Burgundy opens its doors

BEAUNE, France — When you wake up in Istanbul, the first thing you’re likely to hear is the call to prayer. When you wake up in Rome, you hear bells. When you wake up in Beaune, what you hear is the sound of corks popping from bottles of wine.

“If you walk to the Place Carnot in the center of town at nine in the morning, you’ll see just as many people drinking a glass of wine as a cup of coffee,” said Michael Apstein, a Boston-based wine writer who has been traveling to Beaune for several decades.

Wine has seeped into life in Beaune, at the center of France's renowned Burgundy wine region. It is a place where wine connoisseurs come on pilgrimmages. But recently the commerce of wine here has opened itself to more casual visitors whose interest may lie more in the pace and culture of a wine-soaked life than in the wine itself.

Burgundy is — some would say finally — getting the hang of wine tourism.

For example, the town of Nuits-Saint-Georges, a 10-minute train ride from Beaune, participates in the biennial Grand Jour tastings. Grand Jour provides a comprehensive, contextual view of every wine from a particular town or commune of Burgundy, such as Chablis, Gevrey-Chambertin, and Chassigny. The tastings are ostensibly open only to the trade and the press, but towns like Nuits-Saint-Georges have developed an entire weekend of activities for the public, some wine-related and some not.

This year Nuits-Saint-Georges’ schedule included a half-marathon through vineyards like the esteemed Clos de Vougeot with wine tasting pit stops for runners; an exhibition of classic automobiles; a chocolate fete with 12 master chocolatiers pairing their creations with Nuits-Saint-Georges wines; a dog show, a concert and a street fair.

Tasting rooms are another indication that Burgundy is becoming more friendly to wine tourism. Though commonplace in many other wine regions, tasting rooms in Burgundy (except for the largest houses like Jadot or Bouchard) are only now starting to catch on.

“In Napa Valley it’s almost a Hollywood approach,” said Stephen Pope, manager of the Lower Falls Wine Co. in Newton, Mass., who has been visiting Beaune for professional reasons for more than 12 years. “In Napa, paying to go to a tasting room is part of the business of wine. You have to gain admission. In Burgundy, tasting wine is more of an everyman’s thing.”

Manja Lytzhoft, marketing and communication assistant with the tourism office in Beaune, said that although some larger houses (such as Patriarche and Bouchard Aine) have for a long time had cellars open to the public, it is only recently that the smaller wineries of Burgundy have become more open and welcoming to tourists and non-wine professionals.

“That is the idea,” she said. “We wanted to make it easier for tourists to walk in and taste.”

Other efforts to make Burgundy more tourist friendly, Lytzhoft said, include a wine route map (available in English), introductory classes on wine appreciation and private companies offering vineyard tours.

What makes wine in Burgundy such a seamless and quotidian cultural phenomenon is, in part, the system of wine sales. In Bordeaux, by comparison, wine is treated as a commodity: at en primeur tastings each year, when unfinished wines from the previous harvest are tasted and judged according to their potential, wine becomes a product bought on speculation the way stocks are bought and sold on market speculation. The stories of wine in Bordeaux are told numerically, as data, as figures, as highs and lows.

In Burgundy, on the other hand, the stories of wine are told through the texture of relationships. The system of sales, compared to that of Bordeaux, happen person-to-person in Burgundy, often at the garage door of a very small-production winery. Sales in Burgundy are a question of scale; the smaller scale invites more personal interaction, which sets a more welcoming tone for visitors who are new to wine.

“I doubt we’ll ever see the day where domaines in Burgundy will put out signs for tasting rooms,” Pope said. “But they are becoming friendlier about it.”

Though Burgundy wine has a well-entrenched reputation for premium price points, there has never been as much high-quality Burgundy wine available at reasonable prices. “Not all Burgundy is Grand Cru,” Pope said. “You’ve got lots of quality wine like basic Bourgogne Blanc or Bourgogne Rouge, plus wines from the Macon for under $20.”

More reasonable prices for Burgundy wines, along with a more friendly attitude toward wine tourism, both mark a significant shift in the region. But they aren’t the only noticeable differences. Another very indicative difference, if you believe some long-time visitors, is the number of wood chips on the floor at tastings.

Kurt and Gisela Keuenhof, of the town of Bad Ems in Germany, have been coming to Burgundy since 1980. They drove to Beaune in March this year for the Grand Jour tastings and they drove home, as they do every year, with “10 to 20 cases of wine in our trunk.” When they first started coming to Burgundy 30 years ago, “the floor of the tasting rooms were covered with wood chips,” Kurt Keuenhof said. “We liked it, it was more rustic. Today it’s very professional and very organized.”