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Archive for September 28th, 2010

Hotel-Dieu in Beaune

Remembering the success of our cycling trip in the Loire Valley last July, Jon and I spent a week cycling in Burgundy in late August this year.  Because we were too busy this summer to do our own planning (read: Jon spent too much time training to swim the English Channel and I was left holding down the fort at home), we worked with Beaune-based Detours in France, who provide self-guided cycle tours of the region.

In practical terms, a “self guided cycle tour” meant that Detours in France booked our hotels, provided the cycles, moved our luggage from hotel to hotel, and mapped out our daily itinerary.  The only thing Jon and I had to do was show up in Beaune to pick up our bicycles and get ourselves from Point A to Point B every day (i.e., we weren’t with a group following a leader, and we were free to change the day’s itinerary as we liked).

cycling from Chassagne-Montrachet to Santenay

Pluses of working with Detours in France:

  1. Jon and I never got lost, and consequently, never argued.  (The provided maps and turn-by-turn directions are pretty much foolproof).
  2. Our daily routes were optimized for beautiful views, low traffic, and flatness (save for a 4km climb around Gevrey-Chambertin, and another one around Pernand-Vergelesses, thankfully towards the end of the trip, when our fitness had improved).
  3. Sarah and Jerome, the owners of Detours in France, are passionate about what they do and about Burgundy, so we had the sense that if we really needed help, they’d be there for us.
  4. Overall – everything was really easy.  We were supremely lucky to have had sunny, mild weather the entire week, so from the point of view of getting to know the region and the terroir, our trip was an unqualified success.

Minuses of giving up the absolute control we usually exercise via independent travel:

  1. It was difficult to eat at the restaurants we wanted to try.  (Where there’s wine, there’s good food, and Burgundy is studded with Michelin-starred restaurants).  Although dinner wasn’t included in the price we paid to Detours in France, letting someone else choose our hotels meant that in the evening, it was tricky for us to get to specific restaurants (cycling on un-lit local roads being rather difficult, especially if you’re planning a boozy, lengthy, gourmet meal).Most of the towns in Burgundy wine country are small, so effectively, either you’re eating at your hotel restaurant or you’re at the one or two other places in town (assuming they’re open, of course).  In contrast, last year, when we controlled every aspect of our trip in the Loire Valley, we either booked hotels in larger towns (offering numerous dining options) or else we stayed at a hotel specifically so we could eat at a nearby restaurant.
  2. Adding up hotel fees, cycle rentals and luggage transfers, the cost of our week in Burgundy was twice that of our week in the Loire Valley.  On both trips, we stayed at hotels rated 3 stars by whatever agency in France rates such things.  While Burgundy is, in general, a pricier region to visit than the Loire Valley, I attribute most of the cost difference to the effort and expertise of Detours in France.

Santenay's town square

Our six days of cycling took us from the southern stretches of the Cote Chalonnaise, through the golden fields of chardonnay in the Cote de Beaune, and up north through the prized red wine vineyards of the Cote de Nuits.  (To visualize the region, click here for a map).

In general, we cycled 35-40 km a day, with a few days where we hit 50 km because we strayed from the day’s itinerary and got a little lost. This blog post covers the “southern” stretch of our trip, the Cote Chalonnaise and the Cote de Beaune areas.  This coming Friday, I’ll post about the Cote de Nuits, and next week I’ll wrap up with a post on all our restaurant adventures in the region.

Because we knew so little about Burgundy wines before our visit, we relied heavily on the almost too-comprehensive advice of this “Food Wine Burgundy” guide by David Downie, as well as tips from Detours in France and from friendly cavistes (wine shop owners) we met along the way.  Most vineyards either required advance booking or were closed during prime cycling hours (12-3 pm), so Jon and I stopped mostly at wine shops to do our tastings and make our purchases.

In Santenay, our “Food Wine Burgundy” guide highly recommended the Cave Vielles Vignes, which is right on the town square.  The shop offered an impressive inventory of wines, but sadly, the sales woman there was reluctant to offer us a tasting of wines and was generally unhelpful, so we bought two local (Santenay) wines at random there and called it a day.

Much friendlier was the Domaine de la Chappelle up the hill from the town square, which we visited at the recommendation of our Puligny-Montrachet B&B owner.  Its primary appeal:  you can drop in for a tasting without an advance booking.  Unfortunately, neither the 2008 reds nor the whites appealed, and we bought a bottle just to be polite.

Canal du Centre

From Santenay, we cycled south along the gorgeous Canal du Centre to reach the Cote Chalonnaise, where we heard there were bargain Burgundy wines to be found.

Takeaways:

(1) don’t bother stopping at Chateau de Rully, which offers neither tastings nor a tour of the chateau, contrary to the claims of Food Wine Burgundy.  (That’s two strikes against our chosen guidebook, and our edition was published in 2010!);

(2) Of the local wines we tried, we loved the 2007 Chateau de Chamirey Mercurey (about 20 euros), which was strong evidence that there are great deals to be found in the Cote Chalonnaise.  [Note that “local” in Burgundy means either the vineyard is located within the borders of the town you’re tasting in, or at most one or two towns away.]

cycling from Puligny-Montrachet to Meursault (pictured in the distance)

Our favorite of the hotels chosen by Detours in France was La Chouette, a B&B in Puligny-Montrachet.   The rooms were large, comfortable and stylish; the breakfasts were excellent; and Suzanne, the owner, is a wealth of local information.  (Suzanne and her husband also own Le Montrachet, a largeish luxury hotel across the street from La Chouette, and where we had dinner).  The published rack rate was 150 euros a night.

Puligny-Montrachet, where we stayed for two nights, is a one-horse town, and that horse is wine, so don’t expect to find a supermarket or even a fromagerie in town.  Instead, you’ll find lots of wine shops.

We enjoyed the wine tasting and wine chat we had with Julien Wallerand, the owner of Caveau de Puligny-Montrachet.  For 8 euros a person, we tasted four wines from Puligny-Montrachet, and one of my few regrets from the trip was not buying the 2008 villages by Domaine Bzikot (25 euros) we tried.  (For a brief description of how Burgundy wines are classified from Grand Cru and Premier Cru “down to” Villages and Regional, click here).

We skipped the wine pairing extravaganzas for which local giant, Olivier Leflaive, is famous, mostly because the man we spoke with at the hotel was unbearably patronising when we tried to clarify the different pricing options offered at dinner vs lunch.

Chateau de Pommard, not worth the 18 euros (per person!) admission

The town of Pommard, next door to Meursault, was a bummer because we stopped by the Chateau de Pommard.  The price of admission was 18 euros a person, and in case you think that the price includes a tour of the chateau, think again.

What your 18 euros buys  you:

(1) access to a “Picasso exhibit,” which is comprised of limited-edition Picasso prints (copies, really) and a few original ceramics, all for sale;

(2) a tour of the wine cellar, which, sadly, looks much like most other wine cellars.  In fact, if you’re dying to see a Cote de Beaune wine cellar, visit the one at Couvent des Cordeliers in Beaune for free; and

(3) a tasting of three of the Chateau’s wines, all of which contained too many sour notes for me to see their future potential (which our guide kept exhorting us to do).  That the wines were priced upwards of 50 euros a bottle was insult to injury.

From Pommard, it was a quick trip back up to Beaune, and then north through the Cote de Nuit, whose highlights will be in my next blog post.

Looking back, as much as we enjoyed staying at La Chouette, if I could re-do the trip, I’d stay in Santenay and Meursault, which were larger towns than Puligny-Montrachet, and consequently seemed to have more shops and restaurants to choose from.  Or maybe we’d stay next door to Puligny-Montrachet in Chassagne-Montrachet, home to Michelin-starred Restaurant Le Chassagne.

Or maybe next time, I’ll travel by car, and everyone will be spared my bellyaching about not being able to reach gourmet restaurants on bicycle.

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