Lest I give the wrong impression, my visit to Burgundy, encompassed far more than drinking wine. However, when we hear the word Burgundy, our thoughts do meander towards wine, non? Actually, you cannot think of this region without reflecting on its wines, But let’s first plan how to get there, now that travel is once more a precious possibility.
Burgundy lies in the eastern part of France, 200 miles from Paris. You can fly into the Dijon-Bourgogne Airport from most major cities in Europe. The city is also accessible by TGV, the high-speed train from Paris. If you like flying along at breakneck speed, arriving in well under two hours, then this train is for you. You’ll reach speeds of 200 mph and the journey will be not just quick but comfortable.
The vineyards of this region cover an area of 27,000 acres and there are more than 4,500 individual wine-growing estates — a formidable presence throughout the world. A little-known fact: Each Burgundy wine is produced from just two grape varieties — Pino Noir (black) and Chardonnay (white).
As I traveled from vineyard to vineyard, each displayed signs identifying the wine it produced — Vosne Romanée, Romanée-Conti, Nuits St. Georges. I sensed I was in a rarefied and special region as I learned that the pinnacle of a vintner’s crop is called Gran Cru and that some of those wines sell for upwards of $1,000 a bottle. I visited Dufouleur Père & Fils in Nuits-Saint-Georges, descending into a dark, cool cellar and sampling some of its rare offerings. My host, Bernard Pennecost, cellar master, was good-natured and patient with this neophyte, providing an in-depth explanation for each wine I tried.
Castles, châteaux and mansions
This area of France is a destination unto itself, dotted with impressive and historically significant castles. Its Route des Châteaux features 17 castles from different periods of French history, including the Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassical. The Château de Bazoches is a sumptuous palace and past home to the architect Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, whose castles and fortifications for Louis XIV are found throughout the country. As we drove slowly up a wooded hill, the medieval château lay directly before us, its 12th-century towers shimmering in the sun. Unlike many unoccupied castles, empty and forlorn, this was an entirely furnished château with the bedchamber armor and library of Vauban intact. Outside, it was picture-taking time amid the 17th century décor and gardens by André Le Nôtre, landscape designer of Versailles.
My Michelin experience
I had the good luck to spend a night at a delightful resort, L’Esperance, in the town of Saint-Père-sous-Vezelay. When I visited, the owner/chef of this Relais & Châteaux property was the late Marc Meneau. He and his wife Francine were gracious hosts who led me into a cave/wine cellar to sample their superb Chardonnays. Waiters from the restaurant gingerly descended into the cellar with trays of amuse-bouches to enjoy with the wine.
L’Esperance has three Michelin stars and dining there was a true haute experience. The restaurant, (closed temporarily during Covid) is enclosed in an airy glass arboretum where I gazed out at elaborate formal gardens. My repast consisted of several courses, one a unique potato dish presented in four distinct ways, each subtly different, each delicious. Leave it to the French to elevate the humble potato to this divine fare.
Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?
Well, yes, indeed I do. The next day I set out for Dijon, a two-hour drive from Saint-Pere. This city is the capital of Burgundy, an exciting town of almost half a million and the heart and soul of fine French food. Apart from food, it offers a wealth of cultural activities, festivals and museums. The Fine Arts Museum displays kitchens that date from the mid-1400s and the Musée de la Vie Bourguignonne offers a glimpse into how Burgundians lived in olden days. I headed straight for Les Halles, the famed Dijon Market. As I traversed this gargantuan space, it seemed that every single resident was there strolling the aisles, sniffing, squeezing and tasting the market’s sumptuous fare — meats, cheeses, breads, fish and even some comestibles so unique and unusual that you had to ask what they were. My guide was a Bronx-born expat, Alex Miles, who has lived in France for years and has the distinction of being the only American giving cooking classes in the heart of Burgundy. His culinary and cultural experiences are vast and, being acquainted with most of the market’s merchants, he asked for delectable samples at several counters. Lucky me, they were happy to oblige.
This marvelous market, I quickly discovered, is far more than just a place to buy food. It’s an integral part of the Djonaise quotidian pastime, a place for neighbors to meet, greet, exchange gossip, be happy and feel sated. As I left, I simply had to stop at a little shop around the corner, the Maille Store, home to 36 varieties of mustard. There’s Green Tea, Brittany Algae, Fig and Coriander mustards as well as other strange and fabulous flavors.
Burgundy is a region with much to see and do, from hot air ballooning and biking along cool mountain trails to climbing to the tops of castles and delving deep inside wine cellars. Every day that I spent there was a happy adventure. I was captivated by the beauty of the place and the welcoming (yes, welcoming) French. So friends, A Votre Sante! Bon Appetite! Now go visit beautiful Burgundy.
For more, visit about-france.com.