Burgundy: Wining, Dining and Biking in Beaune
By Kent E St John
To me the meaning of oenology is buried deep in the dictionary, a term that will never apply to my abilities. What suited me perfectly were the few days I spent in Burgundy’s city of Beaune, a place not just for wine connoisseurs.
Yet Beaune is the center of some of the world’s best wine production and with that is an abundance of cuisine and history.
After a day spent with Alex Miles shopping and cooking in Dijon I felt fortified to explore Burgundy’s treasures. From my precious roost at Le Cep Hotel to the winding bike paths that pass some of the famed vineyards, I knew it was going to be special; it was.
Preparing the Rabbit
Dijon’s central market is a dazzling display of everything that is right about French markets, neat, orderly and filled with goodies. Alex Miles perks up noticeably when we enter, a man on a mission.
Alex’s mission is to guide us through a day buying and then cooking a superb meal. Alex has lived in France for 25 years and is an American; it makes it much easier to follow along. My high school French is often giggled at but the attempts are much appreciated.
It is also obvious that he has an “in” at the market; his discerning eye darts over the offerings and bits of cheese are passed over for us to taste. Several skinned rabbits are on display. Alex picks out two; and lapin is on today’s menu.
With the goods purchased we head to a huge second-floor apartment to sip wine while watching Alex work his magic. Questions fly almost as fast as his hands and before too long the table is filled with platters of food. Sated, we file out ready to head to our base in Burgundy, Beaune.
Based in Beaune
Beaune is simply beautiful; our Hotel Le Cep is a perfect match and is set right in the city center. The hotel was a private home in the 16th century and it is said that Louis XIV had often stayed here when visiting the hospices.
Through the years, royalty, heads of state, and Hollywood stars have bedded down and relaxed in the grand salons.
Perhaps its most endearing quality is the quiet elegance and respectful treatment all guests receive — the thick robes and goose comforters certainly lower the blood pressure.
The meaning of Le Cep in France is the “truck of the grape vine,” very fitting in this city beloved for its position in Burgundy’s best vineyards.
Pack Your Taste Buds
In France, and indeed worldwide, Burgundy has some of the best wine available; Romanee-Conti, Pommard and Corton-Charlemagne can bring tears to practiced taste buds.
In the center of Beaune is the Hotel-Dieu (Hospices de Beaune) where a yearly auction of Burgundy wines is offered. This ancient hospital also offers an astounding view into past healing practices, and there are many artistic masterpieces on display.
Nearby is one of the palaces of the Dukes of Burgundy, a dukedom which held power for ages in France. The main palace is in Dijon but the Dukes often were drawn by the vineyards.
The city has a huge number of tasting options but just as memorable in Burgundy is the gastronomy; over a hundred restaurants are situated in Beaune alone.
Dishes that developed over the centuries such as coq au vin, eggs en meurette and the stand-out boeuf bourguignon pair well with the wines.
Also very special are the local cheeses such as Delices, Epoisses and Citeaux. Life’s pleasures are what Burgundy is all about.
Peddling Past the Terroir
Is there anything as close to being in heaven than peddling a bike through Burgundy vineyards on a cool and sunny September day? I suspect there are few other options are available here on earth for such a heavenly feeling.
As we pause in villages with legendary names such as Puligny-Montrachet and Mersault our guide Sarah from Detours gives us insight into Burgundy’s wine culture; our path crosses special sections that align with perfect conditions for outstanding reds and whites.
Just a few feet separate grapes for a Grand Cru from a good table wine. The rare Premier Cru’s vineyards are spaced on land valued for centuries.
Lunch is set up for us at the home, hotel and headquarters of one of Burgundy’s great wine wizards, Olivier Leflaive.
This 73-year-old master of winemaking is serene and noble yet counts rock stars such as Pink Floyd’s Richard Wright and Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones as friends. His down to earth demeanor displays Burgundy’s best traits.
The table in the ancient courtyard is filled with cheeses, olives and bread. Later, amongst various bottles of great whites Olivier plucks on his guitar, boyish despite his age. Puligny Montrachet is filled with the notes that float in the air mixed with our laughter.
Olivier doesn’t care a bit about who we are. He is just happy that we share his table, wine and time. That afternoon he gave us a bit of heaven on earth, something Burgundians people strive for. His family has done this unbroken since the 1600s.
The vineyards of Burgundy put out relatively small amounts of wine in the grand scheme of things. It is, however, the quality that is noticeable.
Our last dinner in Beaune was at the new L’ Ermitage de Corton where our superb venison was matched with two grand cru vintages from 2001 and 1994.
I realized just why the study of oenology is so necessary: it is the study of fine living. A trip to Burgundy and Beaune is the perfect place to immerse yourself in the art of appreciation, be it wine, food or simple pleasures such as biking.
As always when heading to France I first go to the French government’s website France Guide. It is full of information and ideas, the best tourism website in Europe. Next stop should be the website put out by the tourism office in Burgundy itself.
Just as much as wine takes center stage in Burgundy so also does food. A day in Dijon with Alex Miles is a fascinating look into food from market to table. His wit and skill will transform your stay.
Le Cep Hotel was a gem and the perfect place to bed in Beaune. It was stylish yet timeless. Location matched with elegance best sums up my feelings about the place.
A perfect day while traveling is a magical event and both Detours biking and La Maison d’Olivier Leflaive provided just such a day. Sarah’s vineyard tour was filled with information about the world loved vineyards. Time spent with Mr. LeFlaive at his hotel and table is unforgettable. A new appreciation for life is a sure bet!
Kent E. St John, GoNOMAD’s Senior Travel Editor, has circled the globe many times to report on exotic destinations. He is a correspondent for Around the World Radio which broadcasts in California and Australia. He frequently writes for Travel International, MSNBC, Preview magazine, as well as several other media outlets. When he’s not traveling, he spends his time in Cottekill, New York, with his wife Lisa and his son Chance.
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Kent St John
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