Beaune has been at the heart of Burgundian culture since the days of the druids. During the Middle Ages, Beaune was a city of drapers, and cloth merchants made their fortunes there. Over the centuries, generations of Dukes waged wars, created courts of fame and beauty, and commissioned some of the most exquisite illuminated manuscripts ever produced. English Kings married into the Burgundian courts and helped to secure Beaune’s fame as a place of refinement and culture.
Today, the commoners come for the wine. Grape culture is tantamount to a religion, and I’m an adherent.
We travelled to Beaune (population 22,000) with our cousins Peta and Bryan and friends Annie, Suzanne and Christian. Suzanne and Christian had introduced us to many flavours of the local terroir on our previous visit to France, and so when Christian proposed a day of wine tasting in Beaune, we jumped at the opportunity.
We drove along the Route des Grands Crus and into the Côte d’Or, fields of placidly graving Charolaise cattle giving way to thousands of acres of densely planted vines. We skirted the edges of Mercurey, Saint-Aubin, Meursault, Pommard – names of the towns are synonymous with varietals. We entered Beaune through the welcoming gate of Saint Nicholas and headed to Cave Patriarache Père et Fils.
Cave Patriarache was started by Jean-Baptiste Patriarche in the eighteenth century. In 1796, he purchased the Ancient Convent of the Sisters of the Visitation, which had been confiscated during the French Revolution. Jean-Baptiste had outgrown his original building in Savigny-les-Beaune and saw that the convent’s extensive cellars would give him the room he needed for his growing business. Cave Patriarche now has the largest cellars in Burgundy.
Upon entry, we were each given a small, flat silver cup, a “coupelles tastevin” to use for our tasting. The bumpy surface of the tastevin is designed to catch and refract the light to best show off the wine colour.
We descended deep under the streets of the town, through 5 kilometers of dark paths created by rows and rows of dusty bottles. Sections of the cellars date back to the fourteenth century, when they were used by the Monks of Chatreux to age their wines. There are literally millions of bottles in the cave and the walkways stretched out to dark corners far beyond our vision.
Wines for tasting were set up along our route, designated by candles and open bottles placed on barrels. Three whites, twelve reds. Our enthusiasm grew as we wended our way deeper into the cave.
In 1995, 350 bottles of an exclusive and promising vintage were put aside to be donated to an annual auction to raise funds for L’Hôtel Dieu de Beaune. The bottles are under lock and key, quietly waiting for future discerning oenophiles, to open them as specified – in 2020, 2050, and 2094. We stopped to pay due homage.
Unfortunately, most of the Patriarche wines were out of our price range. We fell in love with a 2000 Pommard, 1st Cru but resisted purchasing a bottle. Instead, we topped up our tastevin just a bit and savoured every drop, before reemerging into the daylight and wended our way to lunch.
Christian had selected L’Air du Temps, for our repas of Burgundian flavours. Our prix fixe was a 3-course meal of local gastronome. I chose the Véritable Persillé de Bourgogne (a wonderful pork and ham pate, marbled with parsley), avec compotée d’éschalotes aux cassis; Bourguignon de Joue de Boeuf et Roseval (a Beef Bourguignon as I have never tasted, with tender morsels of beef slow-baked on thinly sliced potatoes); and Financier aux baies de cassis, sorbet cassis (a soft cake with blackberries and fresh blackberry sorbet). Every mouthful was a masterpiece. I felt like a spoiled Burgundian duchess.
Our last stop in Beaune was to visit L’Hôtel Dieu de Beaune, the shining star of the city.
In 1443, Nicholas Rolin, chancellor to the Duke of Burgundy, and his wife Guigone de Salins established the Hôtel Dieu as a “palace for the poor”. Nicholas gave a vast amount of his fortune to create and maintain the hospice. It is a stunningly beautiful building, famed for its remarkable roofs of coloured slate.
Nicholas also commissioned artwork and tapestries to give comfort to the patients, including a huge triptych of the last judgment that was kept closed, only to be revealed to dying patients as part of their last rites.
Inside the hospice, thirty beds lined the walls of the “Great Hall of the Poors”. It was a respectful environment – the beds were designed to be private, yet accessible to the nuns who cared for the sick. Along with the nursing sisters, Hôtel Dieu housed doctors and scientists who worked in the laboratory. In the pharmacy, a resident apothecary created medicines from herbs, spices and tinctures. The busy kitchen cooked for everyone and baked 100 loaves a day to give away to the poor in the town.
Hôtel Dieu was like a city all unto itself and since the fifteenth century, it has been the pride of Beaune. Apparently King Louis XIV said, “This hospital is the glory of my kingdom.”
The hospice is still going strong. In 1971 it moved to new facilities, leaving the original building as a museum. Funds raised from the annual 450,000 visitors, and from the exclusive wine auction to which Cave Patriarache contributes, go to the hospital’s charitable works.
We’ve only touched the surface of Beaune when it’s time to leave. “Beaune la Jolie and Beaune la Vineuse conspire to take you up in their adorned and perfumed arms,” wrote Pierre Poupon, a great Burgundian man of letters. As we got into the car I wondered if he might be related to Poupon of the mustard fame? I looked longingly at a flyer for a mustard tasting in Beaune. I definitely need more time in those adorned and perfumed arms…