Ravelling in Burgundy

Philippe le Bon statue in central Dijon

Ron Blicq’s delightful piece, A Pub Supper, reminded me of an invitation extended to me in May of 2005. In my case, it was while I was finishing up my Masters in Education at the University of Burgundy in Dijon, France. As in Ron’s story, spirits and snacks were involved. Though here, wineries were de rigueur, and steak and kidney pie was not top of menu.

The director of the research unit to which I had been attached, a lover of both classical music and wine, invited me to accompany him to a Saturday concert featuring the acclaimed pianist Jung-Ja Kim. Sponsored by the university, it promised to be a glorious evening of Ravel—on the same Saturday, as it turns out, for which I had rented a car to explore Burgundy’s famed wine country. No matter I thought, an early start should allow me to squeeze in both.

Of all the wine joints in all the towns…

So there I was, barely awake that crisp and sunny morning, barreling down the Route de Beaune past storybook chateaux and vineyards in my nimble rented Renault Clio. Every now and then I would veer off, prospecting the narrow winding roads of the Côte d’Or (Gold Coast) for that perfect postcard memory. And which guideposts should I follow in this patchwork of Grand Cru vineyards on the famed eastern slopes of the Saône River valley: Gevery-Chambertin? Château Marsannay? Morey St-Denis?

Capstan of 15th C wine press

I chose to follow the signs leading to the Château du Clos de Vougeot. I had never heard of it before, but wow, I had really hit pay dirt! Arriving just in time for a 10am tour, the main focus was in fact not on the 16th century Renaissance style château. The jaw-dropping attraction was its original 12th century wine farm. Built by monks from the nearby Abbey of Cîteaux, the farm’s medieval vat-house and wine presses, Cistercian cellar, and original kitchens were sill intact. Particularly impressive were the monumental oak capstan presses: the largest being over 10 meters long (~34 feet) and the oldest dating circa 1477. It took six to eight men to drive the screws!

Back to the Future

Today, the Chateau du Clos de Vougeot is renowned as one of the very best “table d’hôte” of France. It also happens to be the seat of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin (Brotherhood of the Knights of Tastevin), who acquired the Château in 1945. One of the world’s most elite and not-so-secret societies (I was told that the likes of former presidents Bill Clinton and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing were Chevaliers), the Order is committed to enjoying and promoting the wines and food of Burgundy. And considering these slopes produce some of the most expensive wines in the known universe, their marketing seems to be working.

Now we come to the real food and drink part. Remember my invitation? Quite satisfied following the tour, an amble though the gift shop, and a leisurely drive back to Dijon, I returned my rented Renault and hopped a bus back to the university. No time to grab a bite, but sill ample time to freshen up before mon directeur was to pick me up for the drive to our evening concert. By the time he arrived, I was more than a little peckish.

“Bon après-midi, Guy !”

I hopped in, and we were off.

As we pulled away from the campus he announced with a flourish that we were off to… the Château du Clos de Vougeot! You could have knocked me over with a plume.

A hour later we were seated in the chateau’s original 800-year-old Cistercian wine-cellar come concert hall, imbibing the melodious sounds of Jung-Ja Kim on its grand piano. But Ravel, as it turns out, was but a prelude to other marvelous refreshments. As my director and I were hanging back, chatting with a group from the university, I noticed the entrance doors being closed as the last trickle of other attendees filed out of the “cave”. Then another set of doors swung open to release a procession of servers bearing silver trays heaped with mouth-watering delicacies. Since the university had sponsored the evening’s concert, its top brass (and moi!) were now being treated to a symphony of sweet and savoury petits fours and, of course, vins de Bourgogne!

To be sure, this had been an experience far beyond the imaginings of a humble little francophone from Winnipeg. How many palates much more refined than mine can only dream of an invitation to imbibe at the sanctuary of the august Chevaliers du Tastevin?

I was surprised to learn that my new friends at the University of Burgundy, much like Jets fans in Scandinavia, all knew of Winnipeg. Dijon mustard—surprise, surprise—is made from Manitoba seeds.

This is another in our Celebration of (Retired) Life series. We welcome any uplifting, funny, inspiring, or otherwise simply interesting story, profile, or bit of whimsy. To share with our other retirees, simply email your 500- to 1,000-word piece to HG-Editor@RRC.CA.

Categories: All, HG Life, Travel

4 replies »

  1. This is an awesome story Guy. What a wonderful memory. Hey I never got that kind of exciting experience when I was doing my masters degree at U of M!

    • Guess you just didn’t have the right advisor, Les. My Masters was also through the U of M. I took advantage of an exchange program at the time that allowed for transferable credits from participating universities around the world. One of those was the University of Burgundy. Since I had completed my education degree in French, I was allowed to get credit for a research project in Dijon. So you could say this jaunt was part of my research.

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