BURGUNDY


by Johnny Lucas


Strolling through a Wine List

It's really too bad that Burgundy has so many great wines. That's all some people think about when they're there. Oeneophiles come from all over the world just to taste the wine and buy a few cases.

I'm not saying that the Burgundian wines are not worth the trip all by themselves, they are. My extensive on-the-spot research into Burgundy's most famous produce has made me a convert. But, in my opinion, they are now over-priced, so if you aren't already devoted to them I would feel guilty about getting you started on that habit.

Go to Burgundy for medieval villages, grand châteaux, small châteaux, Burgundian Inns, panoramic views, wonderful characters, chocolate, wild woods, fabulous restaurants and friendly bistros, a few walled towns, civility, geniality, and some of the best walking in the world through a landscape that has remained unchanged for centuries.

It's because of the wine that the Burgundy of today look as so much alike the Burgundy of the last few centuries. The land along the Côte the land is actually worth more for growing grapes than it is as housing lots. Therefore there are very few new houses anywhere..

A few days in Burgundy is enough to develop an eye for the best vineyards. They are all along the Côte, the hillside between the river and the "mountains". The "best" soil there is actually quite torturous, but because of its ability to torture the vines just enough, it is essential in the production of the best wines. There is a Burgundian adage that in order to produce the best wines, the vines must suffer.

Only because of the wine this difficult rocky soil can produce, the Côte is some of the most expensive real estate in the world; its price is figured out per square metre.

Burgundy is a terrific place to get off the beaten path, there's so much of interest packed into the small towns and tiny farms and little vineyards that is missed completely by those who travel fast and see only the "main" sights.

Dijon, the ancient capital of Burgundy, is most famous for its mustard, but it's also a very chic modern city with some excellent sophisticated shopping, a fine cathedral, and a very good Art Gallery. Don't miss the ancient mustard shop in the covered market where they will grind mustard to your personal taste.

You probably won't manage to get through Burgundy without drinking a few glasses of Kir (white wine with a splash of black current liqueur). Even Trivial Pursuit champions don't usually know that Monsieur Kir, a Dijon bishop in the 1950s, invented this drink to provide a market for the locally-produced black current liqueur -just a happy coincidence that there's all that white wine next door.

Up in the hills behind Dijon the tiny village of Bouilland is built in a fissure in the limestone cliff. It reminds some of a Constable painting complete with babbling brook and white cows in an ideal pastoral setting. The old mill that should complete the scene is there too, it's a hotel.

Hidden in the woods behind this hidden town is a medieval abbey. After an easy walk on trails you break out of the woods, apparently in the middle of nowhere to see the ruins of the Abbé de Ste. Margarite. This 13th century building now has no roofs, just a collection of ancient arches. At one time it was an important centre of the Cluniac Empire.

In Bouilland you'll notice the incongruity of so many expensive automobiles parked in the streets, some with far away license plates. They're there for one reason: the Michelin two star restaurant. There are only 80 restaurants in all of France which have earned this notoriety.

No one can presume to tell you the menu in advance, it will be whatever the chef, Monsieur Silva, thinks is best and freshest on the day you're there. If you consider your palate to be a good investment, then invest heavily in the chef's recommendations.

Over a few more hills, past another stream, likes the town of Savigny. Savigny is a somewhat busier town than Bouilland, but after a few days in rural Burgundy the concept of "busy" will have a new meaning for you. The château in Savigny has a collection of antique cars and fighter planes.

From Savigny it's a very short drive, an easy bike ride or an afternoon's walk along the small paths into Beaune. All routes pass though the vineyards which skirting the famous Côte and are some of the best wine growing areas in the world. Shortly out of Savigny you catch sight of the domed tower of the cathedral in Beaune. Keep this landmark in sight and go to the heart of this old walled town which is at the heart of the wine industry in Burgundy.

Beaune has a good collection of must-sees. The Hospice whose multi-coloured roofs look more festive than it's use as a hospital would otherwise suggest is to one side of the Grand Place. On the other side are cafés where the local businessmen conduct their real business. Wine tastings are available at cellars throughout the old city and, of course, at the vineyards in the surrounding countryside. The ancient Cathedral whose tower is visible throughout the valley is just a few blocks away.

Keep your eyes out for Bouché's Chocolate Shop. Mme. Bouché will present her wares with such obvious delight that you'll temporarily forget that Burgundy is known for anything other than chocolate.

Beaune 's restaurants, ranging from a venerable three star establishment outside the city to a pizza parlour which would look at home in any mall in the world.

Despite being the centre of the Burgundian wine-trade and a town that attracts international visitors, Beaune is a very well-preserved little medieval town in the core. Walking is how it was meant to be seen and appreciated; it's full of little alleys cobblestone streets which are not even good for bikes.

Continuing south from Beaune, you'll pass through the home of even more superb wines. Pommard and Volnay are most famous for their red wines, and then there's Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet other names you associate with the best part of a wine list.

Each little clos has a different specialty. These little vineyards are closed off with stone fences, many have very ornate gates. Some remarkably small areas have their own label and identity. And despite the apparently small differences between each field, the wines they produce each have their own taste. You must sample them to be fully convinced. Linger at Rouilly, St. Aubin, Puligny-Montrachet and St. Romain and get to know the flavours of the villages.

Overlooking the valley from the south is Le Rochepot is a great castle dating from the 12th century. It has not has an easy history, in fact most of it was razed during the revolution. What remains today is largely a result of 19th century restoration, but it seems more than authentic, partly because it is still lived in by the family that owns it.

The roof at Le Rochepot is the second best example of the Burgundian tiled roof in existence. (The roofs at the Hospice in Beaune are the best.). Have lunch and a tour of Le Rochepot and look back up the valley. If you've spent some days getting to know this beautiful little part of the world, the view will mean even more to you than its obvious beauty. As you remember the location of the vineyards you've visited and whose produce you've tasted you'll have a memory of Burgundy that's as rich and complex as any great wine.

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Page maintained by Johnny Lucas, Travel@JohnnyLucas.com. © J.P.Lucas. Created: June 24, 1996 Updated: January 11, 1997