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Monks began making wine in the Burgundy region of eastern France way back in the days of Charlemagne, so locals have had a long time to perfect the art. And perfect it they have.  Then add this plethora of world-class wineries to some of France’s most gorgeous countryside and you have the recipe for a perfect road trip -- providing, that is, you stay under the legal limits.

Burgundy’s vignerons (winegrowers) only have small vineyards -- rarely more than 10 hectares -- and they produce small quantities of very good wine. The most famous Burgundy reds are made with pinot noir grapes, and the best vintages demand 10 to 20 years to age; whites are made with chardonnay.

The region’s most famous wine route is the Route des Grands Crus (“road of great wines“), and its often-narrow variants wend their way between stone-built villages and steeple-topped churches, with the turrets of a chateau often peeping through the trees. Signposted in brown, the route is approximately 60km long and runs along the foot of the Côte d'Or escarpment, from the town of Dijon in the north to Santenay in the south. 

Vines cascade down the slopes between hamlets, whose names roll off the tongue -- Chambertin, Chambolle, Chassagne, Montrachet. The lower slopes are seas of grapes; on the upper slopes, vines give way to forests, cliffs and breathtaking views.

Starting in Dijon, the vineyards of the Côte de Nuits wine region begin in earnest just south of the village of Marsannay-la-Côte, with most of the area’s grand cru vineyards lying on the nine kilometre stretch between Gervey-Chambertin and Vosne-Romanée. In Vougeot, two and a half kilometres before Vosne-Romanée, make sure you stop at the historic chateau. Vosne-Romanée itself is famed for its Romanée Conti wines, among Burgundy’s most prestigious and priciest.

Continuing south just less than two kilometres, do not miss the Cassissium (a museum dedicated to the cassis – blackcurrent) in Nuits-St-Georges.

On the Côte de Beaune, 44km south of Dijon, the impossibly steep tile roof of Château Corton-André is easy to spot, just off the one-lane main street of the town of Beaune. The commune of Pernand-Vergelesses, with its excellent red and white wines, is just a short detour from here, nestled in a little hidden valley on the D18 road.

South of Beaune, Château de Pommard is the largest private vineyard in Burgundy. It is surrounded by a stone wall and  located on the D973 on the northeast edge of town. Off the main track, turning onto the D17E, St-Romain is a bucolic village situated right where the vineyards meet pastureland, forests and cliffs.

Hiking trails from here include the spectacular Sentier des Roches, a circuit that follows part of the GR7 and the D171 along the top of the Falaises de Baubigny (Baubigny cliffs), 300m above the Saône river.

Finally, via the hillside hamlet of Orches, which has breathtaking vineyard views, travel to the fantastic 15th-century Château de La Rochepot.

If you want to educate your palette as you explore Burgundy, consider taking a wine-tasting course at the École des Vins de Bourgogne in Beaune, which run from three hours to three days.

© 2012 Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘Driving Burgundy’s Route des Grands Crus’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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