Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Road to Burgundy

According to the map the distance and time from Gare du Nord, a major train station in the north of Paris, where we picked up our rented car, to Chilly-Mazarin on the southern outskirts of Paris, is 29 kilometers and should take only 37 minutes. But on that Monday morning the Boulevard Peripherique, the highway that circles Paris, was a parking lot filled with delivery trucks, people in sedans on their way to work, hapless travelers like us, and  the inevitable accident causers and victims. It took us more than an hour and a half to get out of Paris. Luckily, I was unusually calm, waiting out the traffic mess to slowly clear itself, quite content to move forward at a snail’s pace, while M in the seat next to me was a total mess of nerves.
 Typical Burgundian landscape outside Brochon

Once we hit the A6 it was plain sailing in a southeastern direction to Burgundy until we were halfway on the A38 to Dijon when Samantha, our trusted GPS, suddenly had a brain-fart, ejected us from the highway and we, with little idea of where we were going and which route we should be taking, followed her instructions to the T. She directed us all along route D35, through valleys covered in natural flora, a forest near the hamlet of Urcy, passed stony farm buildings seemingly hundreds of years old, and from time to time along a road that seemed to switch back on itself at several places, or so it felt anyway. There were times we thought we should turn around as we meandered further and further into hilly country where we saw little other traffic, no vineyards or any white Charolais cattle for which Burgundy is so famous. We knew we were in Burgundy but it certainly didn’t look like the wine country I was expecting. But then we convinced ourselves again to just go another kilometer to see where the crooked and twisting road and Samantha will takes us. We followed the GPS like lambs to the slaughter. Eventually we crested a rather high hill and below us a large valley opened up and in the hazy light of the custardy late afternoon the sweeping road led through vineyard upon vineyard to a town in the distance. Samantha has delivered us on the doorstep of Nuits-Saint-Georges, in the northern half of the world famous Cote d’Or wine region of Burgundy.
Chateau de Gilly in Gilly-Les-Citeaux, a modern hotel in a historic shell. Originally it was a Benedictine Priory during the rule of Germain, Bishop of Paris. It was later sold to the Cistercians, probably around the middle 14th century. In the 16th century, Nicolas Boucherat II, the 51st Abbot of Cîteaux, decided to make it a house of relaxation. It has been a luxury hotel since 1987.
From there it was only a couple of minutes’ drive to Vougeot, but then Samantha lost her way, could not find the Chateau de Gilly, our final destination and hotel for the next 3 days. The place simply was not in her database. We stopped at a wine shop in Vougeot, a small “one horse” wine merchant village. I pulled out my Michelin map and tried to get directions from the lady inside, but she couldn’t speak a word of English, the first of several occasions over the next 5 days we had to rely on hand signs and our severely limited French to get help or to order food. She didn’t know exactly where the chateau was; only that it was on the other side of the major road that ran from Dijon to Beaune in a commune called Gilly-Les-Citeaux. We must follow the signs, she said. That was easier said than done. Twice we drove the directed road up and down and saw no sign that pointed to the chateau, until we eventually spotted it hidden behind a parked road-repair truck.
Clos de Vougeot, towering over the nearby village. A Grand Cru vineyard started by the austere monks from nearby Citeaux in the 12th century and later winemaking was perfected here by the Cisterians monks until it was confiscated by Napoleon Bonaparte.  

Although I had initial plans to go to Dijon in the afternoon, our late arrival at our hotel nipped that plan in the bud and after a short rest we were back in our rented VW and drove around the area to explore and try to find a restaurant for dinner. The hotel had a restaurant but it was excessively expensive. The French countryside is littered with tiny villages, sometimes strung like pearls on a necklace all along a minor two-lane road, sometimes no more than five or six kilometers apart. But unlike here in America most of these tiny villages have either none or only one or two restaurants and most definitely no fast foods restaurants.
The village church of Brochon with its typical colorful Burgundian roof.

As we were exploring Vougeot and later Brochon and Gevrey-Chambertin we stopped at hotels and restaurants in these villages and to our dismay discovered that on Mondays all the restaurants were closed. Even the single groceries store in Gevrey-Chambertin closed at 8 pm. It was already dark and we were hungry and tired when we returned to the chateau and reluctantly had to eat in the chateau’s restaurant, the only open restaurant in the area. Now I suppose we could have gone to Nuits-Saint-Georges too to look for a place to eat, but the owner of the hotel in Vougeot told us the best was probably to drive to Dijon. However, that was not a viable option. There was no way I was going to drive into a major city in the dark without first exploring it in daylight.

So down we went into the chateau’s original cellar to go and experience the food of Chef Jean-Alain Poitevin in Le Clos Prieur. The atmosphere was typical French for this class of restaurant: stiff, formal, communications taking place in whispered tones, and a waiter that hovered around the table like a military drone and with just the slightest wink ready to pounce like it is attacking an Al-Qaida infested compound in Afghanistan. In other words a totally unappetizing atmosphere. For the excessive price, the food was somewhere between mediocre and acceptable, totally forgettable. However, the wine was unforgettable.

I was drinking wine by the glass in order to savor at least two to three different domaines, wine estates, and ordering blindly, I struck “gold” with the first glass. A Volnay! Most Burgundy red wines, all are made from the Pinot Noir grape except the reds from the Beaujolais area,  can be described as “masculine”, full bodied, earthy, mushroomy and truffley, to name a few. If this “masculine” characteristic is accepted then Volnay can be described as “feminine.” It is more aromatic, lighter in color and body, with less tannin and generally more elegant than powerful. L’Élégance Naturelle. That’s why the word elegance is more often than not used when you read a description of Volnay.

The village of Gevrey-Chambertin, about 10 minutes drive from our hotel, in the Cote de Nuits where world famous Grand Cru reds of Burgundy are made. Just after 6 pm with the sky a golden hue, the old part of the village, drenched in wine merchant shops, was totally devoid of people. We were the only ones walking the empty ancient streets.  
From the initial fruity bouquets of orchards and the first taste of plum and cherry on the palate until the last lingering dusty traces this wine purred WOW! I have never tasted a wine that is so intensely fruity, yet still oaky, earthy and velvety smooth all at the same time. I can clearly understand why so many feminine adjectives are usually attributed to a Volnay. Nor was it cheap. Few Volnays usually is. My quarter of a glass was 16.  That is 5 a generous sip. Since my return home I have search the Internet to find a decent Volnay at a reasonably modest price, but with no luck. No liquor store in Kentucky even stocks it and because of Kentucky’s archaic liquor laws most Internet stores won’t ship it. That is now the few stores in the US that even stock the wine. The rarity of Volnays contributes to the high price. Rare because it is only produced from around the village of Volnay and five or so other domaines in Santenots in the Meursault district south of Beaune. If I knew then what I know now I should have had it shipped to me from a wine merchant in Beaune when we when there 2 days later. They don't care about Kentucky's archaic laws.

Getting to Burgundy was only a fraction of the fun we would experience there. Outstandingly good food, historic architecture and excellent wine and friendly people would be the norm in Burgundy.

Somewhere near Vougeot.

No comments: