Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Wine tasting in one of the biggest cellars in the world? No big deal in Beaune.

June 26, 2012

Today we visited Beaune. We were supposed to depart before 9am, but the bus was nowhere to be seen. It wasn’t pulled into Cluny, Sejour the way that it had done the other days. So, after several minutes of waiting, we went to look for the bus. And bus we did find. A GIANT bus. Not the minibus which had taken us on our previous trips, this was a bus suited for nearly 50 people and their luggage. The ride was comfortable, to say the least; we each had a row of seats to ourselves. Living the high life, for sure.
Not only did the bus have its perks for comfort, but it also lifted us several feet off the ground, providing a beautiful view of the surrounding landscape through which we were driving and allowing us to see much more than we could from the ground level. As we drove out of Cluny and headed north, we began to pass dozens of Charolay calves on pasture. The miniature cattle had pure white coats from being so young.
Soon enough we began to enter Cote de Chalonnais, and vineyards began to pop up around us. We saw a wine maker pruning the tops of his vines using a tractor-like clipper. Before we knew it, we arrived in a drizzley Beaune.

Our first stop was the Musee du vin (Wine Museum) where, prior to entering, we saw several historical wine presses.  Once inside, we were pulled back in history, to the very beginning of the discovery and early production of wine in ancient times. The museum described grape varieties, regional development of vineyards, plantation standards, cultivation and harvesting tools and baskets, the different types of bottles used, and methods of corking. 

We also sat down to watch a video of the great deal of labor put into the assembly of wooden barrels used in wine aging. The difficult thing about the museum was that everything was in French. Thankfully, in each room there were summary cards in a variety of languages which we could reference. These cards didn’t go into full details about everything in each room, but were very informative nonetheless. We only wish we could have stayed longer!
Our second stop was the Hospice de Beaune. This was a town hospital where the sick poor of the city could be treated for free. It’s noted for having beautiful tiled roofing visible from the courtyard of the hospice. The tiles were hand-painted glossy slate, arranged in a diamond pattern. The tiles we saw were a reconstruction of what the original roofing was imagined to have looked like, though it was noted that the original may have had more coloring. 

We went through the hospice using audio-guides that provided us with in-depth descriptions of each room via reenacted first-person dialogue between the two founders of the hospice. Despite being a hospital, the hospice was beautiful. The tiles bore a crest with the initials of the founders. Even the ceiling beams were carved and painted as heads of several animals. 

We learned that the hospice was funded by donations and over the years had acquired several plots of land which were Beaune vineyards. This resulted in an annual auction of the wine produced by the vineyards to this day as a fundraiser.

After the lengthy tour of the Hospice we took a break for lunch at Brasserie Le Carnot. This place was busy—a tremendous change from the quiet town of Cluny which we’d become accustomed to. After our meal we regrouped and walked over to the Petriarche Caves, which are one of the largest wine caves in France.

As we arrived, the rain began to let up and some of us gravitated toward a few beautiful rose bushes which were outside. 

Soon enough, we were ushered inside and provided with small stainless steel cups with which to taste thirteen wines in the caves. These cups are small and shallow with a little ring as a handle and ribbing and bumps lining the interior. Monks used to hang the cups from string around their neck so they could carry a candle down into the cellars. The bumps and ribbing in the cup would reflect light from the candle through the wine and the monks would be able to tell if the wine was clear or not.

As we walked through the cool, dark caves, we passed stack after stack of dusty, unmarked bottles ranging from as few as one or two to stacks of hundreds, each differentiated by a small sign hung or placed near the stack. 

There was even wine so valuable that it was kept behind steel bars. Other bottles had dates indicating when they were to be opened. One such stack was wine from the Beaune Auction of 1994 (a very good year). This wine was both behind bars and partitioned into three groups which were to be opened in the years 2020, 2050, and 2094. A hundred year old bottle of wine! I can’t imagine thinking that far in advance. Then again, these cellars held wine dating back to 1904, 108 years ago, and bottles ranging from under ten euros to over a thousand euros in price. 

We were also told that just the previous week, the cellar was forced to switch from standard candlelight to electrical candlesticks as lighting. The tour guide was frustrated, and I can understand why. In such a historical place, where candles had been used for over a century with no real problems, why switch to dim, artificial lighting? I was slightly disappointed that we had just missed them, too. We were freely allowed to taste a select group of wines which they’d had set out. These included 1 sparkling, 4 whites, and 8 reds, the last white and the last red which we’d tasted were my favorites of the bunch, but unfortunately none were really good enough to purchase. 
After a big lunch and all that wine, I’m super tired. We’re currently on the road back to Cluny. I think when we get back I’m going to rest up and do some more research on Salers. Perhaps now find a wine that suits it, too!

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