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This Sleepy French Town Is an Essential Pilgrimage For Any True Wine Fan

By Eleanor Aldridge

09.26.19

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North of Beaune, the walled vineyard of Clos de Vougeot claims a long viticultural history dating to the foundation of France’s winemaking tradition.

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North of Beaune, the walled vineyard of Clos de Vougeot claims a long viticultural history dating to the foundation of France’s winemaking tradition.

In search of world-famous wines and secretive drinking societies? Dijon might be Burgundy’s capital, but the sleepy town of Beaune is the true heart of this hallowed wine region.

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Small but mighty Burgundy is France’s most mythical wine region. Its wines command the world’s highest prices and elicit the most impressive forgeries (as you’ll know if you saw Rudy Kurniawan’s astonishing con revealed in Netflix’s 2016 smash documentary Sour Grapes). It’s where the storied, secretive bacchanalian brotherhood Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin meet. And it’s where monks shaped the future of French winemaking in the walled-in Clos de Vougeot in the 12th century as a flagship vineyard for monastic production; they were among the first to identify the importance of terroir (how soil, microclimate, and geography affect a wine's taste).

All that significance aside, though, Burgundian producers are altogether warm and welcoming—and you don’t have to take out a new credit card to buy a few bottles. The region's best known for its reds, made from pinot noir, which can age for decades, while its finest whites are complex and buttery single-varietal wines made from chardonnay. Spend a long weekend here picnicking on the grounds of mosaic-roofed châteaux, admiring honey-hued stone houses on strolls along peaceful streets, and tasting wines in hushed, ancient cellars.

By far the most atmospheric place to base a stay if you’re going to embark on a tasting tour is Beaune. Set amid gently rolling vineyards and pastoral countryside, this small town is where professional buyers from around the world attend the world’s most famous wine auction each year in November. It’s also the spiritual heart of Burgundy: For eating, drinking and all-round vine-worshipping revelry, there’s simply nowhere better to be.

Beaune institution Marché aux Vins is a perfect first stop to learn more about the region’s famed wines.

Where to Taste

In Beaune, stop for a self-guided and self-pour tour in the cellars of wine merchant and Beaune institution Marché aux Vins, set inside the 12th-century Church of Cordelier. It’s a somewhat touristy experience, but will add layers of context to your time spent in the vineyards because you’ll taste both reds and whites from different Burgundian subregions and years.

While there are a few cellars from big wine merchants offering tastings right in Beaune, the spectacular wineries set within a short drive of town are why you’re here. For a true taste of Burgundy, head to family-run cellars rather than the fanciest châteaux. Domaine François Buffet, a 15-minute drive south in Volnay, makes wine from 15 different appellations from the Côte-d’Or region, the most famous stretch of Burgundy’s terroir (don’t miss the Volnay premier cru Clos des Chênes or its Côte-d’Or pinot noir). The cellar tours are warm, insightful, and free from pretension.

Half an hour’s drive to the south, you can also find great wines  in the less prestigious appellation of Mercurey. Domaine Theulot-Juillot is one of the best to visit for top-quality, high-value wines: it produces six premier crus, as well as an easy-drinking blanc de noir crémant (a sparkling wine made using the same method as champagne but solely from red grapes).

Once you’re tasted out, a stop half an hour’s drive to the north of Beaune at the Château du Clos du Vougeot is obligatory to see where the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin is headquartered and meet for its riotous parties. The society, founded to promote Burgundy and its wines, isn’t as secretive as it once was, but still has a reputation as being somewhat old-school and elitist. Although don’t worry, you don’t need your own tastevin (the silver spoons famously used by the brotherhood to taste wine) to go on an historical tour of the château and learn about the development of winemaking in the region.

The 15th-century Hospices de Beaune, a former hospital turned museum, features Gothic architecture and an intricately tiled roof.

What to Do

In Beaune proper, don’t miss the town’s most famous attraction, the magnificent Hospices de Beaune. Not that you’d guess from its elaborate Gothic architecture and colorfully glazed tile roof, but it was built as a hospital in 1452 and treated patients until the 1970s, before being turned into a museum. Probably unlike your local ER, however, it also owns several grand and premier cru vineyards, whose wines are sold under the Domaine Hospices de Beaune. You’ll need to find a wine buyer to take you to the institution’s annual Hospices de Beaune Wine Auction (held in November) to get your hands on the best bottles, but the building is open for tours year-round that take you back through its rich history.

Wine aside, there’s another local product to try: mustard. At Moutarderie Fallot’s museum, home to the factory of the mustard brand of the same name, you can delve into the history of Burgundy’s most famous condiment before finishing with a tasting at its mustard bar. If you can’t do without those grapes, however, you can even sample a wine-infused moutarde au pinot noir or a moutarde au vin blanc.

Indulge in a seven-course menu at Beaune’s Michelin-starred Loiseau des Vignes.

Where to Eat

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Eating in Beaune should be top of your to-do list, given that many Parisian bistro classics originated in Burgundy, including escargots, coq au vin, and bœuf bourguignon. For less than €40 (US$44) a head you can feast on a wine-soaked menu of œufs en meurette (eggs poached in red wine) and bœuf bourguignon at cozy Brasserie Carnot. If you’re more motivated by Michelin stars, do battle with the seven-course “menu gourmand” at Loiseau des Vignes, starting with another Burgundian specialty, gougères (cheesy choux pastry puffs), and finishing with souffléed crêpes. La Dilettante shows another side to Beaune. This welcoming bar à vins (or, a casual wine bar) is the place to order a planche (cheeseboard), croque monsieur, or the seasonal dish of the day and try wines from smaller producers—perhaps a superb bottle from Andrew Nielsen (aka Le Grappin) who started making wine in Burgundy in 2011.

In central Beaune, Hôtel Le Cep exudes Old-World elegance, while its spa invites indulgence with wine-themed treatments.

Where to Stay

Relais & Châteaux properties are stalwarts of the luxury hotel scene in France. Find out why at the intimate Hostellerie de Levernois, a 10-minute drive outside Beaune, where there’s a Michelin-starred restaurant on site and just 22 rooms and four apartments; the oldest parts of this country mansion date back to 1750.

If you’d rather stay in the center of Beaune, book into the old-school but enchanting Hôtel Le Cep, with its wood-beamed ceilings, canopied beds, and antique furnishings. Even the hotel’s Spa Marie de Bourgogne is dedicated to all things wine; its Vinésime treatments use the vines’ natural antioxidants with extracts of pinot noir and chardonnay.

Beyond Beaune

Finish your trip by heading northwest, joining the hordes of French visitors returning on the nearly three-hour journey to Paris. While train connections between Beaune and Paris are available, a car allows you the freedom to choose stops along the way, so you can spend at least half a day in the regional capital, Dijon. With its impressive squares, covered market, and Musée des Beaux-Arts, it’s one of France’s most charming cities—but can’t match Beaune in terms of quaint, small-town atmosphere. A further hour’s drive northwest takes you to the tiny village of Flavigny-Sur-Ozerain, where Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp’s romance played out in the 2000 film Chocolat. There’s little to see here beyond strolling its beautiful, winding lanes, popping into souvenir shops, and tasting the local aniseed candy, but it’s a fitting place to bring your Burgundian odyssey to a close. As in Beaune (and in the film), in this quiet village in the French countryside, the locals still believe in tranquilité.

>> Next: Forget Bordeaux, the Jura Is France’s Next Big Wine Destination

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