I had used the C word. And now the sommelier was rabid.
It was sometime between glass number seven and glass number nine 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 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 that creates distinctiveness, he insisted, 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 in it. 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, LOA.
Several local and international barge experts told me that Le Premier is among the region's top three crewed charter barges. In fact, they said, she's 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 in the Eastern Mediterranean.
In other words, au contraire, Monsieur sommelier: This fertile part of France is wonderful, but it's the ideas these ex-yachties are planting in it that make Le Premier such a standout.
"Our last year of offering charters in Turkey was 2001," explains Kathy Williams, who, with her partner, Capt. Richard Shields, formerly ran a 70-footer. "We'd been there for about 15 years, and it was 9/11, and we felt tourism in a Muslim country was going down. Then this opportunity came up in France."
The "opportunity" was a 50-year-old, rusted-out, bottomless barge sitting on blocks in an open shed. Shields and Williams spent two years rebuilding the tired commercial workhorse into a yacht-style charter barge complete with things unavailable on local sisterships—but quite common onboard charter yachts—such as an enclosed pilothouse with guest seating, a long open sundeck, and three large, equal-size cabins that can be arranged with twin- or king-size beds. They served as project managers, interior designers, electricians—you name it—working outdoors through summer heat waves and winter snowstorms alike with bands of local handymen by their sides.
The refit cost about $1 million and ended in 2004, when Le Premier began offering charters along several itineraries. Most popular is the one I sampled, from the modern city of Dijon through rural wine-and-cheese country to a scenic village called Escommes.
Le Premier is properly called a Freycimet barge, named for the Frenchman who, in the 1800's, oversaw the gutting of independent canal systems and their reconstruction with uniform bridge heights and lock widths, all to facilitate the transport of products to Paris. A Freycimet is the largest barge that can fit through the "new" locks in this centuries-old region, and Le Premier's top deck barely squeezes beneath several bridges along the route. I had to duck two or three times while sitting on the sundeck, as I am apparently taller than the bags of grain that previously were hauled along this waterway.
Le Premier is exactly 161/2 feet wide. An inch or two more on either side, literally, and she wouldn't fit in the locks—a startling reality I noticed as we went through our first of the 54 that make up the Dijon-Escommes route. There is no room for a line, let alone fenders, between the barge's sides and the scratchy stone walls of the locks. In fact, part of first mate Richard Barrett's job is to touch up the blue hull paint after every charter. "There's no use doing a proper prep job or anything," Williams notes. "It's just so that it looks nice for the guests."
That's not to say Shields is the kind of skipper who enjoys creaming the sides of his boat once or twice an hour. In fact, he makes sure Le Premier cruises slowly enough that a slip of her 270-ton steel hull won't crumble the 200-year-old locks altogether. "If you try to go too fast, more than about 6 knots, you draw so much water away that you actually hit bottom and damage the side of the canal," he explains. He adds that "the concentration level here is much, much higher [than when chartering between islands]. There's no putting the autopilot on and just going. If you take your eye off where you're going, bang—you've hit the side of the canal."
I found the cruising here enjoyable and relaxing, in large part thanks to the friendly, efficient service of former yacht stewardess Tiffany Curtis and the locally inspired meals full of gourmet cheeses that Williams prepared in the galley. However, chartering a barge along this kind of inland waterway is definitely much different than crewed charters in traditional destinations like the Virgin Islands. For starters, the canal is a clear-cut route where you can go only forward. Le Premier's slow speed makes it feel almost like a Disney ride on a fixed track, especially in the verdant parts of Burgundy that look, sound, and smell like enchanted forests filled with large balls of mistletoe and fluttering birds.
Also unique to this style of charter is that the sounds of civilization are never more than a half-dozen feet away along the canal's sides, including the groaning of occasional car engines and a morning's worth of construction—the types of things most charter yachts take you as far away from as possible.
What's interesting, though, is that cruising along this particular canal allows you to hop off the barge at any given lock and do whatever you like. You can stare out at a sea of green where "I think that's a herd of cows" replaces "dolphins off the starboard side." You can even follow alongside the boat. There's a path along the canal where I walked for several lock lengths, enjoying the scenery and, without effort, moving much faster than the barge before meeting her later along the route. "You go walking, cycling, or looking around while we're working with the lockkeepers," Shields says. "You're not stuck on the boat at all."
Sometimes Le Premier moves through a stretch of locks while guide Simon Alpin shows guests the best that Burgundy has to offer by minivan. Alpin is a Brit who now calls the 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 1100's 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 precious vines of chardonnay (excuse moi—his Burgundy whites).
Le terroir, I do agree, is an important thing. But in the case of this charter boat and crew, I think it's as much what's brought into it that makes it such a wonderful place.
Le Premier takes six guests with eight crew at a summer 2008 rate of $31,400, which includes pickup at a Paris airport or hotel, first-class high-speed train tickets to Dijon, transfers to the barge, most excursions, three meals daily including a four-course dinner, and a good selection of local wines onboard.
Ann Wallis-White Yacht Charters
This article originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.