A retired cardiologist, Tommy Hearon practiced medicine in Columbia for many years, but it seems he lost his heart to France. Not just any part of France — the Burgundy wine region, to be specific.
He says, quite simply, he fell for the wine at first sip — and for the people who make it.
As in many love stories, there are elements of fate. A good friend from his undergraduate days at Presbyterian College, Walter Wells, moved to France and provided Tommy with a great connection to the country. Walter happens to be married to Patricia Wells, the cookbook author who has introduced many to France through her books such as The Food Lover’s Guide To France.
In his quest to learn more about Burgundy wines here at home, Tommy encountered Philip Wittenberg, an attorney from Sumter and Hilton Head who imported Burgundy wines as a hobby. “I call Philip my Burgundian father,” he says. Their relationship led to Tommy being inducted as a member of the exclusive wine club of Burgundy enthusiasts, the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin.
Fate struck again when the French exchange student who was coming to live with his family in Columbia turned out to be the granddaughter of Louis Jadot, as in Maison Louis Jadot, one of the best known wine houses in Burgundy. Visits to the Jadot family cellar have included openings of bottles from 1911 and 1915.
Tommy also says he’s fortunate to have Faye, his wife, share in his enthusiasm and eagerly join him in traveling to Burgundy year after year.
Tommy explains how he first discovered these wines, why he keeps going back to that region of France … and how other wine drinkers can learn more about Burgundy.
How did you discover Burgundy wines?
Faye, 2-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, and I lived in London for the last year of my medical training, in 1973 and 1974, and traveled to France a couple of times. While we were in the Burgundy region, we ate at a country restaurant. I ordered a half bottle of the local wine. They were out of half bottles, so the waitress marked a full bottle at the halfway point and told us to drink to that line. It was so good, we drank the whole bottle! I have adored Burgundy wines ever since.
What’s the attraction for you to this region — and this wine?
Having grown up with a farming father in Bethune, I discovered a wonderful group of farmers raising grapes and making wines on my first visit to Burgundy. It’s nothing more than that. Just a farmer growing grapes and making wines, the way his ancestors have been doing for many centuries.
There’s a deep devotion that Burgundians have to this way of life and to their heritage of making these wonderful wines. There’s a feeling of sincerity when they share their older wines from their cellars.
Louis Vallet, a dear friend and vigneron in Gevrey Chambertin who is 86 years old, opened a 1949 Bourée Chambertin and shared it with us. He made that wine when he was 23 years old. The wine goes through this incredible evolution. The tannins disappear. There’s an elegance of taste. Until you’ve tasted a wine that old, there’s no way to describe what happens in your mouth.
You’ve attended Les Trois Glorieuses in Burgundy 26 times. What’s kept you going back every year for almost 30 years?
Les Trois Glorieuses is a celebration of the recent wine harvest and winemaking. It means the three glories. The first glory is a magnificent dinner at the 12th century Chateau Clos Vougeot built by the Cistercian monks. The second glory is held the same weekend as the great wine auction of the Hospice de Beaune, a large dinner in a tremendous old wine cave adjacent to the hospice. The third glory is the La Paulée de Meursault, where 600 to 700 people have a dinner that lasts six hours, including wines poured by the vineyard owners. It’s a fantastic educational experience for those who are trying to learn more about wine. It’s an equally wonderful experience to taste older wines that we in America do not have the opportunity to drink.
We’ve made many good friends there through the years. Every year, I take either family or friends who enjoy wines. It’s really a friendship to promote Burgundy and its wines. In 2003, Faye and I decided to host a dinner in Burgundy. It’s become known as La Petite Paulée de Meursault. We’ve invited the many friends who’ve been so kind to us. In recognition of this friendship, Faye and I were named honorary citizens of Meursault in 2012 as were Philip Wittenberg and his wife in 2007.
How should people new to these wines think about the different categories or types?
Burgundy wines are mainly either chardonnay or pinot noir. They are identified by the village in which the vineyard is located and by the vigneron, the person who grew the grapes and made the wine. In addition and of great importance, the third category is the level of sophistication of the wine — which is derived from its terroir — the vineyard location and slope, geology and sun exposure.
The categories of both the reds and whites start with Bourgogne White or Red and ascend to Village, Premier Cru and Grand Cru. So, one expects the Grand Crus to be the best and most age-worthy, as well as the most expensive depending on the vintage. A rule of thumb for when to drink: Bourgogne three to five years or less, Village five years, Premier Cru five to 15 years, and Grand Crus 15 years and onward.
How do you recommend that wine lovers explore the wines of Burgundy?
Burgundy wines are, with rare exception, limited to two types of grapes, chardonnay for the whites and pinot noir for the reds. A starting point is to locate bottles of Bourgogne Blanc and Bourgogne Rouge and try a few bottles of these, then work your way up the ladder through village wines such as Gevrey Chambertin, Meursault and so forth. The most economic way to do this is to organize a wine tasting club and have each member bring a bottle to share.
What sets the different reds and whites of Burgundy apart? For example, what might a wine drinker notice is different between a Gevrey Chambertin and a Volnay red or a Chablis and Meursault white?
Location and terroir. To simplify a complex explanation of the region, there are three principal areas of Burgundy: Chablis, the Cote de Nuits and Cote de Beaune.
Burgundy reds have the taste of various fruits, principally red cherries, black cherries, plums, blackberries and occasionally blueberries. At an early age, both Cotes taste like pinot noir without the elegance of age but with time, the wines of the Cotes de Nuits develop a fragrance or “nose” and taste more complex and elegant. The wines of the Cote de Beaune, such as Volnay, lack the extreme degree of elegance of the Nuits but never lose their charm.
As for the whites, the common fragrances are the acacia and white flower blossom, citrus, butter and brioche bread, nuts, honey and stone. Chablis maintain a leaner, more austere taste while the Cote de Beaunes evolve with minerality, deepening acacia, butter and brioche, honey, citrus and nuts.
In addition to location and terroir, some consider the most important factor to be the hand of the vigneron. Of equal importance to all the previous variables is weather in a given year, which dictates the greatness of the vintage.
And your tips for exploring the Burgundy region of France?
My advice is always to seek out economical accommodations and spend your money on great meals and great wine. But that said, you don’t have to spend an enormous amount to appreciate what Burgundy wines are about. A wine that’s five to 10 years old will give you an idea of what may come. Many of the restaurants have nice lists of wines at nominal prices.
As for visiting winemakers of the region, the easiest way to approach it is to stay in the town of Beaune, in the center of Burgundy. Ask your hotel or the tourist office to arrange for a guide, someone to take you on a tour with a cellar or two … or three. Though there are cellars along the main highway that will have signs that say tastings are available, a guide is by far the best way to do it.
As a cardiologist, what’s your opinion: Is red wine good for the heart?
Absolutely. And I just read a study going on in Eastern Europe that demonstrated considerable health benefits from white wines, as well.