I’ll admit I was nervous. I stood at the long bar swirling, sniffing and slurping my glass of wine as the family looked at me expectantly. I put the glass down and nodded in approval.
They were silent, waiting for my commentary. Not sure if the wine had tasted of black currants, cherries or a patio on a rainy spring morning, I decided to ask what kind of grape was used.
“There are only two kinds of grapes in Burgundy, monsieur, pinot noir for red wine and chardonnay for white,” replied the owner of the small winery in the town of Coulanges-la-Vineuse. “Burgundy is the most complicated wine region in the world, but we only use two grapes.”
I insisted how fascinating that was and then, with little else to say, I replied that I’d take a case of the bottle in the middle.
“Wait. How much was it?” I asked.
Burgundy is the rural France of our collective imagination: quaint, pastoral and hopelessly proud of its age-old traditions from cheesemaking to war-making to winemaking.
There isn’t an ugly town, nor a sprawling suburb or even a giant factory spewing pollution in the air anywhere to be found. Instead, there are medieval villages packed with centuries-old, mostly family-owned wine producers, and rolling green fields of grazing white cattle enclosed by crumbling stone walls built by dukes, kings and Roman legionnaires. There also is some of the finest food ever created — think boeuf bourguignon, escargots, oozing stinky cheeses and spicy Dijon mustard.
I began my visit to the region in Cluny. The town was home to one of the most important churches in the Middle Ages and the largest in Europe before the 16th century. The church is in ruins, having been sacked centuries ago, but the museum and the grounds allow for an incredible glimpse into medieval times.
Cluny is also home to L’Hostellerie d’Heloise, where I hoped to have an excellent lunch but discovered it was closed the day I visited. Instead, I stopped by the charcuterie Roux et Rey and took away a slice of jambon persille and two aspics on mousse de foie gras. At a bakery next door, I grabbed some fresh bread and pastries with plans to picnic on my way to Auxerre.
Auxerre is a quiet charmer
Timber-framed buildings and cobblestone streets make Auxerre one of France’s most charming cities, though it is also quite sleepy. At night, the streets are so quiet that I was asked by visiting French tourists if something was occurring in the city to drain it of people. I told them I was just as clueless as they were about the unsettling tranquillity of the place.
One of the few places that still thrives after the sun goes down is Le Rendez-Vous, a generic-looking dining room where the food is regional and delicious. The 33-euro tasting menu is a bargain for the quality, with Burgundian classics like oeufs meurettes and sautéed veal kidneys. After dinner, a stroll through the winding narrow streets helped work off the meal.
In the morning, I headed south along the Yonne River to the town of Vezelay in the Morvan forest area. Its UNESCO-designated church and walled old city were built on an old Roman villa and were subsequently occupied by everyone from the Carolingians to the Moors. It was finally sacked by the Huguenots in 1569 and further pillaged during the French Revolution, before being restored centuries later.
On my way out of town, I stumbled upon L’Esperance, one of France’s most famed Michelin-starred restaurants. I poked my head inside and miraculously found a table.
Marc Meneau’s cuisine is legendary in France and received glowing praise on an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” television show last year. Dining alone, I figured I’d log on to the Internet and read while I ate. Just as I was typing the Wi-Fi password, the famous chef himself arrived in the dining room.
Heading straight for me, he asked if I planned to be on the phone during my entire meal. Thinking fast, and quickly swallowing the salty oyster I had in my mouth, I told him I was sending photos of the place to my mother who had dreamed of eating here. He didn’t buy it.
Farmers market in Beaune
I arrived in the village of Chablis on a foggy weekday morning. The local cafe was buzzing with farmers wearing knee-high rubber boots and sipping espresso. The weather, the soil and gossip about the grape pickers were all hot topics for the rosy-cheeked purveyors of some of the finest chardonnay in the world.
Walking through the tiny town, that abruptly ends where the vineyards begin, I found it hard to believe that this place was somehow connected to every corner of the Earth through this one simple and highly coveted product.
Between Chablis and Beaune, is the village of Alise-Sainte-Reine, which overlooks the plains on which Caesar defeated the Gallic leader Vercingetorix. The recently built museum of Alesia is first-class and worth at least two hours of a visitor’s time.
Beaune was my final destination in Burgundy. Had my trip been all about wine, I would have come here first to learn about the difference between a region and an appellation — not to mention the fact that the region only grows two grape varieties.
I stayed in Meursault, a hamlet hidden among the region’s most famous vineyards. Like in Chablis, farmers and wine connoisseurs commingle at tables outside small grocers and cafes, discussing that year’s harvest and next year’s weather. I was surprised to find out that my reasonably priced hotel, Le Chevreuil, had one of the finest restaurants in the area and after a late arrival I tucked into a piece of rich sea bass and a filet of the local Charolais beef.
Beaune itself is arrestingly picturesque, particularly on Saturday mornings when a farmers market spreads through the town’s many squares. Colorful vegetables, piles of olives and stacks of raw milk cheeses draw throngs of visitors. Beaune is also the regional capital for wine, with dozens of small producers all over the city offering a degustation of their creations.
My last afternoon in Beaune, I took a tour of Maison Joseph Drouhin, one of the largest and most prestigious producers in the region. After the tour of the ancient cellars, packed with oak barrels and decades-old vintages, there was a tasting.
This time I was prepared. Like a true Burgundian, I sniffed, slurped and spat six fine wines, remarking on their color and even noting a hint of cherry in the finish.
Alexander Besant is a Geneva-based writer.