The winegrowing area of Burgundy, the Cote d’Or, is split into two parts. From Dijon to just north of Beaune is the Cotes de Nuits, while from Beaune to just south of Chassagne Montrachet is the Cote de Beaune. Running right down the length of this region is the main N74, which serves as the principal artery of communications. To travel down this busy main road from Dijon in the North to Chagny in the South is to pass through some of the greatest vineyards on earth. Well, to be accurate, the road does not actually run through the villages, because to do so would have been to destroy large tracts of prime vines, so if you look on the map you will see that all the Grands Crus, virtually all of the 1er Crus and their villages are just to the west of the road.
The roll call is peppered (littered seems quite the wrong word here) with villages whose wines need no introduction, even amongst the most ardent wino-phobes and these major names are interspersed with “minor” appellations of lesser fame, that offer the chance to find wines with a favourable “rapport qualite/prix”.
From Marsannay, best known for its rose, but with some serious quality whites and reds that are amongst Burgundy’s many unsung heroes, that road runs through Fixin (pronounced Fissain), another producer of “lesser” red wines, before hitting the high notes as it passes through Gevrey Chambertin, Morey St Denis, Chambolle Musigny, Vougeot and Vosne Romanee. Amongst these villages the Pinot Noir reaches a pinnacle of perfection that is almost unmatchable, where tiny parcels of land from the biggest, the 52 hectares of Clos Vougeot down to the smallest, the 0.74 hectare of La Romanee were singled out by growers and consumers several hundred years ago, as being the best sites in the region. These classifications continue to be valid today on account of these sites still having more favourable growing conditions. Burgundinians have developed an understanding of their terroir that has allowed them to identify individual micro-climates that are able to deliver superior results to parcels of vines even a few metres to one side or the other. As one vigneron observed to us, “If you give me two bunches of grapes, one from a Grand Cru vineyard and one from a village appellation, I can tell which is which.” Today’s Burgundy drinker owes a vote of thanks to the generations of patient observation and experimentation from the Romans onwards, which has given the vignerons of today this remarkably detailed understanding of which sites should produce the best wines. The imponderable element lies in the hands of the grower.
At Nuits St Georges the N74 changes from being surrounded by vines to urban mode as it ploughs right through this busy town, causing some epic bottle-necks and hold-ups. I have not been through Nuits during the harvest but I can only too well imagine that with the mass of small tractors ferrying their precious cargo back from tiny parcels of vineyard to cuveries that are scattered all over the town and surrounding countryside, through traffic must be reduced to walking speed. From Nuits the vineyards of the Cote de Nuits narrow sharply to a thin strip alongside the road until you reach Ladoix and Aloxe Corton, after which you pass over the A6 Auto-route and into Beaune.
Beaune is a substantial wine appellation and it is also the administrative heart of the whole wine growing region. The inner ring-road is something of a challenge to the unwary as all the turnings appear similar and the signposting system seems to have overlooked a key fact; not every user is a local. On a first visit it is quite possible to go round it several times without ever finding your exit or even realising that you have passed the same spot three times. This can give the impression that Beaune is a big town, when in reality you should be able to walk round it in 20 minutes, always assuming that an interesting shop or wine bar does not slow your progress and there are plenty of these. Wine shops dominate the central shopping area of Beaune, with others selling wine accessories and these are randomly interspersed with the Boulangerie, the Patissierie (several of both) ice-cream parlours, chocolate shops and an ironmonger from whom it is possible to buy anything from a dog collar (non-clerical variety) to spanners in both metric and imperial sizes. Quite remarkable these and totally out of place, but actually jolly useful as it allowed me to buy a spanner I had been looking for for ages in England, as well as a metal sign saying “Chien Mechant” for our garden gate (which roughly translates into “This dog likes merchants”). The Bureau Interprofessionnel des Viticulteurs de Bourgogne has its offices in an elegant building on the ring road and right in the heart of the town is that most elegant of buildings, the 15th Century Hotel Dieu or Hospices de Beaune. There are also several excellent restaurants, but one rather takes that for granted in France!
Once safely out of Beaune and heading south, you pass a couple of petrol stations and a few chain hotels and emerge once again onto a road encrusted with yet more magical names, this time of the Cotes de Beaune. Pommard, Volnay, Meursault, Auxey Duresses, who has not heard of these villages? Oh, alright, Auxey Duresses may not be so well known, but only because the marketing men seem to have forgotten it. When on song, I believe that its wines are capable of equalling almost anything that the Cote d’Or has to offer. St Romain and Monthelie are tucked away up in the hills just a couple of kilometres off the main Route des Grands Crus. Then on again to Puligny Montrachet and Chassagne Montrachet, the two adjoining villages that are home to the greatest names in white wines, so much so that their little sister, St Aubin, often finds herself left out as potential customers stampede to her heavyweight siblings.
At this point the N74 arrives at a junction with the N6, on the outskirts of Chassagne and Puligny, whereupon it simply vanishes. Yes, it ceases to exist, but what a place to vanish! Standing on the junction (well, perhaps a hundred yards away) you find yourself surrounded by all the Montrachet Grands Crus with their elegant walls and beautifully carved signs cut into ancient stone pillars at their gateways.
Any sense of anticlimax at arriving so abruptly at the end of this journey is easily tempered by the knowledge that only a few short kilometres away in Chagny you might just be able to squeeze in for lunch at Jacques Lameloise’s superb restaurant, or book a room for the night and stay for dinner. His cuisine is justifiably internationally renowned while his wine cellar defies belief.
Since I wrote this, the French Authorities have very unhelpfully re-named the N74 and it has now become the D974. A D road, or departmental road, is usually a very minor country lane linking two equally obscure parts of the hinterland and the old N74 does not fit happily into such a category. As I have noted elsewhere, this caught us out badly one April, immediately after this thoughtless alteration, when we became “lost” in the dark, frantically trying to find the road we were already driving along. For the moment the authorities have confined their attention to renaming the road and have not made any attempt to move or re-names the vineyards or the villages. If you recall the tremendous brouhaha caused by the proposal to send the main Paris to Marseille TGV railway line through the vines of Cornas and Hermitage, I think we may safely assume that Meursault will remain Meursault and Gevrey will remain Gevrey. The Cornas fiasco was possibly the only time since Roman days that the French State has changed its plans because of a public outcry. Actually, on reflection, there has been another occasion, in 1789.