Monday, November 10, 2014

Burgundy: Rugged and Refined

The next morning after another sumptuous breakfast at the Chateau de Gilly our first stop was at one of Burgundy’s most famous and celebrated grand cru wine estates before we went to Beaune, wine capital of the Côte D’Or. The afternoon was left open for some castle hunting. After the previous day’s extensive walking in marvelous Dijon we promised ourselves to take it a bit slower today. After all, we are on vacation.

 Château du Clos de Vougeot

A stone’s throw away from our hotel was one of the most historic and celebrated Burgundian wine estates, the Château du Clos de Vougeot. In the year 1089 an abbot, Robert of Molesme, left his Cluniac monastery to start the Abbey of Citeaux, south of Dijon. At first, farming and planting of grapes were on only a few small patches of land donated to the Abbey. After 1108 when Stephen Harding became the 3rd Abbot of Citeaux, he acquired Clos Vougeot and several other pieces of undeveloped land. Over the next 250 years, through skillful diplomacy, the Abbey would continue to purchase more parcels of adjoining land until it eventually own a large stretch of land between Echézeaux and Musigny. From the earliest time they enclosed the land with stone walls, hence the word clos, meaning closed or enclosed in French. Here the austere-living monks perfected winemaking. Today the domaine, wine estate, is the largest enclosed vineyard in Burgundy and measure 50 hectares and is partitioned into many small lots, owned by 80 different owners. Some of Burgundy’s most famous labels own a lot or two of the chateau’s appellation.

M exploring the old cellar. The floor is cleverly contoured to make it easy to roll wine barrels in and out of the cellar.
After 700 years the monks were kicked of the land during the French Revolution and the state annexed the chateau. It was sold and resold through the 1800’s and in 1944 the last private owner sold it to the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, directly translated, the Brotherhood of the Knights of the Wine-Tasting Cup, an exclusive club of wine lovers, but whose main objectives are to promotes Burgundy wine, cuisine and to some extent, Burgundian culture. They are basically a tourist office. A very exclusive one that is, which is only opened to selective members.  The Brotherhood does not farm any of the land nor does it sell any wine. Each of the 80 owners makes and sells their own wine.  

 The vat room at Chateau du Clos de Vougeot

The place is a step back in time in the art of wine-making. With an English guidebook in hand we tour the premises by ourselves. Although the cellar and vat house are from the 12th century, the chateau was added much later in 1551 by Dom Jean Loisier, the 48th abbot of Citeaux. The small museum and huge old wine presses and vats were impressive and the old cellar is today used for gala banquets, weddings and business seminars. In one corner of the complex is a kitchen and we had a tiny glimpse of white capped chefs stirring and cooking in large copper pots. After about an hour or so and some shopping in the chateau’s visitor center we headed towards Beaune.

I was not that impressed with Beaune. It doesn’t have the charm of Dijon. On the other hand, it would be unfair of me to judge it harshly after only seeing a small part of the town. We entered this medieval city from the north via the Porta St. Nicolas and lazily made our way towards the Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune, a hospice found in 1443 and our main attraction in Beaune. In a square nearby the hospice we came across a daily market and M bought a lovely Provençal yellow tablecloth. 

We spent about an hour or more in the Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune. Although interesting, I think M enjoyed the hospice and its history far more than I did.

Our walking tour continued to the Collegiale Basilica of Notre-Dame de Beaune. Started in the middle of the 1100’s and completed in the early part of the 1200’s this Romanesque church has some of the cleanest, clearest and most magnificent stained glass windows I have seen in recent years. Especially rare was the grey and yellow colors of some of the windows.  The current windows are Gothic. The original Romanesque windows were replaced after a fire in 1272.
Beaune's Notre-Dame Basilica

By mid-afternoon we left Beaune and drove towards Chalon-sur-Saône, southwards through the famous Pommard wine region. We skirted the villages of Pommard, Volnay and Meursault, drove through the tiny hamlet of Chagny until we reached the Chateau de Germolles. Although not a ruin, it was not in a condition what we came to expect from French castles. When we arrived at Germolles we thought it was nothing more than a ruin. From the outside it certainly looked that way. We started to “trespass” and walked around on the property, looking for an entrance or an office, found none, but then a gentleman came from one of the out buildings and asks if we wanted a tour. We said we would like to but it seemed the place was locked up for the winter like most of Burgundy’s castles.
 Chateau de Germolles

It turned out the gentleman was one of the castle’s current owners and the one staying on the property and he then personally took us on a tour through various rooms of the castle, a chapel that was being restored and the empty wine cellar. He gave us the whole history of the place since it was mostly rebuilt under the guidance of Margaret III of Flanders, who, interestingly enough, was the wife of two different 14th century dukes of Burgundy. She was first married to Philip of Rouvres who was the Duke of Burgundy from 1350 to 1361. In 1369 she married her first husband’s step-brother, Philip the Bold, who ruled Burgundy from 1363 to 1404.

Chateau de Germolles

The owner, very well informed on historical matter, particularly  about the castle’s and Burgundy’s and French history in general, told us how his family acquired the castle 100 years after the French Revolution. Now five generations later it is still in the family's possession albeit in a semi rundown condition. Based on what he told us how long they have been restoring the place my guess is it will take several more generations to complete the restoration, except if they win a lottery soon. But it was interesting to get a personal tour and perspective and being able to ask questions you don’t usually get to ask when visiting castles. 

Nevertheless, dump or not (my view only), the Chateau de Germolles is a rare “beauty.” There are only two preserved residences left in Burgundy that dates from the 14th Century and belonged to Philip the Bold, a portion of the Palace of the Dukes in Dijon and the Chateau de Germolles, of which Germolles is quite well preserved.

The evening’s dinner at Le Clos de la Vouge in Vougeot was a case of going to food heaven and back. It was no doubt one of the best meals we have had in France. We chose a five course meal on our last evening in Burgundy and the star of the evening’s meal was M's hors d’oeuvres, a cheese and mustard quiche, which was absolutely magnifique. The best way to describe it is to say it was somewhat like a quiche Lorraine, but minus the ham, slightly darker yellow in color, much sharper in taste and softer in texture. (Upon our return to the US I have search the internet inside out and upside down for a similar recipe and so far found none. It must have been a unique creation from the resident chef. In any case, I know, even if I find a recipe I can probably never replicate it because the specific bourguignon cheese will not be available in my tiny village.)  M had beouf bourguignon and I poulet supreme, chicken in a cream sauce, for our plat principal, main course. A splendid cheese plate and dessert of poached pears in a red wine reduction sauce rounded off a special foody evening. Sometimes it seemed we spent all our time “rolling” from one fabulous meal to the next.

Beaune Street Scene

Too soon our time in Burgundy came to an end. Burgundy is rugged in country and architecture, refined in cuisine and wine, with people friendly in nature. I loved our time there. On the Thursday morning after breakfast we headed northwest to the Île-de-France region with a stopover at Chateau Fontainebleau, the playground of so many kings of France before we continued to our destination for the next two nights at Chateau D'esclimont.

After 3 days in Burgundy we took to the hills again, into the Burgundian hinterland, north towards Paris. But not before a last look back through the hazy morning sky at the Cote d’Or.
Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune

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