Looking for Mr. Goodbottle


By Alexander Foot

“Monsieur, will it rain again today?” I asked the proprietor of our hotel in my execrable French.

“Pluie?” His thick eyebrows rose in indignation. “A Beaune? Jamais!” Rolling thunder shook the windows as the clouds opened up. The proprietor sniffed, walked into his office and closed the door.

So began our second day in Beaune, the wine centre of Burgundy. Spring is a tricky time to visit France because the weather is often unsettled. During our recent visit, it was rainy, sunny, windy, cold, warm and, on some days, all five at the same time.

This can be difficult in any region that depends on agriculture. But it is even more critical in Burgundy because this is the ancestral home of the notoriously fickle Pinot Noir grape. Unlike more common red wine grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir can only be grown successfully in particular climates and soils. Most experts agree that the climate and soil of Burgundy is perfect.

But as my wife and I discovered on a recent wine-guzzling visit, Burgundy is at a crossroads. Should the growers and bottlers here attempt to compete with oceans of affordable wines from Australia, Chile and South Africa? Or should they concentrate on their “brand” vineyards which are synonymous with opulence and grace?

I would say, as I always do, aim high. The low-end village wines that sell for under $20 a bottle lack the unique aroma and flavour of more expensive Pinot Noir. One might drink them at the tail end of a long night but they can’t compete with cheap New World wine. Unfortunately for the Burgundians, vintners cannot expand high-end wine production. Only two percent of their vineyards are premium Grand Crus. And regulations that protect the sanctity of soil and climate guarantee that Grand Cru acreage will never grow.

My wife and I had come to Beaune to find the perfect bottle of burgundy. Admittedly, that may not sound very cost-effective. Some would suggest trying a few bottles at your local wine shop. But we had tried that and been sorely disappointed. In a business filled with ripoff artists, producers of Pinot Noir are some of the worst offenders.

Even though burgundies are simple to understand on one level (all reds are Pinot Noir, all whites are Chardonnay), they are very complex on another. Unlike bordeaux, which typically is produced by a single chateau, burgundy is the result of a bewildering collections of growers, bottlers, domaines or collectives. Some are better than others. The premium wines come from single vineyards, either Grand Cru or Premier Cru. Some are definitely better than others.

We decided to travel to the source and be guided by any experts who might take pity on us. We were lucky on that count because everyone in Burgundy is an expert on burgundy. Any waiter, chef, shop-owner or person at the table next to you is willing to offer an informed opinion. After consuming two bottles of Savigny Les Beaune at a Corsican-run bistro even I was ready to pontificate. But then my wife reminded me of the time we stayed at a German castle-hotel and I told our host when he presented us a bottle of his estate’s Rheingau Reisling that “I don’t drink home-made wine.”

A few days of fun-filled but tiring experimentation led us finally to hire Brigitte to drive us around the Cote de Nuits – the northern area of Burgundy. Brigitte had a degree from the Beaune Wine Institute and a great love of Pinot Noir. She also reminded me of the divine Fanny Ardant.

Driving down the back roads, Fanny, er, Brigitte, pointed out various landmarks and talked of the importance of “terroir” – the combination of limestone soil and south-east facing slopes that medieval monks determined over the centuries was crucial for world-class Pinot Noir. Finally she stopped in front of a small field surrounded by an ancient stone wall. We were the only people in view. There were no out-buildings, no cars, no chateaux. Stretching in all directions were vineyards with new spring vines beginning to reach for the sky.

“Why are we stopping here?” I asked Brigitte.

“I thought you would want to see Romanée Conti,” she replied.

“Where?” I asked excitedly.

She pointed at the little plot in front of us. “Voila.”

Because of its tiny size and perfect location, Romanée Conti produces the most expensive wine in the world. I stared at a fledgling vine that in the fall would produce a $1,000 bottle of wine. Then I glanced around at the empty landscape.

“Brigitte, where are the guards, the fences, the security? In North America, you would have to worry about vandals. Or kidnappers, I mean vinenappers.”

She stared at me in shock. “This is Burgundy. No one would think of such a thing.”

For the rest of our day’s tour, Brigitte shot me dirty looks. Interpol is probably tapping my phone right now.

Of course, Beaune is not just about tasting wine. You can also eat wine. Almost every Burgundian recipe call for wine: Coq au vin (chicken in wine), boeuf bourgignon (beef in wine), even d’oeufs en meurette (poached eggs in wine). Or you can go to the wine museum which features, among other things, an alarming photograph of jolly naked men stomping grapes in a giant wooden vat.

In addition to good walking shoes and a strong liver, when in Burgundy, it is very useful to dust off your high-school French. Outside of bustling Paris, the pace is quite slow and the French appreciate any attempts by tourists to speak the national language. It shows respect and has the added advantage of identifying you as a non-American.

The French of course love to correct mis-pronunciations of their language. On our last day, I found our hotel proprietor sitting gloomily in the lounge looking out at the torrents of rain slamming into his courtyard.

“Monsieur, what is the correct pronunciation for Beaune?”

“Ah, très facile: Beaune.”


“Non, Beaune.”


“Non, Beaune.”


The proprietor sighed, went into his office and closed the door. And as far as finding the perfect bottle of burgundy is concerned, sometimes the search is more enjoyable than the destination.

The Lush Life

Alexander Foot

Alexander Foot was born in Rhodesia, raised in Lithuania and now makes his home in Churchill, Manitoba. He has worked as a chicken-sexer in New York City, an elevator-operator on Baffin Island and a marriage counsellor in Utah.