The Fruit of the Vine
Today we started our journey in Beaune by visiting the Hôtel Dieu (a charity hospital for the poor) built by the wealthy chancellor of Burgundy, Nicolas Rolin, near the end of his life as a gift to the citizens of Beaune. During the Dark Ages, the plague devastated the population and 3/4 of its citizens were impoverished. For the poor, the Hôtel Dieu, was a place to go to die, free of charge. For the wealthy, in a separate section of the hospital, one could receive better care and higher odds of surviving “The Black Death”. For over 500 years, the hospital became established as one of the most important centers in the region for the treatment of the ill and did so until 1971. The Hôtel Dieu was a remarkable place and served its purpose well.
Being a charity hospital, funds had to be raised to pay for the day-to-day operations somehow. Beaune is renowned for being in the middle of one of the most prolific wine producing areas in France. And so, the idea to hold an auction once a year to raise funds for the hospital by auctioning off certain quantities of wines that are produced locally came naturally. This idea favored everyone. Wines producers, buyers, and the hospital all benefited from this event. The auction still occurs every November.
The region’s largest producer of wine is Patriarche Père et Fils which has the largest wine cellar in Burgundy. The cellar has more than 5 kilometers (3.10 miles!) of underground caves that run throughout the city and today stores more than 3,000,000 (yes, 3 Million!) bottles of wine.
One of the most pleasurable and interesting aspects of wine tasting at Patriarche Père et Fils is that you receive a Tastevins, a shallow saucer with a thumb handle, that you take around with you to taste the wines. The tour is self-guided and takes you directly down into the caves where you are astounded by the vast number of chambers most of which are filled with hundreds and hundreds of bottles of wine. Cool, dark, and musty, the caves provide the perfect temperature for the dusty, aging bottles that are stacked on simple notched strips of wood. There are no barriers, locks, or impediments of any sort other than lack of lighting in a chamber where one might be discouraged to enter.
You can wander about, explore each chamber, search for a particular wine, year or region. No one comes to rush you to the tasting room and out the door. While there are ” tasting rooms” similar to what one can experience in the U.S., our tasting room(s) consisted of an inverted barrel on which a single lit candle rested next to a bottle of the wine to be tasted. These barrels were situated in the very chambers where the wine being tasted was stored. There were five chamber “tasting rooms” with a total of 13 wines from whites to reds.
Imagine casually strolling along these cool caves surrounded by immense quantities of wine both in barrels and bottles. Arriving at the tasting chamber barrels, you simply serve yourself from the open bottle. Taking as much time to taste each wine with no one to hurry you along or make you feel uncomfortably ignorant of your taste or lack thereof. We lingered at each bottle, relaxed and truly tasted each wine (sometimes more than once). And if a particular vintage didn’t suit our taste, we simply poured the sample into the bucket that was provided. It was made clear to us (by a young woman who explained the tasting procedure) that it was up to us to decide if we did or didn’t like a particular wine.
All in all, our wine tasting experience lasted several hours. And it has been one of the most pleasurable wine tasting experiences we have ever had. The most astounding thing was the trust, respect, and freedom that we were allowed to feel by being allowed to wander about the caves by ourselves; given the trust not to disturb or destroy a single bottle of wine. And most importantly, the respect we felt to enjoy our experience, by taking as much time as we wished without hurry, worry, or doubt.