I am standing shoulder to shoulder with the cognoscenti of the international wine community in a musty three-century-old cellar in the tiny French village of Nuits Saint Georges. All around me, clusters of intently focused middle-aged men are congregated around rows of upturned wine barrels. On each barrel sit four to six different bottles of wine. These small collections of bottles are the product of a year's work for the winemakers who stand stoically behind the fermented fruits of their labor. The vintners pour out two-ounce samples from each bottle for the well-heeled wine buyers, foreign journalists and beret-wearing Burgundians who hover around them.
The tasters squint in the dim light to scrutinize the color, then stick their noses deep into the glass to sniff the bouquet. After a brief assessment, they take a sip and -- without swallowing -- suck air into their mouths to aerate the wine and disperse it to the delicate taste sensors on the various parts of the tongue. The collective gurgling sound in the room is almost deafening. After another pause and a flurry of note taking, they turn and unceremoniously spit a long stream of wine into one of the many spittoons. As I follow suit and spit out a mouthful of Clos Vougeot '95, it dawns on me that I have never tasted such a glorious wine, never mind spit it out. It seems even more sacrilegious to follow procedure and dump out what remains in the glass.
As part of an effort to reach out to the next generation of wine drinkers, the organizers of Les Grands Jours de Bourgogne have invited me into this inner sanctum. Les Grands Jours is a week-long wine-tasting marathon attended by 1,500 wine professionals from around the world. Participants start each day at 9 a.m., and in the course of the day converge on three to four of Burgundy's appellations to sample the wine made from within those controlled areas. It's a rigorous schedule that requires the sensitivity of a surgeon, the navigational skills of a rally car driver and enough stamina to taste up to 300 wines a day. The only respite during the day's schedule is the hearty lunch buffet provided by the host chateau. These spreads feature meats and cheeses produced by local farmers and prepared according to local tradition. Then it's back to the grind.
At night, more elaborate invitational dinners offer up a degustation of traditional French cuisine and a chance to finally swallow some of the choicest wines of the day. To up the ante, the hosts frequently dust off vintage treasures from their private cellars to create a perfect epicurean match. After several courses, a wondrous selection of smelly cheeses is paraded about, followed by dessert and, of course, dessert wines. To cap it all off, a last round of marc, a locally produced brandy, is poured. Morning comes quickly, and less than eight hours later, the carnage starts all over again.
Last September, I traveled to Bordeaux, one of France's other famous wine-producing regions, to participate in a marathon of a different sort. The Medoc marathon is a 26.2-mile odyssey during which 8,000 costumed galloping gourmets run through the grounds of 23 renowned chateaux, stopping at each one to sample wines and, at one point, swallow oysters.
Participating in both of these endurance events has given me a unique perspective on the differences between Burgundy and Bordeaux wines. While some differences are as superficial as the bottle styles (Burgundy's are slope-necked, Bordeaux's are square-necked), others run so deep that they've created lingering rivalries between the regions.
In Bordeaux, a handful of aristocrats control the majority of the area's sprawling vineyards, and the landscape is punctuated by enormous refurbished 18th-century chateaux that rise up from the gently rolling hills. By contrast, the hilly Burgundy countryside is dotted with hundreds of small, tile-roofed domaines surrounded by tiny one-hectare parcels of land. Each vineyard in the patchwork is carefully tended by individual owner-producers who are recognized as being "closer to the soil." The characteristic that's common to both areas and distinguishes them from the rest of the world's wine regions is the terroir, an intangible concept best described as the harmonic convergence of soil, subsoil, sun, air and the passing of winemaking je ne sais quoi from generation to generation. Although Burgundians and Bordelais may argue over the semantics of who possesses the best of these traits, they both agree (as do most experts) that nobody else comes close.
My guide and driver for Les Grands Jours is Kelly Bernard, a transplanted Australian who is taking a masters course in the business of wine. Kelly's other charge and passenger is Terry Robards, author of "The New York Times Book of Wine," and current editor of the Wine Enthusiast. Terry is one of wine's most respected elder statesmen. As we proceed, a nonstop procession of winemakers and negotiators parade before him to pay their respects and vie for his blessing. As glib as he is knowledgeable, Terry has his own unique explanation for everything, which he generously shares with me as we shuttle between tastings. Terry's palate is so refined that it can even detect "bottle shock" (his explanation for the trauma suffered by a newly bottled wine).
Under Terry's tutelage, my wine metamorphosis begins, and after 400 kilometers of winding French roads, I have learned the Burgundy basics. Virtually all white Burgundy wines are made from 100 percent chardonnay grapes, and all reds are made from 100 percent pinot noir grapes (the French don't include this information on the labels since they consider it redundant). All wines are categorized into four groups by the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO). This grading system was initiated in 1939 to formally establish the hierarchy that those in the know have recognized for more than a century. At that time, the top 2 percent of the richest plots of land (i.e., those with the choicest terroir) were designated Grand Cru. The next tier of properties (about 10 percent) were deemed Premier Cru. A designation remains with the vineyard forever and is prominently inscribed on the label to indicate the superior quality of the grape, illustrating the French belief that the grape itself is the most significant element of the winemaking process.
Vineyards that don't qualify for these classifications are christened either with a village appellation, to indicate that the wine is still an acceptable representation of the village, or a regional appellation, which undermines any claims to greatness (but can still represent an infinitely drinkable -- and far more affordable -- wine). The INAO's rigid standards, combined with the properties of terroir and some local politicking, can allow one vineyard to be anointed Grand Cru, while the hectare of grapes on the other side of the hill wallows in the designation of a village appellation. Upon such subtleties, great wines and great fortunes in the Burgundian wine business are made.
As we drive through the postcard vistas of Burgundy, the passing village names read like the wine list of a Michelin three-star restaurant. The tiny and unassuming towns seem dwarfed by the far-reaching reputations of their famous output. I am amazed to look out from the crest of a hill and realize that I can see virtually every vine that produces the world's supply of Pouilly-Fuisse.
By midweek the tasters are hitting their stride and becoming single-minded in their quest to find the pearls. After several blind tastings, vertical tastings (same wine, declining vintages) and horizontal tastings (same vintage, different wines), I am amazed to realize even a novice palate like my own can become quite adept at recognizing the differences not only between winemakers, but even between vintages. In the heady rush of my burgeoning expertise, I plot to liquidate my savings account and build a French wine collection.
Despite the fact that nobody swallows, it's impossible to keep the last drops of each sampling from trickling down the back of the throat. And after 200-300 trickles, even the serious professionals develop rosy cheeks and a tipsy bonhomie. The last day of Les Grands Jours is not unlike the final mile of the Medoc marathon. As a pale version of my former self staggers up to one of the final tastings, I complain to Terry that I can no longer distinguish one $200 bottle of Vosne Romanee from the next. With his usual aplomb, he looks at me and confidentially diagnoses my condition as "palate fatigue." Determinedly, I limp across the finish line.
As I write these words, I am returning to Los Angeles, the land of ice tea drinkers. I have a precious bottle of Louis Latour Beaune Vignes Franches '93 in my carry-on -- and in my head, a resolution to train with renewed discipline for my next round of French marathons.