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A road trip through Burgundy, France's legendary wine region

Pilgrims and Parisians alike know the treasures of Burgundy, whose gleaming ecclesiastical architecture, family-run chateaux hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants punctuate a patchwork of world-class vineyards south east of the French capital.

The vineyard at Château de Pommard, bought by a US entrepreneur in 2014 and set to welcome guests with 28 new suites in 2023.

Photograph by Slawek Kozdras
Photographs By Slawek Kozdras
Published 13 Oct 2021, 06:00 BST

Visiting Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, the ‘Golden Slope’ of legendary vineyards, is easy. Dijon, the city at the heart of the area, is just 90 minutes by train from Paris. Maybe that’s why so few wine-lovers choose to drive down from the capital. Which is a shame, because Burgundy, with all its scenic, sensory charms begins a long way north of that celebrated ridge — and the road is paved with stories.

The monks who first tended Burgundy’s vines were focused not on the pleasures of the table but on the immortality of the soul. But if sacramental wine was to become the blood of Christ during mass, why not make it transcendentally delicious? Up until Catholic property was seized during the 1789 French Revolution, the landscape was moulded in the image of the church; graceful chapels, magnificent altarpieces and well-marked pilgrimage routes still characterise the region. But later, in the 20th century, a different kind of pilgrimage became popular: moneyed Parisians drove south, along the Route Nationale 6, in search of sunshine. Their desire to eat and sleep well on the way was eagerly seized on by Michelin, the tyre-seller-cum-guidebook-creator, whose restaurant guide would become the arbiter of gastronomic excellence.

I’m as guilty as the next modern-day wine-lover: for years, I’ve focused my Burgundy visits only on the famous stretch below Dijon, where vines unfurl up the hillsides as if they, like those long-dead abbots, hoped to reach Heaven. This time is different. I’m not a believer, nor tempted by monastic life, but I do admire dedication, be that to Burgundy’s famously challenging, varied soils or to higher things. And I suspect that to really appreciate the region’s wines, I need to emulate the monks — and the early roadtrippers, too. It’s time to take things slow. To savour Burgundy’s twin preoccupations, writ large across the land: dinner and eternal life.

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Just two hours south of Paris, I reach northern Burgundy and an area named for the river I’m seeking: the Yonne. Locally, the Yonne is famous for cherries — the darkest, sweetest ones I’ve ever tasted. They appear in May, are briefly everywhere — grocery stores, markets, roadside stalls — then disappear, like spring itself. But the wider world knows this region better for Chablis, a very particular austere, flinty yet delicious style of Chardonnay that goes beautifully with oysters, among other things. At dinner in La Côte Saint Jacques & Spa (a Relais & Châteaux hotel in the small town of Joigny that the Lorain family have run since 1945), sommelier Thomas Noble serves a 2018 Chablis by a small producer, Thomas Pico, of Domaine Pattes Loup. Like many in Burgundy, Thomas has abandoned the easy route of spraying chemicals, he tells me, despite the work and risk that organic agriculture involves due to the inconstant northern temperatures. The result is a wine that tastes of lemon and cream, like syllabub without the sweetness, and is an unlikely but perfect match for the richness of the foie gras placed in front of me.

Pleasures of the flesh may take precedence, here, over the spirit, but religion still manages to insinuate itself. I arrived late for dinner, not because I’ve adopted a leisurely pace of travel but because my GPS misdirects me away from the river — where the hotel stands on one bank, with a helipad on the other — and up the vine-covered hill beyond. This, too, is the Côte Saint Jacques: the hotel was named for the slope, christened long ago by local monks for Saint James, the apostle in whose honour pilgrims walk to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, sometimes passing this way.

The view from the Philippe le Bon Tower, Dijon.

Photograph by Slawek Kozdras

Later in the bar, dessert still lingering on my tongue, I pull down from a shelf a copy of the 1986 Gault & Millau guide and open it to the restaurant’s entry: 35 years ago, Michel Lorain is congratulated on having lured his son, Jean-Michel, into the family business, and is feted as one of France’s four top chefs of the year. Today, Jean-Michel is himself in the process of passing the reins — in this case, to a talented nephew, Alexandre Bondoux. We chat briefly before dinner but he’s subdued: Michel died, aged 87, this summer. “He still had all his faculties and never stopped coming into the kitchen every day, to check that everything was being done right,” Magali Rostan, the property’s marketing manager, says sombrely. Jean-Michel, too, still comes in daily. This place, like the vineyards, is a life’s work — and more: a gift from parents to children, each generation’s role that of caretaker. Despite his sadness, Jean-Michel makes clear that he’s happy to be here, honouring his father’s legacy. And when, next day, I tell him how much I enjoyed my dinner, his face lights up.

The Route Nationale 6 runs past the door — in fact, the Lorain family have built a passage beneath it, so their guests can enter the small town of Joigny more easily by foot — but many people pause here for wonderful food and accommodation, then simply speed on. In keeping with my slow mission, I stroll into the nearby Saint-André Church, with its medieval Pietà, Mary awkwardly clutching a crucified son twice her size. Leaving, I stumble almost immediately on another church, through an archway hewn, like the building beyond, from the region’s distinctive grey-white stone.

I marvel at the precision and detail of St-Jean de Joigny, set high on a hill with superb views down to the river, built long before machinery made things simpler. Inside, the ceiling is intricately carved and there’s an extraordinary, 16th-century marble sepulchre, seven life-size figures gathered in mourning around the dead Christ. More remarkable is the fact that my 10-minute walk back to the hotel passes another church, this one in the Place du Pilori, where guilty townsfolk were once placed in the stocks to be pelted by their righteous neighbours. It’s a reminder that many aspects of the present are an improvement on the past.

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But no medieval peasant here, even if surrounded by churches, could have doubted the importance of Auxerre, just 20 miles away: the pale might of Saint-Étienne Cathedral rises dramatically above the clustered houses and flat, green fields. It would’ve been the largest building most of them ever saw, and its grandeur, as I cross the Yonne into the city, is still breathtaking. I stroll around, admiring stained-glass windows (some dating back to the 13th century) and a marble Joan of Arc, pious on her knees — apparently, she took a break from battling the English to pray here in 1429.

Really, I think, running my finger discreetly down the cathedral’s white stone, it all comes back to land. That’s what Joan was fighting for; that’s what the monks devoted themselves to, learning the differences between each tiny plot and nurturing the vines accordingly. (In fact, there’s a local story that says they used to lick the soil to understand the difference in flavours in this, the world’s most piecemeal wine region.) I realise this very earth is what these buildings are hewn from, too: this calcaire d’Auxerre rock is the same limestone found in the soil, all that remains of an ancient sea. As I drive on, the villages with their pale stones glow like ghosts in the gloaming.

I stroll around Auxerre, admiring stained-glass windows dating back to the 13th century and a marble Joan of Arc, pious on her knees — apparently, she took a break from battling the English to pray here in 1429.

Photograph by Slawek Kozdras

Acquired tastes

These vines predate the monasteries — in fact, they probably predate Christianity, since some were already being regulated on the orders of the Roman emperors in the first century AD. But it was much later, when a monastery was built and the pious began donating vineyards to ensure their place in heaven, that the town of Chablis and its surrounding lands became synonymous with great white wine.

With its wide streets and small shops, Chablis is very pretty, but after the glare of sunshine on all those pale buildings, it’s a relief to step inside Baptiste Bienvenu’s cool, modern tasting rooms, Caves Bienvenu. I try a few wines, buy more than I can afford, then settle at a high table with a glass of Pinot Noir from nearby Irancy, Baptiste’s home village, and a heaped plate of excellent charcuterie.

But it’s later in Dijon — once the capital of a duchy that was not only separate from France but arguably more powerful — that Burgundy’s two great themes of spirituality and gastronomy truly present themselves. Here, too, there’s a vast cathedral, while in the sprawling ducal palace, the Musée des Beaux-Arts holds relics, giant altarpieces and the delicately sculpted marble tombs of two long-dead noblemen, their effigies’ hands folded in prayer. Then there are the medieval, porcelain eating implements and a silver-and-wood cup said to have been used by Saint Bernard. I pause to think of the monks sitting down in their refectory after a hard day’s pruning and praying, and lifting a cup of wine to their lips with exactly the same sensation of anticipation we feel today.

With its roofs a festival of brightly coloured tiles, and food stalls spilling out onto the surrounding cobblestones from its vast covered food market, Dijon is a city of strong hues and flavours.And at Loiseau des Ducs — a restaurant housed within the graceful arches of a 16th-century mansion that was launched in 2014 by the formidable widow of legendary chef Bernard Loiseau — both are on the plate.

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Loiseau was the other Burgundian in that quartet of top-rated chefs in the 1986 Gault & Millau guide, but his story didn’t end as well as Michel Lorain’s. Having achieved three Michelin stars for his restaurant, La Côte d’Or, in Saulieu, and international fame, he took his own life in 2003, supposedly out of anxiety surrounding rumours of a downgrade by the Michelin inspectors. His wife, Dominique, took the reins and ensured the restaurant businesses survived, her children joining her as they grew old enough, meaning the Bernard Loiseau portfolio of eateries is now also a cross-generational enterprise.

The wonderfully named chef here, Louis- Philippe Vigilant, has earned a Michelin star for his work at Loiseau des Ducs restaurant but arguably deserves more: the food is delicately inventive without being fussy, and very French. I nibble on roasted frogs’ legs and allow a nugget of veal from Limousin, a region famous for its meat, to melt on my tongue, followed by a mouthful of Mercurey Pinot Noir. The cheese trolley is so copiously stocked it could keep a gourmet busy for a month. Director Emmanuel Dumont bewails declining standards to me: “It’s so hard now to find young people who want to work!” But that’s a cry that’s older than winemaking. In the attention to detail and the long view of a family business, Bernard’s dedication lives on.

Les Halles Market in Dijon, designed by Gustave Eiffel in the 19th century.

Photograph by Slawek Kozdras

The Golden Slope

And so at last, my leisurely pilgrimage brings me to the Côte d’Or proper. I feel that I now have an altered perspective on it, as I contrast the gentle tilt of these south- and southeast-facing vineyards; trees clustering on hilltops like modish headwear, with the cooler, lusher, northern landscape in my recent memory.

Change happens slowly here, if at all. The purchase of the 18th-century Château de Pommard, with its 50-acre single plot (unusually large for this region), by US tech entrepreneur Michael Baum in 2014, caused a stir. And certainly, Baum is changing things: the courtyard is a morass of mud and noise as workmen convert the outbuildings to a 28-suite luxury hotel, set to open in 2023. I imagine some neighbours are horrified: in Saint-Aubin, further south, where a derelict château has been lovingly refurbished as the Prosper Maufoux winery and a luxurious four-bedroom bed and breakfast, the locals were apparently unimpressed by the opportunities that this change to their sleepy wine village — which lacks even a bakery — would bring.

Pommard wasn’t a monastic property; it was built in the 18th century by a secretary to Louis XV, and the vineyard beneath the tasting room, Micault, is still named for him. I feel the centuries flow into my glass along with the excellent wine. Baum, who admits he “grew up on beer and cheesesteaks” is bringing a US expansiveness to these enclosed vineyards — most Burgundian wineries don’t welcome visitors without appointments, let alone partner with a ballooning company like France Montgolfières so that you can learn about the vineyards while floating quietly above them: an angel’s-eye view.

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When it’s finished, Baum’s hotel will be a very modern proposition compared to the Château de Saint-Aubin, a building that offers the sort of intimate, rural luxury that the French do so well. At the latter, hostess Pascale Rifaux shows me to my sumptuous bedroom and together we look out over the Saint-Aubin vines. “Premier Cru near the house, ordinary Villages beyond — the classifications are so much easier to explain when they’re right in front of you,” she says, handing me the keys to the swimming pool that sits between chateau and vineyard with a conspiratorial wink. The next morning, she goes early to market for my breakfast bread and croissants; by the time I leave, Pascale seems more like a friend putting me up for the weekend — albeit in luxury.

Chatting to Pascale, as she opens wines for me to taste, I realise I’ve failed to consider something important in my odyssey across Burgundy: its ordinary people. The region was never just the domain of monks, dukes and saints, as large and immortal as their stories have become. The heady tapestry of vines and churches braided across the fertile region always stood to elevate the general population, too — and, it seems, the travellers who pass through it. As I sip heavenly wine wrought from this earth, and note the passing of time by the bell clanging in Saint-Aubin’s tiny, 10th-century church, I feel that thanks are due to the land’s custodians — and perhaps a higher power.

However, it’s in the neighbouring village, Chassagne-Montrachet, that I have a true epiphany. La Cabane is a cabin attached to what the French call ‘un food truck’, created by the owners of Michelin-starred Ed.Em. Here, I drink Saint-Aubin Premier Cru with a bowl of buttery snails, washing that down with a goblet of Chassagne-Montrachet paired with a plate of local pigeon. I wonder if there can be anything more miraculous than tasting a great wine in its birthplace, accompanied by a bird that likely fed on the very same grapes. I’ve journeyed from Saint Jacques to Saint-Aubin, and if neither martyr would’ve approved of my focus on temporal pleasures, they at least would have agreed that these wines were a link between heaven and earth, for pilgrims of all kinds.

Wine-tasting in the cellar of Château de Saint-Aubin.

Photograph by Slawek Kozdras

Getting there & around

Eurostar runs multiple daily services from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord, with a typical journey of 2hr16m. Alternatively, EasyJet flies to Dijon from Gatwick, Luton or Manchester; British Airways from Heathrow, and Air France from Heathrow and Manchester.

Average flight time
1h20m. In Paris, Hertz rents cars from just beside the Gare du Nord or from either airport, with the option to return in Dijon. 

When to go
Spring has average temperatures of 20C, while autumn offers the sights and flavours of the harvest. Summer temperatures can top 30C, while winters are cold and cloudy.

Where to stay
La Côte Saint Jacques & Spa, Joigny. Doubles from £275, B&B.
Grand Hôtel La Cloche, Dijon. From £150, room only. 
Château de Saint-Aubin, Saint-Aubin. From £214, B&B. 

Places mentioned
Caves Bienvenu
Château de Pommard.
France Montgolfières hot air ballooning
Loiseau des Ducs
La Cabane

How to do it: The Bourgogne Gold Tour offers bespoke day tours of either Chablis and Grand Auxerrois or the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune from £420 per person (minimum two people), including private vehicle and driver, wine-tastings and bilingual guide. 

Published in the November 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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