There have been occasions when glimpses of a place, from listening to someone speak of them, or in a magazine, a movie, or even a television program, have caused me to tuck the name securely away in memory, to be retrieved later for the impetus to go. Rick Steves was the television traveler who had my attention with his segment about Burgundy. And the name “Beaune” was the one that stuck.
Flash forward several years. I had, by then, taken up walking through countryside along long-distance paths and waterways. Mostly in England, but also in France where I’d walked for a week in the Loire Valley. Deciding another walk in France might be just the thing and having abandoned hills, for the most part, for more level terrain, I decided on Burgundy and the towpath of the Burgundy Canal, a story for another time. Plotting my course, I was thrilled to note that Beaune was not far off the canal and I committed myself to finally seeing this place that had fixed itself firmly in my imagination.
Vineyards surround Beaune and are it’s reason for being. I didn’t have a car, had just walked for a week so the thought of touring on a bicycle did not, at that moment, appeal. But what would a trip to Burgundy be without more intimate contact with the grape than that seen from a distance or from a train. Not usually one for tours, I found myself in the pleasant Beaune Tourist Office on the Boulevard Perpreuil, behind huge double wooden doors, in a building in line with the ancient wall that still surrounds much of the medieval center of this most beautiful town. On offer, among many other things, were excursions by Land Rover into the vineyards, followed by a sampling of the famous product of the region. The price was surprisingly modest, and there was one more space available, with 3 other English-speaking souls, on a tour later that day. It seemed the perfect opportunity and so it was.
Our small group convened in front of the tourist office a couple of hours later and we set off in the open-sided vehicle, perfect for the purpose. We headed off on the Route de Beaune and into the hills west of town, where villages have been scattered among the vineyards since the Middle Ages and, from my vantage point in the front passenger seat, I was introduced to the grapes that produce some of the finest wines on the planet.
We pulled off a narrow lane and parked. Our guide was a man of middle years who spoke impeccable English and, from his knowledge of the subject at hand and his wiry build, I assumed had been engaged in the art about which he spoke all his life. As we walked among the grapes, he explained concepts of which I knew nothing, such as “terroir”, the variations in soil and weather that vary from plot to plot and give the wine of each it’s distinctive character. And “appellation”, the name by which, by law, a wine may be called, based on it’s geographical origin.
We drove on higher into the hills and as we passed walled vineyards, our attention was directed to the names built into the stones that identified individual centuries-old fields, well known to wine connoisseurs. When we reached a village at the top of the ridge we stopped to survey the countryside below and learned that the hillside ground was considered the best for the grapes, although the cultivated land extended into the flat valley of the SaÔne.
From the high ground, we drove down to the village of Pommard, not far from from Beaune, and parked in the center. We walked across the main intersection, such as it was, then around a corner and entered the establishment of Jean-Louis Moissenet-Bonnard who would be our guide to the real meaning of wine, nose and taste. Leaving the world of intellect behind, but informed by it, we passed through the cellar, past barrels and piles of bottles, into the welcoming atmosphere of the tasting room, where our education continued in a most pleasant manner.
The six of us clearly enjoyed one another's company, as well as the reason we were there, and the time passed quickly. After the wines were tasted, photos taken, wine bought and thanks given, we went out into the May sunshine. On our walk back to the car, I took pictures of the village center and, in particular, noted the small 2 star Hotel du Pont to which I hope to return one day to continue my education.
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