Burgundy is known as France’s richest province – in history, culture, economics and of course, wines – known as the home of Chablis. It has, with the historic centre of Dijon and the quaint town of Beaune, been added to the UNESCO World Heritage list. With good reason. After a direct flight from Cape Town to Paris, a TGV ride to Lyon and a quick local train to Beaune, we alighted to bright skies – heaven having come straight from the Cape storms, heaven to be in the northern hemisphere in June, in a nutshell, wine heaven!
A step to the right of the road for 6km from Beaune, and our bleasure (business combined with pleasure) began at Relais & Châteaux’s five-star property Hostellerie de Levernois. We sat outdoors soaking up the sun at 8pm with our first glass of chilled Chablis. Owners, former CEO of Relais & Châteaux Jean Louis Bottigliero and his wife Susanne, whose sense of style is evident in the décor and attention to detail, have true hospitality beating in their hearts. They uphold the ethos of charm, calm, character, cuisine and courtesy.
They dashed over to welcome us before we took our seats in their 1*Michelin restaurant for a dinner to remember. We opted for the surprise menu. Chef Philippe Auge is truly talented, marrying modernity and tradition with aplomb. I was delighted to be taken into the kitchen to see his skill and witness his passion, with Jean Louis as our translator when needed. One of the highlights of our meal had been the blue lobster dish, the remains of its jus I had unashamedly spooned out of the serving jug. It was a treat to see the stock pot that cooks for many hours to reduce from 12 litres to two to give this opulent flavour. This gastronomic restaurant, Le restaurant l’Hostellierie, is renowned for their selection of cheeses, one of the many reasons why we love France. Whenever I bite into Epoisses I know why my maiden name is Toucher!
Exceptional breakfasts, and our dinner on the next night were at the Le Bistrot du Bord de l’Eau, an ancient kitchen dating back to 1750. After breakfast each day Jean Louis would test my limited French, open a map, write notes on it, make a few calls and voila, we were on our way to private chateau visits and tastings.
One of the most useful snippets of advice from Jean Louis was about the free app to download – Balades en Bourgogne, which navigates one around the area perfectly. Another travel tip – if you suffer from hay fever pack your tabs as when the flowers bloom, you will sneeze. Add copious amounts of wine and cheese, and you may snore too!
At Bouchard Aîné & Fils, our first stop, our host explained the classification of wines to appellation/terroir – region, village, premier cru and grand cru. The five senses tour allowed us to appreciate some fine wines, the first of many. Annually they offer a wine, truffle and mushrooms experience and host the annual Hospices de Beaune wine auction.
A quick walk from Bouchard Aîné & Fils to explore the town and a short foray into its well-stocked kitchen shop, then on to Hospices de Beaune before a wine tasting at the magnificent Château de Pommard dating back to 1726. Here an hour’s tour and tasting called the “Climats experience” was informative and enjoyable – especially the tasting of Cote de Beaune Chardonnay, the vintage Cote de Nuits, Pinot Noir and Clos Morey-Monge. One look at my man’s face and I knew the seal had been broken. The first bottle had been bought. We wandered back to our car through the gardens, well worth a look.
The scenic drive along the Routes des Grands Crus took us to Caveau de Puligny-Montrachet for a light lunch of terrine, bread and…sigh…some wine, then back ‘home’ for a siesta at Hostellerie de Levernois. This five-hectare park also houses two-star Le Parc de l’Hostellerie, where we stayed for the next two nights. It may only be rated two stars, (rooms are compact), but the staff have been trained to give superlative five-star service. Next time I shall take my golf clubs.
Saturday saw us heading to the local Beaune market where I succumbed to the temptation of buying beautiful antique copper and salivated at the standard of the fresh fruit and veg.
From one of Jean Louis’s magic phone calls we were treated to a private wine experience at la Maison Vougeot, an old house dating back to the 1960s, where the rooms have been converted for intimate tastings of premium wines of the area. Hostess Jennifer and sommelier Justine gave us a great experience, starting with a glass of Crémant on arrival. Here the tastings are done on a card system – you simply load your card with euro (paying in ZAR you may weep), slide it into the dispenser at the wine you want and it is perfectly poured at the right temperature, slowly reducing your points purchased. We were delighted to discover that Justine (who suggests tasting from red to white wines so that you end with freshness) is heading to Cape Town on holiday to experience our winelands! Whilst I was doing my bit as a South African ambassador I spotted another bottle of wine creeping into our luggage, justified by my man that it could only be bought in Beaune. This was a line I was to hear a few times! Tasting the wines from Clos de Vougeot meant that we would have to head there to see the 50 hectares from which 86 producers produce premier cru wines.
A scenic drive to Dijon took us past many hills (cote), and we admired the vineyards on the left of the 947, reputed to be the finest. A pitstop in Nuits-Saint-Georges for a late afternoon snack of terrines, charcuterie and cheese (more wine) and then to Chateau de Corton and the Chateau Clos de Vougeot completed a fine day of stopping in little villages and enjoying their charms. As shops close from 12 to 2.30pm in most towns it made sense to have lunch or travel at this time – mostly I would siesta in the car whilst Dave diligently drove.
Dijon demands a day to explore. There is a plethora of retail enticement. A visit to Moutarde Maille, home of the renowned mustard, and the unique Owl Walk (follow the owl plaques in the street with your owl map) and you will be on track for a day to remember. It is known as the cuisine capital of Burgundy, so we were overwhelmed with culinary choices.
Our homeward drive took us past Aloxe-Corton, where the chateau and elevated views over the green landscape were heavenly. A casual dinner on the streets of Beaune had to include rabbit with mustard sauce after our mustard tasting that morning. I was sad to miss the evening wine tasting at Hostellerie de Levernois, as they have an impressive collection of over 1000 local wines. Next time.
It was time to leave Beaune and take the road well-travelled to Sainte Sabine, via the town of Châteauneuf.
We stopped at the Auberge du Marronier for lunch, and trawled the historic site that oozes French charm. As we were checking into our gorgeous suite at Château Sainte Sabine guests arrived in a helicopter, obviously more important than moi, but the staff made us feel like number ones! I could immediately feel the love and care that the Bottiglieros have afforded this property. The views over the lawn to the canal are arresting, and it was enchanting to see the deer seeking shade. In spite of searing afternoon heat we cycled along the canal for a few hours before stopping for some sustenance at a boathouse. Beer has never tasted so good! Back at the beautiful chateau I cooled off and then napped off at the pool.
Prior to the memorable Gourmet menu enjoyed at Le Lassey restaurant at Sainte Sabine we settled on the terrace for drinks and canapes, a Kir Royal for me knowing that the berries are grown nearby. Chef Philippe Auge’s passion was evident in this gastronomic restaurant too, and we dined like a king and queen.
It was hard to leave the gorgeousness of the chateau, but another chapter in our Tour de France beckoned. Champagne, here we come!