Thirty-four years ago our wine scribe Jim Walker’s wife Hélène encouraged him to join her in Paris and then make a side trip to Burgundy. It turned out to be the best invitation he ever accepted.
It was 1984. Despite George Orwell, this was a very good year for us. Daughter number one, Kate was born in early April. Then Hélène, who worked for Hilton Canada, was invited to join their sales and marketing team for a boondoggle in Strasbourg that September. This was better news for Hélène than me. She would be gallivanting around eastern France while I and a team of babysitters would be looking after Kate. C’est la vie.
However, midway through her Alsatian idylls Hélène gave me a call. “You’ve got to come over”, she enthused. “It’s fantastic here. We could meet in Paris and then visit Burgundy for a few days.” Burgundy! She knew all my weak spots. I had developed a keen appreciation for the wines of that noble land. “But, we have no money”, I accurately noted. “Put the airfare on a credit card and we’ll worry about it later. Besides, we get to stay at the Paris Hilton (now the Hotel Pullman Paris Eiffel Tower) for free and the food and beverage is half price for employees. I’ve already talked to Anneliese (babysitter number one) and she would be delighted to look after Kate for a week or so. And, Ted is coming over to meet up with Angelique (friends of ours and the latter a co-worker of Hélène’s). We could have so much fun in Paris together.” How could I reasonably refuse?
So I hopped on a plane, took a cab to the Paris Hilton (located not far from the Eiffel Tower) and commenced the good life in Gay Paree. Ted did likewise, but his taxi ride turned out to be quite the nasty experience. He was certain that the driver took him far out of his way and thus ran up a totally unreasonable fare. He vowed to write a letter of complaint to the appropriate authorities when he returned to Montreal.
The Paris Hilton was great, but not exactly free. The various taxes and related charges were not insignificant. But we were thankful for small mercies. However, the half price meals remained well above our budget, so we would trot down to the nearest convenience store for our morning provisions and eat our breakfast in the shadows of the Eiffel Tower using borrowed Hilton silverware.
But dinners were another thing. Along with Angelique and Ted, we enjoyed several truly delectable meals in the City of Lights. Perhaps most memorable was the one at Androuet. We entered a delightful little cheese shop and then took an impossibly tiny, ancient elevator to the second floor. The elevator door creaked open to reveal a cavernous room chock full of joyous revellers and marvellous aromas. Only two things graced the Androulet menu … cheese and wine, both in every imaginable variation. Man, what a feast. My only concern was fitting into that elevator when we were finished. While the cheese shop remains, sadly the restaurant does not.
Another splendid meal was at a seafood restaurant. None of us can remember its name, but we vividly recall the great time we had there. We literally stumbled upon it. Angelique broke the heel off one of her shoes on the way. Lo and behold, Hélène pulled a pair of flats out of her voluminous purse. “You’re the only one I know who would carry around an extra pair of shoes in Paris,” Angelique gratefully remarked. Tragedy averted, we made our way to the restaurant that we had decided to grace with our hungry and thirsty selves. The photo to the left pretty much sums things up – a tower of seafood and two bottles of Chablis on the go. It doesn’t get much better than that.
We bade Paris, along with Angelique and Ted, a fond adieu and boarded an early morning train bound for Dijon. There we rented a small car and headed south to Burgundy wine country. We didn’t have far to go for the vineyards of Fixin abut the southern suburban sprawl of Dijon. Our immediate destination was Gevrey-Chambertin and the drive there took us through some storied wine real estate. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. The village of Gevrey-Chambertin was quite rustic back then (I returned several years later to find that it had been completely spiffed up in a most Disney-like manner).
We had time to visit a winery before we settled in for lunch. But, which one? We noticed a small sign that pointed in the direction of Domaine Armand Rousseau. I vaguely recalled having seen that name somewhere and decided to make it our first vinous stop in Burgundy. Little did we know that we had happened upon one of the most highly regarded wineries in the region. There wasn’t much to the place – a workshop come reception area and larger stone building that was likely the family residence below which was a musty wine cellar. It certainly belied the treasures that were produced there.
Charles Rousseau, Armand’s son, warmly greeted us and guided us on an extensive tour of his facilities. A lone American cyclist, who stayed for just a short slurp, was the sole interruption to our private tour. I can assure you that our eventual tasting was not limited to a short slurp. The Rousseau wines were sheer ambrosia. We selected several to take home and, believe it or not, Charles handed-pasted the labels onto each of them. Their prices were a fraction of what they would have been back home.
Lunch was looming large, so after tucking our treasures in the trunk of our rental car, we sashayed a few blocks over to the restaurant Charles had recommended. Once again we can’t remember its name. However, it was a three story stone building, each floor being quite large. The first was set up bar style and didn’t really appeal to us. The second looked more like the kind of restaurant we wanted, but it was full. So we made our way to the third floor, which was much like the second, and secured the last available table. The atmosphere was vibrant. No wonder – it was filled with local vignerons who were boisterously swapping the fruits of their labours between tables. Regrettably none of their bottles ended up at ours, but we did just fine with large bowls of Coq au Vin and fresh baguette washed down by a saucy little village Gevrey-Chambertin.
It was mid-afternoon by the time we finished. One of Hélène’s work colleagues had enthusiastically recommended a place to stay for the night called Château d’Igé, so off we went. It was a lovely drive due south through the Burgundian countyside to the chateau which was located in a totally bucolic setting. Dating from the 13th century, the castle had been largely spared during the French Revolution and looked most inviting. Our room was in the turret where one wended their way up a deeply concaved stone staircase (due to countless folks scaling it over the centuries) to reach it. We enjoyed a fine dinner washed down by a delicious 1972 Vosne-Romanée Les Chaumes from Domaine Daniel Rion & Fils in the grand dining room.
I was awoken early the next morning by the crowing of a neighbour’s rooster and prepared for my daily jog. However, when I got to the massive front door I found it to be locked. In fact, all of the doors were locked and the hotel staff had yet to appear. Thank goodness there hadn’t been a fire!
We headed back north to Beaune after enjoying a tranquil breakfast of croissants and coffee by the duck pond. Of course we visited the Hospices de Beaune with its multi-coloured tile roof, but the highlight for me was the Marché aux Vins. We entered this beautifully restored building in the middle of the city and for a small price we purchased a couple of tastevins. We then descended into a dimly lit tunnel where as far as we could see a succession of barrels on end awaited for us to put the tastevins to good use. On each barrel was a lighted candle and a bottle of open wine inviting us to take a wee sip. As we progressed, the quality of the wines did likewise till we ascended into what was once a church, stained glass and all. There on many, many barrels were premier and grand cru Burgundies beckoning. I remember thinking to myself at the time, ‘If brother Doug was here with us, it is likely that he would never again see the light of day.’ As we sadly departed we were given the option of keeping our tastevins or returning them for full refunds! We kept them of course.
Alas, we had to depart and head back to Dijon for our return train to Paris. Happily we had enough time to stop for a tasting in nearby Fixin (‘x’ in Burgundy is pronounced ‘ss’). However, none of the wineries appeared to be open and it was getting dark. I cajoled Hélène to go into a small restaurant and ask the folks there if they could direct us to a local winery that would receive us. They kindly did so and we were soon on the doorsteps of Domaine Pierre Gelin. Pierre-Emmanuel Gelin greeted us as if he had been expecting us all along. He graciously took us on a tour of his cellars, treated us to an extensive tasting of his splendid wines and then brought us up to his den for a glass of his 1980 Fixin Clos Napoleon and a chat. He remarked that it was so nice to have visitors who spoke French (Hélène) and knew so much about Burgundy (we both nearly fainted because, of course, we hardly knew anything about Burgundy except that we adored it).
It was by then late afternoon and time to head over to Dijon and catch our train back to Paris. The rental car office in the middle of Dijon was closed. There were no instructions about where to leave the car. So we parked it on a side street several blocks away and left a note and the keys in the rental office mail box. We then caught a cab for the train station. Hauling 18 bottles of wine, I felt like a pack mule. The train turned out to be about three-quarters of an hour late, but otherwise it was an uneventful ride back to Paris. And thus, our enchanting introduction to Burgundy had come to an end.
It would seem that the Dijon rental firm evidently found their car for we heard nothing further from them. We packed some of the wine in our baggage and lugged the rest onto the plane (ah, the good old days). We declared all 18 bottles at Montreal customs expecting to pay hefty duties and other charges. The agent simply thanked us for our honesty and waved us through! A few weeks after our return we received a note of apology from the SNCF for the late Dijon train departure along with a refund for half our fares! Ted did write a letter of complaint to the Paris taxi authorities. He had given up hope of hearing from them. But, six months later he received a full refund of his fare and a note saying that the driver had been suspended for a month!