A road trip in Burgundy reveals far more than fine wine

Find holy history and heavenly vintages in the northern reaches of this celebrated French wine-making region.

There are more than 70,000 acres of vineyards in Burgundy, including the celebrated Côte d'Or region. Slow travel routes through its lesser-known zones dip into French religious and cultural history.

Visiting Burgundy’s vineyards is easy: Dijon, the city at the heart of the area, is just a 90-minute train ride from Paris. But the French region’s scenic, sensory charms begin a long way north of the Côte d’Or, or “Golden Slope”—and the road is paved with stories.

The monks who first tended Burgundy’s vines were focused not on the pleasures of the table but on the immortality of the soul. If sacramental wine was to become the blood of Christ during mass, why not make it transcendentally delicious? The landscape was molded in the image of the church and well-marked pilgrimage routes still characterize the region. 

In the 20th century, a different kind of pilgrimage became popular: Parisians drove south, in search of sunshine and all that it brings. Springtime has average temperatures of 68 degrees Fahrenheit; summer can top 86 degrees; and autumn offers colors and flavors of the harvest. 

Most visitors to Burgundy focus on the famous stretch below Dijon. But on this road trip, I’m taking things slow to savor the region’s twin preoccupations, writ large across the land: dinner and eternal life.

Along the river Yonne

Just two hours south of Paris by car, I reach northern Burgundy and an area named for the river I’m seeking: Yonne. Locally, the Yonne region is famous for cherries—the darkest, sweetest ones I’ve ever tasted. But the wider world knows this region better for Chablis, a very particular austere, flinty yet delicious style of Chardonnay that goes beautifully with oysters, among other things.

At dinner in La Côte Saint Jacques & Spa, the sommelier serves Chablis by a small producer, Thomas Pico, of Domaine Pattes Loup. Like many Burgundy vintners, Pico has abandoned the easy route of spraying chemicals, despite the work and risk of organic agriculture in inconstant northern temperatures. The result is a wine tasting of lemon and cream, like syllabub without the sweetness, an unlikely match for rich foie gras.

The hotel Côte Saint Jacques opened in 1945, named for the slope along the river that local monks long ago christened in honor of Saint James. It’s been run by successive generations of the Lorain family ever since. The late chef Michel Lorain, who died in 2021, earned the spot its first Michelin star in 1971; now, the two-star kitchen is under the toque of his chef nephew Alexandre Bondoux.

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The Route Nationale 6 runs past the hotel’s door. The Lorain family built a passage beneath it so guests can enter the small town of Joigny more easily by foot. In keeping with my slow mission, I stroll into the nearby Eglise Saint-André, with its medieval Pietà, an image of Mary clutching her crucified son. Close by, I find another church via an archway hewn from the region’s distinctive grey-white stone.

I marvel at the precision and detail of the Église Saint-Jean—set high on a hill with superb views down to the Yonne—built in the 13th century, long before machinery made things easier. Inside, the ceiling is intricately carved, and there’s an extraordinary, 16th-century marble sepulcher with seven life-size figures gathered in mourning around the dead Christ. My 10-minute walk back to the hotel passes yet another church, this one in the Place du Pilori, where guilty townsfolk were once placed in the stocks to be pelted by their righteous neighbors.

Into the past in Auxerre and Dijon

No medieval peasant in this region, even surrounded by churches, could have doubted the importance of the town of Auxerre, just 20 miles away. Its pale, mighty Cathédrale de Saint-Étienne rises dramatically above clustered houses and flat, green fields. It would’ve been the largest building most of them ever saw, and its grandeur, as I cross the Yonne into the city, is still breathtaking. I stroll around, admiring stained-glass windows (some dating to the 13th century) and a marble Joan of Arc, pious on her knees—apparently, she took a break from battling the English to pray here in 1429.

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It all comes back to land. That’s what Joan was fighting for; that’s what the monks devoted themselves to, learning the differences between each tiny plot and nurturing the vines accordingly. In fact, there’s a local story that says they used to lick the soil to understand the difference in flavors in this, the world’s most piecemeal wine region. This earth is what these buildings are hewn from, too: this calcaire d’Auxerre rock is the same limestone found in the soil, all that remains of an ancient sea. As I drive on, the villages with their pale stones glow like ghosts.

These grapevines predate the monasteries; some possibly predate Christianity, since they were already being regulated on the orders of the Roman emperors in the first century A.D. It was much later, when a monastery was built and the pious began donating vineyards to ensure their place in heaven, that the town of Chablis and its surrounding lands became synonymous with superlative white wine.

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Eighty miles down the road in Dijon—once the capital of a duchy that was not only separate from France but arguably more powerful—Burgundy’s two great themes of spirituality and gastronomy truly present themselves. Here, too, there’s a vast cathedral, while in the sprawling ducal palace, the Musée des Beaux-Arts holds relics, giant altarpieces, and the delicately sculpted marble tombs of two long-dead noblemen, their effigies’ hands folded in prayer.

The museum holds medieval porcelain eating implements and a silver-and-wood cup said to have been used by Saint Bernard. I pause to think of the monks sitting down in their refectory after a hard day’s pruning and praying, lifting a cup of wine to their lips with the same sense of anticipation we feel today.

The Golden Slope

At last, my leisurely pilgrimage brings me to the Côte d’Or proper. I now have an altered perspective on it, as I contrast the gentle tilt of these south- and southeast-facing vineyards with those of the cooler, lusher, northern landscape.

Change happens slowly here, if at all. The purchase of the 18th-century Château de Pommard, with its 50-acre single plot (unusually large for this region), by American tech entrepreneur Michael Baum in 2014, caused a stir. He is certainly changing things: the courtyard is a morass of mud and noise as workers convert the outbuildings to a 28-suite luxury hotel, set to open in 2023.

Pommard wasn’t a monastic property; it was built in the 18th century by a secretary to Louis XV, and the vineyard beneath the tasting room, Micault, is still named for him. I feel the centuries flow into my glass along with the excellent wine. Baum, who admits he “grew up on beer and cheesesteaks,” is bringing an American expansiveness to these enclosed vineyards. Most Burgundian wineries don’t welcome visitors without appointments, let alone partner with a ballooning company like France Montgolfières so that you can learn about the vineyards while floating quietly above them.

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Burgundy was never just the domain of monks, dukes, and saints, as large and immortal as their stories have become. The heady tapestry of vines and churches woven across the fertile region always stood to elevate the general population, too—as well as the travelers who pass through it. As I sip heavenly wine and note the passing of time by the bell clanging in Saint-Aubin’s tiny, 10th-century church, I give thanks to the land’s custodians—and perhaps a higher power.

I wonder if there can be anything more miraculous than tasting a great wine in its birthplace. I’ve journeyed from Saint-Jacques to Saint-Aubin, and if neither martyr would’ve approved of my focus on temporal pleasures, they at least would have agreed that these wines linked heaven and earth for pilgrims of all kinds.

Nina Caplan is a journalist writing about travel, wine and art. You can find her on Twitter.

Slawek Kozdras is a London-based travel photographer and travel writer. You can find him on Instagram.

This article is adapted from a story published in the November 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (U.K.).

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