Posted by: David Stewart | July 2, 2013

Self-service wine tasting in Burgundy, France

These are from some notes I took about our Spring 2013 trip.

Monday, May 13

Marche aux vins, Beaune, France

Self-service wine tasting by candlelight at Marche aux Vins

We checked out of our hotel and ransomed our car from the underground lot and began our drive up to Burgundy. The town of Beaune was our goal and we had a much nicer time driving than our trip into Lyon. We stayed the Hotel Central which is just off of the Place Carnot in the center of the old town. We dropped off bags at the hotel and walked around the block to our first wine tasting.

The Marche aux Vins is located in an old abby and is typical of the cellars under Beaune. Underneath the streets and houses of the old walled village are miles of cellars where millions of bottles of burgundy rest and age. Some of the bottles on display at Marche are really old – from early 20th century. The tasting here is down in the cellar itself, where you walk through dark caves to wine barrels on end and a candle burning with an open bottle of wine on top. You pour yourself a taste in your “tastevin” (basically a shiny metal cup you see around the neck of sommeliers), note the price, and move on. They want you to take no more than an hour and not get drunk of course.  Our visit to Marche this time was fairly disappointing, I was not at all pleased with the wines which were there and several of the bottles were empty.

Marche aux vins, Beaune, France

Very old wines at Marche

The night of the 13th, we ate at the Cheval Blanc, which is the restaurant connected to the Hotel Central. The meal was not perhaps as memorable as the cheeses, which included some fantastic local ones from Burgundy.

Tuesday, May 14

Our first order of business was to find a place which would do our laundry. This turned out to be a bit of a wild goose chase: one place would only do dry cleaning, and one place from Yelp was a personal services firm, and another turned out to be a coin-operated laundramat. Out of exasperation, we finally left our duds at a place we thought would be terribly expensive, but turned out to be not too bad.

Maison Joseph Drouhin in Beaune, France

Our first tasting / tour of the day was at Patriarche. These guys have another cellar / cave to walk through. Unlike Marche, this seemed to be more of an actual winery with many endless stacks of bottles off into the dark corners of the labyrinth. The tasting is also self-poured like Marche, though they have invested a lot more in multi-lingual multimedia introductions to their history and terroir. We also ran into an American couple in the cave who were formerly from Seattle but currently in the New York City area. They talked about wanting to retire to the Wilammete Valley someday because of their love of the wine.

I was a little more pleased by the wines at Patriarche, in particular their Beaune Premeier Cru. And they had one 80 euro St Denis Grand Cru which was spectacular. This was really very nice. I was pleased since in my last visit I wasn’t able to taste any grand cru.

Between tastings we visited the Hotel-Dieu des Hospices de Beaune. This is a very impressive hospital dating from the 1300s which only ceased functioning as a medical institution in the 1970s. It was founded for size people who could not afford medical care, and had a large distribution of bread for the poor as well. The facility includes a large common ward where people were cared for with a chapel at the end of the room, to include the spiritual aspect of healing. (Later on a screen was built to separate the chapel a bit from the ward, since the funerals might have been a bit upsetting to the patients.) The roof beams of the ward had an interesting style of dragon heads which seemed to be emitting the very beams of the ceiling, a surprising motif for Catholic France, and one we saw repeated at the Chateau de Rochepot.  The chapel had contained an amazing polyptych on the last judgement, which is now on display in a different room. The site also contains displays of old medical equipment, the old kitchen, pharmacy and lab for creating medicines. Interesting that when the hospital was founded the leading medical theory held that there were various “humors” in the human body which must be kept in balance, and a healthy person should give themselves daily enemas.

Really old bottles aging in the cellars of Joseph Drouhin

After this we walked to Bouchard Pere & Fils for a tasting, but they turned us away for some reason and sent us to Bouchard Aine & Fils just a few blocks away. Curious, since the place we went to first was listed in several books as giving tours and tastings. But the wines at Bouchard Pere & Fils were very nice, especially the l’Enfant Jesus, but I was most impressed with their marketing. They had wine labels with tasting notes printed on the back, and a really nice map of the Cote d’Or (golden slope where the best vineyards of Burgundy are located).

Finally we arrived at our appointment at Joseph Drouhin for a tour of their cellars and tasting. Although it was expensive (35 euros) it was certainly the most informative and most personal tour we had. When we showed up for our 4PM tour, we met our fine guide, Piere, and another couple taking the tour. It turned out that they were the American couple we had run into at Patriarche earlier!

Drouhin is one of the oldest negociants in Beaune, buying wine from others and selling it under their own label. Over time they have acquired their own vineyards as well and now has significant holdings of their own. They have a couple of buildings which are just off the old church in the middle of Beaune and are located within the (now removed) walls of the oldest part of the city. We walked down the street to another building which houses an old wine press which they do use sparingly due to the cost of using it. Then we walked down into their caves. This was the most active wine production operation we had seen, so we had to be careful in the tour to avoid some of the dust and activity. The tour showed a famous door, which one of the Drouhin ancestors had used to escape the Nazis since he was in the Resistance. We also were shown a particular wall which dates back to the 3rd century Romans. A lot of the barrels were saw in the cellar were storing Marc de Burgoyne, which is a liquor made by Drouhin. Finally, we were treated to about seven or eight of their wines to taste, including the fine Clos des Mouches, which is from the original vineyard that the Drouhins owned. Mouches is literally “flies”, but it is an old word for “bees” because old French did not have that word.

That night for dinner we tried to eat at Caves Madeline (Anthony Bourdain’s favorite place) but were turned away because they were full, as were our guidebook’s other recommendations. We ended up at a place off of one of the pedestrian streets in Beaune.

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