The New York Times - October 30, 2005
My Chateau Is Your Chateau: B & B's in Burgundy's Vineyards
By ANN M. MORRISON
AS we drove south from Dijon to Santenay on France's N74 highway on a bright, crisp day in late September, the first Route des Grands Crus sign I noticed was in the town of Chenôve. Not that I needed any sign to tell me where we were. The vineyards cascading down the almost unbroken ridge to the right; the ripe grapes sometimes hanging so close to the road you could snatch them; the names of the famous villages we passed along the way - Nuits-St.-Georges, Pommard, Puligny-Montrachet - where else could we be but Burgundy's best wine country?
But when we veered off the highway, my wine adviser and I found ourselves on a narrow, bumpy road that was also called Route des Grands Crus. And then, on an even narrower, bumpier road - again with the same designation.
It seems when you are traveling in the Côte d'Or (Hillside of Gold), all roads lead to wine.
My wine adviser, Don (who has taken a professional wine course and doubles as my husband), had taken me there on a quest: to try to drink in, literally, the French winemaking experience. We thought about visiting Bordeaux, the country's other great wine region, but Burgundy is more easily accessible from Paris - a bit over three hours by car, two or so on the fast TGV train. And unlike Champagne and the Loire, which are also close to the capital, Burgundy has world-class red wines (mostly pinot noirs) as well as whites (mostly chardonnays).
Our weekend fell right in the middle of les vendanges, the 8 to 10 days when pickers harvest Burgundy's grapes, mostly by hand, as they have since Roman days. We briefly considered the idea of actually working in the fields, which some producers allow. But since we don't even mow our own lawn, we decided instead to stay as close as we could to the vineyards - at bed-and-breakfast places, or chambres d'hôtes as they are called in France, specifically those run by winemakers or winemaking families.
There are plenty of other lodging options, particularly in Beaune, a tourist-friendly city of 23,000, where we could have stayed at Le Cep, an elegant 16th-century town house hotel. Or we could have gone to nearby Chagny, a sleepy town with a marvelous medieval church, and bedded down at Lameloise, with its 16 spacious rooms and a Michelin two-star restaurant.
But we were attracted by the family atmosphere of chambres d'hôtes, and by the chance to spend some time with actual winemakers (even at the risk of enduring the typical B & B drawbacks: paper-thin walls, shared bathrooms and forced conversations with strangers at the breakfast table). What we hadn't quite realized is that during the harvest, time is exactly what the wine folks don't have.
That became apparent at L'Albizzia in Quincey, near Nuits-St.-Georges, the first of our three B & B's, each of which we had found on the Internet. It was about 6 on a Friday evening, the gate of the walled garden surrounding the rambling house was locked, and there was no response when we rang the bell. We reached the owner, Chantal Dufouleur, by cellphone, and she was breathlessly apologetic.
"It's les vendanges," she explained, adding that she was covering for other family members in the assorted Dufouleur wine businesses. "I will be there in three minutes." And she was.
Our qualms about B & B's were immediately dispelled at L'Albizzia, built on the remains of a 13th-century chateau. Our room, one of four off a second-floor sitting room, was large, with matching country fabrics on the walls and the comfy, queen-sized bed. The stall-showered bathroom was basic, but it was ours alone.
Once we were settled in, Mme. Dufouleur asked the two F.A.Q.'s of the B & B business: what time we wanted breakfast (9:30) and whether we needed a reservation for dinner (yes). We accepted her restaurant recommendation, L'Alambic in Nuits-St.-Georges, without question - after all, the Dufouleurs have been in the Burgundy wine game for over 400 years.
The food at L'Alambic was more inventive than we expected (the variations of fresh and smoked salmon accompanied by peppery gazpacho made for a terrific starter), and the wine list more extensive, with at least 80 reds from Nuits-St.-Georges alone. It was a good start to the weekend.
The next morning, we awoke to a standard French B & B breakfast: coffee or tea, juice, baguettes, croissants, yogurt and assorted homemade jams. Our fellow guests included a glamorous couple from Paris, who turned out to be repeat customers. We stubbornly chatted with them in our high-school French - even after the woman told us she was once a professor of English at the Sorbonne. Topics ranged from our plans for the day (always safe) to American politics (not as treacherous as you might think, since the French don't seem to like their government any more than they like ours).
The weather was sunny and cool, perfect for driving (Don) and drinking (me; Don mostly spit). As we drove, we could easily spot the vineyards being harvested: fleets of cars and vans were parked incongruously nearby. Closer, we could see how the work was organized: five (mostly male) pickers working as a team with one (always) male bucket carrier. The carrier had a large plastic container strapped to his back that he emptied simply by bending at the waist.
Adding to the local color were the ancient stone walls surrounding some vineyards, and the glazed multicolored roof tiles in the distance that identified classic Burgundy chateaus.
Don was astounded to see how small the internationally famous wine localities, or appellations, actually are. We clocked the distance between the signs announcing Chambertin Begins Here and Chambertin Ends Here: just over half a mile.
Twenty-five million years ago, this land buckled, pushing up different layers of limestone and soil. That partly explains why grapes from this 40-mile stretch of Burgundy can yield so many different wines. The French Revolution broke up the vast estates of monasteries that had developed Burgundy viniculture over the centuries. Then the Napoleonic law requiring property to be divided equally among heirs produced ever-smaller parcels of land.
But each has a unique combination of geology and microclimate that produces a specific flavor - of truffles, say, or white flowers, or red berries. Experts figure there are almost 60 individual soils in the Nuits-St.-George area alone.
A French friend and wine expert, Alexandre Lazareff, urged us to taste the different terroirs. But as much as we wanted the full Burgundian experience, we couldn't quite bring ourselves to stop the car and stuff dirt in our mouths.
We had lots of company as we meandered through the countryside: tour buses, bicycles, antique cars and farm vehicles, including weird-looking mechanical grape-pickers (not allowed in the higher-end vineyards). The roads, more or less straight as they sliced through vineyards, became narrow and twisting in the picture-book hillside villages - a challenge if a truck full of grapes or a peloton of bicyclists was charging in the oncoming direction.
Like many of our fellow travelers, we were looking for signs saying "dégustation" (tasting) or for an oak barrel with wine bottles on top, a semaphore for the same thing. We stopped often, usually paying the 5 euros (about $6) or so to swish, spit and, occasionally, swallow. Whatever the fee, it is often waived if you buy a minimum number of bottles, usually three or six.
Dégustations are informal affairs for most of Burgundy's small growers and négociants, the merchants who blend and bottle other people's grapes. The tasting rooms are open or not, depending on the whim of the owner or the business potential of the visitor.
Roux Père et Fils, a place in St.-Aubin recommended for great wines at low prices, was closed when we dropped by around noon on Saturday. But the seductive scent of beef Bourguignon wafted from the courtyard, where the wine pickers were about to have lunch.
Burgundy's grand chateaus, however, have official opening hours and organized tours. At the glorious 11th-century Château de Meursault, famous for its elegant whites, we raced through the vast cellars to get to the tasting as soon as we could (15 euros for the tour and glasses of seven superb wines). But when we actually tried to buy some of this divine nectar, there were only two overwhelmed sales clerks to deal with dozens of clamoring customers.
You can do a lot of wine tasting - and buying - in Beaune, a compact city surrounded by 15th-century ramparts, where you don't have to worry about driving from one dégustation to another. (The tourist office runs bus tours to tastings in the countryside.) You can sample wines in the dusty, bottle-lined cellars all around the city: from one 13th-century medieval convent (La Cave des Cordeliers) to another (Les Caves Patriarche Père et Fils).
At such places, for 7 to 10 euros you can taste upward to a dozen or more different wines. Or you can try the output from students at Beaune's specialized high school, the Lycée Viticole, free.
While my wine adviser was happy to swish and spit all day long, my favorite tastings were those accompanied by food. At La Buissonnière restaurant, run by the energetic 20-something Charlotte and Sébastien Boisseau-Berteloot, the local Ladoix wine went well with such quirky combinations as duck breast with peanut-butter sauce.
Two well-known growers have special table d'hôte lunches that match their wines with hearty Burgundy fare: Olivier Leflaive in Puligny-Montrachet, and the Domaine Comte Senard in Aloxe-Corton. The family-style meal (typically pâtés, charcuterie and salads, chicken braised in wine and local cheese) is the same for everyone; the price varies from 30 to 50 euros depending on how many (and which) wines you try.
Experts say that the best Côte d'Or wines come from vineyards halfway up the hill, but there are clearly exceptions. One would have to be the 17th-century Château de Chorey, a B & B that comes complete with a moat, but which is on the flat - or "wrong" - side of the N74. Could have fooled us.
The owner, François Germain, offered his whites in the full-size refrigerator (a sort of communal maxi-bar) on the first-floor landing, his reds from a shelf in the parlor and his wine-growing philosophy in the loose-leaf binder placed in each of the six guest rooms. His rigorous pruning produces wines good enough for such Michelin three-star restaurants as Taillevent in Paris, and we bought some to take home (14 euros for the white Pernand-Vergelesses).
We had spent the previous night at the tastefully modern Domaine de la Combotte in Nantoux, in a forested area at the very top of the ridge - the Haute Côte - just west of Beaune, but once again, timing turned out to be not in our favor. When we asked the proprietor, Denis Charles, about the family wine business, he apologized that he couldn't offer us a proper tasting of its five white wines and nine reds. Everyone was so busy with the vendange that the tasting store was temporarily out of action.
Wine permeates life in Burgundy like a pinot noir stain on a white linen tablecloth. You can shop, of course, but the most interesting antiques and gift stores feature things oenological - wine books, glassware, corkscrews, games, even needlepoint wine-bottle covers.
You can visit architectural gems, like the Hôtel-Dieu des Hospices de Beaune, a 15th-century hospital built on the novel idea of offering the poor the same medical care as the rich. But it has a wine connection, too. Every year on the third Sunday of November, the Hospices holds a charity auction of the newly released wines, which serves as a price indicator for Burgundies coming to market (the 145th such sale will be on Nov. 20).
There are also wine museums to visit. The one in Beaune is in a former palace of the Duke of Burgundy. For something not quite completely different, try the Cassissium, a museum near Nuits-St.-Georges devoted to another famous Burgundian beverage: cassis, the black-currant syrup that Canon Kir, the mid-20th-century mayor of Dijon, mixed with white wine to make the drink that bears his name
By Monday morning, Don and I were so intoxicated with Burgundy that we didn't mind that our weekend had fallen slightly short of the intimate-experience goal. Before heading back to Paris, we went to lunch at Le Bon Accueil on La Montagne, the hill overlooking Beaune, where the three-course menu costs a mere 11.80 euros and the wine list extends to more than 60 Burgundies.
The jolly owner, Laurent Froment, seated us in a corner table where, he said, you can see Switzerland on a clear day (at least with binoculars). Then he plopped himself at the head of a long table near the bar, where he presided over a group of local winemakers, many coming directly from the fields.
As we left, they interrupted their shop talk and laughter to bid us a hearty au revoir, while the proprietor sliced a fresh pineapple for them. It wasn't quite the dessert we would have expected in Burgundy. Still, it made our farewell lunch the experience we were looking for. Then again, we never tried the dirt.
The French National Railroad runs several TGV trains directly from the Gare de Lyon in Paris to Beaune each day and even more frequent departures to Dijon, where connecting to Beaune is easy. Round-trip fares range from 70 to 105 euros ($85 to $128, at $1.22 to the euro).
Car rentals are available at the Beaune station, but the office is some distance away - so reserve to make sure someone is waiting for you. If you want to drive from Paris, it's about 190 miles on the A6.
WHEN TO GO
Les vendanges, or harvest time, typically falls in September, but as we discovered, that can be a hectic time to visit the vineyards. Going a little later in the fall, when the hills turn as golden as the name Côte d'Or implies, or even winter, can be fun, if cold (but check ahead: some hotels and restaurants shut down in the winter).
Two important events take place after the vendange, and both are good times to visit Burgundy: the Three Glorious Days, which celebrate the new vintage in mid-November, and the St. Vincent Tourante, a festival in late January, around the feast day of the patron saint of winemakers (the next one is Jan. 28 and 29).
Note: To call the area from the United States, dial 33-3 first; from within France, first dial 03.
The best way to acquire a feel for the terroir is to get as close as possible to it, by car, by foot (local tourist offices sell hiking maps) or by bicycle. Bourgogne Randonnées, 80.22.06.03, www.bourgogne-randonnees.com, near the Beaune train station rents bikes for 15 euros a day.
WHERE TO EAT
At Le Bon Accueil, La Montagne, Beaune, 80.22.08.80, a modest, terraced restaurant, the welcome (acceuil) is indeed "bon," for visitors and locals alike. The fixed-price lunch (mussels, lamb with lentils and chocolate mousse, for example) is 11.80 euros. The check roughly doubles at dinner, but the simple food and complex wines are still a bargain.
L'Alambic, Rue Général de Gaulle, Nuits-St.-Georges, 80.61.35.00, is named after the antique still (alambic) for making eau de vie that sits amid the tables in this cellar restaurant built of stones from the old Beaune prison. The wines are reasonable (almost all the Nuits-St.-Georges cost less than 80 euros), and the food, like the sesame-encrusted loup on a bed of fennel, shows welcome Asian influences. Three-course dinners run from 21 to 43 euros.
La Buissonnière, Route National 74, Hameau de Buisson, Ladoix-Serrigny, 184.108.40.206. When you have had your fill of escargots, beef burgundy and coq au vin (though these regional specialities are on the menu here too), experiment at this recently opened restaurant tucked just off the main highway. Lamb with popcorn (offered in the 35-euro menu) is more successful than it sounds. Since this is obviously a fun place, start with a kir made with two Burgundian classics - sparkling crémant and rich cassis. With a good bottle of the Ladoix red, made a mile away, the bill for two comes to just over 100 euros.
Domaine Comte Senard, Aloxe-Corton, 220.127.116.11, www.domainesenard.com. By the end of table d'hôte lunch, the round tables and lazy-susans in this cheerful room are filled with wine bottles emptied of their (mostly red) premier and grand crus. The family-style meal means you get what everyone else does, including delicious potatoes gratin, a perfect match for the hearty wine-braised chicken (30 to 50 euros depending on the number of wines).
Another prominent vintner, Olivier Leflaive, 18.104.22.168, www.olivier-leflaive.com, presents a similar lunch (38 and 48 euros) based on his remarkable (mostly white) wines, at the Place du Monument, in Puligny-Montrachet. Both Senard and Leflaive offer lunch only and are closed most of the winter.
WHERE TO STAY
L'Albizzia, Place de l'Église, Quincey, 22.214.171.124, www.bonadresse.com/Bourgogne/Quincey.htm,
Château de Chorey, Chorey-lès-Beaune, www.chateau-de-chorey-les-beaune.fr, 80.22.06.05, is a 17th-century castle that might look imposing, but the Germain family couldn't be friendlier. The owner, François Germain, who whips up eggs at breakfast on order, will show you his cellar if you ask. Open from Easter through November. Doubles start at 160 euros.
Domaine de la Combotte, Nantoux, 80.26.02.66, www.lacombotte.com, is on the fringes of Nantoux, a tiny village tucked into the hills west of Beaune (past Pommard). This contemporary B & B provides modern convenience with antique accents. The young owners, Denis and Nathalie Charles, offer rooms in neutral colors with Italian bathrooms (lots of tile, double sinks and great showers). Some of the rooms are adjoining (good for families) and one has wheelchair access. Open year round, with special truffle meals in the winter. Doubles in high season: 113 euros.
ANN M. MORRISON lives in Paris and writes about culture and food.