Vines and Wines of Burgundy

By Ross Collins
(Published in The Forum, January 1987.)

South of Dijon, France, historic capital of Burgundy, is a suburb named Chenove which marks the first stop of some 100 miles of the greatest vinyards in the world. That is, if you want to stop, which most tourists don't preferring to whisk down the road a few miles for the more famous Burgundy vinyards.

But if you stop, you'll likely be able to avoid tourists bwhile viewing the one truly historic claim to the village: the great wine press built for the Dukes of Burgundy 750 years ago.

The keeper of this ancient press (its stone weighs 26 tons) lumbers down a narrow stairs to open the door for you, his rotund frame clad in farmers' overalls, topped with the red beret so traditional among older Frenchmen.

With enthusiasm to cheer you, whether or not you understand French, he will gesture to explain the operation of the huge press. He takes you by the arm, leans in close, and confides, "Monsieur, they pressed grapes in this very room for more than 700 years!"

The hospitality of the Burgundians is a delight that surely will rid you of your fear that all French are cold and unfriendly, especially to Americans.

Two hours from Paris by train, on a major highway between Paris and Lyon, the "Cote d'or" department defining the core of Burgundy is a refreshing break from urban areas. Tourists from the Red River Valley might find it a bit familiar, for, like the valley, it offers some of the most agriculturally productive soil on earth. Its capital, Dijon, with about 140,000 people, seems about the size of Fargo-Moorhead, and its university and civic pride make it a vibrant, growing center.

But take a drive south from Dijon on "La Route des Grands Crus" (the N5 and N6) and you will find further similarity a bit far-fetched. Unlike the valley, the crop on the gentle hills grows on small vines, about three feet high, staked to low fences. Most of these grapes are the pinot noir variety, the grape that forms the base of red Burgundy wine.

In the United States, burgundy is generic for any dry red wine. It also names a color, but these useages pilfer the fame of the only true Burgundy, that is, wines both red and white made in this area of east central France. In fact, Burgundians are rather irked when you call a red California wine "burgundy." (And even more irked when you say the California wine is nearly as good, though it's sometimes true).

Burgundy, a dry wine, mostly red but sometimes white, offers a grand aroma and rich distinctive flavor you'll like, even if you usually dislike dry wine. It's a flavor long sought by kings and emperors (it was Napoleon's choice), and, according to historians, it's been offered by growers here since before the fall of Rome.

Medieval monks built great monasteries here to tend the vinyards. Even today, with so much wine produced around the globe, the tiny production (by comparison) of Burgundy is seldom equaled in quality.

Burgundy wine is understandably expensive in the States, seldom offered for under $10 a bottle. Even in France it is not cheap. But visitors who take the route through Burgundy enjoy an advantage--they may taste the local stock free, or nearly free, at one or more of dozens of vinyards and shippers.

Visitors to Burgundy usually make their first night's stop in Dijon. This ancient city, "Divio" to the Romans, holds some of the most important late medieval and Renaissance architecture in France, including ornate half-timbered buildings and flamboyant Flemish roofs. It was a style imported from that area by the rich Dukes of Burgundy, who ruled a sizable chunk of Europe in the 1400s. The old ducal palace houses the city's fine arts museum, one of the most important collections of medieval and Renaissance art in France.

The food! Burgundy calls itself the gastronomical capital of France, and you'd be hard pressed to find a bad restaurant. A good meal of Beef Burgundy with several courses including wine can still be found at about $10.

The route through the vinyards winds toward Lyon, and from there, toward the Riviera. It passes through a wine district divided into the Cote de Nuits, home of the most famous Burgundy wines, the Cote de Beaune, home of excellent reds and famous whites, the Maconnais, and toward Lyon, the Beaujolais.

The sign "Degustation" means you're invited to stop along the way for a taste. Often it's free or at a modest charge. It's true that Burgundian wine merchants don't exactly offer this for their health--they hope you'll fall in love with the wine and buy a bottle or 10. But you don't have to.

Along the route, you'll want to make at least one longer stop, in Beaune. If Dijon is the capital of Burgundy, Beaune is the capital of Burgundy wine. This prim village is home to some of the most important of Burgundy's wine shippers (negotiants), and the larger shippers will be happy to give you a tour of their cellars.

The wine museum in the Hotel des Ducs de Bourgogne includes everything you want to know about the history of Burgundy wine. Perhaps more.

Festivals of food and drink are offered throughout the year in Burgundy. If you plan a trip the end of January, you'll be there during one of the biggest celebrations, the St. Vincent's Festival. St. Vincent is patron of winemakers, and almost every village in Burgundy celebrates with (what else?) wine, usually free, usually excellent.

Happy French people sing traditional Burgundian folk songs, link arms, and generally act like Germans at an Oktoberfest, though it could be hazardous to tell them that.

If you don't drink wine, Burgundy still offers a wide variety of attractions., Besides the food, art, and picturesque villages, you may choose from dozens of medieval monasteries and churches, in an area that was second in importance only to Rome for Christians in medieval times.

The ruined abbey in Cluny was known some 900 years ago as the "maker of popes." And, of course, Dijon is center of the famous mustards--a mustard museum and store are featured in the city center. Burgundy spiced bread (pain d'epice) and snails (escargot) are also specialties.

You can "do" Burgundy in a day from Paris. Take an early fast train from the Gare de Lyon, eat breakfast en route, and return by train late in the evening. Guided bus trips (in English) of the area are available, day or evening.

For more information write the Syndicat d'Initiative, 34, rue des Forges, 21000 Dijon, France, or check with your local travel agent.

Copyright 2004 by Ross F. Collins <>