Want to uncork, unwind and live la bonne vie life in Burgundy? Rose Betty Williams explores this trés chic French province where chateaux and cathedrals are common…and buying half-million dollar bottles of wine is the rage.
Photography courtesy of author, archival
Burgundy, the wine, a region and color all hail from what was once the most powerful kingdom in Europe.
My husband Allan and I visited Burgundy in July and August. We wanted to learn about the history, sample the food, savor the wines, explore the castles, be captivated by the music and relax in verdant picturesque scenery. The more we saw and experienced, the greater our curiosity and enchantment! Our only regrets are that we did not dedicate at least three full weeks for this trip nor a return trip the third weekend of November for the Hospices de Beaune Wine Auction.
We flew from Austin to Paris, spent a week in Paris followed by excursions to the Loire Valley to tour Chambord, Chenonceau and Amboise, and then for a “boating party” luncheon in Chatou at the place where Auguste Renoir created the painting of the same name. We highly recommend both of these excursions, but the highlight of our French travels this trip was Burgundy.
From Paris we took a TGV high speed, 90-minute long train ride to Dijon, the capital of Burgundy. Dijon is a very cosmopolitan city best known for its seemingly infinite varieties of mustard, but also home to the Palace of the Dukes, where the Musée des Beaux-Arts was established in 1787. The Musée is a well-preserved medieval palace and fine arts museum with more than 130,000 works from antiquity to contemporary art. It is also where Philippe le Bon Tower or Terrace Tower is located and offers spectacular views of Dijon and the Grand Cru hillside towards Beaune from atop its 316 steps. Near the Palace is The Church of Notre-Dame of Dijon, a Roman Catholic church that is considered a masterpiece of 13th-century Gothic architecture but also famous for its triple row of fake gargoyles sculpted in the 1880s. The original gargoyles were supposedly removed when one fell off and crushed a moneylender.
We stayed at a charming hotel, Maison Philippe le Bon, and enjoyed a delicious dinner with friends in the outside courtyard and gardens. Allan had boeuf bourguignon – beef braised in Burgundian red wine with onions, garlic, carrots, and aromatic herbs and served with noodles. He devoured his dish. I ordered the oeufs en meurette because it’s a traditional dish and I’d never had it. What a treat – I loved every bite. It’s super-rich and creamy, consisting of eggs poached in a red wine sauce known as meurette that’s made with bacon, onions, mushrooms and shallots. No calorie counting here.
Our friends at whose home we’d be staying in Vic-sous-Thil, Burgundy, had coq au vin -chicken braised in wine that has its origins in ancient Gaul – and jambon à la chablisienne – a casserole that uses thick slices of ham prepared in a sauce of Chablis white wine, crème fraîche and tomato sauce.
Needless to say, we shared a couple of bottles of Burgundy wine, one from Chateau de Marsannay and the other from Chateau de la Rochepot.
The next morning we stopped by the Galerie Lafayette, the department store also in Paris, and then walked the self-guided hour-long Owl Trail to 22 of Dijon’s main attractions. The owl is Dijon’s good luck charm. The “magical” owl, only 12-inches tall and carved into the north wall of Notre Dame de Dijon on the Rue de la Chouette, “Owl Street”, has been granting wishes for 300 years to all who stroke his face with their left hand.
Our last stop in Dijon was the Marche de Dijon, an indoor farmers market that’s open Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and is comprised of approximately 300 stalls that sell fresh and local products, including Burgundy cheese, Charolais beef, lamb, pork, Bresse chicken, seasonal fruit and vegetables, freshly baked bread, pastry, herbs, spices, honey and souvenirs. We purchased some Epoisses and Chavignot cheese, apricots, bread and creme de cassis (a black currant liqueur) that we planned to mix with Aligote white wine to make Kir, a popular Burgundian apertif cocktail.
Early afternoon, we loaded our baggage into our friends’ car and off we went. The countryside is drop-dead gorgeous and peppered with chateaux that are centuries old, some dating back to Roman times.
Our friends told us about the Collegiale de Thil they purchased. Built across the hill from the Castle de Thil by the Bishop of Burgundy Jean Thil II in 1341, the Collegiale is a fortified church that no longer functions as a church, but supports and is supported by the community, has an historic monument designation and is the private residence of our friends. Concerts, art shows, civic events and ceremonies are held at the Collegiale throughout the year.
No description could have prepared us for this experience.
We approached the Collegiale and were stunned by the breathtaking views and the 14th century architecture. We could hardly believe we’d be staying there, and specifically, on the third floor of the bell tower. Incredible.
Our hosts pointed to an ornately carved nearly 6-foot long tombstone laid flat like a tile in the stone floor. It is the burial place of Pierre Chiffonye, the Doyen of the Collegiale, and dated 1492. They also showed us the bullet holes on the exterior stone walls, which based on their research on the bullets found, was probably where the Nazis executed Resistance fighters. The nearby Morvan Forest was a good hiding place for the Resistance in World War II.
We walked the trails around the Collegiale, took photos, marveled at the views of the countryside and the village of Precy-Sous-Thil in the valley below and enjoyed a delightful picnic meal under 500-year old Linden, chestnut and walnut trees. The hills and valleys looked like they were blanketed in a patchwork quilt made with every shade of green.
While we were eating, opera singers were rehearsing for a concert scheduled a few nights later in the Collegiale. We got a preview of their performances of Schubert, Verdi, Rossini, Debussy, Monteverdi and more, and were transported by their voices and the ethereal quality of the acoustics. The concert was one of eight concerts scheduled as part of the annual Musicales en Auxois Summer Opera Festival.
The next day we visited Vézelay, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
Vézelay is a medieval town built on a hilltop on the left bank of the Cure River in the Yonne region of Burgundy. Shortly after it was established in the 9th century on land that had been the villa of the Roman Vercellus (the pronunciation evolved into Vézelay), the Benedictine Abbey of Vézelay acquired the relics of Mary Magdalene, and henceforth became an important place of pilgrimage. It is one of the main points of departure of the Santiago Camino pilgrimage. Saint Bernard preached about the Second Crusade there in 1146, and Richard the Lion-Hearted and Philip II Augustus met there to leave for the Third Crusade in 1190. With its sculpted capitals and portal, the Madeleine of Vézelay – a 12th century monastic church – is a masterpiece of Burgundian Romanesque art and architecture.
We toured the basilica, shopped and stopped for lunch at Auberge de la Coquille where we dined on delicious food and sipped on very reasonably priced and extraordinary Vézelay wines – a Bourgogne Blanc and a Bourgogne Rouge. Vézelay produces mostly white wines based on the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Melon de Bourgogne grape varieties. Since I loved the wine, I bought a few bottles of Cave Henry de Vézelay, Domaine Eypert and Domaine Elise at one of the many local wine stores. If we had known how difficult it would be to find Vézelay wines in the US, we would have purchased and shipped home a couple of cases.
That night we were treated to an evening of enchantment and music at l’Abbaye de Fontenay.
The capacity crowd of probably 700 came from all parts of France for this Musicales en Auxios Summer Opera Festival concert and was entranced by the heavenly performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Magnificat. The Baroque orchestra, including trumpets and timpani, in combination with the beautiful singing, made the evening glorious and unforgettable. Furthermore, as the sun set, the Abbey of Fontenay was transformed. Every archway, the entrance lodge, the great garden, the galleries, dormitory, forge, Cloisters and Abbey Church were illuminated by candlelight. Truly awesome.
The The Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon’s Abbey of Fontenay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was founded by Saint Bernard in 1118 and is one of the oldest Cistercian abbeys. The Cistercian monks were the proprietors of the Abbey and estate from the 12th through the 15th centuries. The Abbey went into decline during the French Revolution, was sold as a property of the state in 1790, and then bought in 1820 by Elie de Mongolfier, a descendant of the inventors of the hot air balloon. In 1906, Eduoard Aynard, the son-in-law of Raymond de Mongolfier, bought the property. Today the Abbey of Fontenay still belongs to the Aynard family.
The next morning we drove to Arcy-Sure-Cure to see prehistoric cave art. There are more than 30 caves – eleven are prehistoric and two contain prehistoric drawings. The “Great Cave” has the second oldest cave paintings in the world (approximately 28,000 years old) after the Chauvet Cave in the Ardeche (31,000 years old). The cave art depicts mammoths, bears, stags and rhinoceros. Unfortunately, all tours were in French so we had a hard time following explanations of the art, their discovery and preservation, and the commentary about the stalactites, stalagmites, columns and draperies.
We discussed driving the short distance to MuseoParc Alesia, the site where Rome defeated the Gauls, to see re-enactments of the battle and replica war engines, but chose instead to go back to the Collegiale to drink our Vézelay wine, take naps, walk, prepare dinner, eat, relax, and yes, drink more wine.
PIÈCE DE RÉSISTANCE
A visit to Beaune was a high priority for us. It is a walled town in the heart of Burgundy’s famous vineyards Pommard, Corton-Charlemagne, Romanée-Conti, Meursault, Santenay and Savigny-les-Beaune.
Surrounded by the Cote d’Or vineyards, it is renowned for the colorful, geometric- patterned roof tiles of the Hospices de Beaune, now the Hotel-Dieu Museum, and the Hospices de Beaune annual charity wine auction, the primary wine auction in France, held on the third weekend in November.
The Beaune Tourism Department describes the auction weekend as, “The wine sale is the heart of a true “Rabelaisian” feast and forms part of an event called “The Three Glorious Days of Burgundy”. It is preceded on Saturday by the “Chapter” of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin (Brotherhood of the Knights of the Tastevin) and a dinner at Clos de Vougeot. It is followed on noon on Monday by a lunch, the “Paulée”, at Château de Meursault. During this traditional meal, guests bring their own bottles, giving this event a roundness and conviviality typical of Burgundy.”
Christie’s, which handled the 157th auction in 2017, reported that $15,964,575 was raised – the highest result ever – and that the Charity Barrel “La Pièce des Présidents”, from the Corton Grand-Cru Clos du Roi 2017 harvest, was purchased for $495,600, the second highest ever. By the way, one barrel of wine is called “a pièce” in Burgundy. The 2017 Pièce des Présidents consisted of two barrels of 228 litres.
Although the actual auction is reserved for potential buyers, the general public can watch on a giant screen set up on the street. Bidders can also call in their bids or make them online.
Additionally, there are shows, concerts, street performances, a parade, and wine tastings, and local restaurants offer special menus to coincide with the auction.
Proceeds from the Auction benefit medical treatment at the Hospice de Beaune and maintenance of the historic buildings. Proceeds from La Pièce des Présidents go to charity, and in 2017, went to The Federation for Brain Research, The Foundation for Alzheimer’s Research and the Foundation Tara Expeditions.
An interesting factoid about Burgundy is that in 2018, a 750ml bottle of 1945 Romanée-Conti Burgundy sold for $558,000, making it the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold at auction. Sotheby’s, which handled the auction, noted that the bottle came from the personal cellar of Robert Drouhin, the patriarch of the family-run Maison Joseph Drouhin.
From Beaune, we went to Château de la Crée in Santenay for a tour and tasting. Established in 1431 when it was owned by Nicolas Rolin, chancellor to Philippe the Good and founder of the Hospices de Beaune, the Chateau’s vineyards include seven rare Premier Cru blocks located entirely along the renowned Côte d’Or escarpment. Ken and Grace Evenstad, founders of Domaine Serene Winery in Oregon, purchased Château de la Crée in 2015 and applied modern day biodynamic farming practices with centuries old winemaking techniques to drive optimal terroir expression, and ensure soil and plant health. My husband and I loved, bought and shipped home both the Chateau de la Crée Santenay Premier Cru Gravieres and the Château de la Crée Santenay Monopole Clos de la Confrérie Pinot Noir.
We very much enjoyed our visit to Burgundy and continue to savor our experiences and the flavors of our vin de Bourgogne while toasting all with A Votre Sante and a Bon Voyage to Burgundy.