Friday 29 November 2019

Exploring French wine regions on foot, by bike and car

Wine lovers always choose to go to wine regions for holiday and I am no exception. My adventure in July was Burgundy, Jura and Alsace. I have never been to this part of France and my French is pathetic, but this is exactly why it was fun.

Some friends were excited about my trip and asked which wineries I had made appointments to visit. Actually I didn’t and didn’t want to. It would be a work trip if I have arranged meetings in advance. Moreover, I much prefer to see wineries that I haven’t heard of, there are always nice surprises waiting round the corner!

Beaune was my base to explore Burgundy, where there are well-signed cycling tracks and hiking routes. I spent a few days cycling and hiking amongst the vineyards and famous villages including Volnay, Chassagne-Montrachet and Aloxe-Corton, then a day driving down to Beaujolais. There is no dramatic landscape but the scenery is pleasant and calming. It seems that the life at all these villages only revolves around wine. I only tasted at six wineries but they were all authentic and friendly. All cellar doors close at lunch time for at least 2 hours and some need prior appointments because they may be working in vineyards.

Most established negociants have tasting rooms in Beaune. A not-to-be-missed is Patriarche for its underground cellar with self-guided tasting using a a tastevin that you can keep. There are also a few independent wine shops that carry boutique, individual labels. I didn’t have any luck in Beaujolais but was glad to find the Jean Foillard Cuvée 3.14 2014, made from 100 years old vines at one of these shops.

While in Beaune, make sure to spend a good few hours at Hospices de Beaune (also called Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune) to learn about the history; and drop by La Moutarderie Edmond Fallot to taste the many mustard flavours, including Pinot Noir!

Restaurants abound in Beaune. Those around the square inside the old city wall are great for people watching but for a few good glasses of wine, highly recommended are Maison du Colombier and Le Bistrot Bourguignon for an extensive wine list, and Le Comptoir des Tontons for organic and natural wine. Caves Madeleine has a good reputation but it was full when I was there.

In case you visit Dijon, Dr Wine is the place to for good one for wine and tapas.

My next stop Jura was the most unexpected. I used Arbois as the base, drove around the region for few days, and learned everything from Savagnin to Poulsard and Trousseau, all local varieties. The other two permitted varieties are the most widely planted Chardonnay (43%) and Pinot Noir. Jura is certainly more rustic than Burgundy but the scenery is totally different and more spectacular. Baume-les-Messieurs, ranked one of the most beautiful villages in France, is surrounded by high cliffs, while Chateau-Chalon is a hilltop village and a Vin Jaune only AOC. Arbois itself is a quiet historic town with the Cuisance River passing through it. The main streets are dotted with tasting rooms and wine shops. Apparently, it is the first AOC denomination in France!

For me, the local variety Savagnin is the most fascinating. It is full-bodied with crisp acidity, citrus and floral notes. The most famous wine from the region is Vin Jaune (yellow wine), where Savagnin is aged under a layer of flor (like fino sherry) in oak barrels for a minimum of 6 years and 3 months without topping up or fortification, and bottled in a special 62cl bottle ‘Clavelin’. The wine style is known as ‘oxidative’ style because it is aged without topping up but this is what I don’t understand. The wine is aged under a layer of flor which by sherry’s definition, is biological ageing rather than oxidative ageing. Yes, the wine is golden yellow but it is nowhere like the brown colour of oxidative Amontillado or Oloroso sherry. The wine has the nutty sherry character yet fresh on palate. I scratched my head every time I tasted Vin Jaune but my hopeless French forbid me to have any meaningful discussion with the locals. I welcome anyone who read this to share his/her thought.

‘Tradition’ Savagnin is aged without topping up and in a shorter period of time than Vin Jaune, so the wine can still develop the ‘sherry’ character although not as obvious. In contrast, ‘Ouille’ Savagnin is aged with topping up giving more fruit-forward wine. Domaine André et Mireille Tissot even made an Amphore Savagnin. Apart from dry wine, Savagnin can also be made into Crémant (sparkling wine), Vin de Paille (naturally sweet wine made with dried grapes), and Macvin du Jura (liqueur wine made by adding marc brandy to unfermented grape juice).

Another surprise in Jura is a variety called Melon à Queue Rouge, a mutation of Chardonnay that has a red stem. It is planted only around Arbois and just a few producers are making this as a varietal wine, including Domaine de la Pinte.

Only two hours drive from Arbois, Alsace is a totally different world. The architecture, names of villages, wines and to a certain extent culture, are more Germanic than French because of historical reasons. Croissants in bakeries are replaced by bretzels (pretzels in Germany). There are times that I was wondering if I was in Germany or France.

The old town of Colmar is very attractive with traditional half-timbered houses, floral displays and canals, while most Alsatian wine villages, located on slopes or hill tops, are equally picturesque. The region is bicycle-friendly and a hiker’s paradise. I was so excited to have come across a wine festival while cycling through the village of Eguisheim, and ended up spending 3 hours there!

I also attended the Wine and Gastronomy Fair in Ribeauville. 11 restaurant stands were set up where each restaurant showcasing one dish accompanied with two wines. There were music, DJs and revellers were dancing the night away. For an extra fee, wine lovers could sample over 270 wines according to style and grape varieties: Crémant, Chasselas, Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois, Muscat, Riesling, Rosé, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer in a separate tasting parlour. Guess where I spent most of my time😀.

The two must-try restaurants in Colmar are L’Un Des Sens run by two sommeliers and Le Cercle des Aromas serving 250 wine by the glass. Le Grognard in Riquewihr has a good wine list and an even better rum list.

The trip was super enjoyable. To see and experience a wine region first hand is the way to understand its wine. We may be familiar with Burgundian fine wine but visiting the villages and seeing people working in vineyards allow us to appreciate the lesser appellation wines. Mingling with locals certainly help us broaden our horizon. Moreover, wine regions are not only about wine. There are history, culture, outdoor activities and of course fine cuisines. Please plan your next holiday exploring wine regions.

Recommended wineries:
Patriarche, Beaune, Burgundy (available from wine’n’things)
Mestre Pere et Fils, Santenay, Burgundy
Christophe Vaudoisey, Volnay, Burgundy
Domaine Michel Voarick, Aloxe-Corton, Burgundy
Domaine André et Mireille Tissot, Arbois, Jura
Domaine de la Pinte, Arbois, Jura
Domiane Jacques Tissot, Arbois, Jura
Domaine Désiré Petit, Pupillin, Jura
Domaine Berthet-Bondet, Chateau-Chalon, Jura
Domaine Ginglinger Pierre Henri, Eguisheim, Alsace
Domaine Zinck, Eguisheim, Alsace
Domaine Jean-Paul Schmitt, Scherwiller, Alsace
Domaine Clé de Sol, Ribeauville, Alsace