Burgundy is full of history and great wine producers and, writes Christine Austin, is worth taking your time to enjoy

There is nothing more enjoyable than packing the children into the back of the car and heading through France on a weekend.  With the roof rack and bikes making worrying whistling noises that could mean the load has shifted, whilst in the car, the array of electronic gadgets, music and excess consumption of crisps add their own top notes to the overall orchestra of taking the family on holiday.

That is when everyone needs a break.

It is most likely that the A6, the delightfully named autoroute du soleil that links Paris to the South of France is your route of choice and it is easy to start calculating that if you just put your foot down then you can get to your gîte, campsite or hotel without an overnight stop. But why do that?  Why not stop and see something of the land you are driving through, especially when that land is Burgundy.

It is easy to miss.  The autoroute hardly gives you any indication of where you are, but if you turn off on to the N74 at Beaune, you will soon be driving through villages that you previously thought were only names on a wine list.

Beaune is the most delightful town.  Book into a hotel – the less expensive ones are on the one-way system that runs around the ancient heart of the town – and just drink it in.

Beaune has been at the heart of the Burgundy wine trade for centuries.  Under its medieval streets lies a honeycomb of cellars that to this day are still used for storing wine and many are open for you to visit.

Your first stop should be the Tourist Office, but not the one in the centre close to the Hospices.  You need the larger one on that one-way ring road, located close to Rue de Faubourg. Pick up a copy of their excellent ‘En Route’ guide that lists all the cellars in the region that will receive visitors.  It gives opening times and whether they speak English.  They also give out free maps although you might be better off with a more detailed one from a local bookshop.

The biggest, and possibly easiest cellars to visit are Patriarche.  Located in the heart of Beaune, you just turn up (closed for lunch), pay the fee (17 Euros) and you can wander through their seemingly endless cellars, learning as you go.  What I particularly like about this tour is that there are tasting areas where you just help yourself to 13 wines, from village to Premier Cru status. There are no over-zealous salespeople encouraging you to buy.  The downside is that they give you a ‘tastevin’ at the start of the tour which is the traditional metal tasting cup used in cellars.  These wide, shallow, shiny bowls are not ideal so you don’t really get the whole sniff and slurp experience.

Needing slightly more organisation is a tour of the Drouhin cellars.  For this you need to make an appointment by email or phone (English spoken) and pay your 38 Euros upfront.  Believe me, this fee is worth it.  There will only be 6 – 8 people in your tour and you will all speak the same language, so you don’t have to wait while your guide runs through his repertoire.  You will tour the old cellars, some of which have Roman origins, and you taste far better wines. Just 6 were offered, but they started at Premier Cru and worked their way up to a wine from the Hospices de Beaune auction.  In all we tasted wines worth ten times our entrance fee.

 

Take a break from tasting and explore the magnificent Hospices de Beaune which was established in 1443 and which was in operation until 1971 when they moved the last of the patients to a modern hospital.

 

 

With beds arranged around the edges of the large hall, called the Room of the Poor, with a chapel at one end, the Hospices must have been 15thcentury luxury, although by the 20thcentury those beds might have been slightly cramped.  The Hospices is supported by the wine business.   Historically, local wealthy landowners have gifted vineyards to the Hospices and now it is a significant owner of prime sites.  The young wines from their vineyards are sold in cask at a grand auction each year and the funds are ploughed back into healthcare.   So wine is definitely good for the health of local people.

From the Hospices you can wander the streets of Beaune again, perhaps calling into one of the many shops that sell wine and offer tastings or find one of the many cafés that serve seriously good Burgundy by the glass.

Once you have explored Beaune then perhaps it is time to get back in the car and continue your journey, but don’t head straight back to the autoroute.  Now you should explore those golden slopes that are the Côte d’Or.  Facing southeast they catch the sun and ripen their grapes perfectly.  The soil changes with almost every footstep and the difference in price, and quality between a wine from one side of the road and a wine from the other side can be dramatic.

Take the N74 to Pommard, then Meursault.  Pause in Meursault to taste wine in the town square or visit the magnificent Ch. de Meursault.  Then head to Puligny Montrachet and marvel at how such a famous village can be so beautiful and yet so quiet.  Wine producer Olivier Leflaive has established a chic-yet-simple small hotel and restaurant where you can stay, eat or just taste. Maybe book a night’s stay here for the return journey and leave enough time for the morning vineyard tour.

Burgundy is much too important to rush past; it is a land of history, small producers and fabulous wines.  If you decide to buy some wines on your way south, make sure you keep them cool while you are travelling.  Otherwise, call in on your way back home.  Happy holidays!

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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