estates all over France.  At the end of the first tunnel, three other tunnels branch off and loop around, filled with even more bizarre items, such as life-size models of cows and horses, as well as stuffed pigs. The site of a large stuffed dog is a little off-putting, but is most likely testimony to someone’s favorite pet from decades gone by.

Cellars of Philippe LeClerc Winery

Stuffed Animals in Unique Cellars of Philippe LeClerc

Tasting the Wines of Philippe LeClerc

Though it is possible to tour the cellars and museum without tasting the wines, it would be folly to miss the inspiring pinot noirs that reflect the different vineyards and vintages of Gevrey-Chambertin.  After all, Chambertin is reputed to be one of the favorite wines of Napoleon Bonaparte, who supposedly said, “Nothing makes the future look so rosy as to contemplate it through a glass of Chambertin.”

During my first visit, we tasted the following seven wines:

  • 2013 Village Chambolle Musigny – soft, floral and elegant €30
  • 2011 GC Village En Champs – earthy, tannic, interesting €36
  • 2012 GC 1st Cru Champeaux – ripe cherry nose, vanilla, velvety tannins, long finish €42
  • 2012 GC 1st Cru Les Cazetiers – mineral on nose; black cherry and vanilla on palate, velvety tannins, more concentrated the Champeaux – €46
  • 2013 GC 1st Cru La Combe Aux Moines – strange nose of tar and charred oak, black anise on palate. Perhaps just in a dumb stage. €50
  • 2011 GC 1st Cru Les Champonnets – Earthy, big tannins, no fruit. Not approachable yet €56
  • 2006 GC 1st Cru La Combe Aux Moines – older vintage so showing secondary notes of truffle and spice. Very complex, with new notes on each taste. Long finish. €68
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Dusty Wine Bottles in Cellar of Philippe LeClerc

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Vineyard Maps for Wine Tasting at Philippe LeClerc

Three Months in Burgundy

(Autumn 2016) The opportunity to live in France for three months was a dream come true – part of a bucket list item I’ve had for years as something I would do “someday”. However someday came much sooner than expected after a doctor told me I only had one year left to live. Five days later another doctor told me it was a misdiagnosis, but during those five days – which were some of the longest of my life – my husband and I had deep talks about how we would spend that last year together.

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Beautiful Vineyards of Burgundy at Sunset

The one item that kept coming to the top of my list was living in France for a while. So when the trauma was over and I learned I had a sabbatical coming up at work, my husband and I agree that I would go to France for a semester to teach and do research. It was decided that since he works internationally in the oil industry, he could easily stop by to visit me several times coming and going from his job.

Burgundy, Bordeaux or Alsace?

So then came the tough decision of where to go in France. Fortunately for all of us in wine education, there are always opportunities to work at universities in France part-time. Therefore, I reached out to my fellow professors in France and was offered the chance to teach in either Burgundy, Bordeaux, or Alsace. I chose Burgundy because my research matched the region better, and because I have always dreamed of living amongst those famous pinot noir vineyards.

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Finally Living in France — Beaune Farmer’s Market

A Gite in Vosne Romanee

Therefore in the autumn of 2016, I found myself in France for three and a half months. I spent the first two weeks at a French immersion program in Bordeaux (see post here), before flying to Paris to rent a car and drive the 3 hours south to Burgundy. On the way, I stopped off to visit my relatives who live near Fontainebleau for a few days, and then arrived in Burgundy at the beginning of September for a three month stay.

During my sabbatical, payment for teaching part-time at the Burgundy School of Wine & Spirits in Dijon came in the form of a rental house. I was offered an apartment in Dijon or a 3 bedroom house in the village of Chambolle-Musigny, of which I promptly chose the latter. However, one month before departing California, I received an email informing me that they were changing the location and I would be staying at a 2 bedroom gite in Vosne Romanee. A gite is a rental apartment or house that is located in an older dwelling, and has been subsidized by the French government to assist in renovating  historic structures.

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Private Garden of Gite with Striking Blue Door

At first I was disappointed, because expecting many visitors, I was hoping for a 3 bedroom house; however, when I saw the gite, I was delighted with how spacious and charming it was – including a private walled yard with striking blue door at the entrance. It even had a name – the Consulate. Still more thrilling was the fact that the gite was only a five minute walk from some of the most famous vineyards in the world, including my namesake, La Tache, as well as Romanee Conti, La Romanee, Richebourg and Romanee-St. Vivant.

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Living Room of Gite – Photo Credit: Le Consulate website

However the biggest surprise was to learn that the gite was owned by the Chateau Liger-Belair, and my landlords were the count and countess, who lived across the street in the large chateau that dominates the center of the small village of Vosne-Romanee. They turned out to be delightful and friendly hosts, and the last evening I was invited to a cozy dinner complete with amazing wines. Of course the other very famous winery in Vosne-Romanee is DRC – Domaine Romanee-Conti, which was also one block away from my gite. I was fortunate enough to have visited here in the past (see post), but was honored to be allowed to visit three more times during my stay.

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Looking Through the Gates of Chateau Liger-Belair

Living in Vosne-Romanee – a Village without a Bakery

Several people thought it was strange that I wanted to live in a small French village without a grocery store or bakery, rather than live in the bustling center of Dijon or Beaune.  But I am a country girl at heart, and living near the vineyards is important to me. So though Vosne-Romanee has less than 500 people, and only boasts a small, friendly post-office, a church, and two excellent restaurants, it was perfect for me.

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Downtown Vosne Romanee

Each morning I was able to take a long walk in the vineyards, which are trespassed by many hiking and biking trails that run along the Cote d’Or. The grocery store and bakery were only 2 kilometers down the highway in Nuits St. George, and the distance to both Dijon and Beaune was only 18 kilometers each way. So I settled into my little gite, and melted into my dream of living in France. Some days were challenging, many were miraculous, but none were lonely – because as soon as my friends and family knew I had a gite in France, I had visitors almost every weekend.

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The Famous Stone Cross of Romanee-Conti Vineyard

Tasting the Wine of Dreams at Domaine Romanee Conti

(May 2014) It is the dream of every wine lover to someday have a chance to visit “the Mecca of Wine” – Domaine Romanee Conti. So when the opportunity finally came for a private tasting at DRC, I couldn’t believe it was actually true. I won’t go into details of how I finally received an invitation. Just know that it took months, and contacting many people – to whom I say thanks to in my dreams every night.

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Statue of St. Vivant in Courtyard of DRC

The Gates of DRC

There is no sign announcing the entrance to DRC, but a quick search of Google maps will produce an address in the tiny village of Vosne Romanee. The domaine is hidden behind a very tall stone wall with impressive iron gates. It is necessary to push a call button to announce your presence, and then the gates will slowly swing open.

Once inside, there is a sweep of gravel drive, and a collection of stone buildings.  However it is the beautiful statue of St. Vivant, looking like a winged angel and poised over the exquisite vines of her namesake vineyard Romanee St. Vivant, that captures the attention. It reminded me of the fact that the monks of the Abbey of Saint Vivant established this estate in 1232.

There were five people in our party and we slowly approached a door leading to a small and rather basic office and reception area. It was professionally furnished but not grand or over the top. We were greeted by the office manager, who asked us to wait while she summoned Bertrand de Villaine, cousin to Aubert.

Though serious at first, over the next two hours, Bertrand revealed himself to be a very jolly host with a great sense of humor. Dressed in grey pants, boots, and a long-sleeved shirt, he was of medium height, very fit and muscular. His thick hair was cut short and his face was tan from many hours outdoors. I could imagine him in a monk’s brown shift with sandals and rope belt, perhaps descended from one of the monks who guarded the estate hundreds of years ago.

Bertrand’s first explanation to us, reinforced this image. When we asked him the reason the wines of DRC are considered to be some of the best it the world, he replied, “Because the vineyards were a gift from God.” However as our tour continued, Bertrand began to tell us slightly bawdy jokes and revealed his wicked sense of humor. “I’m not a monk,” he said with a huge grin. “I have five kids, so you know I love my wife a lot!”

Farming the Vineyards from God

We spent some time with Bertrand in the Romanee St. Vivant vineyard just outside the front door of the office. He explained that altogether the domaine owns 27 hectares of vines that are biodynamically farmed. Behind us, climbing up the gentle slope, were the famous vineyards of La Tache and Romanee Conti, which we had visited an hour before on our own. Also nearby were their hectares of Richebourg, Echezeaux and Grands Echezeaux.

We could see the vines were trained on a low guyot, and cane pruned to 4 – 6 buds, with one cluster per shoot. The spacing is approximately 3 x 3 feet, and average 9,000 vines per hectare in most of the vineyards. However Bertrand told us there are a few which are 10,000 vines per hectare.  Yield is generally 27 hectoliters per hectare (around 2 tons per acre), but many times they only achieve 17 hectoliters per hectare. In 2013, they lost 50% of the crop due to weather issues.


I was impressed with how healthy looking the soil was with ric
h red-brown clay(marl) and small pebbles of white limestone scattered throughout. Bertrand said the vineyard is the most important aspect of the wine, and as soon as the harvest is finished and the grapes are in the cellar, their only role is to “observe” the wine being made. He explained with a grin, “Being in the vineyard is my favorite part of work, then the cellars, and the office last.”

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Rich Soil of DRC

When we asked him about rootstock and clones, he responded that the rootstock was all of American origin, but the clones were 80 – 95% marsale selection.

Some of their biodynamic farming practices include keeping a garden where they grown the herbs and other plants that go into the biodynamic preps. In addition, they have two horses that plow the vineyards. “Mickey is the name of the oldest horse,” said Bertrand fondly.

Interestingly, he mentioned that frost is actually good for the soil and vines, because it causes the soil to break apart. He said they had not yet had frost in the Spring of 2014, and that it was missed. He demonstrated by picking up a piece of clay and tried to crumble it in his hands, but it didn’t break easily. He said if frost were to come in the next few weeks it would help the soil be healthier. This is the first I’ve heard of this concept.

Bertrand also described how the ancient monks who had worked at Clos de Vougeot, just one kilometer from DRC, had deciphered the message of the soil and terroir of the area. He explained, “In certain parts of our vineyards, you can have amazing differences in soil just a few meters apart. For example in La Tache, we say there is upper and lower La Tache, because the soil is different in two sections.”

Wine Making at DRC

We were told that currently there are 35 people working full-time at DRC. The winemaking process is similar to other estates, with a few key differences. The first is access to world-class grapes from the “vineyards of God,” which are meticulously tended throughout the year.

During harvest the workers begin around 5am each morning and continue picking until around 2pm in the afternoon. The first sorting occurs in the vineyard, and whole clusters are gently transported to the winery, which is just across the street from the main DRC office and cellars.

We walked across the small plaza and entered the cellars through an old wooden door set into the high stone walls that surrounded the operation. Immediately we could see huge wooden foudres and long conveyer belts for transferring the whole clusters into the foudres. Bertrand explained that during crush, large tables were set up within the winery for the second sorting. Generally 14 to 20 people sort the clusters to remove green berries, rotten or over-ripe berries, clusters that are too big, hail damaged berries, and insects. If it is raining during the harvest or there are a lot of insects that year, they set up an additional table for a pre-sort.

After sorting, the whole clusters are gently moved up the conveyor belt to the top of the large wooden foudres where they are destemmed in an electric machine that rests on top of the foudres. The purpose is to protect the individual grapes from oxygen as long as possible. Many are left intact so there can be a small amount of carbonic maceration taking place within individual berries. This was one aspect of the winemaking process that I had never heard of before, because most reports state that DRC ferments as whole clusters.

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Barrel Aging Cellar

Natural yeast is used, and the berries are left to start fermentation on their own. A cold soak is not forced on the grapes, but it generally takes about 5 days for fermentation to start. Pump overs are used up to 3 times a day to assist, and when fermentation takes off pigeage is conducted up to 3 times per day by hand or by physically jumping in the tanks some times. Fermentation temperature ranges from 25 – 27 F, with total maceration at 17 – 25 days, depending on the vineyard and vintage.

The wine is pressed in a large Bucher vacuum press and the free run and pressed juice is kept in separate tanks for 24 hours to settle out. Then it is tasted, and decisions are made on how much pressed juice to blend with the free run. The wine is then transferred to 95% new French oak barrels, medium toast (they used to do 100%, but have made some minor adjustments). Interestingly they have discovered the Corton vineyard they have recently acquired is not as accepting of oak, as the others. Therefore, Corton now receives less oak.

The wine is aged for 16 – 18 months with no racking, unless certain exceptions warrant a barrel to be racked. ML takes place in barrel, and often doesn’t start until the Spring. Everything is very natural, and Bertrand stated that they do not like to rush things. “Everything in its own time,” he said. Barrels are topped as needed.

Amazingly, bottling occurs directly from the barrel – no blending of all barrels into a large tank first. Therefore, each bottle is quite individual. The finished wine is not fined, but may be gently filtered, depending on the vintage.

Tasting Dreams Deep in the Cellars of DRC

Eventually we descended deep into the cellars of DRC. My first thought after climbing down a steep flight of stairs was “how small this is!” Looking around, we could see barrels of wine lined up around the walls, separated by white gravel pathways. The barrels were not stacked on top of one another, but sat in solitary splendor resting on wooden rails.

Bertrand explained that this was the aging cellar, and that after bottling the wines were moved to another cellar across the road for further aging. He grabbed a wine thief and motioned for us to follow him to a series of barrels marked Echezeaux. We were each given a glass and watched in fascination as he transferred a small amount of the wine from the thief into our glasses.

I was impressed with the brilliant ruby hue of the wine, and the exquisite but delicate nose of the 2013 Echezeaux. As it was May, Bertrand explained that the wine was mainly finished, but a few barrels were still undergoing ML. The texture was very silky on my palate with smooth tannins, crisp acidity, notes of black cherry and tea, and a long finish.

Though we knew the protocol was to spit, it was just not possible because this was our first (and perhaps only) taste of these legendary wines. I explained this to Bertrand, and he nodded with a smile. However, we did pour the remnants of the glass back into the barrel after two sips.

Next we moved to the barrels of Grands Echezeaux, which delivered with amazing accuracy its reputed style of bolder tannins and larger mouthfeel than the regular Echezeaux vineyard. The aroma was stronger with black fruit and earth, and on the palate the wine had more concentration, huge velvety texture and tannins, and a strong masculine feel to it. Notes of black cherry, coffee, and anise lingered on a very long finish.

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Finally Tasting La Tache with Bertrand at DRC

Next, trembling with anticipation, I followed Bertrand to the barrels of La Tache. For years I had dreamed of tasting this wine because my last name “Thach” is correctly pronounced “Tache (tosh).” Therefore, I felt a strong affinity to the wine, and was convinced it would be my favorite.

La Tache did not disappoint. In the dim light of the cellar, it flowed into my glass in a glowing ruby stream, and the perfume of raspberries and violets filled the air. Reverently putting my nose to the glass, the berries became more complex with mixed spices. On the palate it was probably the most elegant wine I’ve ever tasted. It was delicate but concentrated with silky texture and tannins, fine acidity, and a kaleidoscope of complex flavors ranging from red and black berries, rose, black tea and allspice. The finish was very long and satisfying.

As we moved from the barrels of La Tache to Romanee Conti, I felt very satisfied. Finally I had tasted the wine of my dreams, and was confident that nothing could ever eclipse that taste. I was wrong. Who knew that Romanee Conti could taste even better?

Perhaps it was the hype around Romanee Conti that had put me off. I’ve never been a fan of jumping on the bandwagon of what everyone else proclaims to the best. So my first sip of this wine came as a shock. It was a darker ruby that La Tache in color with a more pronounced nose of berries, violets and spice, but on the palate it was even more elegant with huge concentration and an extremely long finish.

As my companions were oohing and ahhing over the wine, I stood there trying to analyze what made it so great, and in doing so nearly consumed all of the wine in my glass. It reminded me of a perfect combination of the best Russian River pinot noir I’ve ever tasted, rich with flavors of raspberry, spice and violets, but with the added magic of a core of the pulsing minerality and complex earthiness of Burgundy. It seemed to embody the best of new and old world pinot noir in one exquisite glass. Perhaps it really was made by God?

Bertrand woke me from my reverie by asking, “Don’t you want to be part of this barrel of Romanee Conti too?” I looked over and saw that everyone else was gently tipping the remainder of the wine in their glasses into the hole of the barrel. Peering into my glass, I was embarrassed to see there was only one drop left.

“It is alright,” Bertrand said with a grin, “even if you only have one drop, you will still be a part of this barrel.”  He motioned for me to come over and I slowly shook my one drop into the barrel. “Now you are all apart of this wine,” he said. “Where ever it goes around the world, you are a part of it.”

As he said this, I wondered who would eventually buy the bottle of wine in which my one drop was mingled. Though some people may think the Burgundian custom of pouring wine from your glass back into the barrel is strange and perhaps unsanitary, this is not the case. Because the wine is so rare, every drop is needed to top the barrel and protect the wine from oxygen. Also, because they are using so much new French oak that “drinks the wine,” is it is necessary to preserve with more wine. Finally, the alcohol in the wine will kill all human germs that may linger on the glass.

“So where are the rest of the barrels of Romanee Conti?” one of my companions asked.

The answer surprised us.  “Because the harvest from 2013 was so small, we only have these 13 barrels of Romanee Conti for the whole world.”

What? Thirteen barrels for the whole world! This was earth-shattering news.  Bertrand went on to explain that this was the reason they were so careful to whom they sold the wine. “We don’t want a complete vintage to end up the dark cellars of a few rich collectors,” he said. “We want the wine to be shared by many people around the world. This is why we allocate so carefully.”

One of my companions then told Bertrand of how his store in California was allocated 4 bottles per year of DRC wine. He explained that most of the time the bottles were purchased by a group of winemakers who pooled their money so they had enough to afford one bottle and they each had a sip or two. Bertrand smiled at this story and said, “This is the type of thing we like to hear.”

As we left the cellar, I asked Bertrand how difficult it was to deal with the fickleness of Mother Nature –  that in some years brought them bounty, and in others, such as 2013 with all its hail and frost, decimated the harvest by 50%.

His response was poetic, and brought a sense of calm and peace to my soul. “When we work in the vineyard, we go with the flow. If the year brings hail, frost, or sunshine, we accept and know this is what is supposed to happen for this vintage.”

A Taste of Golden Sunshine Before We Departed

During the last part of our two hour visit to DRC, Bertrand took us to visit the bottle aging cellar. It was also quite small, but very beautiful with the bottles stored in tall cases for one year before they were labeled and boxed for shipment.

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Bottle Aging Cellar

However, we soon discovered it was not necessarily the bottle aging cellar we had come to visit, but a small dark room in the back carved out of the natural limestone with gravel on the floor. In the center stood a tall wooden barrel that served as a table, with a flickering candle set upon it.

Bertrand motioned for us to stand around the barrel table, and then slipped off to the right where he bent down and grabbed an unmarked bottle from a pile of shiners in a dark corner of the cave room. He placed the bottle on the table and uncorked it with a flourish, and then poured it into our glasses. In the dim candlelight the wine glowed with hues of yellow and flashes of white gold. “Guess what this is?” he asked.

Bringing the glass to my nose, I could smell fresh apple pie, butter, and allspice. On the palate the wine was creamy, with more yellow apple, pastry, mixed spices, and very generous well-integrated toasty oak notes. It was so rich and concentrated, it reminded me of dessert. At first, the thought of a rich over-the top Marcassin chardonnay flashed across my palate memory. Surely this couldn’t be from the Sonoma Coast? But then the crisp acidity and electric core of limestone minerality asserted itself – Burgundy. This must be DRC’s Montrachet.

It turned out to be the single barrel they make each year of Batard Montrachet, and only share occasionally with visitors to the cellar. “This is the 2007 vintage. I call it my little pastry,” smiled Bertrand as he watched our shocked expressions. “Doesn’t it taste just like a pastry dessert?”

I agreed, and just then one of my companions fell on his knees in the gravel and exclaimed, “I have died and gone to heaven.  Thank you God and Bertrand for letting me taste this wine.”

We all laughed and helped him up to his feet again. Then we took photos with Bertrand and thanked him, and the others who had helped us receive an invite to DRC, for making all of our dreams come true.

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Famous Cross of the Romanee Conti Vineyard