If Paris is the head of France and Champagne is its soul, then Burgundy is its stomach. Even the French regard the ancient duchy of Bourgogne with special esteem. It is the land of the long lunch and four-hour dinner, of rich, succulent dishes and creamy sauces, the home of what the world regards as traditional French cuisine.
Crossed with canals and the expansive, lazy River Saone, Burgundy is also a cruising paradise, though perhaps not an obvious one. The waters are far from turquoise, and the beaches are few, but the scenery is extraordinarily pretty, and slipping by gently at 4 knots, it takes ahold of you. By day three you can no longer remember your office phone number, and nothing seems more important than tying up to that tree and breaking out some chilled Alsace beer, fresh bread, and about 12 different kinds of cheese.
St. Jean de Losne is the local boating center. Waterway routes from Paris and the north, as well as from the Rhine, the Loire, and the Mediterranean all converge within a few miles of the town. For years it was the commercial-barge capital of central France, but now its huge timber ponds have been converted into a giant marina, and the peniches (cargo craft) have mostly given way to pleasureboats. British sailboats pass through on their way south, in retreat from high prices and low weather, their masts struck down on deck to clear the low bridges. Swiss and German ensigns fly proudly from trim, Dutch-built, steel cruisers. Huge, comfortable converted barges ply back and forth, completely at home, their immaculate paint and varnish contrasting with the scuffed topsides of their working cousins. And there are traditional charter boats, lots of them, mostly British-built, some rather tired but others, like ours, nearly new.
Then there is the wine. Burgundy is one of the world's great wine regions, stretching from Chablis in the north some 150 miles down to Beaujolais. At its heart, centered on the city of Beaune, is the great vineyard of the Cote d'Or. There are a few great chateaus but no vast plantations, just a patchwork of vineyards spread out on the slopes to face the sun and place names guaranteed to get the connoisseur's attention. Montrachet, Meursault, Pommard, Nuits-St-Georges, Volnay—some of the greatest names in winemaking turn out to be unassuming little towns and villages dotted along this scenic range of hills, close to the Saone and the pretty Canal du Centre, their south- and east-facing slopes covered with vines.
We arrived at St. Jean in the afternoon and moved our stuff aboard while an engineer from Crown Blue Line, the charter company, showed me our boat, explaining how everything worked: heating, shorepower, hair dryers, a 200-gallon water tank, enough propane gas for about three months of cooking, three heads with showers, two steering positions. Considerably more luxurious than other bareboat charters I'd been on.
“What about the engine?” I asked, thinking about dipsticks.
“There is one,” the engineer replied. “It's under there. Leave it alone. It's Japanese.” I promised not to open the hatch.
Two ship-size river locks lay between us and downstream Chalon. Beautiful riverside villages like Seurre and Verdun-sur-le-Doubs are stone-built market towns, their tall houses, war memorials, and dark, cool churches set high above the summer water level. But in each village, marks on the walls record the history of the river's devastating power during winter floods. The banks are wild, so junglelike in places that you wouldn't be too surprised to see a crocodile emerge from the water. At Seurre we watched a busy, square-nose beaver swim across the river, and further downstream near Bourgerot we saw an angler's rod bend double as he fought with a catfish. When he eventually hauled it out, the fish was as big as he was.
At Chalon we left the Saone, and, in a lock as dark as an Egyptian tomb, were raised 35 feet into the Canal du Centre. Here true Burgundy scenery revealed itself, cultivated and landscaped over thousands of years. Past the dazzling yellow rape fields of the Saone valley—it was late April, and hot—the canal follows the winding contours of the hills and rises ten or 20 feet at a time through a dozen locks to a long, level “pound” (a canal term meaning a level stretch) that starts at Chagny. Here is the fabled Cote d'Or, birthplace of some of the world's most wonderful wines—the Cote de Beaune on one side of the canal, the Cote Chalonnaise on the other. Wine is more than a business here and much more than mere pleasure. It is, simply, what Burgundy is for.
In the dark cellar of Santenay wine merchant Prosper Maufoux, we finally got around to some degustation—better known as wine-tasting. Outside, the afternoon sun beat down on the eight plane trees in the square and children splashed in the fountain. Inside, a rich, black currant-infused Pinot Noir was offered, from Premier Cru (see “Burgundy, the Wine,” this story) slopes just half a mile away. Then another, quite superb, from higher slopes above the town. “It is not ready—you have to imagine what it will be in five years' time,” explained the vintner, Sylvain Jacquin. “Try this. There is no obligation.” A luscious Chardonnay, cool and characterful. Another. And then some Cremant de Bourgogne, a real surprise, a fine-textured, lively, sparkling white from Chalonnais, a few miles to the south.
After tasting a wine, you're supposed to spit it out—it has something to do with keeping your head clear and your judgment unclouded. Did we? I really don't remember. But we did buy some bottles of wine—some for the boat, ready to drink right away, and some to keep for five years or so until it would be ready. And we didn't even have to carry the case back up to the canal—Jacquin delivers.
French wine production has been highly regulated and controlled for centuries, and nowhere is this sophisticated stewardship more obsessive than in Burgundy. Individual parcels of land called climats, some just a few acres, have names. Each is known for its unique character: a combination of soil, gradient, and how much sun it gets. The best of them—the Grand Cru and Premier Cru climats—produce their own wines. So, for example, the finest white wine in Burgundy—some would say in the world—comes from Le Montrachet, a narrow, east-facing field between two villages. The climat immediately above, Chevalier Montrachet, has stonier soil; its wine has less depth. Just down the hill, the wine from Batard Montrachet comes from heavier ground and so lacks the finesse of its neighbor. Three distinct wines, yet from top to bottom of all three climats, it's barely 500 yards.
Burgundy reds come from the distinctive black currant Pinot Noir grape. Whites are almost invariably Chardonnay, that rich, flowery grape so beloved of the Australians and Californians, but here used to create a more delicate wine, less pungent, subtler. Almost uniquely in France, Burgundy winemakers don't blend grape varieties.
The noble Burgundy vines owe much to America. First a U.S. import, the root-chomping phylloxera bug just about wiped out the European vineyards at the end of the 19th century. Then it was discovered that the roots of U.S.-grown vines were immune to its attack, so even now all European vines are grafted onto American roots. It's a kind of horticultural imperialism.—A.H.
Crown Blue Line is the original British canal charter company in Europe. It started out chartering in France nearly 35 years ago and today offers a fleet of thousands of boats in eight countries (including the United States) from 28 to 49 feet. Our 42-foot Classique S, a spacious, high-quality, British-built river cruiser with four double cabins and three heads, costs between 2,390 EURO and 4,850 EURO per week depending on season, plus fuel, security deposit, and insurance. (Peak period is from mid-July through August.) Crown Blue Line's staff is fluent in at least two languages, often three.