Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Visiting Beaune - An Introduction

Is there any region that appears more deceptively simple than Burgundy? Along with Bordeaux it is one of the most famous wine regions of the world. The grape varieties are simple – Pinot Noir for the reds and Chardonnay for the whites (not counting the small quantities of Aligoté and Sauvignon Blanc, and the Gamay of Beaujolais). The wines of Burgundy frequently dominate wine auctions and certainly anyone who is even faintly interested in wine would have tried a bottle, if very lucky, perhaps even a grand cru.

Delve a little deeper however and one can quickly get lost in the byzantine structure of Burgundy’s vineyard and producers. There are a hundred appellations, divided into regional, village, and grand cru levels. Within the village appellations are several hundred named parcels of land, called climats, classified at the premier cru level (each grand cru is in itself a climat as well). Due to the Napoleonic rules of equal inheritance, ownership has been divided throughout the years so that each grower may have less than a hectare to his name. The summary is that you have a very diverse area farmed by many people even though total production is actually quite small.

Because demand greatly outstrips supply, making appointments in Burgundy is not easy. Most of the smaller wineries are family run, thus every hour spent entertaining a visitor means one less person attending to the vineyard. Even when there is little work to be done in the fields, manpower is required for winemaking, racking, bottling or administrative tasks such as marketing. Fortunately, booking a visit with Burgundy’s established négociants presents no more difficulty than a few emails back and forth. A négociant is a merchant who buys in grapes or wine, blends, matures and then sells them. Increasingly négociants also own the vineyards outright, making them négociants-propriétaires.

A good place to set up base in Burgundy is the small town of Beaune, around four hours by train from Paris (or just over two hours if you can book the high-speed TGV). Apart from its proximity to other winemaking villages such as Pommard, Meursault and Aloxe-Corton, Beaune also boasts a dining gem in the form of in Ma Cuisine. The latter was recommended by Michael Hill-Smith, and if a Master of Wine suggests a place you darn well better make a reservation. The highlight was the perfectly seared duck breast – rich in flavour without being overly gamey. The wallet-friendly wine list offers a great opportunity to taste some of the best producers in Burgundy without regret when the bill arrives (the top picture shows some of the wines that have been opened at Ma Cuisine).

A terrine at Ma Cuisine

A meal without wine is unthinkable in Burgundy

Another must-see is the Hôtel-Dieu, a beautiful museum that was once a charitable hospital set up by Nicolas Rolin in 1443. The museum is notable not only for its colourful tiled roof, but also because it was also a significant wine producer. That role has continued under the new Hospices de Beaune, and the proceeds from wine sales, sold at auction, go to maintaining the upkeep of the museum and the current hospital. It’s quite fascinating to note that even back then they had the notion that food could either be cooling or heaty, a principle that underlines much of TCM. 

The splendiferous Hôtel-Dieu courtyard with its tiled roof

Model of the Hôtel-Dieu

Hôtel-Dieu apothecary

The next couple of posts will focus on the wineries I visited while in Beaune.

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