Raymond Blake

wine writer

Raymond Blake

wine writer

Raymond Blake

wine writer

Raymond Blake

wine writer

Driving to Burgundy

The ‘last minute’ packing had gone on for at least an hour and we were now running seriously late. Driving south out of Dublin for Rosslare I could only speculate on the journey time, given the notoriety of the Gorey tailback and its lesser acolytes at Ferns and Enniscorthy. My addled brain, however, had calculated without the recently opened Gorey by-pass and, with much relief all around, it ushered us onwards towards Rosslare in time to catch the ferry.

Above left, on the Place Carnot in Beaune and, right, the greatest road sign in the world.

The overnight voyage to Cherbourg is now much more civilised than before, thanks to the introduction last year of the Oscar Wilde as a replacement for the decrepit old Normandy. You arrive late morning and are looking at a journey of about 450 miles to Beaune, wine capital of Burgundy. It is possible to do it in one leap but you are on your holidays so why not break the journey with one overnight at Versailles, Chartres or Fontainebleau? From any of these it is but a few more hours driving on the A6, exiting just north of Beaune at junction 24.

The Burgundy region is one of France’s most scattered and stretches from Chablis, about 100 miles south east of Paris, to Beaujolais, just north of Lyon. Along the way it also takes in the Côte d’Or, the Côte Chalonnaise and the Mâconnais. But when people say ‘Burgundy’ without qualification they are invariably referring to the fabled strip of vineyard that runs south west of Dijon for little more than 30 miles. This is the heartland, the fillet in the steak as it were, and it is aptly named. ‘Côte d’Or’ translates as ‘Golden Slope’ and while this may refer to the gorgeous autumn colours in the vineyards it could just as easily relate to the staggering prices paid for mere scraps of land in the best vineyards – and the wines that emanate from them.

Those vineyards qualify as some of the most fragmented and parcellated in the world. Thanks to the Napoleonic code of inheritance, holdings are continuously divided between all heirs. Add to this changes of ownership through marriage and purchase and the whole patchwork becomes baffling in the extreme. In addition, it keeps changing subtly, though it may not appear so to the casual observer. Rest assured, however, that like a slowly turning kaleidoscope the whole place is in a state of flux and has been since the French Revolution. Before that the vineyards were in the hands of the aristocracy and the church. The latter, in the form of the Cistercian and Benedictine monks, gave Burgundy much of the shape that it still has today. Because they could read and write, and hence keep records, they elevated winemaking from a haphazard, hit-or-miss, activity into a rigorous and well thought out process. They identified the best vineyard sites (even going so far as to taste the soil, it is said) and the best grape varieties to grow on those sites.

Above left, typical Burgundian tiled roof and, right, vineyards on the Côtes de Nuits.

Their influence is still evident today and as you drive along the Côte d’Or you will see plenty of walled vineyards whose boundaries were first laid out by the monks many hundreds of years ago. Try to dawdle along the side roads rather than roar along the RN74. Stop in the villages and explore them on foot. To do the same in the vineyards a bicycle is ideal and by these means you will gradually come to appreciate the sense of place that is so important in Burgundy. In no other region is terroir so highly prized or spoken of in such reverential terms. Some cynics pooh pooh it as nothing more than a load of French bunkum, but once you have planted your feet on the ground and raised a glass of Gevrey or Chambolle or Meursault or Puligny to your lips, you will be convinced. Believe me, you will.

The cathedral at Chartres is one of the finest in France so an overnight at the plain but clean Hôtel le Châtelet, (6 et 8 Avenue Jehan-de-Beauce, Tel: +33 (0)2 37 21 78 00) where some rooms have a view of the cathedral, has much to recommend it. While in Chartres you could dine at La Vielle Maison (5 Rue au Lait, Tel: +33 (0)2 37 34 10 67). During high summer Versailles is very busy but if you have never been then it still ranks as ‘must see’. Stay and eat at the recently renovated Trianon Palace (1 Boulevard de la Reine, Tel: +33 (0)1 30 84 50 00). Fontainbleau is a quieter yet no less impressive option. Stay at the Hôtel de Londres (1 Place du Général de Gaulle, Tel: +33 (0)1 64 22 20 21) and eat at Chez Bernard (3 Rue Royale, Tel: +33 (0)1 64 22 24 68).

When setting out from home try, if at all possible, to leave some luggage space in the car for the inevitable wine purchases. And remember, not all Burgundy is ruinously expensive. The trick is to look for a basic wine such as a Bourgogne Rouge or Bourgogne Blanc from a good producer. Beware the impulse purchase, decided upon after a quick sip of a wine. Far better to seek out those wines that you have drunk and enjoyed with lunch or dinner. (Don’t forget to use your mobile phone to photograph the label – it makes searching for a wine afterwards so much easier.)

There is a huge roster of producers and everybody has their favourites. For value some names worth trying include: Vincent Girardin, JC Boisset, Lucien Muzard, Alain Coche-Bizouard, Tollot Beaut and Nicolas Potel. At the high end you might plump for a bottle from the likes of Armand Rousseau, Domain Dujac, Domaine Leflaive, Michel Lafarge, Domaine Ramonet, Claude Dugat, Domaine des Comtes Lafon, Henri Gouges…

La Grande Boutique du Vin, Avenue de Gaulle, Beaune
A large shop on the outskirts of Beaune. Tremendous selection of wines at attractive prices. Tel: +33 (0)3 80 24 08 09.

Caveau de Chassagne-Montrachet, 21190 Chassagne-Montrachet
Superb selection of high-end wines and many rare old treasures also. Very helpful service. Tel: +33 (0)3 80 21 38 13.

Magnum, 15 Rue Monge, Beaune
Prices are on the high side – as you would expect from a shop in the centre of town – but temptation calls from every shelf. You can also enjoy a glass while comfortably seated outside. Tel: +33 (0)3 80 22 69 44.

They don’t call Burgundy ‘the belly of France’ for nothing. It is possible to dine splendidly day after day, sampling traditional delights such as Coq au Vin, Boeuf Bourgignon and Oeufs en Meurette. But these should only be seen as a starting point. There is now a legion of young, talented and inventive chefs turning out every manner of culinary delight, from the splendidly rustic to the highly sophisticated. What follows is only a small selection of personal favourites.

La Ferme de la Ruchotte, Bligny-sur-Ouche
Allow plenty of time to find this out-of-the-way rural gem. Set menu featuring the best of ingredients and simple yet flavourful dishes. Some treasures on the wine list. Favoured by many of the top winemakers so this is a good place to bump into them. The opening hours are limited so booking is essential. Tel: +33 (0)3 80 20 04 79.

Chez Guy, 3 Place de la Mairie, Gevrey-Chambertin
Lovely modern premises and a signature dish of beef cooked for 12 hours to melting point. It cries out for a good Gevrey – and you are in the right place for that. Tel: +33 (0)3 80 58 51 51.

Le Chambolle, Route des Grands Crus, Chambolle-Musigny
There is nothing, repeat nothing, flashy about this place. Tucked away down a side alley and plainly decorated. Madame is friendly and welcoming and the Rognons de Veau is worth travelling a long way for. Tel: +33 (0)3 80 62 86 26.

La Cabotte, 24 Grande Rue, Nuits-Saint-Georges
A recent change of ownership had some patrons worried but their fears were unfounded. Standards are as high as ever at this diminutive restaurant. Tel: +33 (0)3 80 61 20 77.

Ma Cuisine, Passage Saint-Hélène, Beaune
Wine lovers flock to this place in droves. The list is superb and so too is the food. Not a single item on the menu disappoints. Limited opening hours. Tel: +33 (0)3 80 22 30 22.

Le Gourmandin, 8 Place Carnot, Beaune
Long and narrow, bustling and busy. The delicious gougères – cheesy puffs of choux pastry – get every meal off to a flying start here. Eclectic wine list. Tel: +33 (0)3 80 24 07 88.

Le Chassagne, 4 Impasse de Chenevottes, Chassagne-Montrachet
It can only be a matter of time before the people at Michelin bestow a star on this place. Superb dishes and great value set menus. Tel: +33 (0)3 80 21 94 94

Le Terroir, Place du Jet d’Eau, Santenay.
Husband and wife team Corinne and Fabrice Germain run this little gem of a restaurant on Santenay’s central square. Well crafted dishes and a good wine list – be sure to ask Corinne for a suggestion from this. Tel: +33 (0)3 80 20 63 47

Castel de Très Girard, 7 Rue de Très Girard, Morey-Saint-Denis
Nicely appointed with a good restaurant where you can dine outdoors on sunny evenings. The vines are but a stone’s throw away. Tel: +33 (0)3 80 34 33 09.

L’Hôtel de Beaune, 5 Rue Samuel Legay, Beaune
Try this place for a night of luxury in the very centre of Beaune. Only seven bedrooms, each with its own splendidly appointed bathroom. A treat. Tel. +33 (0)3 80 25 94 14.

La Maison d’Olivier Leflaive, Place du Monument, Puligny-Montrachet
Housed in a 17th century building, restored and fitted out to an impressively high standard. Leflaive is also a wine producer so a tutored tasting is easily arranged. Tel: +33 (0)3 80 21 37 65.

Athenaeum de la Vigne et du Vin, 5 Rue de l’Hôtel Dieu, Beane
Situated slap bang in the centre of Beaune. An absolute treasure trove of wine accessories, books, maps, gifts and much, much more. Tel: +33 (0)3 80 25 08 30.

* Check out the website of the Bureau Interprofessional des Vins de Bourgogne, the umbrella body for all the region’s producers: www.bivb.com
* Burgundy Eye: Run by Irishman David Cogan and his French wife Laurence. You could plan a whole holiday by consulting this site alone. www.burgundyeye.com

Article originally published in Food & Wine Magazine, March 2009

blog comments powered by Disqus

blog comments powered by Disqus