A beginner’s guide to Burgundy
In many ways, the region of Burgundy symbolises everything about old-France that makes it such an incredible place to visit.
The history of this region stretches back through the ages, but Burgundy began to take shape in the form that we know it today during the dissolution of the Frankish Empire in the 880s.
The Dukes of Burgundy emerged as a powerful political force across the centuries, steadily expanding their territories and influence before being largely absorbed by France during the 15th and 16th centuries.
One of the factors that made Burgundy such a strategic part of the world was its agriculture - throughout its history this area has been recognised as producing quality food and outstanding wine.
One of the reasons that this region has been able to produce such good wine is its topography - the valleys and slopes created along the west of the Saone River - a tributary of the Rhone - have proved to be perfect conditions for growing pinot noir grapes, for red wine, and chardonnay grapes, for white wine.
The climate of this region features cold winters and hot summers - but there is also some unpredictability as rain, hail, and frost can all play a part in making the vintage of one year significantly more desirable or appreciated than the vintage of another.
Dijon is a spectacular city. A fascinating mix of architecture and building styles throughout the ages. City tours can be booked through the tourism office, but a more relaxed way to explore the city on your own is to collect the self-guided tour booklet. The route of the tour is marked by small owls set into the pavement, with major points of interest clearly marked and detailed in the free booklet. You don’t necessarily need the booklet as the owls are pretty easy to follow, but the booklet gives you a few insights about the key points of interest.
The owl has become the symbol of the city after the builder of the stunning Notre Dame church included a small owl in the exterior, as a subtle tribute to the Dukes of Burgundy - in French, there’s a similarity in the words used to describe the owl with the description of the Dukes. Visitors are encouraged to rub the small stone owl with their left hand - it brings luck, or perhaps it’s an aphrodisiac.
Beaune is effectively the second city within this region, after Dijon.
There’s some beautiful architecture in Beaune, and you can easily spend a couple of hours wandering around and soaking up the atmosphere.
One of the main attractions to visit is the Hospices de Beaune.
The history of this place is incredible. It was established in 1443 as a hospital and continued to be used as Beaune’s main hospital until the 1970s when a new modern hospital was built on the outskirts of town.
Today, the Hospices de Beaune is open to the public as a museum. Its medical history is fascinating, but it’s also a stunning example of the building styles of the 15th century - particularly the decorative tiles used to construct the roof, a style that is a feature of this region.
The museum also houses the stunning Rogier van der Weyden polyptych altarpiece - this originally adorned the hospital’s main chapel and, due largely to the care of the nuns who ran the hospice the altarpiece has survived remarkably intact. The nuns even managed to hide the priceless artwork from the Nazi’s during World War II.
While you’re in Beaune, it’s also worth visiting the Fallot mustard factory. While Burgundy is synonymous with wine, one of the other products that this region is famous for is its mustard.
Fallot is the fourth most popular mustard producer in France but, unlike the top three, Fallot is family-owned and is creating mustard using the local produce of the Burgundy region - apart from the mustard seeds, which are now mainly imported from Canada. You can do a tour of the production facilities of the factory - which is more interesting than it might sound - but if you don’t have time for the tour, you can still taste some of the different flavoured mustards available.
The Villages of Burgundy
There are a series of small villages scattered across Burgundy - you can easily spend a day exploring them. Driving slowly along the back roads, stopping for numerous photos, admiring the spectacular countryside, the vineyards, the villages, the churches, and appreciating a real sense of being in a place of agricultural excellence.
The village of Gevrey-Chambertin is a small village between Beaune and Dijon.
We stayed in Les Deux Chevres, which was the perfect base from which to explore the region. Local restaurants such as Chez Guy, and La Rotisserie du Chambertin are excellent.
The Pyramid of Quality
There are plenty of opportunities to learn about wine while you’re visiting Burgundy.
A great way to start a meal is with a glass of Crémant - the sparkling wine produced in this region, similar to champagne - best accompanied with some gougère pastries which are small balls of choux pastry flavoured with cheese. Chardonnay grapes are used to produce high-quality Chablis, but it’s the Pinot Noir wines that this region is most famous for.
The simplest way to think about the wines of Burgundy is as a pyramid of quality - there are four main categories of wine produced in this region.
The first level - with the greatest volume of wines produced and the lowest prices - are the regional appellation wines. These are wines that are produced from grapes grown from within the Burgundy region. The labels of these wines will clearly show AOC Bourgogne to indicate that it is a wine of Burgundy.
The second level - and a step up in quality and price, with lower volumes produced - are the village appellation wines. These are wines that are produced from grapes grown within the boundaries of one of the 42 villages that can be found within Burgundy. The labels of these wines will clearly show the name of the village that it’s from and will also generally have the specific vineyard where the grapes have been sourced from. So you will see wines labelled as Pommard, or Puligny-Montrachet, or Aloxe-Corton.
The third level - and again, a step up in quality and price, with lower volumes produced - are the Premier Cru wines. These wines are produced from a specific vineyard that is considered to be of high quality. The labels of these wines will indicate the name of the relevant village, the vineyard name, and will clearly indicate its Premier Cru status.
The fourth level of quality - the most expensive wines - are the Grand Cru wines. These are the wines produced from the small number of vineyards that have been recognised as the best vineyard sites in the region. The labels of these wines will list the name of the vineyard and indicate their Grand Cru status, but they will not list a village name.
- If you’re travelling from London, then it makes sense to take the Eurostar to central Paris, changing onto the TGV fast train to Dijon which is the major city in this region. You’ll need to pick up a hire-car when you get to Dijon.
- If you’re arriving straight into Paris, then the fast-train to Dijon is still the best access point to this region. Alternatively you could pick up a hire-car and drive - it’s easy driving and will take around 3.5 hours.
- This part of the world is also easily accessed from Geneva - you could pick up a hire-car from Geneva airport and then drive into Burgundy.