Burgundy’s wine capital gives us a taste of the good life, both above and below ground
In the gloomy light of the Joseph Drouhin wine cellars, which cover a hectare below the streets of Beaune, my guide Christophe Thomas points to a door covered in dust and cobwebs. “That’s where Maurice Drouhin escaped the Gestapo,” he tells me. “There are some spiral stairs, and this is the corridor that goes to the cellars of the Hospices de Beaune.” The dramatic story of Maurice Drouhin’s escape during World War II is among the most intriguing chapters in the long history of Maison Joseph Drouhin, one of the town’s most prestigious winemakers.
As Christophe, the firm’s export director, explains to me in the semi-darkness of the ancient cellars, Maurice Drouhin was heavily involved in the Resistance. When the Gestapo came for him in the early hours of that morning in 1944, he had already escaped into the cellars which led to the Hospices de Beaune, the town’s famous hospital. There, the nuns hid him for two months, until the town was liberated by the Allies in early September.
It just so happened, however, that the months of his absence were the most crucial in the winemaking calendar. “His wife had no clue how to run a winery, so she got a bit scared because she couldn’t meet him,” explains Christophe. “She went every day to pray, and the Mother Superior would go as well, and they would pass notes [between each other] and ask questions and get responses to what was needed in the winery. Maurice would write things like: ‘Don’t forget to buy barrels’.”
The story goes that after the war, Maurice was so grateful for the nuns’ help that he handed the Hospices de Beaune a lucrative gift. “He gave a massive amount of Beaune Premier Cru [vineyards] to thank them for saving his life. So every year, we buy back most of the production.”
In the depths of the cellars, Christophe points out the barrels – marked ‘Maurice Drouhin’ – which were bought in the last auction. The sale, which dates from 1859 and takes place over a long weekend in November, is one of the most prestigious in the French wine calendar. Proceeds go to the modern hospital and various charities (the 2015 auction set a record for a barrel at €117,700, around £106,000). A visit to the Hospices de Beaune themselves, housed in the magnificent Hotel-Dieu, puts the history in context and shows how the town’s charitable spirit dates back centuries .
With its multi-coloured tiled roof, the Hôtel-Dieu is the town’s most iconic building. When you bear in mind the architecture of modern hospitals, it is hard to believe that the flamboyant Gothic building was intended as a hospital and not a palace. It was founded in 1443 by Chancellor of Burgundy Nicolas Rolin to care for the poor and sick as the country recovered from the Hundred Years War and the plague.
The Grande Salle des Povres must have had a soothing effect in itself, with its beautiful ceiling and 30 red, velvet-curtained beds. The museum tells how Rolin and his wife Guigone de Salins established the hospital, appointing a religious order to care for the patients. The stories of 15th-century remedies are fascinating, while the kitchen and apothecary show how early medicine drew on nutrition and herbs to treat the patients. Later, it became possible for people to ‘buy’ their care, which led the hospital to become the wealthy operation that it remains today. “It’s probably the most profitable hospital in France,” laughs Christophe when he tells me about it in the Drouhin cellars.
In the wine-tasting that follows the cellar visit, he tells me more about the famous vineyards that generate the area’s wealth. The vineyards are divided into ‘climats’, parcels of land that were inscribed into Unesco’s World Heritage list last summer. The `terroie changes so significantly over a relatively small distance that the wines resulting from the vineyards offer a specific character and are highly sought after. Indeed, the world’s most expensive wine comes from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, in the Côte de Nuits between Dijon and Beaune, where red pinot noir is the main grape variety.
Closer to Beaune, however, there are a number of vineyards that specialise in white grapes and so I venture south of the town to one such area – the village of Puligny-Montrachet. Here, Olivier Leflaive continues his family’s winemaking business that dates from 1635, making him the 18th generation to do so. He owns 18.5 hectares of vineyards but also buys in grapes to make his 82 different wines.