City-break in Beaune, in the heart of Burgundy’s vineyards – Meanderings through France n° 142
By Annick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny
Whether for a short French break or a pleasant stop on your way to the Riviera or to the Alps’ ski resorts, Beaune is a beautiful ancient town and a perfect place to discover the unique wines that have made its fortune for centuries. Its rich architectural heritage and cultural offer still are symbols of this undisputed wealth.
Today Beaune is still surrounded by thick ramparts built in the 13th century and has kept its maze of small Mediaeval cobbled streets lined with beautiful houses and mansions built along the centuries. It’s a small town and you will be able to visit it by foot and discover its charm simply wandering aimlessly in the streets. Inevitably you will get to the famous “Hospices de Beaune” that are known worldwide for their annual wine sale in November.
This magnificent building is easily recognizable with its colourful roof typical of Burgundy. In the middle of the 15th century the Hundred Years’ war was getting to its end but burgundy was devastated and the roads were filled with homeless people whose houses and fields had been wrecked by the different armies involved in the conflict. In 1443 Nicolas Rolin, chancellor of the Duke of Burgundy, and his wife Guigone de Salins decided to build a hospital to welcome sick and poor people. It’s been a hospital ever since until it finally closed in 1980 and was turned into a museum telling this great story. A modern hospital and several retirement homes have been built in the surrounding of Beaune to replace it, and are ruled by the same “Hospices de Beaune” foundation.
Your visit of the old hospital will begin in the main courtyard from where you will get a great view over the flamboyant roof with varnished tiles, next you will discover the impressive “Salle des Pôvres”, the Hall of the Poor, that housed 30 beds. The following rooms describe the day-to-day life in this hospital where nursing sisters took care of the poor. The jewel of the museum is a Polyptych of the Last Judgement, featuring the portraits of Nicolas Rolin and Guigogne de Salins, painted by a Flemish painter of the 15th century, Rogier van der Weyden.
Through the centuries many donations allowed the “Hospices de Beaune” to carry on their philanthropic work. Today they own 60 hectares of vineyards located in the best places of Burgundy and their wines, as well as wines given by local wine makers, are sold by auction. Every year on the 3rd Sunday of November a charity sale is organised to raise money to continue this mission of public utility and the new hospital is one of the best equipped hospitals in France. This is a festive weekend in all Beaune and people from the whole world go there to buy good wines or simply have a good time. Celebrities lead the auction and do their best to raise the bidding.
Although all Burgundy red wines are made with the Pinot Noir grape variety and all white wines with Chardonnay, each wine has its own features depending on the soil’s properties, the orientation of the vineyard plot and of course the know-how of the winemaker. Each plot is called a “climat” but this has nothing to do with climate, it’s all about “terroir”, a subtle blend of soil types, geology, slope, sun exposure, weather conditions and grape varieties. There are today no less than 1,247 “climats” on the 60-km long wine route going from Dijon to Santenay via Beaune and they are recognized as World Heritage by UNESCO since 2015. Thinking of all the different wines made out of only two grape varieties makes us understand the paramount importance of these “climats“.
This also highlights how difficult it is to get to know and appreciate Burgundy wines. Each “climat” has its own personality and you won’t know if you like it until you taste it! This is why wine tasting is so important in Burgundy and Beaune offers many ways to help you discover what you like and what you don’t. Tasting wines while visiting old cellars is an interesting way to do it. The “Patriarche” cellars are located right in the city centre and are both the oldest and the largest ones in Beaune. They were created in the 17th century by Visitandine Sisters who in order to help the poor, grew, made and sold wines from their vineyards. After the French Revolution the Patriarche family bought the property, in 1796, until 1941 when it was sold for the second time and finally a third time in 2011, always keeping the name “Patriarche”. It never stopped growing through the centuries and there is now a labyrinth of 5km of vaulted beautiful cellars dating back to the 13th century holding 3 millions bottles! Part of them is open to the public and during your visit you can taste 7 different wines and put in your basket bottles of your favourite ones directly picked from the cellar’s shelves. “Patriarche” sales no less than four hundreds different wines made in Burgundy, the oldest one on sale dates back to 1904! (Visit and wine tasting is 17 Euros per person). http://www.patriarche.com/#
The “Bouchard Ainé & Fils” wine house was created in 1731 and remained in the same family ever since. It never stopped growing since its foundation and now sells over 4 millions bottles a year in the whole world. A new winery was built close to Beaune in 2000 to support this spectacular growth, but you can still visit the original cellar in Beaune. The visit, called “The Tour of the 5 Senses”, is conducted by English speaking guides and will allow you to taste five different wines including one Premier Cru and one Grand Cru. (15 Euros per person). You can also experience a “wine and Chocolate” tour during which different wines are matched with different chocolates made by Michel Dessolins, a Master Chocolatier working in close by Pommard. (18 Euros per person). http://www.bouchard-aine.fr/fr/
Of course another great way to taste wines is dining in a restaurant proposing menus matching food and wines. Right in Beaune city centre “Loiseau des Vignes” is a Michelin 1-star restaurant belonging to the Bernard Loiseau Group. The restaurant is set into the 5-star Hotel Le Cep and it has been the very first one in Europe to propose a 70 wine-by-the-glass menu. This is made possible by a unique process allowing wine to be kept in optimal conditions several weeks after opening its bottle. Good Burgundy wines are not cheap and buying one, two or three glasses of different wines during your meal is of course much more affordable than buying a bottle of each one. At Loiseau des Vignes you can enjoy a tasty meal in a charming old house of Beaune and the sommelier will help you make your choice of matching wines according to your preferences. More at http://www.bernard-loiseau.com/en/houses/loiseau-des-vignes/beaune
If you like places with a history you will love the “Hotel Le Cep”. As a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, “Le Cep” has this unique charm so typical of historical places. Over the years the owners had the opportunity to buy and reunite two private mansions that had been divided into several apartments. After several renovations it now proposes 64 rooms and suites, each one with its own style and decoration but always with high quality materials and furniture.
The reunion of the two mansions also allowed regain ownership of two elegant courtyards both listed as Historical Monuments. In summertime breakfast is served in these beautiful courtyards to the delight of the hotel’s guests. The hotel staff is always smiling and willing to help you make the most of your stay in Beaune.
The hotel has just created a wine tasting experience in a beautiful ancient vaulted cellar, “Le Caveau Saint-Felix”. The sommelier will share his favourite wines with you, including wines made by the “Hospices de Beaune” property, which are not so easy to find and taste.
Jean-Claude Bernard, owner of the Hotel Le Cep, is personally involved in the day-to-day life of his hotel and is always there to give his guests insider tips that will help them go to the right restaurants, wine or cheese makers, wine bars or any other place they might wish to discover. He also took an active role in the creation of the hotel’s spa, the “Marie de Bourgogne Spa”. Unlike many luxury hotels that entrust the spa management to cosmetic brands, Jean-Claude Bernard decided to create his own range of cosmetics made with… grapes! The spa also proposes state-of-the-art wellness treatments such as “full body cryotherapy”, “chromotherapy”, “body wrap and flotation bed”, “Wellsystem massage bed”… Effective treatments in a beautiful place! “Le Cep” definitely is a precious and rare address in Burgundy. http://www.hotel-cep-beaune.com/en/
Join us next week to discover more about Beaune and Burgundy
More about Beaune: https://www.beaune-tourism.com/
More about the “climats” of Burgundy: https://www.climats-bourgogne.com/en/_630.html
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny