Burgundy: the inseparable marriage between life and wine
Where a long-standing heritage thrives in the hands of small vignerons whilst the peculiar Hospices de Beaune charity hospital pulls up the rear of a millionaire and flavorsome market
In the charming French village of Beaune, a city of about 22.000 inhabitants, there's something almost sacred about tasting a wine, as if the outside world goes quiet for a moment so the greatest expressions of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir can manifest and be praised. Producing wine is the raison d'être of Beaune, where endless horizons of vineyards invade the city's domains, seducing our eyes and inviting our palate to appreciate some of the most expensive and sought-after bottles in the world. Not by chance is Beaune the heartbeat of Burgundy's wine trade and tourism attracting millions of aficionados and connoisseurs and likewise fierce buyers whose appetite goes to the moon and back.
As surprising as it may sound, the driving force behind this prosperous market is a centenary non-profit hospital that produces and sells its own wine as a means of living. Built in 1443, during the rule of Duke Phillippe Le Bon (as the name implies: a very generous man!), the acclaimed Hospices de Beaune had the aim of being a house to look after the ill and homeless (at the time, France was facing epidemics, a plague and famine consequence of the Hundred Year's War and therefore its population was desperately in need of help). Thanks to benefactors who along the years have donated plots of vineyards as a gesture of gratitude, the institution has succeeded ever since.
The Hospices is also home to something far more unusual. For the first time in its history, a woman spearheads the hospital's vines that comprise an area of 60 hectares spread throughout the noblest estates of Burgundy. Since 2015, the winemaker, Ludivine Griveau, stands out with her sharp yet cheerful management in a predominantly male environment. It's worth mentioning that her admirable work favors a sustainable production according to the methods of organic viticulture.
But that's not all. Hundreds of barrels of the latest vintage of the Hospices' 50 cuvées are auctioned off at what is known as the pinnacle of the global wine auction calendar: on the 3rd weekend of November, private collectors and the trade gather around a great cause in possession of a genuine willingness to support, bid and drink. For those serious wine lovers, this is a lifetime experience!
After a one-year hiatus due to Corona restrictions, the famous Hospices de Beaune wine auction made its physical come back on November 21st. I was fortunate enough to not only witness the electrifying selling steered by Sotheby's - followed by an unforgettable dinner by candlelight at the illustrious Hôtel Dieu - but more importantly for the opportunity to accompany a distinguished purchaser: Alaor Lino, an ambassador of Burgundy wines in Brazil, is the number one buyer outside France. He has conquered strong bonds with the Hospices' realm where money is not the supreme ruler: how the pristine name of the institution will be conveyed also counts in equal measure.
Through a franchise of the French importer, Anima Vinum, Alaor has become a reference in his home country when it comes to Burgundy wines. His shop, in São Paulo, is the only place in the world that showcases the archives of all the Hospices de Beaune's cuvées curated in a gracious mini museum. Fancy a wine that carries your name? Well, this is one of their special attributes: like a bespoke service, clients can customize the mythical label with their name printed on it as a buyer at the auction. Such tailoring may come with a price - a minimum set of six bottles costs 60 Euros for each custom label, not to mention the precious cost of the wines themselves which varies from harvest to cuvée. It's the ultimate expression of true gift-giving!
The complexity and singularity of what Burgundy has to offer are vital ingredients that must be understood and spread with care and respect. Along with his business partner, Jean-François Vandroux, Alaor Lino preserves a close relationship with dozens of vignerons making sure that the philosophy by which vintners run their vineyards is the one by which they appraise themselves.
In Anima Vinum's portfolio, there's only space for vin du vigneron, that is, produced by real craftsmen who devote their entire being to these lands: talented people with a profound connection to this territory, preserving small scale productions through sustainable agriculture practices. In a current fast paced world dominated by social distancing and numbers, it's a shiny ray of hope to come across visions like this that reflect humanity’s shifting needs for a more personal approach towards consumption and relationships.
Which is probably why Alaor naturally embraces the so-called joie de vivre: his excitement is as palpable as his enthusiasm. Plus, there couldn't be a better guide to my novice and omnivorous curiosity than him. During our journey in Beaune, I've learned from him that Saint-Aubin, Blagny, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet are not just wine regions but THE territories of excellence where the most expensive and coveted white wines come from. This sublime tetragon is affectionately called "Carré magique" by Alaor, that is, an expression that does justice to its magnitude: it's the most valued square meter of wine that exists!
You may be astonished to learn that a single hectare of a Montrachet vineyard has a market value of over 50 million Euros thereby making this section of land to be considered the best Chardonnay in the world! To put it into different words, one kilogram of grapes from Le Montrachet costs around 200 Euros. It's the world's most expensive dry white and whoever is lucky enough to taste it will never forget its extraordinary length, ethereal character: if there's a last wine to be drunk before death, I probably would pick this one.
The uniqueness of Burgundy terroir
Burgundy is the birthplace of the French word terroir that describes the incredible alchemy between the climate and the soil which, in turn, influences enormously in the quality of the wines. The concept of terroir is core to this wine growing region as it's the soil that gives its name to the wine (differently, for instance, to other regions such as Alsace, where it's the grape variety or Bordeaux, the estate).
But to start picturing what's really behind such one-of-a-kind features, it's worth mentioning the Jurassic soils of Burgundy which originated almost 200 million years ago and were formed by many geological movements that resulted in thousands of plots that carry a perfect mix of clay and limestone. These soils determine the flavors and aromas of the wines: imagine velvet yet powerful mineral notes on the palate.
One more quick flashback takes us to the medieval times when the local Cistercian monks smartly divided Burgundy vineyards into parcels giving these lands a classification system that prevails until today . In other words, Burgundy may have its own terroir that differs from other regions yet within the region itself there are also many variations: the hills, the valleys, the slopes, the soil, the climate, the sunlight exposure, to name a few... it's truly a mosaic!
Burgundy's unique geography plays a vital role in the quality of its wines but this doesn't mean that the terroir is limited to exceptional soil and blessed climate, as the cultivation of grape wines is considered a fundamental factor. Vintners make use of different techniques to cultivate their vines making the human element equally essential to crafting these world class wines. That is to say, vin du vigneron manifests like a symbiose proving that the everlasting relationship between men's hands and Burgundy vines is so intrinsic to the point that one wouldn't dare to thrive without the other.
A short guide to Beaune
Even if you are not a wine lover, consider visiting Beaune. The whole atmosphere of this tiny city is one of purpose. After all, the wine mecca would never disappoint visitors when it comes to hospitality. Here's a friendly guide to help you navigate the charms of the Burgundy capital.
Musée Hospices de Beaune: these days, the charity hospital is based in a modern facility on the city's outskirts whereas the former premises - at the iconic Hôtel Dieu, in the heart of the city center - give life to a beautiful museum, also a must see in Beaune. This is one of the most magnificent Renaissance buildings in Europe whose eye-catching architecture is impressive in its own right: picture a gorgeous flamboyant Gothic style with a glazed Burgundy tile roof. Once inside, visitors mesmerize themselves by seeing the hospital beds in a sumptuous hall - the last patients were admitted in the 1970's - housed in a building that looks more like an imposing cathedral. P.S. one of the highest points to me - apart from the architecture - is the old-preserved pharmacy made up of a vintage apothecary feel: imagine wooden cabinets filled with small orange medicine bottles from a time when the massive pharmaceutical industries didn't rule public health yet.
Park Bouzaize: an adorable, petit park that has the perfect size for a nice promenade during sunny days (which are abundant in this region) or even for a weekend picnic. Fancy a walk in the vineyards? The park's surroundings are filled with vines that can be explored and (why not?) used as the perfect background for wine tasting while relaxing on the very terroir that gave it life.
Château de Cîteaux: whenever I woke up, I wish I could freeze that moment forever. The hotel premises are encompassed by a sea of vineyards which were the first sight to pop up in front of my hotel window during those November crispy mornings. Delightful in equal measure is the Spa as well as its amenities. P.S. be aware that the hotel location is 15minutes away from the city center therefore a car comes in handy basically all the time.
Boisrouge: hidden between Beaune and Dijon, this one-of-a-kind restaurant-cum-guest house embodies the true meaning of what an understated luxury in the hospitality industry must be. Here, guests can really feel at one with nature and likewise nurture and revitalize themselves in the middle of a green atmosphere. Various wines are of course carefully selected to pair with the fresh, seasonal mouth-watering food.
Ma Cuisine: it has all the unpretentious, cozy character that I appreciate the most in bistros plus it is located in the heart of the city center. It goes without saying that the food is delicious but, in my opinion, the outstanding feature is the biblically long wine-list dedicated to the créme de la créme of the most superb labels that exist in this world.
La Goutte d'Or: a family business restaurant sets the standard for fine cuisine. The atmosphere might be simple and laid back but the ingredients and flavors are elevated to their full potential. For vegetarians - like me - eating in France is quite challenging: of 10 dishes probably nine are dedicated to options with animal protein. But this place has proved that its Chef has creativity and talent to come up with recipes where vegetables are the star of the show. Meat lovers, fear not: I've been told they make one of the best Escargots in the region.
Fabrice Gillotte: when a craftsman is described as the "Meilleur Ouvrier de France", one can imagine that his creations cannot be less than true patisserie treasures. Elected the best chocolatier in the country, Fabrice masters the art of chocolate making to perfection. Prepare to give yourself over to intoxicating aromas and lush flavors. Apart from handmade chocolates, visitors are spoilt for choice between macarons and biscuits.
Alain Hess: shelves are always piled up with the best of cheese, charcuterie, wine and a bit more... The name on the façade "Épicerie fine | Cave à vins" immediately sets the scene: the shop welcomes clients with a high-quality assortment of French products (including the famous Fleur de Sel de Guérande and Dijon mustard). Don't forget to take home a generous piece of the local Comté style cheese: it's absolutely divine!
Tour guide: the knowledgeable and delightful guidance of the Brazilian, Juliana @vempraborgonha, who is also a young wine connoisseur, can certainly make your journey much more worthwhile. I highly recommend her to accompany anyone who is looking for a personalized quality time in Burgundy.