Traveling the Route des Grand Crus

Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Lake & Sumter Style Magazine.


The sloping vineyards, charming villages, and medieval castles in France’s Bourgogne region are a photographer’s dream. But it’s the Pinot Noir grape that has made the region – known as Burgundy to most Americans – the ultimate destination for wine lovers.

A few kilometers south of Burgundy’s capital city of Dijon, unobtrusive signs appear indicating the road just off Route N74 is no ordinary wine trail but rather the Route des Grand Crus. The narrow road hugs the east-facing slope of the Côte d’Or limestone ridge and leads to some of the greatest names in Burgundy wines, including Chambertin, Clos de Vougeot, Romanée-Conti, and more.

Considered the heart of the wine-producing region, the Côte d’Or — or “slope of gold” — extends for 60 kilometers and is divided into two sections. The northern half, the Côte de Nuits, runs from Dijon to the community of Nuits-Saint-George and produces mostly red wine. The southern Côte de Beaune produces both reds and whites. Wines get their distinctive tastes and aromas from the different terroirs, especially soil and climate. In Burgundy, that means limestone.

“Without limestone, you can’t produce good Burgundy,” said winemaker Elohim Balest as he picked up a handful of rocky dirt. “And you must understand the soil to make good wine.”

A young Frenchman who speaks fluent English, Elohim grew up in Nuits-Saint-George, an area with a long viticulture history that began with the Romans. In the early 1700s, the town’s wines were recommended to King Louis XIV for their medicinal qualities, which turned out to be an 18th century marketing coup for Côte de Nuits wine merchants. Today, the earthy Burgundies are still among the world’s most highly regarded wines, as well as some of the most expensive.

Burgundy’s cool climate and chalky slopes create perfect growing conditions for the temperamental Pinot Noir grape. The degree of slope where grapes are grown makes a difference in how a wine tastes, but unpredictable weather, especially rain and hail, can be the biggest culprits as to whether or not a vintage will be good.

Elohim, who also operates the wine-tour company Alter & Go, plucked a grape from a Pinot Noir vine so his guests could experience a foreshadowing of the 2012 vintage. I thought the sweet juice indicated the future wines will be exceptionally good. My guide, however, explained that more juice means diluted flavor.

“We’ve had rain all summer so we call this ‘the year of the winemaker,’ because it’s going to take all of a winemaker’s knowledge and talent to improve the quality of the wine,” Elohim later told me. “The rain makes the grapes too juicy, and that is contrary to quality. We need the concentration.”

The iconic Burgundy church in the town of Fixin

Touring the Route des Grand Crus is different from tourist-driven U.S. wine trails. Most of the wineries are family-owned businesses and are not set up for drop-in tastings. Make appointments with the wineries you wish to visit, and you will find the winemakers friendly and willing to share their latest vintages. However, don’t expect lots of different vintages to be opened. Burgundy produces far fewer bottles than other larger regions, such as Bordeaux, and demand for its elegant wines far exceeds supply.  The 2011 harvest for all of Burgundy yielded only 207 million bottles, according to the Bureau Interprofessional de Vins de Bourgogne.

Understanding French wine appellations and classifications can be quite mystifying to even the most experienced oenophiles. In Burgundy, the basic classifications — Grand Cru, Premier, and Village — indicate just how valuable slopes are to the varietal. Grand cru wines come from vineyards grown high up on slopes where grapes get the most exposure to sun and the best drainage. Premier cru vines are in the middle or on less favorably exposed slopes although these vineyards are often protected from the elements by stone walls. Village wines are produced from the flat areas closer to the towns and villages, but don’t ignore just how delicious they can be — especially when you drink Burgundy in the region of Burgundy.

“To find the real taste of Burgundy, you must visit the smaller wineries,” added Elohim. “We make wine to please ourselves.”


What I’ll Be Serving on Thanksgiving

A Pinot Noir is always on my Thanksgiving table because it is such a versatile wine when pairing with food, especially the eclectic flavors that surround the star of the menu ‒ roast turkey. After visiting France’s Bourgogne region, I am anxious to serve a French Burgundy, made with the Pinot Noir grape, to see if its earthy undertones and mushroom-inspired flavors will enhance the traditional turkey and dressing as much as the American counterparts do. In addition, I’ve discovered some new wines that my guests may also enjoy.

2009 Nuits-Saint-Georges Domain Dubois Burgundy/Pinot Noir ($32.99) ‒ Finding an affordable French Burgundy locally can be difficult, and it is definitely hard to know what you are getting. I was pleasantly surprised to find this Pinot Noir at the Lady Lake ABC Store. I knew 2009 in the Burgundy region was a good vintage. I also had visited Nuits-Saint-George in September and tasted several of the Village wines. Before visiting the Côte d’Or, I probably would have ignored a wine not designated as a Grand or Premier Cru. However, talented winemaker Beatrice Dubois is highly regarded and has made outstanding and relatively affordable Burgundies. This winery’s 2010 vintage will supposedly be even better, according to many online wine experts.

2009 Cakebread Cellars Pinot Noir – Anderson Valley ($49.99) ‒ Described as a Cabernet lover’s Pinot Noir, this elegant and lavish wine is much darker and more intense than any other Pinot Noir I’ve ever tried. I have to admit it had me at the nose with its lavish burst of blueberry and boysenberry aromas. Anderson Valley is north of Booneville, Calif., where grapes are exposed to cool, foggy mornings, warm afternoons, and chilly evenings. Fruit ripens slowly and evenly, and the wine offers hints of earthy spices. I have not tried it with turkey, but it pairs perfectly with salmon, lamb or duck.

2008 Shannon Ridge Two Bud Block Zinfandel ($24.99) ‒ My husband prefers a heartier red wine than Pinot Noir, even with poultry and fowl. We recently tasted this complex and well-balanced Zin from High Valley Lake County, California, and thought it would be a nice addition to our Thanksgiving menu. The peppery finish will enhance the flavors of both the turkey and the rich side dishes.

2011 Fulkerson Winery Semi-Dry Riesling ($12.99) and the 2010 William Vigne Dry Riesling ($13.99) ‒ I’ve only recently tasted Rieslings from New York’s Finger Lakes Region for the first time. I had always imagined they would be too sweet for my taste, but that was not the case. This family-owned winery in the Seneca Lake area produces some of the most food-friendly wines I’ve ever had. The semi-dry Riesling is a great “all-occasion” wine with its clean fruit flavors and crisp acidity. You know you are in for a treat as soon as you catch the ripe pineapple aroma on the nose. The wine can be served from the beginning to the end because it will enhance appetizers, the main dish, and even an apple pie dessert. The Fulkerson Winery William Vigne Dry Riesling is truly dry, and the soft lemon and peach undertones make it a perfect accompaniment to roast turkey or chicken. Both wines can be shipped to Florida from the Fulkerson Winery web site. Thanksgiving would be a good time to serve a Finger Lakes Riesling if you’ve never tried one.

2011 Chateau Sainte Eulalie Dry Rosé ($11.99) Thank goodness for a local in-store cuvée system or I never would have discovered this gem from Southern France. I am not much of a Chardonnay fan at Thanksgiving because the flavors often overwhelm food instead of enhancing it. Dry Rosé wines, however, are a different story. They are versatile and will enhance any part of a Thanksgiving feast, especially this wine with its fresh berry flavors and a hint of spice. I expect to win over a few die-hard Chardonnay fans with the Chateau Sainte Eulalie!

Your Favorites?
The wines mentioned above are ones I’ve recently discovered. The most important thing about pairing wines with any meal, however, is to find what you like. By all means, have fun and experiment with different wines but don’t feel bad if not everything suits your taste. And I’d love to hear what new wines you’ve tried recently. Send me a message or find me on

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