Right in the middle of Burgundy’s fabled Côte d’Or, there’s a hill.  It’s in the village of Aloxe-Corton, nestled next to Pernand-Vergelesses and Ladoix-Serrigny.  For lovers of Burgundy wines, these are not just the place-names of some tiny villages.  They’re the names of specific Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.  That hill is also the name of a wine appellation.  It’s Corton-Charlemagne.

Charlemagne.  Photo courtesy of

No one encourages you to walk through the vineyards atop that hill, but no one stops you either.  And when you do, you can tell yourself that you’re walking in the footsteps of Charlemagne.  Yes, that Charlemagne, the fellow who was crowned as the first Holy Roman Emperor on New Year’s Day in the year 800.  Back in the day – way back – he owned the vineyards atop that hill.

There’s no particular reason to believe that Charlemagne actually trod through the ancestors of these vines.  But he could have.  And that fact alone allows you to indulge yourself in the ancient history of wine.  Today and for time immemorial, they’ve grown Chardonnay there and not just any Chardonnay.  These grapes go into the grand cru white wines that bear the name, Corton-Charlemagne.  Legend has it that Mrs. Charlemagne wanted him to drink white wine so his beard wouldn’t appear dirty when he drank.  Who knows, it’s true.

Okay, you’ve climbed the hill.  You’ve walked through the vines.  You’ve bathed yourself in history.  What do you do next?

For one thing, go back down the hill and visit the wineries in Aloxe-Corton.  There’s no shortage of wineries in and around this village.  The best known among them are Louis Latour, Corton-Grancey and Corton C.  Some of them offer both grand cru whites and reds, which is unique to this little spot along the famous Route des Vins.   (Most other Burgundian AOCs have one or the other, but not both.)

Corton C, also known as Corton-André and Pierre André Estates.  Photo courtesy of Le Bien Public.

Perhaps more so than any other locale in Wine Country, a major attraction of wine tasting in the Côte d’Or is the architecture.  Oh, Bordeaux and the Loire Valley have magnificent châteaux, but they don’t have the roofs like they have in Burgundy.  For centuries, the grandees of the region competed with one another in topping their homes with most elaborate tiling and the area around Aloxe-Corton has some of the most inspiring ones.

In particular, you should make a stop at Corton C (formerly Corton André as well as Pierre André and many names before that, over the centuries).  It lays claim to the Corton-Charlemagne hill and keeps it in production after all these years.  The château was built only in the 19th century, replacing one from the 18th century which sat on top of the 15th century caves.  Once again, history flows through everything here.

The elaborately interlaid tiles, polished and resplendent in the sun, make this winery among the most photographed in the world.  And not just the roof.  The towers and pinnacles give the whole building a fairy-tale quality.  You expect to meet princes and dukes when you enter, but it’s only other wine lovers like yourself.



Robert Young Estate Winery

They say that in Sonoma County, the farmer is king.  And in Alexander Valley, Robert Young ( was the king of farmers.  Born in 1919 and passing away 90 years later, Young was one of those wine pioneers who had the temerity to pull out fruit trees and plant Cabernet Sauvignon.  Keeping in mind that the farm had been in his family since the mid-19th century, that took a lot of guts.

He was a “winegrower” as he styled himself, not a winemaker.  He raised premium crops and sold his grapes to such houses as Château St. Jean, Blackstone, Clos du Bois, Simi and others.  Château St. Jean was the first Sonoma winery to identify a particular vineyard on its label and make a single-vineyard wine.  That Chardonnay is still one of their biggest sellers.

Photo courtesy of the winery.

All this history is fine, but how does that translate into a reason to visit the winery?  For one thing, there is a winery and a tasting room, but only since 2010.  It seems that the younger Youngs, who operate the family farm for yet another generation, pressed Grandpa to press some of the best of his grapes himself.

Getting there is half the fun.  You drive off the northern end of Alexander Valley Road onto Red Winery Road.  (There is no red winery to be seen, but there must have been once.)  If you’re there on a lazy summer afternoon, you’ll be all alone on a windy road surrounded by nothing but farmland – mostly vines – with some well-placed trees and open sky.  You’ll know when you get to Robert Young, because there’s nothing else around.

Scion House.  Photo courtesy of the winery.

In old Robert’s day, the tasting room was in a building that appeared to be the ancestral farmhouse.  It wasn’t, but the effect was pleasing.  Today, there’s an aptly named Scion House that serves as the tasting room.  It isn’t a farmhouse and never will be, but it has that vibe.

We don’t review wines at Power Tasting; we write about the experience of wine tasting on travels through Wine Country.  And as we have written before, when you consider that each winery has its fans, they’re all good.  At Robert Young, they pour Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay.

The best way to enjoy them is to take your glass to the patio and gaze out over the more than 300 acres that constitute Robert Young’s vineyards.  It is truly impressive, vines – their vines – as far as the eye can see.  You feel as though you’re looking back through time, to the era when Sonoma County and Napa Valley were just fertile farmland, but without tourists.

In a way, a visit to Robert Young hearkens back to the early days of Northern California wine tasting.  A farmer had some grapes and made wine out of them.  He wanted you to come and have a taste and maybe buy some.  That bit of living history is worth the drive.

Know Your Vineyards

Wines come from and are known by certain regions.  They are AVAs in the United States, AOCs in France, DOCGs in Italy, etc.  In each one of those regions, there are many vineyards, some clearly better than others.  Knowing which ones are the best can lead to greater pleasure when you go wine tasting.  That sounds simple, but it gets more confusing depending on which sector of Wine Country you are visiting and how they allocate the land.

Bien Nacido Vineyards in Santa Maria, California.  Photo courtesy of

  • In Bordeaux, it’s easy. The rules there are that all the grapes in a wine identified with a specific chateau or domain must be grown on its property.  If you see a wine simply called a Bordeaux on the label, it can be from anywhere in the region.
  • In Burgundy, it’s difficult. In many cases, growers don’t own vineyards, they own parcels or even individual rows of grapes, within identified vineyards.  And those may be villages, premier cru or grand cru depending on the terroirs of each.  So wines made from grapes grown in certain well-known vineyards such as Chambertin or Clos de Vougeot are the ones you should look for.
  • In California, things can get a little tricky, too. Many wineries boast of their “Estate” or “Estate Grown” wines.  That means that the grapes for those wines came from the producer’s own property, were cultivated by its own staff and were vinified on the premises as well.  It doesn’t mean that the grapes are necessarily the ones you can see out the tasting room window.  They can come from anywhere in the AVA that’s indicated on the bottle.
  • But not all wines are “Estate”. Many wineries make wine but don’t do the farming themselves.  (And many wineries that do have Estate wines also make wine from purchased grapes.)  When you are sampling a wine that isn’t Estate, it’s fair to ask which vineyards the grapes come from.  There are some so highly regarded that the name of the vineyard alone is enough to make a taste desirable.
  • For example, in Napa Valley, Beckstoffer is the acknowledged leader. And within Beckstoffer’s properties there’s the To Kalon, made justly famous by Robert Mondavi.  Morisoli in the Rutherford Bench is also well reputed, as is Stagecoach high up on the mountains to Napa Valley’s east.
  • To confuse matters further, some growers sell most of their grapes and also make their own wines. So, for example, Truchard and Baciagalupi are major sources for many wineries. The former’s wide variety of grapes, especially Chardonnay, can be found in many wines around Napa.  Baciagalupi in Russian River grows Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for many other wineries.
  • Further south, look for any wine made from grapes from the Bien Nacido vineyard. In the Central Coast, many wineries boast their wines from that vineyard, with Au Bon Climat claiming the largest share.
  • And in the Santa Barbara area, Sanford and Fiddlestix vineyards have great reputations. Sanford also makes wines under their own name, while Etude (among others) makes a Fiddlestix Pinot Noir.

Think About Farming

For most of us, wine tasting is focused on, well, wine.  We visit different wineries in the same region and learn to detect the subtle differences between one Chardonnay and, say, three others made within a mile of one another.  We give credit, if we think about it at all, to the winemaker who we see as a master artisan.  In general that’s true, but wine is a combination of artistry, industrial processes and agriculture.

Even when we are at a winery surrounded by vines, how many of us even consider soil composition, trellising and drip irrigation?  Visiting at harvest time, with grapes hanging heavy on the vines, we don’t believe that many people give a lot of thought to how much science, expertise and sheer hard work went into getting those grapes there.  Now, we’re not advocating that everyone take a few courses at Davis before going wine tasting, but maybe a few thoughts on the matter and a bit of reading are appropriate.

Workers harvesting in the Beuajolais region.

You’ll enjoy the wine you taste at any time of the year, but we think that there’s also pleasure in knowing what has to happen to get the wine out of the ground and into your glass.  For one thing, a visitor ought to be aware of what’s happening in the vineyards at any particular time of year that they are there.  Of course, in the winter months the vines are bare, but there’s lots of work going on to prune the vines to increase later yields.  In March, there’s some green on those vines; it’s called bud break.  Sometime in May, itsy-bitsy grapes begin to form, which is called the fruit set.

Things get serious in July and August, the period of veraison, when those premature clusters become recognizable as grapes.  The farmers now do the unthinkable – they cut away many of the grape bunches that were forming.  This process, called dropping fruit, allocates nature’s resources from within the ground through the vines to the remaining clusters.  Then in late August through October, the grapes are harvested and vinified.

The nature of the soil makes a difference.  Calcareous soil contains limestone that retains water, making farming easier, and the limestone adds acidity to the wines.  On the other hand, grapes grown in gravelly soils are enhanced by the retained heat in the rocks, making the resulting wines bolder and higher in alcohol.  This type of soil is typical in Bordeaux’s Left Bank, which is why wines from the south of the city are called Graves.  If the ground has a clay-like consistency, it favors grapes that ripen quickly, such as Merlot, which is common on the Right Bank of the Bordeaux region.  This little bit of agricultural knowledge explains why wines from a few miles apart in the same region can be so different.

If your reason for going wine tasting is simply to sample, drink or party, none of these thoughts about farming will make any difference.  But if you, like us, go to learn as well as sip, then having a basic understanding of the farmers’ contributions adds to the pleasure.