David Downie: Vintage Beaune
by David Downie
Many wine lovers know that in the Middle Ages monks at the abbey of Cluny in southern Burgundy perfected the art of winemaking. But few outside the region have heard of Rector Eumenus’ speech in 312 AD to Emperor Constantine at Augustodunum, today’s Autun. Even locals don’t realize that fine wines were being grown in Constantine’s day on the limestone hills of the Côte d’Or.
Eumenus extolled in particular the vineyards of a pleasant village called Belenos, on the Roman road from Lyon to Paris, in the sunwashed Sâone River Valley. Still the capital of winegrowing in Burgundy, modern Belenos, better known as Beaune, hosts more wineries within or near its medieval ramparts than any mere mortal—except, perhaps, Robert Parker—could reasonably discover in anything less than a three-day visit.
Wine tourism is big business in Beaune, which also happens to be the heartland of many wine-related “museums” and monuments. Some are paeans to kitsch, others are authentic, and worth your time. The Musée du Vin-Burgundy Wine Museum merges these categories. The museum’s medieval architecture hints at the lifestyle of the Dukes of Burgundy: this was one of their residences. The displays of antique glasses, bottles, winemaking tools, pitchers and carafes, plates and more, as well as wine-related religious artworks such as The Virgin Mary with Grapes are reward enough to those who brave the waiting lines while being serenaded by street-corner musicians.
Quality of wines is the main but not the only criterion I use when I draw up a shortlist of wineries I intend to visit—anywhere. Most top producers in Burgundy do not welcome visitors, and many of their best wines cannot be tasted or purchased at the winery. In Beaune, because the tourist flows are particularly swift and perilous, it’s hard to exaggerate the importance of factors beyond quality such as integrity, ease of access to the winery and vineyards, availability of wines to taste and buy, and the friendliness of the owners and operators. Always phone ahead and make an appointment before visiting any small, family-run winery. And bear in mind that it’s instructive to taste mediocre and downright bad wines once in a while. That’s the only way to know both ends of the meter stick.
Among Beaune’s theme parks of oenology—each wedded to retail sales boutiques—are several extravaganzas set in medieval cellars. Start at mega-Négociant Caves Patriarche Père & Fis. Millions of bottles await in its three-mile long cellars. At the end of the maze in the inevitable tasting room the winery’s bottlings are uncorked with alacrity and poured into thirsty tour groups. Equally astonishing are Caves des Cordeliers, in the 700-year-old convent of the same name, across the street from the Hôspices de Beaune, and neighboring Marché aux Vins, also set in an underground maze of ecclesiastical cellars. Out of season, all three are a joy for the curious eye, if not always for the palate.
Of greater interest to serious wine connoisseurs is Maison Champy, Burgundy’s longest-established house of merchants, headquartered in a handsome building from centuries past. Founded in 1720, the quality of the wines has improved in the last decade as Champy has ramped up business and taken it global. But don’t expect to drink old-style Burgundian wines here: this is a decidedly New World operation. The winery’s best bottlings include Chablis Grand Cru Les Preuses, Charmes-Chambertin Grand Cru Rouge, and Gevrey-Chambertin Villages Vieilles Vignes. The most affordable and authentically Burgundian of Champy’s lesser wines is a simple, straightforward Bourgogne Blanc.
Domaine Philippe Dufouleur doubles as a luxury B&B (Les Jardins de Loïs). Its namesake owner is affable winemaker Philippe Dufouleur. In a gated compound on the beltway encircling Beaune’s ramparts, part of the establishment’s charm is the ample, shady garden. Dufouleur uses decades-old oak vats to make his reds, and oak casks—a third of them new—to age them. The best picks are the 1er Cru reds: Le Clos du Roi, Le Clos des Perrières, Les Cent Vignes, and Le Clos du Dessus des Marconnets. There’s also an excellent 1er Cru Champs-Pimonts that comes in either red or white. Round, well-balanced and medium-bodied, Dufouleur’s wines are vinified for three weeks, and rest for up to a year and a half on their lees in oak, with no soutirage. Dufouleur racks and filters them once before bottling. All told, production is about 35,000 bottles per year. Though not certified as organically grown, no pesticides are used. The grapes are exclusively hand-harvested.
Medium-large by Burgundian standards, Maison Albert Ponnelle is a family-run Négociant that produces 200,000 bottles or so per year using fine grapes bought in from many vineyards in northern, central and southern Burgundy. Though the cellars aren’t as extensive or as old as those of some other wineries in town, they do go back to the 14th-century, and were once part of a Cistercien abbey. Organic grapes grown in a vineyard plowed by a horse and harvested by hand are what go into Ponnelle’s remarkable, earthy red Réserve de la Chèvre Noir Monopole.
For a complete listing of Beaune’s top wineries, wine merchants, specialty food shops, wine accessories boutiques, restaurants, and wine bars, see David Downie’s FOOD WINE BURGUNDY, a Terroir Guide.
“Beautifully depicted, handily sized, and substantially sourced for contact info and seasonal hours… a regional standard for oenophiles and the palatably enchanted traveler. Highly recommended.” –Library Journal, Starred Review.
“I love The Terroir Guides. They give me everything I want… positively overflowing with the Who, What, Where and How even an intrepidly independent traveler should know…”–Wine News
“This marvelous book’s content and photographs are lovely to look at but also full of substance… encourages readers to appreciate a slower, more meditative lifestyle based on a culture with deep roots that respects the soil and the seasons’ turnings.”–Chicago Tribune
Copyright 2010 David Downie