John Burke visits France’s golden slope.

 

The most celebrated of French wines originate in five districts strung out for almost 240 kilometers between Chablis and Lyons.  This romantic area is largely what used to be the Duchy of Burgundy that became a province of France in 1477.

 

Although the vines cover only 30,351 hectares out of a total 802,000 in the entire hexagon (the colloquial description of France), the golden slope comes top of the dozen areas with more than 100 official classifications.   There are no less than 400 types of Burgundy, and the names are so jealously guarded that some areas constitute a World Heritage site.

 

The northernmost wine is white Chablis, although it is also classified as Côte d’Auxerre.  Next come luscious reds called Côte de Nuits around the city of Dijon, although this is the county-town of Côte d’Or (meaning golden slope) that gives its name to more white wines and loosely to all Burgundies.

 

Mainly reds but also the finest Chardonnay are produced in Côte de Beaune, a district followed by Côte Challonnaise and Maconnais that are named after Chalons-sur-Saone and Macon, more towns dating back to the Middle Ages.   The southernmost vineyards, producing Beaujolais –  it is sometimes classed as Burgundy  –  stop short of France’s second city, Lyons.

Dijon too is a regional capital, but the commercial centre of viticulture is a small mediaeval burg only 34 kilometers to the south.  This is Beaune which, in any case, gives its own name to several local wines .  Encircled by 2½ kilometers of walls, this quiet and cobbled town is easily reached by train, and it is the best place for excursions to various vineyards (known as châteaux since they often belonged to castles) produced red wines from the black Pinot grape.  They cover only 580 hectares, but well over half produce superior grades (premier cru), the highest in Burgundy.

 

Although the region’s weather is unpredictable, there is enough to enjoy indoors, especially in November during the annual wine sale and festival.  Ever the place to start is the museum in a building where the Duke of Burgundy installed his law-court in the fifteenth century.    A collection of ceramic amphorae shows that the Romans made wine in eastern France, but there is a lot more about how mediaeval monks developed  vineyards.

 

The collection includes musty bottles and ancient barrels as well as styles of wine-glass and the tools of vintners and coopers.  There are huge wooden machines for pressing the grapes, and even a labourer’s dwelling from around 1850 has been recreated.  View too the famous tapestries whose theme is … the nectar of the gods.

All this comes to life in several of Beaune’s wine-cellars, the biggest of which is owned by Patriarche Père et Fils, established in 1784.  Following the French Revolution, it obtained a convent, beneath which is a labyrinth of vaults where several million bottles have been laid down.  After noting the historical list of vintages (2005 was outstanding), you can sample up to 13 classifications in a silvery tasting-dish that becomes a souvenir.

A similar cup is offered after four grades of tour through the former Greyfriars’ monastery that houses Marché aux Vins, complete with its own art gallery and a shop for cheese – and wine, naturally.  Meursault, Chambertin, Marsannay, Meurstault, Savigny- Les-Beaune and many more, even vintages before 1998, can be tasted or purchased.

You can also learn how to decode bottle labels inside this unique building from the fifteenth-century that stands  opposite Beaune’s ancient hospice, known as the House of God (Hôtel Dieu) or Palace of the Poor.  It was in 1443 that the ducal chancellor and his wife richly endowed this refuge for the many Burgundians who were starving and destitute in the aftermath of the Hundred Years’ War between the English and French

Built with an upstairs gallery that runs right round a large oblong courtyard, complete with well, the hospice has a roof of glazed tiles in vivid geometric patterns. There are 12 rooms to visit, ranging from the mediaeval kitchen, with its vast Gothic chimneys, to the pharmacy whose items include jars of medicine as well as mortars and pestles for grinding herbs.

 

The nobility got private treatment, while other sick were separated from the dying.

The most impressive space is the Great Hall of the Poor, 50 metres long, which constituted a refectory and more.  Either side were curtained cubicles for the bedridden, who could thus watch holy Mass being said in the chapel at the far end.

Fittingly, as they approached their last days, they could see above the altar the Last Judgement of Roger Van der Weyden, painted on oak panels.

 

The good nuns ministered to the poor until the French Revolution, but came back under Napoleon, and eventually transferred to a modern building, leaving the Gothic pile to be restored as a museum.   Beaune also has an art gallery and museum about pioneering cinema as well as some quaint cafes and plenty of restaurants.

 

The tourist office sells a pass that works out at 15% off four or more entry-prices, including 14 vineyards or wine-shops.