France: A Quiet Sip Of Burgundy

Far from the crowds, wineries offer private tastings

When a woman answered the door in house slippers, I wondered if we had come to the wrong place. The night before, at a restaurant in Dijon, our sommelier had recommended a sublime white Burgundy, a 1994 La Chateniere from Domaine Roux in the village of St. Aubin. Its rich, lingering perfume so impressed us that the next morning we phoned the winery and arranged to visit for a tasting. But after following the directions, my husband and I found ourselves ringing the bell of an ancient stone house, with no sign of a caveau, or public tasting room.

Smiling broadly, the woman at the door said there was no mistake. She was Madame Roux, and we were expected. She and her husband ushered us into their private cellar where they poured out samples of the La Chateniere, as well as two magnificent red Burgundies: a Chassagne-Montrachet and a Chambolle-Musigny. Strolling afterward through the streets of St. Aubin, we seemed to be the only tourists in the picturesque stone village, about six miles from the bustling wine town of Beaune.

TOURIST TRAPS. Burgundy can get awfully crowded. What many connoisseurs consider the world's finest wine comes from the Cote d'Or, a narrow, 30-mile swath of vine-carpeted countryside south of Dijon. Less than two hours from Paris by high-speed train, Dijon draws hordes of weekend visitors. Yet the crowds seldom stray from Dijon itself, Beaune, and the scenic Route des Grands Crus that connects the two. But there's far more to Burgundy than this beaten path. With a car, a map, and a French phrasebook, you can create a memorable wine tour that's uniquely yours.

To taste Burgundy wines, most visitors head to the caveaux operated by wine producers along the Route des Grands Crus. Don't join them: The roadside caveaux are often used to unload disappointing vintages. In fact, some of the best producers don't even have retail outlets. But many, like Roux Pere & Fils, will open their cellars on request.

How to find them? Look through a wine guide such as Le Guide Hachette des Vins 2000 (Hachette, $23). Or try the approach my husband and I prefer: Splurge on a meal at a good restaurant, then ask the sommelier for recommendations. Once you choose a cellar, usually all that's needed is a phone call, with help from hotel or restaurant staff if your French isn't up to the task. These private tastings are usually free, although you are expected to buy wine. The La Chateniere we ordered from Domaine Roux cost about $16 a bottle. Most wineries will ship to addresses in Europe but not to the U.S. If you take more than one bottle per person back to the U.S., you'll have to declare it and pay a 10% duty. Even then, you'll probably be paying less for the wine than if you bought it in the States.

On another trip, we drove 45 minutes north of Dijon to Chablis, which, despite its famous name, gets few tourists. The town lies in a bowl-shaped valley amid hillsides of pinot chardonnay grapevines--a contrast to the pinot noir grapes used to make Burgundy reds farther south. At the comfortable Hostellerie des Clos, a Chablis restaurant with a Michelin star, the sommelier helped us choose a 1997 vintage from the nearby Domaine Gerard Tremblay. After lunch, the restaurant phoned the Tremblays to arrange a tasting. We were the only visitors.

EXTRA MILE. For an extra dose of serenity, stay in the countryside when visiting Burgundy. Hotels and restaurants are plentiful in Dijon and Beaune, but it's hard to beat a simple country inn such as Les Grands Crus, on the outskirts of Gevrey-Chambertin, where the $55 to $70-a-night rooms overlook a rolling landscape of vines. For dinner, you can stroll into Gevrey-Chambertin, with its old stone houses and wine bars, and dine at the one-star Les Millesimes.

Be open to the unexpected. While we were visiting a winery in the village of Aloxe Corton during harvest season last fall, the proprietor lamented that his crew was shorthanded. My husband volunteered to help, and within minutes, he was out in the fields in boots and waterproof coat. Unfortunately, his enthusiasm for cutting grapes was greater than his skill. If you ever get a bottle of Domaine Voarick Clos du Roi 1999 Grand Cru, there may be a few drops of blood in it.

Travel Tips

Reservations are a must. The Burgundy Regional Committee's Web site,, lists hotels.

Rental car rates are cheaper if booked from abroad. Avis, Hertz, and Europcar have outlets in Dijon.