It’s time we talked about Burgundy. That bucolic bubble tucked into a fold of eastern France, where some of the world’s best wines are created, that’s just a two-hour train trip from Paris.
My husband Pete and I arrived there during harvest time, “le vendage” as the French call it, which takes place from late August to early October each year. The whole area comes alive with people from all around the globe hand picking grapes, with little Renault vans ferrying grapes back and forth from the wineries, and with long rustic tables of winemakers lifting a glass to the magic they’re making.
Pete was there to unearth the secrets of how the world’s best chardonnays are made and take them back to Krinklewood. And me? Well, I was there to help Pete through this awful experience.
By a fortunate twist of fate, Pete had been offered winemaking work at one of the most highly regarded vineyards in the region, Domaine du Château de Puligny-Montrachet. About as la-de-da as the name suggests. He arrived a few weeks before I did, and organised a little house for us to stay in in the nearby village of Meursault.
Meursault was like a movie set: crumbling sandstone walls, châteaux scattered through the perfectly groomed vineyards yawning out from the village in all directions, a quaint main square complete with spurting fountain.
And our house? Well, our little “mobil-ome” (a camper van set in the garden of a sweet woman named Pascale’s lovely French farmhouse) meant we we were officially Burgundian trailer trash. But we grew to love our little “petit coin de paradis”, as Pascale had named it, surrounded as it was by fir trees and its little veggie garden, and would definitely book a home-stay like it again.
By the time I arrived Pete was in full swing of vintage, often working 14-hour days from 6am. Luckily there was plenty to keep me occupied. I slipped into an easy rhythm of the three r’s: readin’, ritin’ and ridin’. My Burgundian days usually started with a cycle through the Grand Cru vineyards of the Côte d’Or, passing tiny flower-filled villages with names you’d recognise from the best bottles of wine you’ve ever laid your hands on: Pommard, Monthélie, Volnay. Sometimes Pete would drive me and my velo to the canals in nearby Chagny when the sun was still rising and I’d ride the two hours back through the vineyards to Meursault, stopping for pastries and tea in Santenay village on the way back. After that, it was usually a lazy sprawl on the grass to write and read in the sunshine, a hike through the forest or tea and pastries at a cafe.
Our evenings were spent either picnicking on local cheeses, baguettes and wine, or cycling to Meursault village to have a drink at what became our local bar, Hotel du Centre, and dine at one of the delicious Burgundian restaurants. Les Arts did the best snails in town, doused in garlic and red wine, while Pete couldn’t live without the boeuf bourginon at La Goutte d’Or.
An unforgettable night was spent at Château de Cîteaux, a castle that dates back to the eleventh century. The dining room looks as though it belongs in the Louvre with ceilings that could have been painted by a Renaissance artist, gilded touches, embroidered wall hangings and waiters in three piece suits. This year, I’m making a promise to myself that we’ll stay the night there, and spend an entire day at their La Cueillette spa.
The picturesque, grey-hued streets of Beaune, with its gothic cathedrals and typically French cafes with outwardly facing wicker chairs, were more lively and a nice respite from quiet village life. We’d take the early evening bus (the one with the driver with the red-wine stained mouth who reeked of garlic), grab a little pastry from Bouché chocolatier and pâtissier that’s been in Beaune since 1925, take it to Parc de la Bouzaize and eat it lying on the grass by the lake watching the ducks, geese, little row boats and weeping willows. Once, we may or may not have snuck in a little pre-prandial snooze on the grass before a decadent dinner at L’Hôtel de Beaune: their tuna carpaccio and chocolate mousse may just be the best in France.
Beaune also has a fantastic market on Saturdays; laneway after laneway filled with everything from highly overpriced olive tapenade and dried flowers, homemade jams and teas, to quirky antiques and slighty Euro-trash clothing.
Towards the end of our Burgundian sojourn, we had a few more memorable nights out on the town.
The Paulée des Vendanges, the traditional dinner in honour of the end of harvest at the château Pete worked at, where we sipped and supped under stormy skies and Pete talked me into picking his friend’s brain about biodynamics… in French. Très difficile. Dinner with Pete’s friend who tends to the horses at Domaine LeFlaive, one of the most famous vineyards in the world where they still use horses to till the fields, in his 15th century house in the picturesque village of Meloisey. A sleepover at Jacques, Pete’s boss (or ‘chef de cave’ if you want to be fancy about it)’s, lovingly restored 16th century stone house in Santosse where walnuts and apples grew wild in the garden, and African wooden statues and embroidered fabrics from Turkey and Africa lined the walls. On the way there Jacques showed us the oldest vineyard in the world, Jacques Prieur’s Clos at Le Montrachet, where the vines were planted by monks in the 16th century.
On our final afternoon in Burgundy, Pete and I hiked into the forest that sits above Meursault. We stopped at the Saint Christophe lookout along the way, which is really nothing more than a rocky outcrop. There, we set up a picnic looking out over all the Burgundian villages we’d grown to love and toasted with Grand Cru chardonnay to how very lucky we were to have found ourselves in this little slice of heaven.
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