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Burgundy: Wine, barging and beyond

BY RICK STEVES Published: May 1, 2012
My favorite corner of France is Burgundy, a region overflowing with edible, drinkable, scenic, and floatable delights. Its rolling hills and a handful of sleepy villages have given birth to the superior wines and fine cuisine that say "French."

The city of Beaune, snug within its medieval walls, makes a handy base for exploring the region. You'll feel comfortable right away in this prosperous and popular town, where life centers on the prestigious wines grown in the picturesque vineyards all around.

Medieval monks and the powerful dukes of Burgundy laid the groundwork that established this town's prosperity. The monks cultivated wine, while the dukes cultivated wealth.

Beaune's real charm is the town itself, which is especially vibrant on Saturday, the market day, when colorful stands fill the square. There is one must-see sight in town, the Hospice de Beaune, a medieval hospital.

Six hundred years ago, concerned about the destiny of his soul, one of Burgundy's wealthy sons attempted to buy a ticket to heaven by building this charity hospital. Rich and poor alike came here to die (or occasionally get better). The colorful glazed tiles on its roof established the classic style repeated on ancient buildings all throughout Burgundy.

In Beaune, every other shop seems to be selling wine. The production and consumption of the famous Côte d'Or ("Golden Hillside") wines is big business, and a good "nose" is a life skill worth developing. Your visit to Burgundy can include just about every aspect of the wine trade, right down to traditional barrel making.

This time-honored craft is kept alive at cooperages, where crafting barrels is a mix of modern efficiency and traditional techniques. Workmen use steam and bands of iron to bend oak staves into wine-tight casks. The characteristics of the wood contribute to the personality of Burgundy's wine.

Each bit of land in the region has its own "terroir" — a unique combination of geology, soil characteristics, exposure to the sun, and altitude. Aficionados say that the quality of wine can be different from one spot to another just 200 yards away.

Visitors are sometimes surprised by the poor-looking soil. Struggling to survive in the rocky ground, the grapevines manage to produce fruit of wonderful character and aromatic complexity.

To the connoisseur, the lovingly tended fields of Burgundy are a kind of pilgrimage site. For those versed in this drinkable art form, roadside signs read like fine-wine lists. Sightseers are welcome to drop in at many wineries, enjoy a little tasting, and pick up a bottle or two.

Drivers enjoy motoring on Burgundy's lovely tree-lined roads, and bikers are happy here, too.

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