It’s harvest time in Burgundy. Velvety purple grapes hang heavy on the vines, and all throughout the Cote de Beaune and Cote de Nuits, families, relatives, and friends move slowly through the fields in the culmination of a year’s work. Given there’s no perfect way to time a visit to wine country with the harvest, I’m lucky to be here during this especially active period. And the best thing about being in Burgundy now is that I discover that as fascinating as the harvest is, there’s a lot more to this region of France than just the wine. Here’s how I found its secrets…
I’ve wanted to visit Burgundy since before I moved to the UK, but like many places in Europe, its proximity to London meant the trip got put off in favor of destinations further afield. Finally an invitation from the tourism board gave me the motivation I was looking for. Traveling was a breeze on the train, and now I’m in the heart of French wine country.
And what I discover is that while I arrived looking forward to tasting the region’s renowned Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, there’s a lot more to explore than just what Louis XIV called the “wine of kings”.
The Cities of Burgundy
The cities, for example. I start my travels in Burgundy in Dijon, the administrative capital. I vaguely know of the existence of the dukes of Burgundy, the noblemen that amassed so much power in the medieval period that the region rivaled Paris in importance. But what I don’t know is that due to the dukes’ political and economic strength, Burgundy not only became influential, but its wealth also brought with it amazing artistic and architectural treasures.
Dijon has these in abundance. Starting with the Museum of Archaeology (all museums are free in the city), I learn about the region’s Roman roots with Sherry Thevenot, my excellent tour guide from Bourgogne Authentique. The rooms are as stunning as their contents, with gorgeous vaults and arches.
The museum is next door to the cathedral, the roof of which I can’t take my eyes off. Sherry explains that all the bright roof tiles that characterize Burgundy’s architecture are a result of crusaders returning from the east, bringing Chinese architectural trends back with them.
Also in Dijon are pedestrianized shopping streets with medieval buildings on both sides, a beautiful covered market, and a historic ducal palace that is now the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Dijon. It has some of the most impressive examples of medieval art in France, and I can’t believe I never knew it existed.
And that’s to say nothing of Beaune, Burgundy’s other main city. If Dijon is known for administration, Beaune is known for wine. Every street has a tasting room, wine school, or other oenological establishment, and every spare pocket of space—including the city’s medieval ramparts—is used for wine storage.
Dotted among them are medieval and half-timbered buildings that rival those of Dijon, not least among them the famous Hospices de Beaune. It’s an amazing hospital-turned-museum that still owns many of the best wine-growing land in the region, and its annual wine auction brings collectors from all over the world to Burgundy each November.
Beaune is also known for its subterranean maze of wine. According to Sherry, “if you peel back the street level of Beaune, you’ll find a labyrinth of cellars”. And in the case of Patriarche, it’s true. I tour their famous cellars, which stretch for kilometers under the city, passing beneath streets and houses in what amounts to an underground wine wonderland. At the end of the low-lit maze, I’m rewarded with a candlelit wine tasting that includes some of the region’s famous Grand Crus.
The Villages of Burgundy
Away from the cities, Burgundy has storybook towns and villages for which its world-renowned wines are named. Not least among these is Flavigny, a town known for its aniseed candies and even better known for being the filming location of the movie Chocolat (if only Johnny Depp actually lived there!).
More rural still, the chateaux and historic abbeys of Burgundy win me over with their opulence. Many were sold to secular owners after being taken from the church during the French Revolution, and a significant number remain in private hands as residences, hotels, wineries, and other businesses today.
To explore them, I stay for a night in a fairytale former abbey where my room is fit for a princess and a Michelin-starred dinner goes down a treat. Outside, pretty ponies graze free and manicured gardens and ponds add to the surreal ambiance.
Not far away, I tour Tournus’ famous Abbaye Saint-Philibert, a masterpiece that is only one of Burgundy’s many stunning examples of Romanesque architecture.
The Vineyards of Burgundy
Away from the villages, towns, and cities, the Burgundian countryside draws me in with its vineyards and rural beauty. A cycling trip with bikes from Cycl’Auto Vandroux shows me the bucolic side of life on the river along one of the region’s many bike paths. As I ride, I have great views of the water, where canal boating is one of the most popular ways to travel in Burgundy.
And of course, the vineyards win me over with their beauty and bounty. A true Northern Californian, Pinot Noir is close to my heart. Given that this region is one of the most famous places in the world for it, I’m excited to go wine tasting in Burgundy.
Tasting during the harvest can be tricky, as everyone is out working in the vineyards. But fortunately I have a wine tour with Wine & Voyages and an appointment for a wine tasting at Domaine Armelle et Bernard Rion in Vosne-Romanee.
I get a quick cellar tour from one of the family members—many vineyards here are family-run—and taste a range of wines, from the classic Village through to the celebrated Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines. This region produces only a tiny percentage of the world’s wines, but by virtue of its quality it manages to be one of the most famous places for it.
As I taste, my host tells me that her family has run the winery for generations. Everyone pitches in—her octogenarian grandmother has even made lunch for the 40 relatives and friends that are helping with the harvest this week. It’s great to have such an intimate, personal experience given the prevalence of big, industrial wineries in many other parts of the world.
The Food in Burgundy
And wine isn’t the only impressive agricultural product in this part of France. The food is good, too.
It’s no secret that Dijon is famous for mustard, especially that of world-famous Maille. Its original shop in Dijon has mustard on tap that visitors can buy in a pretty jar to take home.
Additionally, Burgundy is known for Kir, a drink made from local Aligote white wine and creme de cassis. Named after the former mayor of Dijon, it has since been popularized the world over in its better-known form, the Kir Royale.
And let’s not overlook the sweets of Flavigny, housed in their beautiful painted tins, and the famous pain d’epices—known in English as gingerbread.
But the savory food is excellent, too, and I have great meals at places like Carte Blanche in Dijon and Cafe de la Gare near Macon. At the latter, a packed outdoor terrace fills with French classics like terrine and tarte aux pommes.
Sadly, Macon is where my trip to Burgundy ends. I board the train, heading back to London’s St Pancras station. But as sad as I am to leave this amazing region of France, I’m welcomed back to Britain by a familiar sight: The Meeting Place sculpture.
Known for being one of the most romantic places in London, the sculpture was made by Paul Day, an English artist who now resides near Dijon. I had a chance to meet him while I was traveling, and seeing his work wrought a connection between London and Burgundy that I hope will draw me back to the region before next year’s harvest, whenever that will be. Not that it matters. The region is spectacular at harvest or any other time of year.