On the Trail

Walk the Walk

David Driscoll

When I first started learning about Burgundy, I would subject myself to terrible lectures from pedantic know-it-alls who thought the best way to explain the wines was to talk about the region’s topography. They would describe the way the hill shifted slightly to the left in one vineyard, and how the slope of the hill changed as you moved into the neighboring one. I would stand there listening, just trying to remember which grapes the wines were made from, and write down these ridiculous notes that never once did I return to for advice. Apparently, you needed to understand the vineyards in Burgundy before you could understand anything about what you were drinking. When I opened my first bottle of grand cru Chablis I ended up drinking it while looking at an atlas, hoping illumination might be hidden somewhere within those pages. I never found it, however. It would be a few years before my confidence and courage caught up with my brain and allowed me to understand the real issue. The problem with Burgundy, I’ve found over my career, is that the people trying to tell you about it are some of the worst possible teachers available. They’re literal-minded, snooty, uptight, they often enjoy the sound of their own voice, and they talk the entire time about things they know you don’t yet understand, as if to condescend somehow nurtures their soul. In their defense, part of the reason these folks go on and on about the specifics of each vineyard and the various minutia that make Burgundy into a master class is because that’s the way they were taught. They’re simply mimicking the manner of pretense they learned from those before them. But the more people talk this way about Burgundy, the more it becomes the norm; and it’s a phenomenon I’ve found very unbecoming for a long time.

I would never have a friendly conversation about Burgundy by spouting off the detailed terroirs of each vineyard, much like I wouldn’t ever start off a blind date by listing the various psychological quirks of my personality or the numerous achievements of my childhood. People need to time to get to know Burgundy, just like they do other people. Moving too quickly too fast is an utter turnoff. It overwhelms people in a way that feels overtly forced and unnatural. Personally, I don’t really want to learn more about a person unless I already know I like them. Once we’ve established a relationship I’ll typically feel the need to ask more questions. Wine is no different. I don’t necessarily want to know what makes a wine taste the way it does until I know I enjoy it. At that point I can reassess how far I want to take my inquiries. I’ve always known that I liked Chablis, especially the mineral complexity of the higher-end bottles. I didn't figure that out by having someone hand me a limestone rock from a vineyard, or them telling me about the geological formations under the earth. I learned that I liked Chablis from drinking it. Lots of it. All the time. Over and over again. Since I found myself awake at 4 AM in the town of Chablis this morning, I decided to get dressed at first light and go for a little stroll through the hills. I was going to finally get to know the region a little more personally.

As you walk out of the town center towards the grand cru vineyard sites you can see a paved path that goes straight up through Les Clos—perhaps the most famous Chablis vineyard—to the top of the hill. I crossed the river in the brisk morning air, looked both ways when I reached the highway, and set forth at a quick pace hoping to burn off some of last night's dinner. When I finally made it up the summit, a bit winded from the steep climb, I discovered not only a new path that followed the top of each vineyard through the hills, but also a set of signs that designated each of the names and boundaries. I decided to do the entire loop before breakfast seeing as I had the morning's tranquility completely to myself. There were all sorts of inlets, interesting valleys, and hidden slopes with vines planted in every direction. It was a fantastic walk, but that's as much as I'm going to tell you about it. I discovered all sorts of interesting details about each site that probably help to explain why each makes a unique and beautiful wine, and I'll leave it at that. That's all there is to say right now because trying to explain to someone the detailed intimacy of each grand cru location is a bit like trying to convey how funny last night's episode of South Park was by reenacting the dialogue yourself. You can't always explain why things are good. Sometimes people need to experience things for themselves.

That's a pretty annoying thing to say, I know: "you really have to be here," as if anyone can just get on a plane and fly to Chablis whenever they want. But that's the way life works. You wanna talk the talk? You have to walk the walk, too. If you're passionately interested in something then you need to back up your words with experiences that fortify those book lessons with personal contact and direct immersion. That's not to say you can't enjoy Burgundy unless you've been there. I've been enjoying Chablis for the better part of a decade and I'm only now getting the chance to see it. It's just to say that a formal understanding of Burgundy isn't something that needs to happen over the course of an afternoon. You don't need to have a sommelier tell you that Les Clos slants one direction and Valmur another in order to know they taste good. In fact, I'd rather the somm just choose a bottle of something delicious and leave it at that. Of course, there are reasons as to why these wines taste differently, but if you truly and honestly care about what those reasons are, then I have some advice for you: save your money and buy a plane ticket. Come out here and do a morning's walk through the vineyards. Walk the walk. It's in that moment that you'll realize simply talking about Burgundy's geographical intricacies is incredibly ineffective. 

-David Driscoll