- Monday 22 March 2010
November, a month when winter gets a firm grip on the UK, can be a depressing time of year for all kinds of reasons. But it happens to be the high point for a group of car and wine lovers who take part in an event many have heard of yet few know much about: the annual Burlington Beaujolais Run.
It started in 1972 when Sunday Times journalist Allan Hall challenged readers to be the first to bring him a bottle of that year’s Beaujolais Nouveau. The winner would get a case of the wine and the kudos of being the quickest from London to Mâcon and back.
For many wine connoisseurs, it might seem like an odd thing to get excited about. Beaujolais Nouveau’s popularity is nothing like that enjoyed in the 1970s and ’80s, but the event has transformed from informal race to highly organised navigational challenge and, even if the wine isn’t one you’d normally allow space for in your cellar, it’s a hugely enjoyable event. For 2009, Decanter went along for the ride in an Aston Martin DBS to see what all the fuss was about.
Day one – Brooklands to Reims: 400km
Brooklands, the home of motorsport, played host to 40 teams on the legendary banking on Tuesday 17 November to be waved off by John Surtees (the only person to be world champion in Formula One and Grand Prix motorcycle racing), before heading for the Channel Tunnel.
Each year the Run celebrates something different; 2009 was the centenary of the birth of Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli, producer of the classic James Bond films. To greet the teams at Folkestone was Bond Girl Tania Mallet – now 68, she played Tilly Masterson in 1964’s Goldfinger.
Once in France, it was a case of putting our foot down all the way to Reims for the first communal overnight stop – Taittinger’s amazing cellars under the streets of Reims. After a fascinating tour of the facilities, teams were greeted by head of the house, Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, for a welcome toast. Teams would return here the next morning for the official start of the competition.
Day two – Reims to Mâcon: 420km
With almost everyone in fancy dress on this, the competition day, you could view this as a spectator sport as much as anything else. The James Bond theme was in full swing: we had henchmen, frogmen, tuxedoed gents, ladies in Russian military garb and even an Austin Powers lookalike.
This is when competitors really let their hair down. When you talk to fellow ‘Runners’, conversation usually ends up on the subject of work and home, and it’s soon evident there’s an extremely varied cross-section of participants: bankers, lawyers, charity workers, media types, engineers, manufacturing entrepreneurs, authors, radio presenters and journalists – they’re all here.
Many have taken part for years; for others it’s their first time. Some like the lack of seriousness in the competition, some like the fact the event raises so much money for good causes, but mostly they’re here to have fun with like-minded people.
Their mission? To get to the final checkpoint in Mâcon, not in the least amount of time but by covering the shortest distance. Mileage on each car is checked at the start line and then again at the finish line.
There are six checkpoints, and at each you must take a photograph of driver or navigator outside a specific landmark – usually of them doing something rather stupid. The point of the photographs is that they prove, in the event of any dispute, that competitors have been where they should have been.
From Reims on a cold, crisp morning, the first checkpoint was Verzenay’s iconic windmill in Grande Montagne. It’s a lovely sight, especially with a supernaturally pink and blue morning sky as its background. The vines covering the surrounding hillsides are bare and spiky this time of year – it’s hard to imagine anything growing in such low temperatures – but the cold snap here doesn’t last too long.
Time to head south to Dienville on the banks of the River Aube, where teams aim for the Church of St-Quentin for a quick photo. Maps at the ready, next stop was the village of Villaines-en-Duesmois that nestles in the Crémant de Bourgogne area.
Roads in this part of France are quite incredible. They’re clear of traffic, sometimes arrow-straight for miles and run through some of Europe’s most beautiful scenery. With often a good 90 minutes of driving between checkpoints, you’re able to take it all in. You can use maps or even sat-nav to guide you, though the modern version tends to find you the quickest route as opposed to the shortest, so map-readers have the edge.
Just northwest of Dijon, the destination was the Prenois motor racing circuit. This may be some of the best wine country in the world but for petrolheads the race track is hallowed ground. After a blast around the circuit there was one more stop to make before arriving in Mâcon: the Château Corton-Andre in the pretty village of Aloxe-Corton.
For wine lovers, this route through Burgundy is extraordinary; it is peppered with so many renowned states it’s hard to take them all in; even more so because it’s meant to be a competition. If you want to spend more time somewhere special, you can always drop in on your way back to Reims tomorrow.
Arriving in Mâcon with just enough time to check in, get washed and changed, we find out everyone is safe – no major incidents apart from a few breakdowns. It had been a fantastic day. But it’s the third Wednesday of November so there’s still much to experience – for at midnight the Beaujolais Nouveau is released.
First, a visit to Louis Jadot’s Château UPdes Jacques for a tour of the cellars, a tasting of the new vintage and finally dinner as guests of winemaker Baron Guillaume de Curieres de Castelnau (try repeating that after a bottle of Morgon…) who was evidently proud of his 2009 Beaujolais.‘Vin de merde’ this was not.
By 11pm the streets of Beaujeu were beckoning for the annual street party. The main avenue leading up to the town square, as long and as straight as you’re ever likely to see, is lit up with green lasers that combine to give the effect of walking through a tunnelled wine cellar. Thousands of locals carrying flaming vines head for the square, while bands march alongside. It’s an incredible spectacle.
At the strike of midnight the assembled throng, as is tradition, go wild for a couple of minutes as fireworks light up the black sky and the music tries to compete for dominance. It fails; nobody ever listens. Instead there’s free wine to be had on every street corner – although it wasn’t quite at room temperature. In fact it’s hardly ever drinkable.
Day three – Mâcon to Reims: 420km
With the competition element over, there’s no set route back to Reims so you can do whatever you like – fast motorway driving or a more leisurely scenic journey. With the cars so distinctively liveried, it’s likely you’ll see other participants at some stage on your way, and many travel together in mini convoy. With the pressure off, it’s nice to explore some of the picturesque villages and towns that rural France does so well. And, of course, a hearty lunch is never far away. But don’t overdo it on the baguettes because you need to leave room for what’s to come.
The final, black-tie dinner is another Beaujolais Run highlight and again, it’s where you tend to get a ‘money-can’t-buy’ experience. This year all the competitors were hosted by Justin Llewellyn, Taittinger’s ambassador and son of Desmond, who was a James Bond legend, playing the role of Q. The location? La Marquetterie, Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger’s stunning home where the marque’s most famous vineyards surround the château itself.
And if that wasn’t enough, after-dinner entertainment arrived in the form of The Robbers, Formula 1 supremo Eddie Jordan’s band. Jordan is a figurehead for CLIC Sargent, one of the Run’s favoured charities, and to have the man himself come to France to play a private gig was surreal. And, like the whole event, hugely entertaining.
Day four – Reims to London: 420km
With the Run over it was back to London and The Ritz Club Casino. As major sponsors of Decanter’s Aston Martin, the management wished to host us all, Bond style, in the world’s most exclusive private gaming club. Rob Bellinger, the Run organiser, gave the first bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau to the casino’s chief executive Tim Cullimore and tradition was upheld. Time for refreshments and a reminisce before heading home.
It’s impossible to convey the feelgood quality of this event. The only way you’ll get a proper grasp is by taking part yourself. You don’t need a fast car or lots of money, but you do need a sense of humour and be willing to raise sponsorship money (see box opposite). If you can tick both boxes, then you may be lucky enough to picked to take part this year. My navigator and I only finished mid-field, but we’ll be back to see if we can beat last year’s winners’ 388.66km effort, done in 8 hours, 12 minutes. See you there.
Kevin Hackett is Motors Editor of FHM