(Wine) Weekending: Beaune in Burgundy
I’m a bit of a wine fan (red, white, rosé, sparkling, you name it) and have combined my love of wine and travel with trips to a fair few wine regions around the world. So as a subset of my Weekending series, this is the first of my guides to great wine weekend destinations.
Burgundy is one of France’s most famous wine regions – as well as one of its most expensive. Yes this is where you can splash out $3000 for a bottle of Romanée Conti if you’re feeling flash, but you can do a food and wine trip to the area without blowing the budget. The region is known for its world-class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines, and some of the best are grown on the limestone ridge of the Côte d’Or, or ‘golden slopes’, near the city of Beaune. Beaune is known as Burgundy’s ‘wine capital’, and as well as enough wineries and bars to warrant its status, it’s full of restaurants and boutique shops among the cobbled streets and medieval city walls.
The city has plenty of caves – or wine cellars – where you can taste some of Burgundy’s wines. A good place to start is the Marché au Vins in the city centre to get an overview of what Burgundy has to offer. A tasting of 18 local wines costs €10 and takes place in the atmospheric candlelit cellar below an old church. There are also a few wineries located within the city where you can meet the producers and try their wines. Just outside the city walls is the Bouchard Aîné et Fils winery, with a cellar tour where you can earn about the history of wine-producing in Burgundy and try to get your head around the complicated Grand Cru, Premier Cru classification system. You also get to tour the cellars and try some of their wines. It’s a good place for wine beginners as they teach you a ‘five senses’ approach to wine tasting, with things to smell and touch to inspire your wine tasting vocabulary (some a bit odder than others… ).
Away from the wine for a moment and tucked away in a courtyard in the city centre is the ornate Hôtel Dieu des Hospices de Beaune. Built in 1443 as a hospital for the poor and needy, it was still used as a hospital until the 1970s but is now a museum where you can see how the patients lived. And they had some pretty impressive surroundings – with turret-topped buildings covered in intricate multicoloured glazed tiles. Patients stayed in wooden four-poster beds screened with red velvet curtains in the huge Room of the Poors. Today the Hôtel Dieu hosts a famous charity wine auction as part of a three-day festival each November. As well as black-tie dinners (and a lot of drinking), Christie’s auction house sells wine produced on land donated to the hospital by the local wine-producing communes. You have to buy it by the barrel though, which is equivalent to about 288 bottles.
If you want to get out of the city and see more of Burgundy, you can follow the 60km-long Routes des Grands Crus (or the ‘road of the great wines’, less romantically known as Route National 74). It passes through beautiful countryside along limestone ridges covered in vines, and through famous wine-producing villages like Nuits-St-Georges and Gevrey-Chambertin. You can hire a bike to cycle the route, or it’s less energetic (but easier to carry your wine purchases) to take a minibus tour round the region. Our driver from Safari Tours wound us through tiny hillside tracks of the Côte de Beaune at quite a pace. As well as the driving skills of a rally driver, he was full of information about the area and came up with some great tips about some of the lesser-known wineries where you can get Burgundy on a budget, definitely not including Romanée Conti!
Getting there… The nearest airports to Beaune is in Dijon (with direct UK flights from Southampton) or Lyon (with flights from London, Bristol, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Edinburgh). Or by train you can take the Eurostar to Paris Gare du Nord (2 hours 15 mins), then cross Paris to the Gare du Lyon by RER. The journey to Beaune takes about 2 hours 20 mins.
Sleeping… In a converted townhouse in the centre of the city is the modern boutique-style Hotel Via Mokis. It only has five suites, ranging from €165-€250 a night, as well as an underground spa area, a wine bar and restaurant with Michelin-star-winning chef. Or if you want to save money to spend on all that wine, the Hotel des Ramparts has double rooms from €85 in a a 17th-century building full of antique French furniture, set around peaceful courtyards
Eating and drinking… It’s all about the wine in this town. As well as tastings in the caves and wineries, the bars in the main square, the Place du Carnot, are a good spot for an aperitif. If you like Champagne, try a cremant, the local (and cheaper) version. And if you get tired of drinking wine, you can eat it instead with local dishes cooked a la Bourguignonne (aka in Burgundy wine). There’s coq au vin and boeuf Bourguignon – chicken or beef in a sauce of wine, onion, mushrooms and bacon – or the more unusual oeufs a la Bourguignonne, eggs poached in red wine. You can try these and other local dishes at Ma Cuisine. In a renovated 15th-century stable hidden down an alleyway, it only has 13 tables so booking is a good idea. It’s a favourite of local winemakers – and drinkers, probably something to do with the 700 wines available. Or for a local ingredients with a more modern twist, Le Jardin des Ramparts serves Michelin-starred food in an art deco mansion by the city walls.