By Catherine Down
The Route des Grands Crus is one of most picturesque driving routes in France that winds its way through some of the best villages for Burgundy wines. Created in 1937 as the first tourism route in France, the full road trip encompasses a narrow strip of land that spans 60 kilometers from Dijon in the North, to Santenay in the South. The journey along the route traverses through 30+ different wine-oriented villages in the famed Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune regions and affords visitors plenty of opportunities for taking in the architecture, learning about terroir, and drinking the world’s best burgundies along the way. For me, it’s the total package when traveling through France: incredible food, wine, and small-town scenery.
Although you have your pick of charming villages along the route, for me, it was fitting to start in Gevrey-Chambertin Not only is it the capital of Grands Crus in Burgundy with nine Grand Cru vineyard designations to its name, but it’s also where winemaking plausibly began in Burgundy during Gallo-Roman times. Archaeological excavations done at Au-Dessus de Bergis in 2008 have found evidence of winemaking there dating back to the first century. Although the wines from that time would taste nothing like the profile of today’s wines given the changes in agriculture, vinification, and the heavy use of spices historically, it’s where Burgundy wines as we know them began, and thus my journey.
I wanted to understand the deeply rooted history of the village as much as possible so my first stop was to head to the Château de Gevrey-Chambertin. Currently under renovation, the chateau is a medieval fort originally built for the Cluny Abbey. From 1019-1790, the chateau and its accompanying winemaking were managed by Clunisian monks. The square tower is still in excellent condition and has a stunning view overlooking the sweeping pinot noir vines below. Turning the corner from the chateau, I loved the viewpoint from the Clos Saint-Jacques where I could glimpse the rolling fields, the local church, and vines as far as the eye could see.
Heading back to the center of the village, I popped into the Halle Chambertin which opened in 2020 with exhibits on oenotourism and local history, and where we received enthusiastic guidance from local tourism officials. It was a great way to get a broad overview of the region and its history before heading out to explore the town on foot. It’s a pretty tiny village so I didn’t need to go far to see some of the stone houses, tiled rooves, and wine caves. Close by, in the center of town, there is a metal sculpture called Les Portes de Saint-Vincent that highlights some of the most beloved aspects of Burgundian life: the escargots, the local poultry, the terroir, the harvest, and more. It’s a simple metal structure the size of a wall, but it was moving to see a physical representation of the community, tradition, and agriculture that makes life in Burgundy so special. It was originally erected for the festival of Saint-Vincent Tournante-- a yearly event honoring the patron saint of winemaking that takes place every January and sounds like a massive local party with tasting sessions, parades, and charity events in various villages along the route.
No visit to Gevrey-Chambertin would be complete without stopping by a few of the domaines and caves to taste some of the famous red wines of the village. That’s what a road trip on the Route des Grands Crus is all about: wine and understanding it within the context of place. The most notable appellation here is Chambertin, the favorite wine of Napoleon the first, and one of the most well-known and respected red wines in the world today. Although Gevrey-Chambertin is most noted for its Grands Crus, it’s also rich with excellent premier crus and village wines.
Last, but certainly not least, if you, like me, are planning to spend all week driving through Burgundy, indulging in local delicacies and (safely) drinking as much pinot noir and chardonnay as you can, it’s well worth visiting the Combe Lavaux. It’s a beautiful nature preserve that is popular with hikers and rock climbers where you can head into the forest to work up a sweat to off-set the time spent in the car and at the table. The extraordinary terroir of the area is what makes the wines so magnificent, and there’s no better place to appreciate the unique geography and specific terroir of Gevrey-Chambertin, than from the cliffs overlooking the Combe Lavaux.