It began with a gift. Back in the late 1990s James gifted me a wine appreciation course for Christmas, prompted by my budding interest in food and wine. Good fortune saw that the course was run by Sharon Wild, then as now a very enthusiastic wine educator. That educational experience was exciting and illuminating, and as Sharon Wild has a particular passion for the wines of the world (not just from Australia) it opened my mind to endless possibilities. It has inspired a lifelong obsession for great food, wine and restaurants, and led me to dozens of wine regions around Australia, New Zealand and France.
Kristen shares this obsession, and in fact it was our common interest in food, wine and travel that saw us take our first holiday together just a few weeks after meeting each other. In late 2009 we hopped in the car and spent more than a week touring some of the great regional restaurants and wine regions of South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales, and we came back from it knowing we would certainly do more touring of that kind!
So when we decided to return to Graepel in northern Germany via France, we made sure we would see Burgundy on the way. I didn’t get to visit this famous region in 2003 when I first went to France, and have long harboured a desire to see it. I’ve savoured a few wonderful Burgundian wines over the years, both red and white, but only at restaurants in Australia and only with the advice of a sommelier. I’ve always thought that learning about the intricacies of Burgundy (and it’s a very complex field for a relatively small area!) would best be started, at least, with a first-hand appreciation of its landscape. We ended up staying at a campsite in Merseault, a town known for its chardonnays for centuries, and we both agree that it was the most-special place we pitched the caravan. Throw in superb wines and excellent local foods, and for me our four days in Merseault are equal with Plitvice Lakes, Bled and our time in Aups as the best stops during our entire two months on the road.
The campsite, La Grappe d’Or, is so perfectly situated that it must be one of the best places to stay in Burgundy – full stop. Located about a kilometre north-west of the village of Merseault, it is on a slight hill with all the pitches terraced so that each has at least a partial view of the vineyards between the campsite and the town. Ours was a particularly special view, with a wide expanse of vineyards visible and the beautiful roofline of the town clear in the distance. It is a great example of how camping can sometimes offer the best travel experiences, regardless of price! The pitch itself was very large and spacious, and we spent plenty of time at our outdoor table soaking in the vista. With a glass or two of local wine, of course!
However we did do a lot of exploration too. Greater Burgundy is quite large, encompassing outlying areas near Auxerre, Chablis and Macon. But the most famous part is the Cote d’Or, centred on a narrow strip that runs north-south between Dijon and Chagny, with the ancient town of Beaune in the middle. The area from Dijon to Beaune is known as the Cote de Nuits, and that from Beaune to Chagny as the Cote de Beaune. Merseault is in the middle of the Cote de Beaune, so it is that area we got to know best. Some of the highlights of our time in Burgundy:
- Visiting the town of Beaune, a lovely place with immaculately maintained medieval buildings and the undoubted hub of wine tourism in the region. On our first afternoon we popped into the Tourism Bureau to get some info on walks in the area, and Kristen immediately spotted a book she knew I would be interested in. Interested? It was perfect fodder for my obsession for Burgundy, with each of the appellations (and there are 100 of them!) described in detail with tasting notes, geographical information and even maps of the named vineyards (premier crus and grand crus). I got the book and spent a lot of time absorbing it during our stay! We returned there a few days later to visit the weekly Wednesday market, which was smaller than we expected but still a fine source of local cheeses, meats, vegetables and mushrooms. We ate very well during our time in Merseault.
- Walking around Merseault and the neighbouring village of Monthelie, and towards Volnay. Guided by my new book and a walking map from the Tourism Bureau, we wandered these streets and country lanes armed with our cameras and a sense of wonder. Utterly beautiful and relaxing, and without question the most attractive part of the Cote d’Or. The closeness of the villages, each of which is a separate appellation and noted for having distinctive wines, was a revelation. With the aid of the excellent wine shop in our village, plus a couple of place in Beaune, over four days we tasted several different chardonnays from Merseault, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet. There were subtle but noticeable differences between them, which is quite incredible given they are all less than 10 kms apart! We only had a single bottle of red wine, a premier cru from Monthelie (grown about 1 km from our campsite), and Kristen rated it her favourite wine from our time in Burgundy. We were fortunate to only have good to excellent wines the whole time, and at prices far below what we would pay in Australia.
- Cycling through the vineyards of the Cote de Beaune. Using the excellent bikes rented out by our campground, we followed the well-signposted cycle route from Merseault down to Chassagne-Montrachet. Rolling up and down the vineyards and through the pretty villages of that area was utterly delightful, and the local tourism authorities have done a great job in making it easy to do. We also had a look at the handful of grand cru chardonnay vineyards located between the villages of Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet, the famed plots such as Montrachet, Batard-Montrachet and Chevalier-Montrachet sitting majestically on the slope of the hill above the plain. We will probably only ever taste the lesser wines of the area, but it’s still very instructive to know how close they are to plots that produce the world’s best chardonnays. One of my favourite parts of our time in Merseault, from a long list of favourites!
- Making a pilgrimage to the legendary Romanee Conti vineyard. This is where my new guidebook came into its own, because this famous vineyard is not actually signposted. The only acknowledgement that you’ve found the right place is a small plaque stating:
- “Many people come to visit this site, and we understand. We ask you nevertheless to remain on the road and request that under no condition you enter the vineyard”
- Like the Montrachets it is highly unlikely we will ever get to taste one of the pinot noirs from this vineyard – they sell for thousands of dollars a bottle, if you can find one – but they are considered by those who know to be some of the best wines ever made. What I found more interesting is how close to this vineyard are other less highly rated (and massively less expensive) plots. A great example of how a visit to a wine region can enhance your understanding of it far better than any map or book could do. Located in the heart of the Cote de Nuits, we drove to get there and also walked amongst other nearby grand cru vineyards such as Eschezeax and Clos de Vougeot. We agreed that the Cote de Beaune is far prettier than the Cote de Nuits, and were even happier with our choice to stay in Merseault!
- Enjoying local foods from our village, especially the terrines from the local charcuterier. While we loved the terrines we tried in Aups, these were of even higher quality and included such gems as rabbit and walnut terrine, fois gras, chicken and asparagus terrine, and a superior version of fromage de tete. With a simple salad of mixed cherry tomatoes and a bottle of chardonnay at our outdoor table while watching the evening sun on the vineyards, it was as close to perfection as one could hope for J
- Cooking with a truffle! At the Beaune market we spotted a few dirty lumps on the counter of the mushroom stall, each with a slip of paper indicating price underneath it. We thought they might be truffles, and indeed they were. The price was much more affordable that we expected – about A$10 for a lump the size of a golf ball – so we took a punt and decided to get one. It was a summer truffles, which is nowhere near as pungent as a winter truffle, but it was fresh and black and it was not like we could get one at Coles back home, could we? We googled the best ways to cook it and settled for scrambled eggs with fresh truffle and girolles, cooked by Kristen. The truffle flavour was not very intense but it was a delicious dish nonetheless, and an experience we are unlikely to repeat anytime soon. We decided that we wouldn’t bother trying fresh truffles again unless they were winter ones, ideally prepared by a chef who knows how to coax the best out of them.
Four days was enough to sample the area, and also all we were able to give it this time. But returning to Burgundy – especially to that special campsite on the edge of Merseault – is one of the things I look forward to doing when we come back to Europe!