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Burgundy opens its doors

France's famed wine region puts on a friendlier face for non-experts.

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.”