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Burgundy | Beaune Voyage

Importer Daniel Johnnes takes wine editor Lettie Teague on a once-in-a-lifetime tasting tour of Burgundy's greatest domaines.

I was sitting across from Daniel Johnnes in a restaurant in Burgundy, empty except for us. Daniel was speaking perfect, unaccented French to the proprietor, who was wearing dirty shorts and what looked to be bedroom slippers. I watched in silence; four years studying French hadn't supplied me with phrases adequate to the occasion.

Daniel and I were together thanks in part to his impeccable French, but mostly because of his impeccable reputation with French winemakers—specifically Burgundians. Daniel is the wine director of New York's Burgundy-centric restaurant Montrachet; the founder of Jeroboam, an importing company specializing in Burgundy; the organizer of La Paulée, a Burgundy-style wine festival in New York; and as much of a spiritual Burgundian as any American I know (though he doesn't wear slippers in restaurants). Daniel also happens to be good friends with some of Burgundy's best producers—he's even been the houseguest of a few.

These last two facts are not insignificant in a place as insular as Burgundy, for unlike Bordeaux or Napa, Burgundy's top winemakers are farmers, more likely (and much happier) to be out in their vineyards than talking with journalists. So when Daniel offered to introduce me to some of the great producers he knew and to show me the side of Burgundy that only a friend sees, I said yes right away.

We'd never traveled together before, though Daniel and I have a history of sorts. He was the man who stood me up at my wedding eight years ago. While Daniel wasn't the man I was marrying, he had an important role to play: choosing the wines. My husband and I were married at Montrachet in part because of Daniel. We'd figured that if nothing else worked out that day, at least the food and the wines—under Daniel's direction—would be good. But Daniel wasn't there. He'd gone to a wine tasting instead.

"How long are you going to keep telling that story?" Daniel asked as I reminded him yet again of our particular piece of history. We sat facing one another on an early-morning train from Paris to Dijon. The train ride, which took less than two hours, was the best way to get to Burgundy according to Daniel. I just wished I had more of a view. Daniel had taken the forward-facing seat because he got nauseous facing the wrong way and because, as he said, "I don't want to seem too chivalrous too soon."

We rented a car at the Dijon train station, and Daniel took the wheel since he knew the fastest way out of town. Actually, that was all Daniel knew about Dijon—but since what I saw of it looked more like the outskirts of Cleveland than the top of the Côte d'Or, I didn't care.

Burgundy is made up of five smaller regions: Mâconnais, Côte Chalonnaise, Beaujolais, Chablis and the Côte d'Or—a 30-mile-long stretch of vineyards that starts south of Dijon and runs just beyond Beaune. The Côte d'Or (which is further divided into the Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune) is home to 33 grand cru vineyards, over 450 premier cru vineyards and almost inarguably the greatest Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the world.

Driving south from Dijon, the first town of consequence is Gevrey-Chambertin, which was just Gevrey until the mid-1800s. That's when the local government decided it would be a good idea to annex the name of its most famous vineyard, Chambertin. Other towns followed suit: Thus, Vosne became Vosne-Romanée, Chassagne turned into Chassagne-Montrachet and so on.

Our first meeting was in Gevrey-Chambertin, and we had an hour to kill. This wasn't enough time, said Daniel, for lunch at the famed Gevrey-Chambertin restaurant Les Millésimes. Nor was this enough time to shower and change clothes—what I really wanted to do. After all, we'd been traveling nearly 24 hours since leaving New York. "I wish I could freshen up," I said to Daniel, who assured me, "Don't worry, I'm sure the winemaker will smell worse." Was this his definition of chivalry?

Daniel decided we had enough time to stop by Domaine de L'Arlot, the winery where we were to have dinner and spend the night. He dug out his special French cell phone and called Lise Judet (or "Lilo" to Daniel), the wife of Jean-Pierre de Smet, the manager of L'Arlot. Perhaps she could make us a light lunch—an omelet and salad?

I was impressed. Telling a Frenchwoman to put together lunch on 10 minutes' notice seemed like pretty solid evidence of Daniel's ease with the natives. Was this a reward for speaking the language without an American accent? Daniel assured me it was only because he and Lilo were "old friends." In fact, they had known each other for almost 14 years; Domaine de L'Arlot, located just outside of Nuits-St-Georges, was one of the first wineries he'd represented. The reputation of L'Arlot, said Daniel, gave him "the credibility to approach other Burgundy producers."

Lilo's omelet was predictably perfect (she was French, after all), and I tried to express my appreciation in her language, but it was clear that my tortured pronunciation was painful to her ears after Daniel's flawless Gallic phrasing.

We made it back to Gevrey-Chambertin on time, but the winemaker, Vincent Geantet of Geantet-Pansiot, wasn't around. Never mind. His daughter, who looked about 14, offered to conduct the tasting. "I'm not sure this is legal—even in France," Daniel remarked as the girl led us out of an office decorated with Harley-Davidson memorabilia and down to the cellar. The whole thing was accomplished with the kind of casualness I came to recognize as peculiarly Burgundian—something akin to slippers in restaurants.

We tasted the 2001s from barrel and the 2000s from bottle, as we would do virtually everywhere we went. The 2000 vintage had gotten a bad rap by both the French and American press, and in most cases the 2001 wines had too, though Geantet's 2001s showed great promise—particularly his Gevrey-Chambertin En Champs, a gorgeously aromatic wine from 100-year-old Pinot Noir vines. His 2000 wines were quite delicious—even his simple Marsannay had a lovely Pinot character.

Daniel took precise notes and said very little. Unlike most wine journalists who pass through Burgundy perhaps once a year, Daniel travels there at least four or five times, tasting wines at all different stages. Some wines he tastes because he imports them; some he tastes because he might buy them for Montrachet; some he tastes just because the winemaker wants him to. Indeed, according to Pierre Meurgey, director of Maison Champy, a Burgundy négociant, when producers hear Daniel is around they ask, "Will he come see me?" As far as I could tell, this sort of celebrity hasn't gone to Daniel's head. On the other hand, our trip had just started.

Our next appointment was at Domaine Hubert Lignier in Morey-St-Denis, a few miles south of Gevrey-Chambertin. Daniel suggested that we drive through the vineyards. Ironically, although Burgundy's best wineries are closed to the public, the roads through its greatest vineyards are completely open. You can drive right up to grands crus like Chambertin and Bonnes Mares—touch the vines if you've a mind to—though I doubt it's encouraged.

Domaine Lignier is located in the center of Morey-St-Denis, a tidy village whose winemakers appear to be doing quite well: I counted nearly as many Mercedes asI did driveways. The domaine's wines are imported to the United States by Neal Rosenthal, but Romain Lignier, Hubert's son, and Daniel are friends. Romain Lignier took over winemaking duties from his father about 10 years ago, and Lignier wines have been highly sought afterever since. The 1999 vintage of his grand cru red, Clos de la Roche, received 99 points (out of a possible 100) from wine critic Robert M. Parker, Jr. According to Lignier, "Everyone wanted to buy it, including the sommelier of Taillevent in Paris." Lignier turned him down. "I only sell to friends and people who have been my clients for years," he said. Then he let us taste the 2001 Clos de la Roche, still in barrel. It was glorious—ripe, rich, amazingly accessible for a wine of its stature. Daniel begged to buy a bottle or two, but Lignier just laughed.

As the trip progressed, Daniel did a lot of begging for bottles—even from the producers whose wines he imported—like Dominique Lafon, whose domaine, Comtes Lafon, in Meursault, we visited the next day. Producers like Lignier and Lafon have far more customers than they do wine and, as a result, even their humblest product is highly allocated. In fact, said Daniel, Lafon's simple Mâcon-Villages was almost as hard to get as one of his premier cru Meursaults. Begging seemed to me like an awfully tough way to do business, but then I suppose it has its rewards. The 1988 Comtes Lafon Meursault Charmes premier cru on Montrachet's wine list costs an impressive $450 a bottle.

When Daniel and I showed up at Comtes Lafon, we found Dominique Lafon on his way to the vineyards. Lafon, hidden behind Vuarnet sunglasses, looked like a French movie star to me—maybe Gérard Depardieu, though with half as much nose. "Lafon is a megastar," Daniel said appreciatively. "He's one of the greatest white-Burgundy producers alive." Then we both watched Lafon light a cigarette, French movie-star fashion. "I tried smoking once," Daniel confided, "but I couldn't get the hang of it." It was the first hopelessly American thing I'd heard him say.

Like most Burgundy producers, Lafon doesn't own one vineyard, but pieces of many—great premiers crus like Perrières, Genevrières, Poruzots and Charmes—not to mention almost an acre of the greatest white-wine vineyard of all, Montrachet. Lafon's piece of Montrachet, which he took us to see, was unmarked. Most of Montrachet is, except for the stone gateway and sign Marquis de la Guiche put up over its portion. When I asked Lafon why he didn't have a gate too, he took a cinematically perfect drag on his cigarette and replied, "A gate is just an entrance for a tractor."

Lafon has the tan of a man who has spent many hours on tractors; to be a serious producer in Burgundy is to be someone in need of sunblock. As Lafon drove us back to his winery, he pointed out fellow winemaking genius Jean-Claude Ramonet, riding a tractor in a neighboring vineyard. Lafon is good friends with Ramonet and other like-minded producers. In fact, when Daniel told him we were late for our next appointment, with Jean-Marc Roulot, whose winery was located just down the street, Lafon called him up and insisted he come over and taste with us.

Although Lafon looks like a movie star, Roulot actually is one. Or at least an aspiring one. Roulot splits his time between Meursault and Paris, making small films and small amounts of great wine. I wondered if Roulot's fellow actors were as impressed as I was by his knowledge of weather—particularly hail. Winemakers in Burgundy talk a lot about hail, almost as much as they do about wine critics and money. (My friend Peter, after learning a little about Burgundy, now asks whenever a wine is served, "Was there hail in the vineyard?" even if the wine is from Napa.) But hail is a big problem in Burgundy; it certainly was in 2001, when Lafon said up to 60 percent of his vineyards suffered hail damage. Even so, declared Lafon, who is famous for harvesting very late, the vintage was very good—despite what the critics say; in fact, he compared it to 1997 and 1989, two successful years.

As much as Lafon and Roulot complain about critics and their premature vintage assessments, every wine they make is pretty much spoken for. In fact, each time we tasted something particularly great, Lafon would say, "I don't think I'll give Daniel any of this." Or "Maybe I will give Daniel one case." By the time we got to taste Lafon's 2001 Montrachet—a lush, layered, deeply expressive wine despite its extreme youth—he said, "Maybe Daniel can buy one bottle." After all, Lafon mockingly added, Daniel had tasted the wine so many times he'd already consumed his full allotment.

Then there were the wines Daniel would never get, no matter how much begging he did. Like the wines of Coche-Dury, another Meursault-based producer we visited later that same day. The Meursaults made by Jean-François Coche are said to be among the richest expressions of the Chardonnay grape and start out selling for several hundred dollars abottle—if they can be found at all. The man himself is almost as elusive; even Daniel hadn't seen him in years. "He's very private," said Daniel as he posed for a picture next to Coche's mailbox. "He's like a high priest," he added, just as the high priest himself, wearing shorts and slippers, drove up on his tractor.

Unfortunately, the high priest didn't speak English, and Daniel was too awestruck to translate. Later, Daniel explained that he thought Coche would have been upset if he had spoken English. Coche hadn't seemed that fragile to me, but, since we'd spent an hour tasting extraordinary Meursaults and Puligny-Montrachets, I let it go. After all, it wasn't as bad as our dinner in the empty restaurant when Daniel spoke French with the proprietor all night long. And it certainly wasn't as bad as our meeting with Henri Jayer.

Henri Jayer, a producer located in Vosne-Romanée, makes one of the most sought-after red Burgundies in the world, Cros Parantoux. It's not a grand cru wine, but Jayer's Cros Parantoux is so rare and so expensive that I've tasted it only once in my life—the 1990 vintage (about $2,000 on a wine list). It was as profound a young red wine as I've ever had. Jayer, at 80 years old, is a bit of a recluse. In fact, he makes Jean-François Coche seem like the life of the party. So Daniel said. But Daniel, being Daniel, had gotten an appointment.

We'd spent a grueling day driving up and down the Côte d'Or—beginning with an early-morning tasting appointment in Puligny with Domaine Leflaive, followed by a trip all the way down to Mâcon to meet Oliver Merlin for lunch. We came back north by way of Savigny-lès-Beaune, where we tasted with a winemaker (whose nickname is Kojak) at Domaine de Brialles. Then it was time to leave for Vosne-Romanée to meet with Henri Jayer.

I should have realized things might not go well when Daniel told me to wait in the car. He wanted a word with Jayer first. Ten minutes later, Daniel reappeared and told me to follow him to Jayer's garage-cum-office. Jayer sat like a Buddha between two Barcaloungers, hands folded on top of his cheap metal desk. He nodded at my entrance then promptly ignored me, speaking to Daniel in rapid-fire French. Since a translation wasn't forthcoming, I worked hard to figure out what he was saying. The conversation seemed to be mostly about money—the price of wine and vineyard land. And it went on for nearly an hour. Then Jayer went outside. Not to the cellar, but across the street to his neighbor's vines, where he showed us his pruning techniques. And then he said good-bye. And that was it. We didn't taste one Jayer wine. But at least I could say I saw his garage and his vine-trimming techniques.

Fortunately, our next stop was Beaune, which is not only the most beautiful city in Burgundy, but perhaps its most welcoming—there's even a carousel in the center. We were booked into the luxurious but tiny Hôtel de Beaune (our two rooms accounted for nearly half the accommodations), and Daniel had invited a few producers to dinner at a nearby restaurant, Ma Cuisine.

Ma Cuisine is hugely popular with local winemakers, and it's easy to see why. The food is simple but good (kidneys are popular), and the wine list features all (their) great names. But what's most compelling about Ma Cuisine must be the owners, Pierre and Fabienne Escoffier. The Escoffiers seem determined that everyone, including themselves, have a good time. And Daniel's winemaking friends—Christophe Roumier, Étienne Grivot, Patrick Bize and Pierre Meurgey—were certainly well able to ensure that that happened. (Lilo was there too—payback for her omelet and salad, I suppose.)

Only one day was left. It started like all the others—with an early-morning tasting (Hubert Lamy in St-Aubin), followed by a second (Pierre Meurgey at Maison Champy), followed by lunch—but ended in a remarkable way. Our last appointment before leaving for Paris was with Aubert de Villaine, the coproprietor of DRC, or Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, as it's more formally known—perhaps the most famous estate in all of Burgundy. DRC wines (the initials alone are enough among wine connoisseurs) are the Burgundy gold standard, some of the most sought-after in the world.

DRC wines are almost mythical in quality—they have great power and longevity yet also extraordinary finesse. Still, the closer we got to the domaine the more nervous I became. What if Aubert de Villaine spoke only French? What if Daniel was afraid to translate? What if de Villaine just sheared a few leaves off the vines and called it a day?

But the gentle, scholarly de Villaine (who spoke perfect English, by the way) turned out to be every bit as amazing as the estate he oversees. He was remarkably generous with both his wine and his time. Shortly after our arrival, he drove Daniel and me up into the hills for a look at the DRC vineyards—Grands-Échezeaux, Échezeaux, Romanée St-Vivant, Richebourg, La Tâche and Romanée-Conti—describing their terroirs with gestures as casual as if they were mere gardens. Then de Villaine suggested we drive down to the cellars to taste the 2001 wines. Though they'd been recently racked (a process in which oxygen is introduced into the wine) and were a bit hard to taste, their distinct personalities were evident: the licorice notes of La Tâche, the aggressive tannins of Grands-Échezeaux and the suppleness of Romanée-Conti itself. These are wines people wait a lifetime to drink (and pay a fortune to do so), though the unpretentious de Villaine acted as if tasting them was just a pleasant way to while away the afternoon.

As a parting gesture, de Villaine opened a bottle of 2000 DRC Montrachet. It was beautifully balanced, though elegant and restrained rather than opulent or lush. "People don't always understand Montrachet," Daniel remarked. "It's such a big name they expect it to be a big wine. And it's not." He and de Villaine began reminiscing about earlier vintages of DRC Montrachet. Daniel said to de Villaine that at one time he'd tasted every single vintage of Montrachet that de Villaine ever made. "When was that?" I asked jealously. "Remember the tasting I went to instead of your wedding?" Daniel replied. "That was when."

Published October 2002
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