World-class wine, gentle countryside, gastronomic pleasures - it must be Burgundy. Andy Lynes goes exploring, glass in hand

'Bon appétit," said the guard as he checked our tickets and nodded approvingly at the spread of savoury pastries, cherries and fine wines laid before us. We were using our time on the high-speed TGV from Paris to Dijon wisely, getting in training for three days of non-stop eating and drinking. For our final destination was the beautifully preserved medieval walled city of Beaune in Burgundy, a place so steeped in wine lore that even the characteristic glazed roof tiles are coloured chardonnay honey and pinot noir red.

The city is most famous as the site of the annual Hospices de Beaune wine auction that has announced the new Burgundy vintage for the past 145 years. But even if your budget doesn't run to bidding for a barrel or two of Pommard, there's much here to quicken the pulse of any wine lover. After dropping our bags at the Hostellerie le Cèdre, our base just outside the city walls, we travelled north to the hill above the nearby village of Pernand Vergelesses to get our bearings.

The panoramic view of the Côte de Beaune was like looking down a 3D wine list; each tiny green parcel of land representing a bottle you'd splash out on if it was your birthday. To our left, the rarefied hill of Aloxe-Corton, to our right the more affordable slopes of Pernand Vergelesses and in the distance the likes of Montagne and Savigny-lès-Beaune.

Getting your head around the complexities of Burgundy wines is never going to be easy. But knowing that the quality of wines, from grand cru through premier cru down to village and sub-village appellations (often referred to as the "Burgundy pyramid") broadly relates to how far up the hillside the vineyard happens to be was an easy and very useful visual lesson to learn.

There's no better way to see Burgundy up close than from the saddle of a bike. I can personally attest to the fact that cycling up a hill in Mersualt at midday in 40C is not to be recommended, but pedalling along the paths that take you right through the famous vineyards is a real joy. Don't be tempted to touch the fruit, though - unripe chardonnay grapes are impossibly sour.

We discovered why Burgundy remains one of the great gourmet capitals of the world courtesy of wine merchants Bouchard Père et Fils. The company has been making wine since 1731 and appears to have most of it squirrelled away in the cellars built into the metres-thick walls of its 15th-century city-centre chateau. Although there are thousands of bottles, some dating back to 1830, it turns out that it is merely the Bouchard private collection, little of which will ever be commercially available. It's a living reference library and the bottles are opened and tasted at regular intervals to see how they are developing. It seemed almost sacrilegious to disturb the dust of ages, but I couldn't help but reach out and touch an 1864 Montrachet, a bottle of which had recently sold at Christie's for £7,000.

I'm a wine lover rather than a wine expert, so I tend to blag my way through tastings either by keeping very quiet or by announcing "delicious!" in an enthusiastic sort of way at regular intervals. But while it's easy to avoid making learned pronouncements about what you're tasting, one thing you have to deal with is the issue of spitting. Given that you will be ploughing your way through around a dozen wines at each tasting, you can't swallow everything. It's also inadvisable to mimic the professionals who stand six feet from the spittoon and send a purposeful jet of liquid smack bang into its centre every time. As an untrained amateur, you're more likely to end up dribbling down your shirt, or worse, staining a fellow travellers' shoes. Try pouting like a rock star and forcing the wine out with your tongue and make sure you get plenty of practice in at home with bottled water before your trip.

Ten Meursaults, dutifully swirled, sniffed and spat, were followed by a superb lunch with, of course, more wine. Champagne and cheese puffs; crayfish salad and Corton Charlemange; chicken fricassee and Beaune Grèves Vigne de L'enfant Jésus 2000 and a plate of fine Burgundy cheeses with Le Corton 1976 set the trend for the rest of the trip. Now we were on Burgundy time where we quickly settled into a twice-daily routine of winery visit followed by extensive tasting followed by blow-out meal with amazing wines.

Although time spent without a glass in my hand soon began to feel like time wasted, a visit to the Louis Latour cooperage came as a welcome respite from the grape and afforded a rare opportunity to witness a centuries-old craft. The cooper selected a set of air-aged tapered oak wooden staves by eye. Each varied slightly in width but, when slotted into a metal band, formed a complete cylinder. A second band was hammered into place and the half-formed barrel, which now resembled a pleated skirt, was placed over a brazier to heat the wood and make it pliable.

The splayed staves were squeezed together on a sort of electronic rack (a task previously done with a manually operated vice) to form the familiar barrel shape. More bands were hammered into place to add strength and close any gaps between the staves; then it was back on the brazier for 30 minutes to toast the interior, a process that lends flavour to wine aged in the barrel.

We discovered more Burgundy traditions at Latour's historic Corton Grancey winery in Aloxe-Corton, where there is a system of copper cauldrons run on rails and where grapes are still trod by foot.

A final tasting at Louis Jadot, led by technical director Jacques Lardière, was a rare treat. As we slurped our way through a vast selection of reds and whites, the stick-thin, grey-haired Lardière became ever more animated, his body swaying, his arms and hands moving in the wild gestures as though conducting an invisible orchestra, possessed by the flavours of his own making.

There have been few meals in my life as memorable as the specially arranged dinner on our last night under the stars in the courtyard of Jadot's Couvent des Jacobins. Our private chef, Jean-Paul Thibert, was modernising Burgundian food before our eyes - a creamy soup of Epoisses cheese with snails, sautéed foie gras with crayfish, duck with cassis - and wines to make your jaw drop. Did I prefer the 1979 Corton Charlemagne or the 86? How did the Clos-Vougeot Grand Cru 1985 compare to the 59? And what about that Echézeaux 1990 from Joseph Drouhin - was it a good expression of the terroir? Well, I certainly didn't spit any of it out.

Rail Europe (08708 304 862; raileurope.co.uk) offers return fares to Beaune from Waterloo to Paris on Eurostar with an onward connection to Beaune from £124

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