A well-preserved medieval jewel in the heart of the Burgundian vineyards, wine is more influential in the history and development of Beaune than any other item or commodity.
Strategically situated in the middle of the famous Cote d’Or vineyards, halfway between the Cote de Nuits and the Cote de Beaune, it serves as an important hub of the region’s wine culture. Home to the region’s leading wine négociants (vintners), Beaune’s foundations are a maze of tunnels used for cellaring wine and its ancient ramparts have been converted to wine cellars, giving rise to the observation the city is defended with bulwarks of bottles.
B&R has had a love affair with Beaune ever since our first Burgundy trip in 1980. In 1985, when Paris became just a little too frantic for our office, Beaune seemed the obvious choice, given the unbeatable biking and walking, the town’s intimate size, its chic appeal, its medieval ramparts and cobblestone streets and, of course, the truly wonderful wine!
Wine Museum and Notre Dame
Located in the 15th-century home of one of the dukes of Burgundy, you’ll find a comprehensive history of the winemaking process in Burgundy’s wine museum. Nearby is the Cathedral of Notre Dame, modelled after the Mother Church in Cluny. Begun in 1120, Notre Dame remains a prime example of Romanesque architecture, despite its later additions.
A fresco painting of the raising of Lazarus can be seen in the second chapel on the left side. As well, an extraordinary set of tapestries, finished at the end of the 14th century and depicting the life of the Virgin Mary, is often displayed inside.
Les Hospices de Beaune and La Vente des Vins
For centuries, this wealthy, charming town was the capital of the dukes of Burgundy. Beginning with the Capetian dukes and continuing through the Valois dukes, Beaune was the site of Burgundy’s parliament. Nicolas Rolin, one of the most famous chancellors of Parliament, commissioned the most imposing edifice in town—Les Hospices de Beaune (aka Hôtel Dieu).
Founded as a charity hospital in 1443, over the centuries, vineyard owners willed portions of their land holdings to Les Hospices de Beaune as a gesture of charity. Consequently, the humble hospital has become one of the largest vineyard proprietors in Burgundy.
Each year wines from the vineyards of Les Hospices de Beaune are sold at an auction, La Vente des Vins, attracting buyers from all over the world to the hospital’s central courtyard. For three days, the entire city celebrates. Wine cellars and wine estates open their doors (and their bottles) for international visitors, and the entertainment includes wine tastings, bottle-opening contests, a fair and even a marathon around the Côte de Beaune.
Obviously, the wine auction is the main event. A celebrity presides over the international charity auction each year, selling an exceptional pièce (a barrel of wine). The auction is a traditional “candle auction,” where the auctioneer lights a one-inch candle and accepts bids only while the candle burns (20 minutes or so).
All proceeds from the wine auction go to a charitable organization. As a result, the Wine Auction sets the yearly pricing trends for French wines.
For a behind-the-scenes look at Beaune and (a few tips for bidding in the auction), check out this great video from Christie’s auction house, which has organized the auction since 2005: