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France/Burgundy: Beaune

Historic Vineyards and Views

Overview

The Highlights: The legendary, picturesque Cote de Beaune wine-growing region; great tastings, lodging and dining; enchanting walks and bike rides, a beautiful medieval city with walls and moat intact. 

Other Places Nearby: The medieval city of Dijon, the scenic forests and old towns of the Morvan Regional Natural Park. 

Meetings & Event Options: A modern convention center for business meetings and numerous locations for corporate retreats, small meetings, weddings or reunions. 

Just over two hours south of Paris by high-speed train (TGV) or under four hours by car, the city of Beaune and its surrounding ancient vineyards provide an ideal getaway for travelers who wish to discover life outside of Paris. It’s a paradise for those who love wine, the beauty of vineyards and the out of doors. Walkers and cyclists don’t need a car to enjoy the beautiful colors, landscapes and aromas of the Burgundy vineyards, and the charms, delightful lodgings and inspired cuisine for which the region is known.

Beaune, the wine capital of southern Burgundy, is a small medieval city with its walls and moat still largely intact, with a thriving downtown featuring a variety of historic sites, shops and a large open market on most Saturdays. The most compelling reason to come for a weekend, however, lies outside the town, along the famous Cote de Beaune, part of a long ridge that runs for about 100 miles from southwest to northeast, beautifully situated to maximize the sunlight that bathes the vineyards lining the hillsides and the plains below. In contrast to northern Burgundy, there are few trees on the sun-drenched hillsides here—just vineyard after vineyard. Walk above the vineyards into the hills and remote valleys, and you’ll plunge into the shadowy comfort of a forest and, on cliff-tops, enjoy stunning views.  

Having a car, of course, makes it much easier to explore the full range of sites in the region. That said, an extensive network of more than 30 circuits on over 300 miles of trails that lead from Beaune and its surrounding B&Bs—and the nearly flat 15-mile Vineyard Trail for cyclists that traverses some of the most famous villages in Burgundy—provide plenty of opportunities for those who arrive by train. The Beaune Tourism office website has lots of information for walkers and cyclists, as well as terrific maps in English.

An Ancient Affair

No one knows precisely, but it’s a safe bet that vineyards have covered these hillsides for more than 2,000 years—at least since the time of Roman rule. Roman coins have been found in the vineyards and the ruins of a Roman or Celtic fort lie in the forest in the hills above the village of Meursault. Writings that date back to the 4th and 6th Centuries mention the vineyards of Burgundy, and monastic movements centered in Cluny and Cîteaux brought the same entrepreneurial skills to medieval wine production and marketing as they did to all of their thriving enterprises. Not until the 17th and 18th Centuries, however, did Burgundy wines gain the favor of royal connoisseurs, and it wasn’t until the 19th Century that serious exportation to the outside world began. Today, Burgundy’s various soil types, micro-climates and wine-making techniques yield a rich assortment of wines ranging from table varieties to world-renowned reds and whites that rank with the great Bordeaux. While Burgundy wines are produced in a region stretching more than 100 miles, from Chablis in the northeast to Macon in the southwest, three of the best wine-making villages in the region are clustered together just to the southwest of Beaune, connected by the Vineyard Trail, namely Pommard, Volnay and Meursault. Pommard and Volnay produce strong, heady reds based on the pinot noir grape; white wines take over just south of here in Meursault.

As you cycle or walk through the vineyards, you can see close up the distinctive quirks of Burgundy wine growing. Wine producers here rarely own a single property, but rather a collection of small parcels in different vineyards so they can take advantage of each plot’s specific growing conditions. While summers are generally hot and winters cold, each bit of land has its own micro-climate, affected by its particular elevation and the amount of sun and wind. Local soil conditions also vary, with different proportions of clay, limestone and silica affecting the taste of the grape. As you walk around the vineyards, you’ll notice stone walls and fences dividing the parcels; within each grow rows of grapes owned by several different wine growers.

Of course, the winemaker plays a big role in the final outcome of the wine too, making key decisions such as how long to let the grapes ferment and at what temperature, how much anti-contaminant to add, how long to leave the wine in the cask, what sort of cask to use, etc. The area’s wineries provide an opportunity to learn about the techniques and to taste the wines—in French, a tasting is called dégustation. You don’t have to be a connoisseur to appreciate the experience. In fact, tastings also provide an opportunity to talk with locals and learn about how wine is produced. 

The French classify wine according to four basic categories, from the inexpensive vin de table and vin de pays to the better-quality vin délimité de qualité supérieure and the best, the so-called appellation controlée. A wine with the appellation Burgundy could have been produced anywhere in the region; an appellation Côte de Beaune must contain grapes grown only in that area, and one called Pommard comes exclusively from the grapes of that village. The top two rungs of the appellation contrôlée category are premier cru appellations—which carry the name of the village and the vineyard, such as Pommard Premier Cru Les Rugiens—and grands crus, which carry only the name of the vineyard, such as the Corton Grand Cru.

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