Strasbourg Hospital’s Wine Cellar
By David Kattenburg
Strasbourg Civic Hospital is France’s fourth largest medical institution, and as large as a small town, with a staff of over ten thousand. In the basement of the administration building, you’ll find something most hospitals don’t have … a wine cellar.
A highly reputed and well stocked wine cellar. Here, the finest wines from France’s Alsace region are available at a reasonable cost. I took a tour of Strasbourg Civic Hospital’s Cave Historique in the company of the cellar’s director, Thibaut Baldinger.
It’s a tourist destination – and you don’t have to buy wine. You can just wander through the cool, dimly-lit cellar, gazing at humongous oak casks, reading about how Strasbourg hospital got into the wine business six hundred years ago.
Paying for health care was what it was all about. “This cellar has been created because you only have ten percent of the people that were held in the hospital that could actually afford to pay their health care in gold,” Baldinger explains. “All the other ones they were actually forced to pay with animals; sometimes houses; sometimes lands, or sometimes vineyards. And that’s why the hospital became one of the biggest vineyards owner and landowner of the whole Alsace region.”
Groundwater levels are high in Strasbourg. So, like the city’s famous cathedral, the wine cellar is built on a solid foundation buttressed by monumental pillars, the oldest dating back to 1395. Beneath each pillar, a dozen tree trunks have been positioned. “Fondacion sur pilotis,” the typically Strasbourgeois technique is called.
Of course, Strasbourg hospital’s wine cellar is lined with oak casks. One of the largest, now empty, once contained twenty-six thousand liters of Burgundy Pommard — enough to fill 34,000 bottles.
Down a long corridor, there are plenty of casks that are filled with wine, produced by twenty-seven vintners from across Alsace. All of the region’s grape varieties are here: Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, Pinot Auxerrois, plus a couple of special grape types. Klevener de Heiligenstein is produced in the town of Heiligenstein. Another unusal Grand Cru, Kaefferkopf, is produced in the village of Ammerschwihr. It’s Alsace’s only blended Grand Cru, consisting of sixty percent Gewurtztraminer and forty percent of other grape types.
Many of the older casks in Strasbourg hospital’s wine cellar are splendidly carved. Sticking out of each one – a shiny spigot that opens with a “paradise” key. Alsatian vintners have paid for these casks to be refurbished, but the hospital’s wine cellar is a money-making business, so storage costs must be covered. This is where the cellar’s wine shop comes in. A small percentage of the wine maturing in these casks will be bottled for sale. Some physicians question the appropriateness of selling wine on hospital grounds. On a recent visit to wine-rich Bordeaux, French president Francois Hollande cautioned French not to over drink.
Still, fine wine is prestigious in France – none more so than the 540 year-old wine stored at the very end of the cellar dating to 1472. Behind a heavily locked steel gate, five hundred liters of the precious fluid sit tranquilly in a specially-built oak cask. Strasbourg hospital’s oenological treasure is too acidic to drink, but you can smell the cork – a thick wooden plug, actually. Baldinger describes the bouquet:
Hazelnut, fruit liquor, vanilla; smokiness, also; woody, obviously, because the wood is very young; you’ve also got a little bit of freshly cut herbs.
Nearby, something most tourists don’t visit. A damp, low-ceilinged room where, back in medieval times, human cadavers were dissected. The bodies of people who’d murdered their fathers, mothers or children — executed by drowning at the nearby Pont de Corbeau — were dumped through a window and onto a table, then promptly opened by curious doctors and students.
These days, Strasbourg Hospital and its medieval wine cellar work hand in hand on much more pleasant activities. Annual blind tasting – to see which wine gets finished here – takes place in January.
Until then, Strasbourg hospital’s historic wine cellar is open to visitors from 8:30 till 5:30, Mondays to Fridays; Saturdays till noon. Guided tours can be arranged, but visitors are welcome to stroll through the cellar on their own. When your visit is complete, you can buy a bottle of your favorite white wine — or wonderful Alsatian pinot noir — in the shop.