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Le Premier on France’s Canal de Borgogne

le premier en le Canal de Borgogne

le premier en le Canal de BorgogneThis 127-footer is one among just a handful of yacht-quality, charter-style barges operating along the picturesque canal in France’s stunning inland Burgundy wine country.

Le Premier offers charter yacht-level service onboard a 127-foot barge in France’s beautiful Burgundy wine country

By Kim Kavin

I had used the C-word. And now the sommelier was rabid.
     It was sometime between glass No. 7 and glass No. 9 on the tasting menu that I innocently, if perhaps a bit drunkenly, commented that every sip tasted remarkably different. I found this quite interesting given that all the whites being served today at Olivier Leflaive’s winery restaurant were chardonnays grown in the same part of Burgundy.
     That C-word—chardonnay—sent the good-natured sommelier into a friendly fit. He indoctrinated me with a lesson in Burgundy grape-growing, talking so fast that his accented English slurred into French in my wine-addled brain. It’s the terroir, he insisted, that creates distinctiveness, not the type of grape that’s planted in it. Never, ever, ever should I call his wines chardonnays. Yes, they’re made from chardonnay grapes, but that’s a technicality. They are Burgundy whites, grown in distinct parcels of terrain. Le terroir. Le terroir!
     I found this homage to local patches of dirt hilarious, as I find most things after nine glasses of wine in two hours, but even more so because it was the complete opposite of what I’d come to believe after a few days of cruising in this gorgeous wine country.
     My opinions had been formed onboard Le Premier, one of a handful of barges in France run by former yacht crew. Le Premier is not just the only barge of this kind that cruises the Canal de Bourgogne—the Burgundy Canal—but at 127 feet long she is also the biggest barge that can fit. She has five crew tending to six guests, as opposed to traditional barges that cram as many as 28 people into the same, or even smaller, length of barge.
     Several local and international barge experts told me Le Premier is among the region’s top three crewed charter barges, often rated as number one because of her design and service—both of which are thanks to the hard work of a British couple with years of charter experience onboard sailing yachts in the Eastern Mediterranean. Kathy Williams and Richard Shields rebuilt the 50-year-old barge’s hull in the style of a proper charter yacht, and then organized a crew to help make cruising the Burgundy Canal as interesting as chartering in the Greek Isles.
     A good example of how that’s done is the excursions organized by onboard guide Simon Alpin. He’s a Brit who now calls France’s Burgundy region home, and when he’s not doing onboard massages he helps guests enjoy whichever part of Burgundy most interests them. He tailors excursions to include everything from wineries to golf courses, museums, horseback-riding trails, and hot-air balloons.
     Each tour is organized for your party alone, not as part of a larger group experience. “The goat cheese farm, you see how the cheeses are made and you end up in the dining room with the woman who runs it,” Williams explains. “Simon brings a bottle of wine and some bread, and it’s fantastic. It’s not a tour. It’s a private thing.”
     My favorite excursion was the one Alpin led to Chateauneuf en Auxois, a castle that dates to the 1100s in the middle of an achingly charming village of 60 year-round residents. Alpin not only knows the history of the stone structure’s drawbridge opening and spiral stone staircases, but also has a vivid imagination for how they were used in their heyday. As he noted while we leaned over the side of the chateau’s well for a peek, “If you can find the enemy’s source of water and throw a dead pig in it, that would work quite well.”
     Now, imagine if I’d said something like that to the sommelier about the water within the terrain that nourishes his vines of chardonnay (excuse moi—his Burgundy whites).
     Le terroir, I do agree, is an important thing. But in the case of Le Premier and her crew, I think it’s as much what’s brought into it that makes it such a wonderful place.