Spiritual Tales Meet World-Class Wines On A Drive Through France's Verdant Heart
National Geographic Traveller (UK)|November 2021
Pilgrims and Parisians alike know the treasures of Burgundy, whose gleaming ecclesiastical architecture, family-run chateaux hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants punctuate a patchwork of world-class vineyards south east of the French capital. While many travellers solely focus on the Côte d’Or wineries, a leisurely road trip along the Route Nationale 6 reveals the sensory — and spiritual — draws of the wider region
Nina Caplan

Visiting Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, the ‘Golden Slope’ of legendary vineyards, is easy.

Dijon, the city at the heart of the area, is just 90 minutes by train from Paris. Maybe that’s why so few wine-lovers choose to drive down from the capital. Which is a shame, because Burgundy, with all its scenic, sensory charms begins a long way north of that celebrated ridge — and the road is paved with stories.

The monks who first tended Burgundy’s vines were focused not on the pleasures of the table but on the immortality of the soul. But if sacramental wine was to become the blood of Christ during mass, why not make it transcendentally delicious? Up until Catholic property was seized during the 1789 French Revolution, the landscape was moulded in the image of the church; graceful chapels, magnificent altarpieces and wellmarked pilgrimage routes still characterise the region. But later, in the 20th century, a different kind of pilgrimage became popular: moneyed Parisians drove south, along the Route Nationale 6, in search of sunshine. Their desire to eat and sleep well on the way was eagerly seized on by Michelin, the tyre-seller-cum-guidebook-creator, whose restaurant guide would become the arbiter of gastronomic excellence.

I’m as guilty as the next modern-day winelover: for years, I’ve focused my Burgundy visits only on the famous stretch below Dijon, where vines unfurl up the hillsides as if they, like those long-dead abbots, hoped to reach Heaven. This time is different. I’m not a believer, nor tempted by monastic life, but I do admire dedication, be that to Burgundy’s famously challenging, varied soils or to higher things. And I suspect that to really appreciate the region’s wines, I need to emulate the monks — and the early roadtrippers, too. It’s time to take things slow. To savour Burgundy’s twin preoccupations, writ large across the land: dinner and eternal life.

Just two hours south of Paris, I reach northern Burgundy and an area named for the river I’m seeking: the Yonne. Locally, the Yonne is famous for cherries — the darkest, sweetest ones I’ve ever tasted. They appear in May, are briefly everywhere — grocery stores, markets, roadside stalls — then disappear, like spring itself. But the wider world knows this region better for Chablis, a very particular austere, flinty yet delicious style of Chardonnay that goes beautifully with oysters, among other things. At dinner in La Côte Saint Jacques & Spa (a Relais & Châteaux hotel in the small town of Joigny that the Lorain family have run since 1945), sommelier Thomas Noble serves a 2018 Chablis by a small producer, Thomas Pico, of Domaine Pattes Loup. Like many in Burgundy, Thomas has abandoned the easy route of spraying chemicals, he tells me, despite the work and risk that organic agriculture involves due to the inconstant northern temperatures. The result is a wine that tastes of lemon and cream, like syllabub without the sweetness, and is an unlikely but perfect match for the richness of the foie gras placed in front of me.

Pleasures of the flesh may take precedence, here, over the spirit, but religion still manage to insinuate itself. I arrived late for dinner, not because I’ve adopted a leisurely pace of travel but because my GPS misdirects me away from the river — where the hotel stands on one bank, with a helipad on the other — and up the vine-covered hill beyond. This, too, is the Côte Saint Jacques: the hotel was named for the slope, christened long ago by local monks for Saint James, the apostle in whose honour pilgrims walk to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, sometimes passing this way.

Later in the bar, dessert still lingering on my tongue, I pull down from a shelf a copy of the 1986 Gault & Millau guide and open it to the restaurant’s entry: 35 years ago, Michel Lorain is congratulated on having lured his son, Jean-Michel, into the family business, and is feted as one of France’s four top chefs of the year. Today, Jean-Michel is himself in the process of passing the reins — in this case, to a talented nephew, Alexandre Bondoux. We chat briefly before dinner but he’s subdued: Michel died, aged 87, this summer. “He still had all his faculties and never stopped coming into the kitchen every day, to check that everything was being done right,” Magali Rostan, the property’s marketing manager, says sombrely. Jean-Michel, too, still comes in daily. This place, like the vineyards, is a life’s work — and more: a giftfrom parents to children, each generation’s role that of caretaker. Despite his sadness, Jean-Michel makes clear that he’s happy to be here, honouring his father’s legacy. And when, next day, I tell him how much I enjoyed my dinner, his face lights up.

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