A holiday in wine country, anywhere in the world, is a formidable test of your liver’s efficiency and the stamina of your digestive tract, because, where there’s high-quality vines to be cultivated and transformed into a sensuously delicious beverage, there is, almost without fail, a strong food culture to be had.
So you can imagine then, what we had to put ourselves through in a four-day sojourn in the Côte d’Or region of Burgundy, the gastronomic capital of France. Rotating through escargots, coq au vin, confit canard and other plats Bourguignons at every lunch and dinner takes stamina, and as novice Burgundian tourists, we were stretched to the limits of satiety I never knew existed, but certainly don’t regret encountering. Here then, are the 10 highlights of our trip:
10. Off-peak Tranquility
It might sound a little counter-intuitive to visit a wine region in Winter. The days are short, the vines are stripped bare and it’s always mortifyingly cold and wet. But, the roads are free of tourist buses, leaving one free to cruise through the Route des Grands Crus fairly swiftly to get to the next tasting room, or to get utterly lost in the back country roads of the main route, with the occasional SUV zipping past to break up the monotony of you, the mist, bare branches and your loved one. It’s almost as if the serenity was a reward for the perservering, die-hard Burgundy tourists who still make the trip despite less-than-ideal conditions and willing to leave their Tasting Itineraries to the winds of chance. Because when les Bourguignons take a holiday, they just go. No out of office email or voicemail for you, just alot of guesswork when you drive up to their tasting rooms to find the parking lot eerily empty and a conspicuous absence of lights. After more than a few missed tasting opportunities, I chalked it down to The French Attitude…
9. French Attitude
There’s one thing I’ve come to appreciate about les Francais, and it’s the seeming brusqueness with which things get done, unapologetically. Want to go on a holiday? I’ll pack up and go – everyone else will figure out when I’m gone, there’s no need to leave a message. You need your glass refilled/order taken/another glass of wine? Your request is acceded to without pomp and circumstance or having to find something interesting to say to the waiter. But the best example of this brusqueness has probably got to be seeing guests turned away at some restaurants we ate at simply because they were “full”, not because they were about to close. Perhaps I’ve been schooled in the ways of the French, being married to one, that the traditional ‘French ticks’ that rub off on others as rudeness, hardly strikes me at all. I mean, there are rude people everywhere (just try to get on a train in Singapore at peak hour), it’s just a matter of getting used to how things are done in a foreign land.
8. French Phonetics
If you’re looking to improve your command of spoken French, Burgundy is the perfect playground. Just reading the names of each town will provide adequate training in the complex art of French Phonics. Try reading these names aloud and see how you compare. I’ve found that the pronunciations get more inspired and creative with each successive glass of wine, for some reason:
*Phonetics are at the end of the post
7. Truffled Oeufs Parfait at Chez Guy
I love eggs, particularly for their gooey, runny yolks, and can never resist ordering the egg dish when it presents itself on the menu. Especially when there are two softly poached eggs hidden inside a thick, truffle cream topped with slices of black truffle and served with buttered bread fingers. That’s Chef Guy’s modern interpretation of the classic oeufs en meurette, and having tasted both variations on this trip, I’d be happy to throw tradition out for this fungus-drenched version.
Our main courses did not disappoint either – M had the 12-hour braised beef cheeks, so tender you could eat it with a spoon, while I had a succulent cut of Iberian pork loin accompanied by a side of gratin dauphinois. The pork was well-done, yet juicy, which was exactly the way boneless pork cuts should be cooked.
M finished his meal with the platter of regional cheeses, which was apparently very good. I’m no cheese fan, so you’ll just have to take the Frenchman’s word on it! Cheese or no cheese, Chez Guy‘s menu makes for a deliciously memorable, reasonably-priced meal in one of the most esteemed wine villages in the region.
Offers two-, three- and four-course menus ranging from €29 and €38.50 (excluding drinks)
21220 Gevrey Chambertin
T: +33 (0)22.214.171.124.51
Having survived the two World Wars relatively unscathed, the towns in Burgundy still retain most of their character and architecture from the time when MFK Fisher was there in the late 1920s, making for countless photo opportunities. Walking around the villages, there was always another brick wall to capture, another wrought-iron gate, another wooden door or window etched with the imprint of years past. I was struck by the history that these silent embellishments have witnessed through time, but most of all, but the textures that presented themselves everywhere you looked. The most trivial details, like the discolored cracks in a window ledge, become camera-worthy, if only because of their marked absence in modern life.
5. Slow Food
When each meal begins with an aperitif in a pretty restaurant with table linens and cutlery, you know it’s going to take a while. Lunches, at one-and-a-half to two hours long, were the norm, while dinners were relatively ‘short’ if they ended within two hours although three hours were the average. I tired of this leisurely dining pace by the end of the trip, but when you think about the time it’s taken the farmers to breed their cows and pigs (the good old-fashioned, pastured way), what’s three hours at a table to savor the fruits of their work? Slow Food indeed.
4. Domaine de la Corgette
This rustic Bed & Breakfast in the town of St Romain, ten minutes southwest of Beaune is an intimate retreat that lulls you into thinking that you’re at a friend’s holiday home out in the country. It’s far enough from the hustle and bustle of Beaune to be a real getaway, but close enough to the main wine route that makes tasting-room hopping fairly painless. “Corgette” is Burgundy slang for the small courtyard that serves as welcome porch, driveway and parking lot for guests. Previously a café and a winegrower’s estate, the current owners – husband and wife team Jean-Pascal and Veronique Sarnin – restored the building’s wooden floors, structure and fireplaces to open for business in November 2003.
Our room was thoughtfully furnished with soft linens, antique chairs and ornate vases, providing a cosy retreat from a hectic schedule of food and wine tasting. Our bed had its own accessory as well – a fairy-tale ceiling shade which was more decorative than functional but I imagine that it might come in handy to ward off the courageous insects that dared to intrude on a warm summer night. Daily breakfast was a spread of croissants, breads, yogurt, cereal, juices and home-made jams, consumed at a communal table on the ground floor with other guests. To top off the experience, Veronique and Jean-Pascal were gracious hosts in providing recommendations on places to eat and visit, with both the restaurants in this post the result of their counsel. My only regret was being unable to check out the other four rooms in the house, curious photographer that I am, as the house was fully occupied the entire time we were there.Domaine Corgette
Rue de la Perriere
21190 Saint Romain
3. The Landscape
Despite the mist, the rain, the low-hanging clouds and all-round depressing wintry weather, the scenery was simply stunning, leaving us aching to return in the warmer months when everything is in bloom. The picture above was taken on our last morning when we had a break in the dense morning fog, from the cliffs overlooking the St Romain valley. Vines stretched out as far as the eye could see everywhere we went, but there was also the occasional Chateau, Charolais and plenty of quaint villages, particularly if you forgo the D973 (Route des Grands Crus) for the back country roads to get to Beaune or Dijon.
2. Dinner at Caves Madeleine
This 30-seater wine bar and restaurant along one of the many side streets on the fringe of Beaune is a locavore’s delight. The menu changes daily, depending on what’s available at the market, and guests can choose from an extensive selection of local wines to have with their dinner or to go. A long wooden table takes centerstage, making for a convivial dining experience surrounded by cartons upon cartons of wine bottles, so this is not a place for the claustrophobe. There are a few smaller tables for groups of two or four, but they fill up pretty quickly with locals that call in advance to reserve a spot.
The day’s menu is written out on a chalkboard at the back of the restaurant, providing a choice of a seasonal/daily menu or a classical Bourguignon menu with traditional dishes like boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin. I started with a leek and potato soup and continued with an excellent, super-sized confit canard served with truffled mashed potatoes while M had a very healthy light French salad which was followed by veal ravioli with white wine sauce. Although superbly stuffed, I was unable to resist the salted caramel ice-cream on the dessert menu, which I successfully convinced M to share.
Needless to say, this dinner was one of the biggest highlights of our trip. With attentive service, simple, good food and wine in a fuss-free environment at a reasonable price, Caves Madeleine is the type of establishment that inspires our approach to travel: combining local recommendations with the serendipity of new experiences is a surefire way to experience a place way beyond what any guidebook or Trip Advisor review can share. Now, we just need to buy an apartment in Beaune to become regulars!Caves Madeleine
8 Rue du Faubourg Madeleine
And, of course, there is the precious Pinot Noir, the main reason for our trip. To be honest, my appreciation of Burgundy wines was a fairly recent development, after a bottle of white at Le Petit Retro in Paris last March. One sip of the Chardonnay and I was hooked – instead of the dry, oaky palate that I braced myself for, I was greeted with a fruity crispness commonly associated with Sauvignon Blancs. Together with the excellent variety of Californian Pinots from the Sonoma Coast that we’ve enjoyed at home, this trip to Burgundy was a guaranteed path to Pinot Noir heaven.
Apart from being purely olfactory and gustatory, our four days were also educational, learning about the concept of terroir and the Cistercian monks that started it all 400 years ago with their techniques and knowledge pretty much shaping the French approach to wine-making. We also learnt to navigate the different wine appellations and classifications used in Burgundy and picked up the complex skill of accurately reading a wine label. Now that’s something I’ve always wanted to do!
We bought ourselves one of these maps of the two sub-regions that make up the Côte d’Or: Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune, making for many hours spent matching the wines we tasted with the clos(parcel) or village that they came from. It was pretty obvious that we barely scratched the tip of the proverbial iceberg in the short time that we were there, but already our appetites were craving for nothing but salad and fish when we started on the A36 on the way back to Alsace. Like any good Grand Cru, I suppose, Burgundy itself is best savored a sip at a time, to be kind both to one’s liver and wallet.