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Bourgogne (Burgundy)

Bourgogne

Situated in the Easterly part of France, Burgundy took its name from a Germanic people who moved here in the early Middle Ages. It comprises most of the former Duchy of Burgundy whose powerful dukes controlled a large area of this part France.

Burgundy’s climate and terrain make it one of the main wine producers in France. Not such a large scale producer as the Bordeaux area it is nevertheless famous for some of the best quality and well-known wines in the world with prices to match. Known generally as ‘Bordeaux’, the wine produced here dates back for about two centuries. The main wine growing region is actually quite limited in size and is centred around a group of small villages, on a narrow strip of the Rhône Valley.

Both dry red and white wines are made from the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grape growing on eastern facing slopes. The climate is ‘continental’ in type and consists of hot summers and very cold winters. Harvest time weather can vary widely which leads to inconsistencies in the quality of the crop.

The very best wines, known as ‘grand cru’, come from grapes grown on the upper slopes of the Cote- d’Or where they get the most sun. Chambertin, known as the King of Wines’ was the preferred drink of Napoleon.

The next best or ‘Premier Cru’ comes from lower slopes and the most affordable ‘Village’ category from more level vineyards close to the villages themselves. The majority of red Grand Cru wines come from the Cote de Nuit and all the white wines of this type from the Cote de Beaune. This is because of the particular soil types or ‘terroir’ which is considered of vital importance to wine producing in this area.

Further south of the region is Maconnais where you can find some good but less expensive wines and below that is Beaujolais with its more fruity red, made from the gamay grape.

For those interested in purchasing these wines, there are various ways to experience them before buying. Tasting cellars are to be found in the major centres such as Beaune, Chablis and Macon. However, these are not always the cheapest places to buy wine. It is still an amazing experience to gaze along the shelves at some of the more pricey bottles wondering which one you would buy if you could afford it. I think I would be tempted to take it to the nearest bench with a couple of glasses rather than risk transporting it any distance!

There are also organised wine-tasting tours starting in Dijon which cover a number of producers in a fairly short time.

One of the most enjoyable ways to explore is by car. You can follow the Route de Grands Crus to see the main chateaux such as Pommard and Meursault, although visiting such places may not always be that easy.

There are also some producers who sell direct to the public. Don’t be surprised when dealing with smaller outlets to find yourself being taken down into ancient cellars! This can also happen in small towns such as Gevrey-Chambertin.

Not surprisingly, many festivals held in Burgundy have a connection to wine production. Every January, the Festival of St Vincent, the patron saint of wine growers, is celebrated in one of the villages. The streets are decorated (in an unseasonal fashion) with flowers and greenery made out of paper by local women.

The Beaune Wine Auction – Les Trois Glorieuses, is held over three days in November. Wine growers and sellers meet together to celebrate their trade and the large numbers of visitors are able to taste over a hundred different wines!

As wall as its wine associations, Burgundy is also famous for its many beautiful Romanesque abbeys and churches. Although now only a fraction of its original size, the L’Abbaye de Cluny was obviously an amazing sight when it was built in the later part of the 11th century. Visitors can now get an idea of its proportions through the use of computer graphics.

The better restored L’Abbaye de Fontenay, originally a Cistercian monastery, is now a World Heritage Site. Its beautifully lit cloisters and chapter house were used as the setting for the film ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’.

The Basilique Sainte Madeleine, to be found in the charming medieval town of Vezelay, is famous for the beautifully carved interior and the flying buttresses which support its structure. Concerts take place there on a regular basis and a music festival is held at the end of August.

Of course, to go with all the lovely wines, you need good food and there are many fantastic Burgundian dishes. Rich meat casserole dishes such as coq au vin and beef bourguignon are very well known in this country. You will probably have tasted the rich and creamy cheese called Epoisses which is made from cows’ milk and washed in marc de Bourgogne to give the characteristic colour. Escargots are also a favourite speciality of the region.

Because of its reliance on all types of meat cooked in red wine, the cuisine tends to be rather on the heavy side with some very strong flavours. This is somewhat offset by the wide use of berries, particularly blackcurrants, to add sharpness. Not to forget the use of the famous Dijon mustard.

The region’s capital, Dijon is the centre of its gastronomy and you will find a plethora of good restaurants. The city also holds an annual food fair which attracts a large number of visitors and acts as a show case for the produce of this quintessential French cuisine.

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