Were Beaune a wine, it would be a classic vintage, gently aged and full of character – a multi-layered, mellow and sophisticated indulgence to enjoy at a leisurely pace. It’s an apt metaphor for this atmospheric city, which nestles securely within ancient ramparts, as it’s Burgundy’s acknowledged capital of wine. Vineyards have produced wine there since Roman times and the cultivation of the grape is woven into the everyday fabric of Beaune, thanks to centuries of vignerons and négociants, plus of course the legendary Burgundian grands crus. This deep historic connection is evident in the city’s buildings and streets – on the surface there are dégustations, shops and wine tours round every corner, and underneath the cobbles of the vieille ville lie millions of bottles in cool dark caves.
Wine is the beating heart of Beaune’s multi-dimensional personality and nowhere is this better illustrated than in its number one visitor attraction – the Hospices de Beaune or Hotel-Dieu. In one respect this grand building, founded in 1443, is quite simply an unmatched architectural gem, one with impressively ornate, two-storey galleries and dormer windows overlooking majestic internal courtyards. But these features are subordinate to the grandeur of its steep roof of multi-coloured tiles, the quintessential toiture Bourguignonne, which reflects the technique of applying coloured glazes in red, brown, green and yellow and setting them in striking geometric patterns. It’s supremely bold and vibrant today so imagine how it must have felt for the Hospices’ first inhabitants, the destitute and sick locals seeking refuge from the poverty of plague-ridden medieval Burgundy.
Nicolas Rolin, the chancellor of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, founded the Hospices as an almshouse and it remained a hospital until the 1970s – photos show patients still being treated and sleeping in the cavernous Grande Salle, with its spectacular barrel-vaulted ceiling and stained glass window. For the fortunate, it was a place of care and also spiritual reflection – if the primitive potions couldn’t ease your suffering then you could at least make your peace with God. The Hospices’ magnificent, 15th-century Last Judgement polyptych by Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden would have been a wondrous spectacle.
With such a deep ecclesiastical and charitable foundation, it may seem strange that the Hospices would come to have an equally prominent connection with the celebration and trade of alcohol. Since 1851, on the third Sunday of each November, a grand auction of the wine barrels produced by the Hospices de Beaune’s vineyards is attended by connoisseurs and wine experts from around the globe. However, the relationship between the hospital and wine dates back even further, as its founder, Nicolas Rolin, bequeathed his own vineyards to the Hospices. This is a legacy that’s borne fruit in many ways and it’s important to appreciate that, although the Hospices is a fascinating museum today, the hospital’s exceptional work is still carried on in more modern buildings nearby.
With its ancient Ducal history and wine trade wealth, contemporary Beaune offers an exceptional blend of culture, architecture and gastronomy. Yet its ambiance isn’t that of a typical tourist destination. The locals are proud of their patrimoine and the city receives many French visitors as well as cultured, well-heeled modern-day pilgrims from around the world, drawn by the legendary wines. It is, after all, on the crossroads of the Route des Grand Crus, which takes in the superstar villages of Nuits St Georges, Meursault, Gevrey-Chambertin and Clos Vougeot, for starters. Many of the top Burgundy négociants are based in Beaune, such as Bouchard Père et Fils and Maison Joseph Drouhin, and tours of their cellars are always popular. The tourist office can point you in the direction of many specialist guides and tours around the Burgundy wine trail – by chauffeur-driven car, bicycle, barge or even balloon.
This town-sized city has an intimate ambience and it’s a pleasure to discover à pied. You can meander inside the old city walls and enjoy the wealth of half-timbered medieval buildings and the Renaissance merchant townhouses with their extravagant carved stone facades. And by gentle meandering you’re bound to come across the 14th-century Beffroi clock tower and the splendid Romanesque-Gothic Cathédrale Collégiale Basilique Notre-Dame. Many buildings are of white Burgundian limestone and this adds a graceful air to the streets and squares, with their stylish shop-fronts under colourful awnings, which tempt you inside to taste not just wine but also other local regional specialities – pain d’épices, moutarde and cassis. A highlight of my trip was the Alain Hess fromagerie, a treasure trove of exquisitely displayed cheeses where I lingered over a fabulous Époisses. Mustard fans must visit the famous family owned Fallot Moutarderie, and if your taste buds are tickled by cassis or crème de cassis there’s an impressive visitor centre and tasting space at Cassisium, or a more traditional, family-run organic producer at Ferme Fruirouge.
When these dégustations have whetted your appetite there are over one hundred restaurants to indulge your gastronomic appetite, Burgundian-style. Traditional fare includes the famous wild Burgundian or Roman snail, which shouldn’t be confused with the “petit gris” commonly served in France. And of course, boeuf Bourguignon and coq au vin both originate here. There are several Michelin-starred restaurants in Beaune, including Le Bénaton, Loiseau des Vignes and Clos du Cèdre.
Beaune can be enjoyed at almost any time of year. In the winter, although cold, it’s the kind of compact destination where you could venture out for some gourmet shopping, perhaps invest a little in your wine education, and then retreat back to a cosy hotel for a hearty evening repas. January brings the Festival of Saint Vincent, the patron of wines, featuring processions, tasting sessions and banqueting.
In summer, Beaune can be pleasantly warm, and if music is your thing don’t miss the acclaimed Baroque Music Festival each July or the Jazz & Wine Festival around the time of the vendange, in September-October.
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From France Today magazine