After decades of quaffing oak-hinted, truffle-tasting burgundy, I’m here at its birthplace, where the veins of rivers, terroir and vine-combed hills of the Côte d’Or meet. I am a few hours southeast of Paris in the wine capital and heart of Burgundy. I am in Beaune.
I am here to explore the wine caves that labyrinth10 kilometres beneath the cobbled streets.
The Marché aux Vins, in the centre of town, is a former Franciscan church. It is still blessed with its original vineyard where the friars cultivated grapes for their altar wine. Its sole purpose today is to source wine from the Bourgogne region, where each village produces its own distinctive vintage. Fifteen wines are presented for tasting in the kilometres of caves now turned into cellars.
€10 gets you a personal metal clamshell-shaped cup called a tastevin. And then it’s down the dusty stone steps and into the chill of the vaults and the slightly musty maze of tunnels that wind beneath the town.
The wines are set up on spaced apart barrels. Notes pertaining to each are read by the glow of a dripping candle. A spittoon is positioned next to each barrel. I note that the aim becomes slightly skewed the more I sample.
One hour is allotted for the tour, but no-one is checking and although the rule is one sample per bottle (with excommunication guaranteed if you become a rowdy drunk), I find myself having to check two or three times to see if I really like certain vintages. Four white wines are followed by 11 regional reds; the finale being their finest, the Corton Grand Cru.
About half way through the wine caves I come across the ruins of a 5th century chapel. A chiselled stone sarcophagus is atmospherically lit in the darkness. When it was discovered during the excavation in 1971, the remains of 11 bodies were layered inside. They were victims of the 1581 plague. The monks had entombed their poxy bodies for time immemorial.
After so much time underground, I emerge with mole-eyes up a flight of stairs into the nave of the church with its stone pillars, arches and flickering candelabra. There’s more tasting with samples of the local aperitifs, Cassis (blackcurrant) and Crème de Peche (peach). Sommeliers are on hand to answer any wine-related questions or organise purchase and shipping.
A note for the purists reading this, the 30 ml capacity of the tastevins does not allow for swirling and sniffing, nor are all the wines top quality, but for the casual quaffer, such as me, this has been the perfect way to get a taste of Burgundy.