A hedonist's guide to wine country
By day three in French wine country, I'm feeling like an extra in the classic 1970s film La Grande Bouffe, in which Marcello Mastroianni and company retire to a country villa to gorge themselves to death. It's impossible to know what tips me over the edge. Is it the risotto of frog's legs and snails at the Michelin-starred Hostellerie de Levernois? Or perhaps the parliament of cheeses I hoover at the end of that six-course degustation?
Possibly it's the 12-hour braised beef cheek at Chez Guy in Gevrey-Chambertin on an indulgent afternoon spent sipping various vintages at the Duchess of Magenta's 12th-century Abbey de Morgeot, or the morning visit to Dijon's Maille shop to sample a dozen mustards in such diabolical blends as onions and wild thyme, pistachio and orange and - forgive me - chocolate.
Yes, it's probably the chocolate mustard that causes me to wake in gastronomic agony in the dead of night and rue my mistake. Like so many visitors to Burgundy and Bordeaux, I'd forgotten the golden rule: take your time, savour, enjoy. The Romans first planted vines here in the 2nd century, the French have been steadily civilising these landscapes ever since and the delights these areas offer will be here to appreciate for generations to come.
These two wine regions are as distinct as chalk and cheese (or chalk and clay, to aptly use a viticultural analogy).
Burgundy is insular, so steeped in monastic winemaking rituals that visitors can struggle to penetrate its maze of modest stone-walled plots. Bordeaux, by contrast, flaunts its flamboyance in dazzling chateaux and vineyards that sprawl extravagantly either side of the Gironde estuary.
The most striking resemblance between the two is their winemakers' unanimous - and barely concealed - excitement about the 2009 vintage, which makes this an excellent year to visit and sample some very special French wine and food. In moderation, naturally.
To the outsider, Burgundy (strictly Bourgogne - pronounced Boor-gonye) can seem a cloistered place of secretive winemakers and closed doors. It is a land steeped in tradition - where, for example, the ancient Clos de Tart vineyard of Morey-Saint- Denis has stood, undisturbed and undivided, since 1140. Where a lime tree said to be planted during the reign of Henry VIII still flourishes in the village of Chambolle-Musigny and where wine tourism as we know it is still frowned upon, considered to be too crassly commercial.
Entree to Burgundy's inner circle of elite winemakers is usually by introduction only and for that you'll need a well-connected guide. The affable Nicolas Guidard from Authentica Tours provides a primer on Burgundy wines and tastings at private estates such as the 18th-century Domaine Quivy at Gevrey-Chambertin (he has his own key). A master of terroir and viticulture, Cristina Otel and her partner, Australian winemaker Christian Knott, offer a passionate interpretation of the region through their Taste Burgundy "boutique" tours (tasteburgundy.com).
After picnicking in church grounds overlooking Corton Hill, the largest grand cru site on the route, Otel might arrange a visit to an artisanal winemaker such as Thierry Violot Guillemard in the village of Pommard to taste his Premier Cru Epenots beneath the watchful eye of the patron saint of winemakers, St Vincent. Alternatively, she can lead you on a cycling tour - arguably the best way to see the countryside - from Meursault to Puligny-Montrachet, passing fabled white-wine parcels such as Clos de la Garenne, Les Folatieres and Les Pucelles, before pausing for a glass of Rully Les Cailloux 2001 in front of the weathered stone cross of Montrachet.
If you prefer to make your own way through the vine-striped hills and stone villages of Burgundy, it is possible. Take the TGV from Paris to the regional capital, Dijon (90-minute journey; raileurope.com.au), hire a car and point it towards the Route des Grands Crus, which bisects 32 of the 33 grands crus vineyards of Burgundy. Despite its majestic title and superlative tenants, the route is tiny, less than 40 kilometres, and the vineyards utterly unassuming. Most are small, immaculate plots with a simple sign, perhaps a low dry-stone wall and a crucifix. (On the strength of its reputation, you'd think Romanee-Conti, perhaps the most famous domaine in the world, was an extravagant operation but the plot measures just one hectare and produces only 4500 bottles a year.)
The logical starting point for any visit is Clos de Vougeot, a 50-hectare walled vineyard (or clos) established by Cistercian monks in the 11th century. Its imposing Renaissance chateau is open to the public, entry €3.90 ($5.50); the four giant 12-tonne presses provide a tangible link to the monks who first identified Burgundy's best vineyards in 1640. Other wineries open to the public include Abbaye de Morgeot in Chassagne-Montrachet, owned by the improbably named Duchess of Magenta, where afternoon tours run between April and October (abbayedemorgeot.com). Domaine Chandon de Briailles, in the pretty village of Savigny-les- Beaune, is a 16th-century mansion that was built in the style of Versailles (they shared the same architect) and welcomes visitors to its gardens and wine shop (chandondebriailles.com). At neighbouring Chateau de Savigny-les- Beaune, the wines are overshadowed by owner Michel Pont's extraordinary collections of 250 prestige cars and 80 warplanes (chateausavigny.com). The 300-year-old Chateau de Pommard is the most commercial of Burgundy's wineries, with a restaurant, regular hour-long tours through the cellars and grounds (that costs a whopping €18) and even a gallery that exhibits minor works for sale by famous artists - last year it was Dali, this year Picasso (chateaudepommard.com).
As a base for your assault on Burgundy, you could stay in Dijon, a likeable mediaeval- Renaissance city where wine, food and mustard (see box) seem to drive the local economy, but Beaune is more bucolic and closer to the heart of Burgundy winemaking. In this pleasantly walkable city you'll find the Hospices de Beaune, an ancient hospital for the poor that, in typical Burgundy style, hides its riches behind an austere facade. Beaune is also home to fine restaurants such as the Michelin-starred Le Benaton (lebenaton.com) and Loiseau des Vignes (bernard-loiseau.com), where more than 70 premium wines are available by the glass, costing from €3 to €45. Another good spot to acquaint yourself with local wines - and often local winegrowers - is the Caveau de Puligny- Montrachet in the village of the same name (1 Rue Poiseul), where owner Julien Wallerand showcases the liquid labours of more than 70 local producers.
Ten minutes from Beaune, L'Hostellerie de Levernois is a superb hotel of 22 rooms and four suites on a 5.5-hectare 18th-century estate run by the former chief executive of Relais & Chateaux, Jean-Louis Bottigliero, and his wife, Susanne (levernois.com). Set in arcadian grounds beside the Bouzaise River, it has an allday bistro and a one-star restaurant with a mindblowing menu. The green risotto of frog's legs and Burgundy snails is amazingly good and the cheese arrives on a two-storey trolley with its own waiter - a sort of cheese sommelier - to make the introductions. Those who'd rather spend money on dining than sleeping can stay at Levernois's adjoining two-star hotel for a bargain €70.
When the vines begin to strobe before your eyes, take a break at the moated Chateau de Cormatin between Tournus and Cluny (chateaudecormatin.com). Three friends bought this rundown 17th-century castle 30 years ago and restored its Louis XIII apartments and Renaissance garden.
Just east of Cormatin, the mediaeval village of Brancion is also privately owned and has accommodation, a cafe and wonderful views over the Burgundy countryside (brancion.fr). Further south, Cluny Abbey was the largest church in the Christian world until the construction of the Vatican (cluny.monuments-nationaux.fr). Only a fraction of it remains but clever new "augmented reality screens" let visitors stand amid the remains and view a 360-degree virtual image of how the abbey once looked.
A decade ago, a visit to Bordeaux - the city and the wine region - was not the thing of wonder it is today. After an extreme makeover under mayor Alain Juppe (the former French prime minister), Bordeaux was admitted to UNESCO's World Heritage Register in 2007 and now shines golden beside the Garonne River. In the same 10-year period, the grand winemaking chateaux adorning the countryside started opening their doors to guests; now all but the most elite producers happily receive visitors.
Unlike Burgundy, with its limited winetourism options, here the issue is whittling down the 8000-plus chateaux to a manageable itinerary. It's wise to focus on a particular region: the flat green fields of the Medoc for Bordeaux's star wines, the forest-fringed Graves region for reds and whites of equal excellence; or the Renaissance charm of St Emilion, home of the legendary Petrus.
Or simply follow the crowds along the prosaicsounding D2, which traces the left bank of the Gironde estuary, known as the Route des Chateaux of Bordeaux. It passes the likes of Chateau Palmer (a favourite of American wine guru Robert Parker) and the elite houses of Latour, Mouton Rothschild and Margaux.
Visitors can tour and taste at most of the region's chateaux - with the exception of the exclusive premier grands crus - but need to book well in advance. The noble Chateau Lafite Rothschild, for example, demands bookings at least a fortnight in advance (on firstname.lastname@example.org) for entry to its 120-hectare estate, the largest in the Medoc. Chateau Prieure-Lichine combines a pretty stone manor, friendly wine tastings and a shop selling all things wine-related (tastings daily except Sunday, €6, email@example.com). Chateau Pape-Clement was farmed by the winegrowing Pope Clement in the 14th century (guided tours and tastings, firstname.lastname@example.org@pape-clement.com), while Chateau Suduiraut in the Graves region, in the shadow of Chateau d'Yquem, is renowned for sophisticated sauternes and its 10-hectare grounds designed by Versailles gardener Andre Le Notre.
Two pioneering wine-tourism properties, one in Medoc and the other in Graves, deserve extra time. The Cazes family, owner of Chateau Lynch-Bages, operates a small empire of thriving vineyards, the Relais & Chateaux hotel Cordeillan-Bages and a high-end tour company, bordeauxsaveurs.com, with access to premier Bordeaux chateaux such as Margaux, Cheval Blanc and Mouton-Rothschild. (A more affordable option is the Bordeaux Tourist Office, which runs half- and full-day tours to Bordeaux's main wine regions; see bordeaux-tourisme.com.)
The family also owns the entire village of Bages, with its bakery, butcher, wine shop and school (villagedebages.com). Lynch Bages is open daily by appointment (email in English to email@example.com); tasting tours cost €8. There's an Australian connection here, too: the Cazes family is joint owner - with former Petaluma winemaker Brian Croser and champagne house Bollinger - of the Whalebone Vineyard north of Coonawarra in South Australia.
In the Graves region, Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte is a grand vineyard and open-air art gallery that's also home to Les Sources de Caudalie spa, a 49-room hotel overlooking an artificial lake and a restaurant amid the vines, ideal for whiling away an afternoon (smith-haut-lafitte.com).
Great wine begets great food. The pleasure lies in "discovering" memorable restaurants such as Le St Julien in Saint Julien Beychevelle (lesaint-julien.fr), where Medoc native Claude Broussard creates traditional dishes in a converted 19th-century bakery amid the vines, or Cafe Lavinal at Bages with regional cuisine such as tricandilles, or pig tripe - far more delicious than they sound.
Bordeaux's finest dining is at the sumptuous Le Pressoir, where Pascal Nibaudeau earned his first Michelin star barely a year after opening within the city's most desirable hotel accommodation, The Regent Grand (theregentbordeaux.com). His signature dish is lobster prepared in its own juices - a silver pressoir is brought to the table to crush the head of the lobster and distil its rich green liquor into a delectable sauce. I also enjoy La Robe, a modern bistro on the Quai Louis XV, where chef Alain Moretti serves scallops with serrano ham and the cellar is stocked exclusively by women winemakers (la-robe.fr).
And if you've blown all your cash on cases of Bordeaux's best, follow the locals to Galeries Lafayette (11-19 Rue Sainte-Catherine), where the plat du jour is always good and costs less than €10.