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Burgundy’s true colours: exploring the vineyards

No longer purely the preserve of wine aficionados, our writer gets a taste of Burgundy’s secrets

They come from all over the world to worship at an arched gate set within ancient golden stone walls which stretch up a hill. This is no church, but it’s not too strong to call their journey a pilgrimage.

For wine aficionados the grands crus of Burgundy are practically a religion, and for many, Le Montrachet, most famous of all the region’s vineyards, holds the significance of a place of worship.

Yet despite the cameras snapping away, few of these wine lovers dare to step through the gate and into the hallowed vines, except our own little group. Not just gazing and worshipping but tasting some of the world’s finest white wine, as grape aficionado Dennis Sherman sets a bottle of Chassagne-Montrachet on a wall and pours us an ever-so-extravagant little drop.

This is Dennis’s shtick — demystifying Burgundy, getting in where others fear to tread and giving his guests a great time, as well as an education in what to see and drink in Burgundy.

For this lovely part of France, less than two hours south of Paris, is rich in history, not least Jewish history; the capital is Dijon, which has retained a flourishing community, despite an initial expulsion in 1394 and a further purge during the Second World War.

The great joy of this region is the succession of charming villages bearing the names of great wines — Gevrey Chambertin, Nuits-Saint-Georges, Vosne-Romanee — and the de facto capital of Burgundy for wine lovers, the gorgeous and historic little town of Beaune.

It’s dominated by the spectacular mosaic-roofed Hotel-Dieu, a medieval hospital which still serves as a pretty posh old age home for locals, and whose annual auction of local wines — including its own Hospices de Beaune production — is the biggest date in the Burgundy calendar.

It’s near Beaune that Dennis and his wife Ellie have restored a lovely manor house where they organise their Burgundy trips in a house party setting.

Until this year, it was a treat reserved for Americans prepared to rent the whole six-bedroomed house, but is now available on selected dates to anyone looking for a long weekend.

Domaine de Cromey is pretty well perfect — spacious, beamed suites in which to sleep, a fabulous formal dining-room dominated by an ancient wine press in which to feast, a squashy-sofa’d lounge in which to loll with digestifs after dinner and an outdoor pool and terrace set in a beautiful park.

Ellie is a professional chef and cookbook author, and her Mediterranean-inspired cooking features plenty of fish and organic fruit, herbs and vegetables from her own kitchen garden, the perfect antidote to the rich, meat-heavy cuisine of the region’s indigenous kitchens.

The observant can be catered for, while for others there is the opportunity to lunch on local specialities in village restaurants.

With great rail links whisking you to Le Creusot in the heart of the region, the couple can also provide vehicles and a British driver-guide, while Dennis offers introductions to vignerons who don’t normally open their cellar doors to visitors.

His tutored tastings both in cellar and vineyard offer the most convivial education possible in the difference between the grands crus grown at the top of the hill and the less pricy village appellations lower down the slope.

We made the most of it, packing our schedule so we didn’t miss the food market at Beaune or a tour of the amazing Hotel-Dieu, whose red-curtained hospital beds are still preserved.

There was also Autun to visit, a historic town with great Roman ruins recalling the era when it, too, had a Jewish presence.

Over one of many glasses of fine Burgundy, we were told of the valiant efforts to free France hatched in the wild hills of the Morvan an hour or so away; the region’s rather far-flung Resistance Museum at Saint-Brisson is certainly worth visiting too if time permits.

A trip along the route des vins of the Cotes de Nuits, home of the famous Nuits-Saint-Georges appellation, can easily be combined with a trawl of beautiful Dijon whose stunning architecture includes the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy (where the Musee des Beaux-Arts houses a fabulous art collection), the Hotel de Vogue and La Maison des Cariatides, where it’s possible to dine in splendour.

But many never get beyond the charming old streets and wonderful covered market of Les Halles, where visitors inevitably shop for picturesque jars of local mustard, the city’s most famous product (the Maille factory boutique also fields exotic flavours).

While the city’s first wave of Jewish life was extinguished by the 14th century expulsions, a modern community was founded by emigrants from Alsace in the wake of the French Revolution. They established a fine 19th century synagogue, its architecture inspired by Paris’s Sacre Coeur, which stands near the ghetto of mediaeval times.

Opposite, a street is named for Elie Cyper, a young rabbi who was also a member of the Resistance and perished at the hands of the Nazis.

Thanks to a sympathetic city official who hid the Torah scrolls and other Judaica, the synagogue was saved from destruction when the occupiers were persuaded it had use as a warehouse and stable.

Today’s community of around 1,000, presided over by a Sephardic rabbi who has reached out to Dijon’s Ashkenazis, has been swelled by a later influx of emigrants from North Africa.

Contemporary Jewish life is sufficiently vibrant in the city to support not only a kosher butcher, but kosher baguettes and salads at the local Monoprix.

However the real charm of eating out is Burgundy’s wine villages, each with a few authentic little restaurants serving regional dishes including gougeres, the cheese puffs which precede every meal, and oeufs en meurette — eggs coddled in a red wine sauce.

Although many are set under atmospheric beams, local winemakers lunch at brightly contemporary Chez Guy in Gevrey Chambertin, while multi-Michelin-starred Lameloise is one of France’s finest restaurants.

For me, the restaurant will always be the place where I first fell in love with Burgundy — many impecunious years ago, another generous sommelier shared his secrets of enjoying this wonderful wine, including the fact it doesn’t always come with an eye-watering price tag.

And like those eager pilgrims by the vineyard, I’m certain I’ll be back.

 

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