Imagine standing at the entrance to a 13th century building of the former Eglise des Cordeliers, the oldest church in Beaune France. After paying a few French francs (before the Euro), you are given a tasting cup, told you have just two hours, and are shown the stairway to a large cavern. After carefully making your way down to the cellar, you come upon an alcove where a wine barrel sits. It has 3 bottles of opened white wine on top and you pour yourself an ounce or two of the first wine. You taste and swallow, ignoring the spittoon (spit bucket) beside the barrel. You proceed to wine number two and then wine number three, jotting down a few notes on the wine list that you have been given. You repeat possibly 40 times over the next two hours.
This was the beginning of a two hour tasting at the Marche Aux Vins which offers the tasting of about 40 of the great wines of the region, from Chablis in the north to Beaujolais in the south. The grape varieties include: Pinot noir, Gamay, Chardonnay, and Aligote and the vintages range from 3 to 10 years old as well as some very old and rare burgundies.
Many years ago when I went you were not allowed to bring any food into the cellar with you. I guess they felt that you would be able to taste more wines that way. My friend and I did sneak in half a baguette and we were so glad we did because in the end we tasted 37 wines!
We met up with 8 other tourists that afternoon, from Sweden, New Zealand, and the United States. While we tasted, we got to know our new “drinking buddies” and after the tasting the 10 of us decided to go for dinner. (Truly, we needed food to soften the blow of the alcohol on our empty stomachs). We went to Relais du Madelaine and had dinner consisting of a salad with nuts, tomatoes and apples and a plate of 12 escargots. The baguette and snails drenched in butter helped prevent me from getting a hangover….I think. And at this dinner, I did not drink any (more) wine. I just couldn’t. It is an experience I will never forget.
Sadly, it looks like the Marche Aux Vins have stopped this practice of a “free for all wine tastings” but they still do have tours and tastings…..on a more limited basis (ie. taste 6 wines for 11 Euros). It is worth a visit because the cellars are interesting and you will get to taste a wide range of wines (including Premier Cru) from various producers. Oh, and you get to keep your wine glass as a souvenir.
Beaune is in the wine centre of Burgundy and the Marche Aux Vins is very close to the famous Hospices (Hotel-Dieu). The Hospices de Beaune (or Hotel-Dieu de Beaune) was a hospital for the poor founded in 1443 and is an excellent example of 14th century architecture. The great hall is used each November for the famous charity wine auction. So while you might in Beaune for the wine tasting, be sure to check out the Hotel-Dieu too.
Hospices de Beaune (French only)