“Are you leaving today?” M. Rousseau would ask me every morning. To which I would always answer, “maybe tomorrow.”
M. Rousseau owned a little hotel that I was staying at just outside of the old city in Beaune.
Beaune is a tiny town in the heart of the Cote d’Or where Burgundy’s most famous vineyards are located.
Burgundy’s best wines are hidden, beneath the cobblestone streets of Beaune, aging in damp, dusty cellars, some of which date back to the 1800s.
Burgundy’s wines come in two colours, red and white, and are made from the pinot noir grape and the chardonnay grape respectively.
Technically in the Rhone department, Beaujolais is also considered a Burgundy, but it is made from the gamay noir grape.
The first evidence of pinot noir grape was recorded in the 1370s, though it’s thought to have been widely used before that.
The chardonnay of white Burgundy did not appear until after the Middle Ages.
As for gamay noir, the first duke of Burgundy, Phillip the Bold, was very much interested in wine. Also of interest was the health of the people of Burgundy. So much so that he took it upon himself to outlaw the seemingly inferior grape, and in 1395 issued a decree declaring the gamay grape harmful to humans. He wanted every single gamay vine uprooted by the following Easter. A bold move indeed.
In the centre of town is the Hospices de Beaune. Built in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin and his wife Guigone de Salins, it treated the destitute, elderly, orphaned and disabled from the Middle Ages through to the 20 th century.
Now it hosts the world’s largest charity auction that sets the price of Burgundy wine on the third Sunday of November.
There is an abundant opportunity to taste wine in Beaune. Many cellars, or caves, are located within the city walls and it is an ideal way to spend a few hours trying to understand the difference between a Gevery-Chambertin and a Givry.
Prices range between 9 and 13 Euros for a self-guided tour of the cellars and an open tasting.
Also included is a tastevin, a small metal cup traditionally used by the monks that made the wines. The shallow, dimpled saucer reflects what little light there is in the cellars to help demonstrate the colour of the wines. Now, many sommeliers in restaurants around the world ostentatiously use them to taste your wine before serving it to you.
In a few cases I was all alone in the dark, candle-lit cellars where barrel after barrel would have two open bottles of wine for my tasting pleasures. I would stumble out into the light of the day and wander around town looking for something to eat. It was here that I began to fully appreciate the two-hour lunch break that is ubiquitous in Europe.
Burgundian food is simple yet hardy. It is a place where snails, and beef, meet on a table, only to be washed down with some of the most silky and seductive wines in the world.
The Romans are said to have brought their large eating-snails to France, where they were quickly adopted as a classic.
The famous stew, boeuf bourguignon, has many different guises and from kitchen to kitchen can evolve to something similar, but uniquely different once it arrives on your plate.
After lunch it was time to see the homes of the local celebrities, pinot noir and chardonnay.
Two brothers, Florent and Jerome Leroux, own a bike shop called Bourgogne Randonne just outside the “old” city, where they offer cruising bikes to move you comfortably through the roads connecting vineyard to vineyard.
Florent gave me a detailed map and highlighted a route for me that brought me up though the nearest northen town in the Cote d’Or, Nuits-St-Georges, and beyond to the vineyards of Clos Vouget and Gevrey-Chambertin.
I was there during the autumn months and would bike through the vineyards in the early evening and watch as the golden leaves danced in the breeze. It might be this reason that it is called the Cote d’Or, literally translated to “Golden Slope”. Or it may be an abbreviation of Cote d’Orient, a reference to the fact that the escarpment on which the vines flourish faces east.
Over breakfast the next morning as the other patrons of the hotel were sharing stories of the previous day’s adventures, M. Rousseau asked me once again if I was leaving today. I looked around at the other faces at the table and finally answered, “oui.”
Originally published here in Pique Newsmagazine