SAULIEU, BURGUNDY, France — It's almost 1 a.m. and I'm just finishing dinner. No, I haven't been snacking on the cheese packages and Toblerone bars in my hotel mini-bar during a late-night hunger attack. I've been feasting on course after course — seven of them — at the Relais Bernard Loiseau, one of the most acclaimed restaurants in Burgundy, if not the whole of France.
As I savor the last, lingering bite of chocolate mousse, sandwiched between thin layers of dark chocolate, I realize that in just two hours I have to be ready to leave the hotel for the drive back to Paris (the countrywide strikes having resulted in cancellation of my train to Charles De Gaulle Airport), but I'm not about to give up gustatory Abbaye de Font pleasure at a Michelin three-star restaurant for something so mundane as a couple of hours' sleep.
This night of gastronomic indulgence, as remarkable as it was, was the second in a row at a restaurant that had earned Michelin's highest rating. The night before, I had partaken of a similar feast at La Côte Saint-Jacques in the town of Joigny (the scallops, chanterelles and endives with mushroom cappuccino were a foodie's dream.)
So, you might ask, what is so unusual about that? This is France, after all, where Michelin stars are hardly a rarity. What is unusual is that those six stars are split between two towns with a combined population of fewer than 15,000 people — a demographic that in the United States might get you a McDonald's, an IHOP and a pizza parlor. Welcome to Burgundy, where haute cuisine is the most important feature of life — unless, of course, you count the wine.
The rivalry between France's two main wine regions — Burgundy and Bordeaux — is the oeniphilic equivalent of the basketball rivalry between the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville. Both have their devotees, and neither is willing to give an inch in the debate over which has the superior product. I've not had the pleasure of a visit to Bordeaux, so my observations will be somewhat one-sided — and colored by the copious amounts of chardonnay and pinot noir I consumed during a three-day visit.
Let me begin by saying that Bordeaux might lay claim to the world's most expensive bottle of wine (a 1787 Château Lafite Rothschild, with Thomas Jefferson's initials etched on the glass, which sold at Christie's in London for $160,000), Burgundy is no slouch in the pocketbook sweepstakes. A bottle of 1978 Montrachet from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti sold at Sotheby's in New York for $23,929 and had the benefit of being young enough to be drinkable. This represents the extreme, but the quality of Burgundy wines, coupled with the small quantities produced at some wineries, do make the top vintages among the world's priciest.
Geographically, Burgundy is in eastern France, and the vineyards line the valleys west of the Saône River, a tributary of the Rhone. It has the longest history of continuous wine-making in the world — 20 centuries, with documented evidence of vineyards being planted in the 1st century A.D. Burgundy's epicenter is the Côte d'Or, lying between Dijon and Beaune, where 32 of the 33 grand cru wines are produced — both white (chardonnay) and red (pinot noir.) The other comes from Chablis — whose wines, while technically considered burgundies, are named after their eponymous village.
I learned on my visit that the Burgundian growers are the most obsessed in all of France with the concept of terroir (conditions that give a wine its specific personality), and care more about the grape and the soil than the show. For this reason, Burgundy lacks the grand châteaus and expansive vineyards with state-of-the-art tasting rooms that are characteristic of Bordeaux. It can be downright difficult to locate some of the wineries, and even figuring out when they are open can be just as mystifying (the local tourist boards can be of assistance on both counts.)
Still, there are some dramatic ways to taste wine. My favorite was touring the vineyards in a vintage car, courtesy of a wonderful company called Au Coeur du Vin, owned by a delightful couple who set up a tasting in the middle of the vineyard. Talk about ambience. My next stop was for a tasting at the Domaine du Château de Beru, a 12th-century estate on 15 acres of vineyards in Chablis. To my surprise, the wine was poured by Countess Laurence Beru herself, a woman with a passion for her estate (it has been in her family for 400 years) and the wine it produces.
Beyond the wine
If Burgundy has peerless food and wine, it also has one of the richest histories in all of France. In the Middle Ages, the powerful dukes of Burgundy frequently challenged the authority of the king. It is amusing to note (and a sign of the importance of the local grapes) that these aristocrats referred to themselves not only as the Grand Dukes of the West (their sphere of influence extended as far as present-day Belgium and the Netherlands ), but as the Lords of the Finest Wines in Christendom. If you are looking for remnants of that history, you can do no better than visits to Castle Ancy-le-Franc and the Abbey at Fontenay.
My first view of Castle Ancy-le-Franc, situated on the Burgundy Canal, was somewhat of a shock. It looks more like an Italian palazzo than a traditional French château. That's not surprising; the Renaissance palace, begun in 1542, was the masterpiece of Italian architect Sebastiano Serlio, who was summoned to France by King François I to build Fontainebleau and stuck around to create Ancy.
The castle's four symmetrical wings form a perfect quadrilateral facing a central courtyard, and its interior is a cornucopia of lofty carved ceilings, tiled floors, frescoes and friezes. Although most noted for its fine collection of 16th- and 17th-century murals, I found the castle's most charming feature to be the Flower Room, whose wall panels were intricately and vividly painted with 30 flower species.
My favorite place in Burgundy, however, had to be the gorgeous Abbey at Fontenay, founded by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who started the Cistercian order of monks. From its founding in 1118 and continuing for two centuries, Fontenay enjoyed its status as one of the richest religious establishments in France, and it had the protection of French kings. Its good fortune ended when it was plundered during the Hundred Years War with England. During the French Revolution, with hostility directed at the clergy as well as the aristocracy, the abbey closed. The last monks left in 1790.
Today, under private ownership and after a meticulous restoration, Fontenay Abbey has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Wandering through the structures — the Romanesque-style dormitory, the cloister, the chapter house and the oldest Cistercian church remaining in France, as well as the formal parterre gardens, offers a sense of peace and serenity not often found in today's hectic world.
Another favorite spot was Vezelay, designated as one of France's "most beautiful villages." It has one long, steep street leading up to the Abbey of St. Mary Magdalene, one of Europe's best-preserved Romanesque churches. The abbey's importance lies not only in its claim to have relics belonging to Mary Magdalene, but that it was a stop along the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
By all means, do visit the abbey, but save enough time to stroll the village, taking in the tantalizing aroma of baking bread or stopping for a glass of wine in a flower-filled courtyard.
In Vezelay, you'll discover the true essence of Burgundy.