Dijon may be the sumptuous former capital of the Dukes of Burgundy, but tiny Beaune can lay claim to being the region’s wine capital. This is one of the best places in France to taste wine – and that’s saying something. Famed for the Les Trois Glorieuses, or the three glorious days, Beaune has hosted the most celebrated wine auction in the world since 1859. Every November, wine is sold to raise money for the Hospices de Beaune, a charitable hospital founded in 1443 as a home for poor invalids.
The wine sold at auction comes from the Hospices’ own vineyards, which are scattered around the Côte de Beaune and the Côte de Nuits, an area that is home to some of the most prestigious vines in the world. The majority of the wine sold is classified as Grand Cru and Premier Cru, not for nothing does the auction raises sums of €7 – 8 million every year. The money supports charitable causes and the Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune, as the Hospices are also known.
Today, the Hôtel-Dieu is a museum and the second most important attraction in town, wine being top of the list. It was founded by Nicolas Rolin, last Chancellor to the Duke of Burgundy, a few years after the end of the Hundred Years’ War. The decades of war had left many of Burgundy’s inhabitants in a desperate state. Famine and malnutrition were common, as were injuries from combat. The hospice was opened in response. It’s the ‘must see’ thing in Beaune, unfortunately we didn’t get to see it.
We arrived in Beaune hungry after a morning of village-hopping and wine tasting in the Cote de Nuits. Not trusting any restaurants to be open after 2pm (this is France after all), we prioritised lunch over sightseeing. Finding a table proved to be a challenge, and it quickly became clear that there was something happening in Beaune. France was having a holiday weekend, and it seemed like most of the population of the country had descended on this small town.
We found a tiny bar in an ancient building and had an aperitif of cremant de bourgogne, the local fizz, and a snack while we weighed up our options. The jolly owner gave us some top tips and we eventually found somewhere to eat. The day was hot and walking the glorious ancient streets of Beaune was hard work after lunch. Dutifully, we headed to the Hôtel-Dieu only to discover a long queue of people running down the side of the building.
Deciding against an hour queuing in full sun, we wandered around the narrow streets of Beaune’s historic town centre instead. It’s a beautiful place, one that would make a great base for exploring the region, and away from the main streets it’s very peaceful. Through a warren of small alleyways, we found ourselves in the courtyard of the Hôtel des Ducs, the medieval residence of the Dukes of Burgundy. Now a wine museum, it has some enormous wine presses in one of the buildings.
On the other side of the Hôtel des Ducs is the Basilique Collegiale de Notre Dame, a 12th century church that sits on a lovely small square. The old town of Beaune is very compact and almost circular in shape. It’s ideal for walking, and as we meandered we came across remnants of the city’s medieval walls. Sadly, we didn’t have much time in Beaune, and soon we were heading to our final destination, two of the world’s most famous wine villages: Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet.
The names of these tiny villages reverberate around the world, for here are to be found the finest chardonnay grapes known to humanity …