Wednesday, August 1, 2007

"VENI, VIDI, VINO!"


I Came, I Saw, I Drank Vino ! by Barbara Barton Sloane

Lest you get the wrong impression, my recent trip to Burgundy encompassed far more than drinking wine….really! However, when we hear the word Burgundy, our thoughts do meander toward great wine, non? Actually, you cannot think about Burgundy without thinking about its famous wines. But let’s first think about getting there.

Burgundy is set in the central eastern part of France, 200 miles from Paris. You can fly into the Dijon-Bourgogne airport from most major cities in Europe. The region is also accessible by TGV, the high-speed train from Paris. If you like flying along at break-neck speed, arriving in Dijon in a brief hour and forty minutes, this train is for you. They reach speeds of 200 mph and your journey will not only be quick but comfortable.

Tasting Burgundy
The vineyards of this region cover an area of 27,000 acres, and there are over 4,500 individual wine-growing estates in Burgundy – a formidable presence in the world of wine. A little known fact: each Burgundy wine is produced from only two grape varieties: Pinot Noir (black) and Chardonnay (white).

As our small group of 6 – not terribly knowledgeable about wine but oh so interested to learn – traveled from vineyard to vineyard, each displayed signs identifying the wine they produce – Vosne Romanee, Romanee Conti, Nuits St. George. We sensed we were in a rarefied and special region as we learned that the pinnacle of a vintner’s crop is called Gran Cru and that some of these wines sell for as much a $1,000 a bottle. After being teased by these tantalizing vineyards, we stopped at Dufouleur Pere & Fils in Nuits-Saint-Georges. We descended into a dark, cool cellar, and had the chance to sample some of their superior and rare wines. Our host, Bernard Pennecot, cellar master, was good natured and patient with us neophytes and provided an in-depth explanation of each wine we tasted.

Castles, Chateaux and Mansions
This region of France is a destination unto itself, dotted with impressive and historically significant castles and its Route des Chateaux includes 17 castles from different periods of French history, including Renaissance, Baroque and Neo-Classical. We visited the sumptuous palace Chateau de Bazoches, home of the architect Vauban, whose castles and fortifications for Louis XIV are found throughout France. Nothing quite prepares you for Bazoches. The approach to the palace is impressive. As our van slowly climbed a wooded hill, the medieval chateau lay directly before us, it’s twelfth century towers gleaming in the distance. Unlike many unoccupied castles, empty and forlorn, we were delighted to find that this is an entirely furnished chateau, with the bed-chamber, armor and library of Vauban intact. Outside the chateau, it was picture-taking time, with its 17th century d├ęcor and nearly a thousand coats of arms hand painted on Limoges porcelain. The gardens were by Andre Le Notre, landscape designer of Versailles, and we found this a wonderful place to sit in the shade and ponder the magnificence of this home.
www.chateau-bazoches.com.

A 3-Star Experience
We had the great good luck to spend the night at a delightful resort, L’Esperance, in the town of Saint-Pere-sous-Vezelay. The owner/chef of
L’Esperance, a Relais and Chateaux property, is Marc Meneau. He and his wife Francine were gracious hosts who led us into a cave/wine cellar to sample their superb Chardonnays. Waiters from the restaurant gingerly descended into the cellar with trays of amuse-bouches, tiny, tasty hors d’oeuvres to enjoy with our wine.

A Michelin three-star honor has been bestowed on M. Meneau’s restaurant, and dining there is a true haute-cuisine experience. The restaurant is enclosed in an airy glass arboretum where we gazed out at elaborate formal gardens. The meal consisted of several courses, and one truly delectable surprise: a potato dish which was presented in four distinct ways – in a puff pastry, another, whipped till light and fluffy, an au gratin morsel and a potato cooked in a clay pot. Each was subtly different in flavor, texture and taste, and each was delicious. Leave it to the French to elevate the humble potato to this divine fare. Marc Meneau told us that he created L’Esperance for lovers of beauty, luxury and nature. He’s succeeded royally.

Did Somebody Say Dijon?
The next day we set out for Dijon, a two hour drive from Saint-Pere-sous-Vezelay. This city is the capital of Burgundy and the heart and soul of fine
French food. Dijon is an exciting city of almost half a million people. Apart from food, this city offers a wealth of cultural activities, festivals and museums: the Fine Arts Museum which displays kitchens that date back to the mid-1400’s, the Musee de la Vie Bourguignonne which offers a glimpse into how Burgundians lived in olden days, and the Musee Archeologique. However, hungry travelers that we were, we headed straight for Les Halles, the famed Dijon Market. As we traversed this gargantuan space, it seemed that every single resident was there strolling the aisles, sniffing, squeezing and tasting the market’s sumptuous fare: meats, cheeses, breads, fish and even some comestibles so unique and unusual that one has to ask what it is. Our guide through the market was a Bronx-born expat, Alex Miles, who has lived in France for 25 years and has the distinction of being the only American giving cooking classes in the heart of Burgundy! His culinary and cultural experiences are vast. He is acquainted with most of the market’s merchants, and at some of the more delectable counters, he asked for samples for our group. They were happy to oblige. The Dijon market, we quickly discovered, is far more than just a place to buy food. It is an integral part of the Dijonaise quotidian pastime, a place for neighbors to meet, greet, exchange gossip, be happy, feel sated. As we left the market, we simply had to stop around the corner at the Maille Store, home to 36 varieties of mustard. There’s Green Tea, Brittany Algae, Fig and Coriander mustards as well as 33 other strange and wonderful flavors.

Burgundy is a region with much to see and do, from hot air ballooning, biking along cool mountain trails to climbing to the tops of castles and delving deep inside wine cellars. Everyday we spent there was a happy adventure. We were captivated by the beauty of this place and the charming (yes, charming!) French people. A votre sante. Bon appetite. Come to Burgundy!

Plan to go?
Hotels:
L’Esperance
89450 Saint-Pere-sous-Vezelay
www.marc-meneau-esperance.com
Hostellerie du Chapeau Rouge, Dijon
www.chapeau-rouge.fr
Sofitel Dijon La Cloche
www.sofitel.com
The French Tourist Office (212-838-7800)
www.franceguide.com

Photo Credits:
Maison de la France