Champagne, Burgundy and Bordeaux
June 29 – July 13, 2013
In the way that climbing the Eiffel Tower gives one an expansive overview of Paris, exploring the Champagne, Burgundy and Bordeaux wine regions of France on our latest WSU wine tour gave me an expanded understanding of that country’s prominence in the wine industry worldwide. Not only does so much of the common language of wine we use come from France, but the first wine classification systems were devised there in the mid-1800s. Ages-old vineyards densely cover almost every inch of available land in these regions, but the secret of the success of the vintners lies in the soil. Terroir is everything to the French — the soil type, aspect, slope and elevation — their vineyards literally tell the story of their wines; explaining why their labels have the Chateau name and the appellation and not the grape variety.
We began our tour in the Champagne region, about an hour’s drive east of Paris. This historic homeland of the “Bubbly” is thick with vineyards as far as the eye can see, and honeycombed with an extensive network of caves underfoot where bottles upon bottles of champagne are aged and stored. We got to visit the town of Hautvilliers and see where the famous monk, Dom Perignon, had lived. This poor hard-working monk could not get the bubbles out of his wine! Fortunately for us, the production of those bubbles was eventually embraced and perfected to become the celebrated toast of the world! We stayed in beautiful, historic Reims where one of the highlights for me was touring the monumental Reims Cathedral, where many French kings were coronated.
Of course, in Champagne, we tasted some of the best bubbles in the area, including large producers like Mumms and Taitinger. But I have to say, one of our favorites was a small family winery, Lahemade-Mouzon. Cedric, the winemaker, jokingly told us that the only way for him to get into champagne was to marry into it. His wife grew up in an established industry family and now they are continuing the tradition in their small winery attached to their home.
The Burgundy region is also dense with vineyards. In fact, in all of these wine regions one is impressed by the extent to which the vineyards grow right up to the road edges, up to the walls of the graveyard, up to the sides of buildings and houses. No available space is wasted to anything else. Burgundy is land-bound on all sides, but we found a very unusual building there — a lighthouse! It was built on top of a hill to signify ‘the sea of vineyards’ that flows over every corner of this region and has become a wine museum that houses visual and historical displays about the area.
Burgundy, without waterways to transport its wine, did not bring in the capital needed to grow large Chateaux. This factor, coupled with a strict inheritance law of dividing land between all the children of the landowner, has resulted in the vineyards remaining as family holdings, and giving Burgundy some of the smallest plots in the world. We stayed in the charming town of Beaune, where parts of the medieval wall still surround the city center,. One of our stops was at Domaine Clos Saint Louis. The winemaker Philippe obviously loves what he does and entertained us in his vineyard and winery. “I am a farmer” he told us, smiling — “I live poor, I die rich!” He and his wife, Martine, served us a wonderful lunch of their local French cuisine paired with his lovely Pinot Noirs.
Bordeaux, the last region on our tour, renowned for its expensive and long-lasting red wines, is also steeped in a rich tradition of wine history. The Gironde River that flows through it to the Atlantic has provided easy transport for its wines to England. In fact, for a time, Bordeaux became a part of England during the 12th century, when Eleanor of Aquitaine was married to King Henry II. A highlight of the Bordeaux tour was our visit to Chateau de Pressac, a Grand Cru, hosted by owner and winemaker Jean Francois who gave us a delightful tour and extensive tasting. We also visited St. Emilion, a fascinating medieval town with 173 acres of underground caves and the only monolithic church (carved out of one rock) and its connecting catacombs.
Everywhere we went on this tour, we were impressed by the friendly people, beautiful countryside, historic architecture, and the delicious food and wine of these well-known and traveled areas of France. But even more than that, experiencing these famous wine regions first-hand was especially educational and enriching. Champagne, Burgundy and Bordeaux truly offer an expansive view of the evolution of the wine industry from a rich, historical and geographical perspective.