Driving through Burgundy for the first time, I can’t help but feel a bit intimidated. Though I studied the region for months during my wine certification courses and dreamed of one day visiting, it’s a different story when you’re surrounded by both the prized bourgogne grapes and the experts who know more than a thing or two about some of the world’s best wines and terroir.
So, for the next three days, I vow to become a sponge, absorbing all the knowledge (and wine) I can from France’s famed wine region and from my travel partner, who as luck would have it, is a sommelier. And I would have some fun doing it because wine is to be enjoyed, after all.
Checking in to Le Relais Bernard Loiseau
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A check-in to Le Relais Bernard Loiseau—a five-star stunner that’s more like a famed institution than a hotel in France—serves as a gateway to the celebrated wine regions of Burgundy. The 33-room Relais & Châteaux property is situated between Chablis and Beaune in a small town called Saulieu, which often served as a stopping-off point for travelers driving from Paris to the south of France before main highways were built. Prince Rainier, Orson Welles, Edith Piaf, Charlie Chaplin, and Salvador Dali are among the guests who have walked through its doors.
Today, the property’s namesake Loiseau evokes memories for many people in France because of its former owner, the late Bernard Loiseau. The chef’s animated face appeared on televisions across the country during his cooking segments, and he was lauded for having revolutionized French culinary techniques by cooking each ingredient separately to bring out its natural, robust flavor. His impact was so great, he even served as the inspiration for the character chef Auguste Gusteau in the Disney movie Ratatouille.
Sadly, Loiseau committed suicide in 2003 after rumors that he would lose his third Michelin star, but his family has unwaveringly continued his legacy—steered by his wife Dominique. The hotelier is a biochemist and journalist by trade who has also penned a number of books and curates the property’s gardens. Meeting her for the first time is like watching an unassuming force blow its way through each room. She’s an empathetic businesswoman who commands attention and respect without having to say a word.
Relais Bernard Loiseau houses a two-Michelin-starred restaurant, La Cote d’Or, which still serves many of chef Loiseau’s classic dishes, including his signature tender frog legs with parsley. The restaurant also features a wine cellar holding some 15,000 bottles from the region.
A wood-paneled salon tucked into a corner past the lobby becomes our space of choice to revel in a glass of bourgogne by the fireplace. The property also has a four-story, 16,000-square-foot spa called La Villa Loiseau des Sens, which houses hammams, multiple pools, and showers that complete its theme as a wellness luxury retreat for travelers. The entire Bernard Loiseau brand remains a family affair, with Dominique and Bernard’s daughter Berangere as the vice president, son Bastien on the board of directors, and daughter Blanche as part of the kitchen team at La Cote d’Or.
Sniffing and swirling around beautiful Beaune
Many of Burgundy’s producers are in or near Beaune, a walled town dotted with rolling vineyards and cobblestone streets. The most commonly grown grapes in the region are pinot noir and chardonnay, which my travel partner and I will swirl, sniff, and taste for the next four days. We’re in town during Hospices de Beaune, one of the largest charity auctions in the world, which means that many of our wish-list producers will be too busy for a public visit. Still the wine gods show mercy and we book an impressive lineup of tastings. We start at Sylvain Pataille, whose 35 acres of vines in Marsannay-la-Côte, just south of Dijon, produce pinot noir, pinot beurrot, chardonnay blanc, chardonnay rosé, and aligoté doré.
Pataille has a fierce passion for Marsannay terroir and likes to take his time with the grapes. Vinifications are natural and with as little intervention as possible at bottling. Burgundy is often referred to as the home of chardonnay, but Pataille was one of the first to focus on single vineyard aligotés, a lesser known white varietal with light, floral notes that when done right (as Pataille does) reveals a nuttiness and herbal brightness with undeniable finesse.
“The sheer joy of Sylvain’s connection to the land, its culture and the people is contagious. He is the Harry Potter of Marsannay,” says Peter Wasserman of Becky Wasserman & Co., which exports Pataille along with other terroir-driven, small domaines in France. During our tasting in an underground cave on one of Beaune’s narrow streets, it’s hard to peel ourselves away from the sips of Marsannay rosé Fleur de Pinot and Peter Wasserman’s humor. He carries the legacy of his late mother Becky—a pivotal figure in the introduction of Burgundy wines to the United States and world—with an authenticity of which she would surely be proud.
A 15-minute drive leads us to our next tasting at Domaine Dujac. Along the way, we gaze at the manicured vineyards that sprawl before us like kids in a candy store. “Wow, we’re really here,” is uttered often and emphatically each time.
Domaine Dujac, helmed by the Seysses family, is located in the village of Morey-Saint-Denis in the Côte d’Or. Vintages are grown in Burgundy’s Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune, with the first plot dating back to 1967. Dujac wines don’t sit on your tongue, they dance. Most of the wines undergo a maceration time of 12 days and grapes are fermented in whole bunches, which gives the wines silkier tannins. The price tag and small production mean none of the bottles will make their way home with me, but the memory of that tasting will always remain.
A third stop veers from the former two visits in both its production size and easier accessibility. Maison La Jadot is a well-known wine house in the region, with 528 acres of vineyards producing everything from chablis to beaujolais. My favorite of the afternoon is the 2015 Louis Jadot Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru Chardonnay, which leaves notes of subtle golden honey and minerality to linger in my mouth, instead of the robust oak notes that often turn me off to the varietal.
With thirst now satiated, it’s time to eat. Ma Cuisine in Beune’s city center is hardly unknown, but fortunately the tourists doesn’t deflate the hearty flavor of the beef bourguignon I devour. It’s the last supper in Burgundy, and so it’s only right to order one more bottle as well, and toast to a dream that became a delicious reality.