Although Burgundy was not the first known wine production area (that distinction goes to Georgia, with the earliest known wine around 8000 years ago), it is the place to go to explore the history, tradition, and evolution of wine. Castles, medieval churches and vineyards mark the region’s landscape, and makes it the perfect travel destination for those seeking wine and culinary experiences in historic settings.
A trip to Bourgogne is more than just strolling in some of the most famous vineyards in the world, such as Montrachet, Musigny, La Romanée-Conti, and Chambertin Clos de Bèze, as it is also a rare encounter with what many centuries of civilization can produce.
What’s intriguing about the region, are the same things that often have you tear your hair out in frustration – getting to know wine in this region is not a simple task. The rewards are immense, but at first you might just think this is inhumanly complex, and maddeningly inconsistent. Put simply, the most famous wines produced here – those commonly referred to as “Burgundies” – are white wines made from Chardonnay grapes and red wines made from Pinot Noir grapes. However, red and white wines are also made from other grape varieties, such as Gamay and Aligoté respectively. Also, both Chablis and Beaujolais are formally part of the region, but wines from here are usually referred to by their own names (i.e. Chablis) rather than by red or white “Burgundy“.
It is absolutely possible to relish the wonders of Burgundy, without knowing anything about “terroir”. But it will undoubtedly help. Monks, with vast land holdings, were the first to notice that different pieces of land gave consistently different wines even if those sites were separated only by a small dirt road, and thus laid the groundwork for Burgundy’s terroir thinking. In short, terroir refers to the type of soil, drainage, altitude, weather conditions, sun exposure, the grapes, and the wine making itself. Burgundy is in many ways the most terroir-oriented region in the world, where which of the region’s 400 types of soil a wine’s grapes are grown makes up the region’s classification. Whilst the Ancient Greeks stamped amphorae with the seal of the region they came from, Burgundies have the name of area of origin on the bottle. To help customers further, there are four main levels in the Burgundy classifications, in descending order of quality: Grand crus, Premier crus, village appellations, and regional appellations.
So for those interested in tasting and learning the subtle distinctions in smell and taste between on plot of vines and another, there is no better place. And for the rest, tag along for some of the greatest white and red wines in the world.
Wine and food
Although both white and red “Burgundies” easily stand their ground by themselves, and do not need food to show their true qualities and satisfy your palate, adding food will enhance your experience, at least for the pro food-and-wine people out there. Burgundy is definitely a food AND wine region, where the gastronomic tradition is almost as long-established as that of its red and white wines. Burgundian cuisine tends to be rich, flavorful, and as is the case for most regions, a perfect match for the wines. Not only do the wines complement and enhance the dishes, local cooks and many of the area specialties, use wine in the preparation too. The area specialties are in such abundance that it is impossible to cover all, but here are some you should put high on your list:
A gougère, a savory choux pastry (or simply hot cheese puffs) primarily made of milk, Gruyère cheese, flour and egg, is a staple to start off your meal – do not forget to ask for it.
Burgundy is the home of the Charolais (the white cattle said to produce the best beef in France), and thus beef is a good bet on the menu. With “boeuf à la bourguignonne” being the most famous this, and a must try. Other renowned specialties include la matelote d’anguille à la bourguignonne (eels stewed in wine sauce), coq au vin, fondue bourguignonne, and Jambon Persillé . And, you have not graduated from Burgundian cuisine before you’ve enjoyed escargots de Bourgogne (yes, that’s snails, cooked in garlic and parsley butter).
And, finally, you cannot leave Burgund not having tasted their cheeses. Especially “Epoisses de Bourgogne”, one of the great cheeses of France. Famous epicure and gastronome, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, even went so far as to call it the King of Cheeses. Napoleon was one of its backer, and often enjoyed it with wine from Chevrey-Chambertin. Monks first produced this cheese at the Abbaye de Citeaux, and it became hugely popular until it disappeared during World War II. Luckily for burgundians, and visitors to the region, two local Burgund families started to produce it again just after the war. It’s certainly not the most straightforward of cheeses, but it’s salty, sweet and creamy aromas will leave you with a complex and fascinating tasting experience.
Most Burgundy specialities are not necessarily “light” food, so remember to not overdo it at lunch. Plan ahead, and leave some space for dinner.
A wine lover and wine traveler favorite is to stand in the “Montrachet-crossroad “, and marvel how wines made from vineyards only meters away from each other can taste so different, and ponder why one vine makes the most expensive white wine in the world – Montrachet, and the same type plant a couple of meters away only a fraction of that.
And, you will forever hold bragging rights having been circling a couple of the most famous vineyards in the world, Chevalier Montrachet, Batard Montrachet, and of course Montrachet itself.
If you’re lucky, you may catch the horse and its owner, working tirelessly up and down these vineyards. One might start long arguments on whether that’s really necessary (yes, they do have tractors in Burgundy too), but one cannot argue the sense of tranquility and tradition it gives, and further adding to the mystique of these astonishing pieces of land.
If you have the opportunity to visit Burgundy on a weekend, you should ensure a trip to the Saturday market is included. The Saturday market in Beaune is a bustling and renowned food and clothes market, and has been around since the early 13th century. It is the major event of the week, and it is as much for people to meet and greet as it is to buy. Fresh, including old-variety vegetables and fruits, Burgundian and Jura cheeses, herbs, fresh eggs, jams, charcuterie, honey and organic meat.
Depending on the time of your visit, you should not miss the Les Trois Glorieuses (November) or Saint-Vincent Tournante (January). Les Trois Glorieuses is a traditional three-day celebration on the 3rd weekend of November, marking the end of a harvest knowing another vintage is safe in the cellars. The event kicks off with a black-tie dinner at Clos de Vougeot, an old monastery adjacent to the renowned walled vineyard, followed by the famous Hospices de Beaune charity auction. Here bidders from around the world try to acquire barrels of wine made from vineyard holdings that have been willed to the hospital over the centuries. The celebrations ends with lunch on the third day, knows as La Paulée de Meursault. Originally for the winemakers, the cellar workers, and the community, it now counts numerous wine-loving tourists as well.
Dating back to 1938, in its present form, the Saint-Vincent Tournante is great spectacle of banners and flags with much marching and and proceedings – much like May 17th, not to mention free offering of cuvée de Saint Vincent (if you present your newly acquired Saint Vincent souvenir glass). Hosted each year by a different Burgundy village, the festival has established itself as the most popular public event to be held in Burgundy, attracting around 100,000 visitors from all over the world every year.
Good preparation is everything
Wine travel, like any other kind of travel, is better if you plan well. First, and foremost, you need to arrange for wine tastings and or winery visits, as in most cases one cannot simply visit wineries just by turning up on their door. Most wineries in Burgundy are small structure with no staff dedicated to receiving visitors, and thus very different from many “industrial” estates typically found in California, Australia, and the like. The winery is often their cellar and their home, the family is the staff, and they are usually busy doing something. Especially in spring, and at harvest time – particularly busy times for a wine maker, they give a higher priority to the work in the vineyard and the cellar rather than receiving even passionate visitors. When you manage to get an appointment, though, there are few wine tastings that will leave you with more “uuuhs” and “aaahs”, so they are definitely worth seeking out.
Burgundy does also have their own large wineries and negociants, and although wine connoisseurs often hold these in less regard than the artisan producers, they are worth a visit in their own right. First and foremost, big scale means they have wines from vineyards from all over Burgundy, providing you with a great way to introduce yourself to the different areas and villages in the region. Secondly, in a region where tradition reigns supreme, most wineries —big and small—winery seems to be about making wine reflecting the land from which it came. Finally, as these often do have staff dedicated to wine tasting and cellar tours, getting an appointment is easier.
Like with the food, though, do not exaggerate. Trying to visit all the Burgundy villages in just a couple of days, and attempting to cram in 8-10 winery visits and tastings a day, will just leave you exhausted. Instead, circle in on what you would most like to experience, book it, and leave time to ponder, inquire, and rejoice.
Burgundy is personal, and the experience varies from one person to another. What we will all have in common is the never-ending opportunity to learn, to taste, and to indulge in something new, that Burgundy. That will draw you in. Excite you. And have you come back for more. Again and again. Until it becomes tradition – your own tradition.
Where to stay eat and shop
Burgundy is ideally located one hour and forty minutes south of Paris by train, a two hours drive from Geneva and Lyon international Airports, making it very accessible.
Hotel Le Cep and Hotel Le Poste: Both are in the town center of Beaune, which is at the heart of the Côte d’Or and the wine route. Stylish, friendly and furnished with tradition.
Hotel Le Montrachet: Located in Puligny-Montrachet, a town with less than 200 inhabitants. If your looking for peace and quiet, this is definitely it.
Nearly all restaurants in Burgundy feature the regional classics on their menus, ranging from the Michelin-rated to the more accessible. Remember to book, as they quickly fill up, or stay closed.
Ma Cuisine often comes up first when searching for a place to eat in Burgundy. Much because of its extensive wine list, but also a great place to rub necks with the who-is-who in the wine world, and sometimes some wine loving celebrities
Still in Beaune, Caves Madeleine (+33 3 8022 9330), Caveau des Arches
, and Le Bistrot Bourguignon
offers atmosphere, wine, burgundian specialities, and are sure bets if eating and drinking well is what you’re after.
Top-of-the-line, but not too formal, try out Le Chassagne in Chassagne Montrachet. Not the cheapest of places, but a profound culinary experience
In Puligny, lunch or dinner outside on the pateo of Le Montrachet (part of Hotel Le Montrachet) is worth trying. Fusion style food, but umistakingly burgundian at the same time.
Staying further north, both Le Chambolle
in Chambolle Musigny, and Restaurant Simon (+33 3 8062 8810) in Flagey-Echézeaux are legitimate showcases of Burgundy and its culinary traditions.
Try l’Auberge du Vieux Vigneron for the real local grub. Here you will only eat the local stuff, next to the people working the vineyards and cellers, and their families. It’s a bit out of the way (15 min taxi from Beaune), but worth seeking out if that does not put you off.