Gatherings & Celebrations: Three Glorious Days in Beaune, France - #113

In the middle of France is a district known as Burgundy, and there’s considerable evidence that people have been living here since the Stone Age.   It was a major area for the Celts, and the ancient Romans had a number of strongholds in the region.  During the 400s a group of people came down from the Baltic Sea and took control of the territory.  They were known as Burgundians and that’s the name that has stayed with the neighborhood. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   One of the first people to put Burgundy on the map was a fellow named Charles the Bald.  The idea of putting a descriptive word behind the name of a ruler was a big deal in Burgundy.  Not only did they have Charles the Bald... they had John the Good, Philip the Bold and James the Fearless.  Interesting to think about what our modern leaders might be called if this came back into fashion.  We might have had Ike the Likable, Abe the Honest, and my personal favorite, Richard the Impeachable.  Not very flattering, but at least you had an idea of what you were in for.   And at the time, the people of Burgundy were in for King Louis XI of France, who had it in for the people of Burgundy.  Now, when Charles the Bald was in charge of Burgundy, that was okay.  But when Charles the Bold took over, that was too much for Louis. Charles the Bold was too rich, too famous, too powerful and too good-looking for Louis.  So in the middle of the 1400’s Louis used his military might to force Burgundy to become part of France.  And that’s where it’s been ever since.

The political capital of Burgundy is the city of Dijon, but the gastronomic capital of Burgundy is really a strip of land that runs south from Dijon through the town of Beaune.  For me, Beaune is the real heart of Burgundy.

The food of Burgundy, like the food of most places, is the result of its history and geography.  Burgundy is in the very center of France and there are no important rivers connecting the area to the ocean.  Its major influences come from inside rather than outside.  Throughout its history it’s been primarily an agricultural community.  But for many centuries it was a very wealthy agricultural community.  Basically, the food of Burgundy is farm food raised to the highest levels. 

And then, of course, there are the wines of Burgundy.  Each town along the road from Dijon to just below Beaune is famous for its wine.  The name of the village is right on the label.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The first mention that we have of the great vineyards of Burgundy is in a note that was sent to the Emperor Constantine in the year 312.  The note mentions the fact that the wines of Burgundy are already famous, and then goes on to inform the Emperor that the water drainage system in the neighborhood is a disaster, and he should get it fixed ASAP.  Obviously an outspoken approach to life, as well as a love of great wine has been part of the Burgundian character for quite a while.

The vineyards of Burgundy are owned by over 46,000 different landholders and there are only about 90,000 acres.  In many cases the actual parcel of earth owned by the grower is tiny.  And each owner has his or her own idea of how their grapes should be grown.  In general, the people who grow the grapes don’t make the wine.  But that’s not the case when it comes to the largest owner of the important vineyards -- Bouchard Pere & Fils.  Pere & Fils means father and sons.

This is the Chateau de Beaune.  It was built as part of a fortress during the 1400’s.  During the 1700’s the Bouchard family moved in, and it’s been the center of the business ever since.  Part of any respectable 15th century fortress was a series of underground caves for supplies and troop movements.  Today the caves are used for the aging of some six million bottles of Burgundian wine, including a selection of very rare wines dating back to the 1800’s.

Winemaking, of course, starts in the vineyards, and Bouchard is the largest owner of the highest classifications in Burgundy -- over 230 acres in 25 different areas.  The parcels are separated by rural hamlets, dirt roads, and ancient stone fences.  This is one of my favorite spots in the region.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Behind these iron bars and ancient protective stone gate, lie the extremely valuable chardonnay grapes used by Bouchard to make one of the world’s great wines -- Montrachet.  Le Montrachet was a local lord who lived here during the 1100’s.  He grew his grapes on the land behind me.  The wine that comes from that land still bears his name -- Montrachet.  Right on the label.  Lord Montrachet had a son who went off to the Crusades.  Unfortunately he did not return.  To commemorate his son’s valor, he took a plot of land at the top of the hill and called it “Chevalier- Montrachet.”  Right on the label again.  “Chevalier” roughly translates as “Crusader-Knight Montrachet.”  A few years later, the lord met an extremely attractive young lady, and they got into the habit of spending the afternoons, um, “walking through the fields.” A year or so later she had a son.  That pleased the lord even more.  Across the road he took a plot of land, marked it off, and called it “Batard-Montrachet,” which means “the Bastard of Montrachet.”  Now, I don’t know if I’m allowed to say that on television, and if you heard BLEEP Montrachet. I just wanted to mention that batard is a French word meaning “illegitimate child.”

Bouchard is an old family name in Burgundy.  They actually went into the business the year before George Washington was born.  But some of their techniques are very new.  They were the first winemakers in Burgundy to initiate what is called a “green harvest.”  Early in the growing season, they take perfectly good bunches of grapes off the vines in order to concentrate the juices in the remaining grapes.  It intensifies the flavor.  You know, when you’ve been making wine for 260 years... you can take a few risks.

Nicholas Rolin was the Chancellor to the Dukes of Burgundy.  He was one of the most powerful men in Europe during the 1400s.  Nicholas had been widowed twice, when he married Guigone de Salins, a very pious and respectable lady who came from a very wealthy family.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Salin means “salt,” and for hundreds of years her family had owned the most important salt mines in France.  Clearly these were good times for Nicolas and Her Saltiness.  But not for everybody else.  The Hundred Year’s War had just come to an end, and bands of demobilized soldiers were wandering around the countryside destroying everything and everybody they could get their hands on.   A devastating famine had begun.  Ninety percent of the people in Beaune were considered destitute.  But all this presented an interesting opportunity for Nicolas.  He discovered that he could do well by doing good.  You see, Nicholas was concerned  -- concerned that some of the things that he had done on his trip from poor country lawyer to Lord of Burgundy might not look so good on his application for passage through the pearly gates on his way to heaven.  Clearly, this was a time where Nicholas could play... ”Let’s Make A Deal.”

So Nicholas built a great hospital for the needy of Burgundy.  A magnificent place.  A place that has become famous throughout the world.  And that fame was central to Nicholas’s plan.  You see, Nicholas built the Hospices De Beaune with the hope that someone “Upstairs” would notice it and give him a discount on his sins.  This was not an uncommon practice at the time.  “Celestial” favors were a big business and this “arrangement” in no way diminished the magnificence of his charity.

And let me show you just how magnificent that charity was.  They tell me that much of the art created for the Hospices was commissioned by Rolin in order to distract the minds of the patients from their own condition and redirect their thoughts to prayer and requests for God’s forgiveness.  Well, let me tell you... lying in bed in a hospital and looking at the detail of the Last Judgment could certainly do that.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   When the well-to-do were well enough to leave, they would make a generous gift.  Sometimes it was money.  Money was good. Sometimes it was land.  In 1471, for the first time, it was a vineyard.  Wine was thought of as a health-giving liquid, and water something that could kill you.  So the vineyard was a giant step in the right direction.  The Hospices could use the grapes to make wine... give some of it to the patients... and sell the rest of it for money.  And they could do that year after year after year.  The vineyard... a gift that keeps on giving.

Over the centuries many vineyards were donated.  Today the Hospices has holdings on over 50 estates, and they are on some of Burgundy’s best land.  Each year grapes are gathered from these hills and employees of the Hospices make the official Hospices wine.  On the third Sunday in November, the results of these winemaking activities are sold at the world’s largest charity wine auction.  Buyers come from all over the world to bid and many millions of dollars are raised to cover the upkeep of the Hospices.  This is not an auction for the casual buyer.  You must be considered a potentially serious purchaser in order to get into this room.

BURT WOLF:   How do you signal for a bid?

GUIDE (LUC BOUCHARD):  You have to wave your hand.

BURT WOLF:   Just like that?

GUIDE:  Hey!  Be careful!

BURT WOLF:   What did I buy???

GUIDE:   Seven hundred bottles of Pommard!  Just for you.

BURT WOLF:   Seven hundred bottles of Pommard.  Great.  Wonderful.  I love this.

And you never can anticipate who will be bidding against you.

WOMAN WITH BABY:  This little boy is two months old, and he’s just the youngest bidder for today’s wines.

BURT WOLF:   Did he buy, or did he just bid?

WOMAN WITH BABY:  He bought.

BURT WOLF:   Ah-hah.  It’ll be a while before he drinks it, though.

WOMAN WITH BABY:  Hopefully eighteen years.  [laughs]

Throughout this weekend, Beaune not only celebrates its great wine, but also its excellent food.  The hotels and restaurants are packed.  Some of the most sought-after tables are to be found at the Hostellerie de Levernois, which sits in its own ten-acre park, filled with fields, woods and brooks.  The hotel itself is quite elegant...and the cooking has earned it two stars from the Michelin Guide.  The kitchen is under the direction of Christophe Crotet, who’s going to prepare as traditional a dish from Burgundy as you can get -- Boeuf Bourgignon.

Christophe starts by cutting an onion into small pieces.  Next he cuts a carrot into small cubes and chops a clove of garlic.  Those ingredients are going to be used in the sauce.  The meat is a three-pound piece of lean beef that has been sliced into two-inch cubes.  Next a cup’s worth of bacon, cut into small cubes, goes into a saucepan, gets covered with water, blanched for five minutes, and  drained.  Now the cooking really gets started.  Two tablespoons of oil go into a pan, followed by a quarter cup of the onion, a quarter cup of the carrot, and a  few sprigs of thyme.  The ingredients are cooked for a few minutes. 

The beef gets sauteed in a second pan.  It’s important to brown the beef well on all sides.  Christophe points out that the browning is essential in order to give the dish its proper color.  When the meat is brown it gets combined with the vegetables.  Two tablespoons of flour are added and stirred into the moisture around the beef.  The flour needs to be cooked for about five minutes.  The cooking will remove the flour’s starchy taste.  At that point two cups of red wine are added to the pan.  It’s brought to the boil, then simmered for two minutes.  A round of parchment paper is used to cover the pan and it’s into a 375 degree Fahrenheit oven for one and a half hours. 

BURT WOLF:   When I saw Christophe put the paper on top of the sauce, I knew it was there to hold the moisture in while the pot was in the oven.  But I’d never seen anybody do that with paper.  So I asked him why, and he had a wonderful reason -- he said that was his favorite pot, but he didn’t have a cover for it.

While the beef is cooking another saute pan arrives and in goes two tablespoons of oil, followed by the blanched bacon.  Then  six shallots that have been cut in half.  The bacon and the shallots cook together for about five minutes.  A half cup of sliced mushrooms are added and browned for two minutes.  A few flips to impress the television crew.  Then in goes a cup of red wine which is then boiled down until it’s almost entirely evaporated.   When the pan with the beef comes out of the oven, the bacon and mushrooms are added, followed by ten more minutes of cooking. That’s it.  When it’s time to serve, noodles go onto the plate, then a few pieces of the beef, the sauce and a little minced fresh parsley.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Italy was the original home for the order of the Benedictine monks.  But their greatest monastery was here in France, at Cluny.  The Benedictines had become rich and famous and powerful and luxury-loving.  But some of the Benedictines thought that the good life was a bad thing.  So they left to form their own monastery.  Eventually the head of their sect became known as Saint Bernard.

Their first abbey was built on a marsh where only reeds could grow.  The French word for “reed” is cistels, so the monks ended up being called Cistercians.   The Cistercians withdrew into the solitude of the countryside.  They renounced worldly pleasures... with one possible exception.  They made great wine.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   In all fairness, the rules of St. Benedict allowed a little bit of wine to each monk every day.  It was important to their religious services.  But they got into the idea of making great wine because they wanted to sell their surplus for money.  Worked very well for everybody.  The monks got to drink better wine, their pursuit of excellence showed their love of God, and they certainly turned a bigger buck.  Eventually the Cistercians ended up with a huge international business dealing in very fine wines.  It was all quite heavenly -- and it should have been.  The Cistercians certainly had friends in high places.

In the year 1150 a man named Walo Gilles donated this land to the Cistercians in exchange for a letter of recommendation that he could use to obtain... um, shall we say... “better accommodations in the after-life.”  Today it is known as the Clos de Vougeot and you can still see what the wine business looked like about a thousand years ago.  There are about a half million vines that will produce enough wine to fill about 300,000 bottles.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The action really got started here in the courtyard.  Carts would come in with the grapes.  The grapes would be transferred to big tanks.  The pressure of one grape on top of the other forced out the free-running juice. Then the grapes were transferred to enormous presses where the rest of the juices were forced out.  Each of the presses had a name.  My favorite is Tetu, “the Stubborn.”  Seven hundred years old and still working.   When the grapes came in, they went into these giant rectangular presses.  The press bar would come down and force out the juice.  The power for the bar came by turning the screw at the end.   The power for the screw came from the monks.  These huge barrels were used to ferment the grape juice into wine.  The Cistercians did everything they could to make the best wine possible, and they knew that a happy monk was a happy winemaker.  So they laid out the area as efficiently as possible. Everything took place on one level.  No wasted energy running up and down stairs for these monks.

The one-level plan was a good idea from the operations viewpoint, but it also made sense in terms of construction.  The land here is made up of very hard limestone. Digging a wine cellar would have been a murderous job. They also covered all the walkways to protect the monks from the bad weather.  They dug a great well and set up an ingenious system for getting the most water up for the least effort.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   These days, Clos Vougeot is home to an organization called Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin.  Which loosely translates as... “The Bunch That Likes To Drink Good Wine.” And in this case the wine they like to drink comes from Burgundy. The organization was put together in 1934 to promote the wine and the culture of the region.  Each November, during the third weekend, about 600 of ‘em get together in the old wine storage area to celebrate the introduction of new members.

Considering the number of people that are being served here, and all at the same time, the food at this banquet is quite excellent... and of course, each course is accompanied by an appropriate wine of the region.

This evening is a big deal.  How big?  Well, Catherine Deneuve will be sitting at the head of the table!  And then the ultimate guest of honor arrives.

This is also the time for the induction of new members.  The horn players face away from the audience, partly because they want the bell of the horn to face out, but also because they’re shy and they don’t get much time to practice, and they’d prefer not to be recognized.  After all, this is a voluntary group.   Each year about half a dozen people who have made an outstanding contribution to the promotion of the wines of Burgundy are inducted into the organization. 

And the next morning, as dawn spread out her rosé-tipped fingers, there was much rejoicing throughout the land.


BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Well, the people of Beaune are certainly having a barrel of fun, but there are some pressing issues that have not been resolved.  Did Nicholas Rolin actually get pre-boarded on his trip to heaven as a result of his good works?  If I buy wine at the auction at the Hospices de Beaune, is there at least a possibility that I will receive “celestial favors”?  No one can answer these questions.  So for the time being, everyone here will continue pressing their grapes, and I will continue pressing my investigation into the gatherings and celebrations that mark the passages of our lives.  I hope you’ll join me.  I’m Burt Wolf.