Do you like chocolate? If so, you may be curious to know that it pairs very well with wine — especially wine from Burgundy. Here I am, on the kind of gray overcast day that makes the charming city of Beaune even more mysterious, about to attend a chocolate and wine pairing session at Maison Bouchard Aine et Fils. I am here in Beaune, in the Burgundy region of France, to attend the celebrations leading up to the famous Hospices de Beaune wine auction.
Jean Lupatelli, winemaker of Bouchard Aine et Fils, and Jean Ourvois, chocolate master, set myself and other journalists loose in the winery’s ancient caves with a box of chocolates hanging from a ribbon around each of our necks. At various stations in the cave, servers drew wine from ancient casks, poured them into our glasses, and gave us hints on the best pairing combinations for the different chocolates. It was a rather creative exercise and an excellent chance to see the ancient caves of this highly regarded winery, with dust-covered bottles dating from 1745.
By four p.m., I was walking very slowly and carefully over the ancient cobblestone streets in my Manolo Blahnik high heels, towards the Hotel Dieu — scene of Sunday’s auction. En route, the Burgundians were out and about, enjoying the beginning of a village fair to celebrate the auction. One of the first festivities was a competition between young men who I presumed to be sommeliers, to see who could uncork a case of wine the fastest.
Inside the Hotel Dieu is a room filled with replications of what the original hospice looked like. From what I could understand from the placards, a seasoned nurse and a neophyte would be paired together to care for the ill.
The four p.m. tasting was to be led by Roland Masse, oenologist from Hospices de Beaune, but I must have missed him. Instead I fell in with other journalists, who each sat at a round table and tasted through the wines to be offered at the auction on Sunday. It was a fantastic opportunity to taste the various terroirs of Burgundy.
This seems like a good time to explain the concept behind the Hospices de Beaune auction. Over the past five hundred years, a variety of people have donated vineyards and worldly possessions to the Hospices, with the vineyards (some of them Grand and Premier Cru) owned by the Hospices. The grapes from these vineyards would be fermented in barrels, and each November the barrels would be auctioned off to the highest bidder. The successful bidder would then look for a “tender” (or winery) to finish the vinification, maturation, and bottling processes, paying them a fee for such a service. The bidder would also have the opportunity to choose customized labels with the bidder’s name and/or company name on the bottle, alongside the Hospices de Beaune crest, tender, and name of the historic donor. Each cuvee, which is made from one or more Hospices de Beaune vineyard sites, is named after a historic person important to the Hospices. For example, Volnay Premier Cru Cuvee Blondeau is named after Francois Blondeau, who gave the bells of the Hospice de la Charite and restored a Volnay church, among other good deeds.
I lucked out to find myself at a very interesting table including the publishers of some wine magazines, a pretty Japanese girl who lives in Paris and writes a food guide, her goatee-wearing boyfriend, and some very serious wine critics who debated each glass in French after the server poured it. I understood enough French to chime into the conversation, and we got to know one another a bit.
That night, I was invited to a black tie party at Chateau Chassagne-Montrachet, a historical winery owned by Domaine Michel Picard. Guests were welcomed to a reception and went down to the cellars, where a band played among the cellars. Dinner took place in a private room illuminated by candlelight. Mrs. Elisabeth Malfondet, daughter of the owners, welcomed us and through the night introduced many local dignitaries in the Burgundian wine trade, who spoke about the importance of finding new markets for Burgundian wine and new regions to approach for travel. Burgundy is already a popular travel destination with Asians, and the dignitaries suggested courting Brazil and Mexico in addition to other regions that have shown an interest in the area.
And Burgundy is indeed a delightful travel destination. It is ancient, and very charming and mysterious. You can find a wide range of hotels, including ones that are very affordable and even clean camping sites. Food here represents the best in France.
I was quite impressed by the Chateau's First Cru wine and especially the magical food and wine pairing. Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru les Chenevottes 2006 Domaine Michel Picard was paired with a starter of foie gras and gingerbread. The wine's delicate flavors of apricot, peach, and pastry cream really melded with the flavors of this exquisite dish.
Next Mersault-Charmes 2006 Cuvee Bahezre de Lanlay Maison Michel Picard was paired with wild sea bass with dried fruits and a hazelnut crust that really picked up on the marzipan, hazelnut, and vanilla in the wine.
The main course of Charolais beef (a special type of cow in the area) was paired with the red Chassagne – Montrachet 1er Cru les Macherelles 2006 Domaine Michel Picard. Once again, the soft fruitiness of the wine married well with the rare beef and its berrylike sauce.
I was so overwhelmed by the elegance of this pairing and the wine that I spoke to the winemaker, Frederic Barnier. The scent and flavor of pastry cream was so stunning in the first wine that I asked if this was a "signature" of the winery. He explained that no, the wine tastes different each year, and that often the scent of pastry cream is a result of new oak.
Fabulous evening, and a great opportunity to taste the absolutely unforgettable wines of Burgundy.