It’s midnight and a freezing mist envelops the Cote d’Or’s most famous address, Château du Clos de Vougeot. Inside its 12th century walls, 600 fully grown adults – including some of the most respected members of the global wine trade – are waving napkins above their heads, singing folk songs and clapping their hands like small children. Once a place of peace and contemplation for Cistercian monks, the château is now home to the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, which has been hosting Bacchanalian events here since 1934. There are now 12,000 members of the brotherhood around the world and on this cold November night, yet more wine lovers are seduced by Burgundy’s warm spirit.
The busloads of revellers are here for the the world’s most famous charity wine auction, the Hospices de Beaune. A weekend of festivities, christened Les Trois Glorieuses, has grown up around the sale, making it the town’s busiest weekend of the year. The three pillars of the event are the wonderful yet weird Saturday soiree at Clos de Vougeot, the businesslike Sunday auction and the more relaxed Paulée de Meursault on the Monday, an afternoon of feasting and sharing fine bottles from your private cellar.
“The Paulée is a different kind of animal,” says the head of Maison Louis Jadot, Pierre-Henry Gagey, who returned to Burgundy in 1984, aged 29, to work with his father. “Paulées are usually held to celebrate the end of the vintage: this is about eating, drinking and sharing bottles with other tables over a long lunch. It’s very dificult to get tickets but anyone can go – vineyard workers, winemakers, collectors…” Gagey has secured several tickets for the Paulée but this being his 35th Trois Glorieuses weekend, he’s given them to his technical team.
The weekend’s proceedings kick off at the foot of the Beaune hill, where vineyards cascade to the edges of this historic town. Small groups wielding their own wine glasses – it’s BYO glassware – are ushered into the hospices barrel hall to taste the cuvees on offer and decide which barrels they will bid on the following afternooon. It’s only been two months since the grapes were picked and the wines haven’t yet been through malolactic conversion, so working out what they’ll be like after barrel-ageing is no easy task.
Once a trade-only event, the Hospices de Beaune auction became a public event in 2005 when auction house Christie’s took over its operation, transforming its fortunes. Instead of trade-oriented 10-barrel lots, it became possible to buy a single cask and split it with friends, family or customers. This once local affair acquired a distinctly international feel: bidders in 2019 included buyers from the UK, US, China and Japan while a Brazilian was the last to lift his paddle on the most prestigious lot – the president’s barrel – auctioned by a group of French celebrities to the tune of €260,000 (£217,050). However, buying a wine in its infancy means you’ll need to engage the services of a local company to finish and age the wines for over the coming 15 months. Christie’s provides guidance for Hospices de Beaune rookies, connecting you with local houses including Louis Jadot, Bouchard Père et Fils, Patriarche or Albert Bichot, the auction’s largest buyer in recent times.
Despite the icy temperatures, the streets of Beaune are thronged all weekend: locals perform traditional dances, market stalls line the streets selling wine, cheese and Burgundy paraphernalia, while a huge outdoor screen (the sort of thing you watch World Cup matches on), stands in front of the Hotel Dieu, streaming the action from inside the packed auction hall.
The region’s renown and the event’s increasing popularity, however, carries a new set of issues for loyal Burgundy lovers. “We come [to the Hospices de Beaune auction weekend] every year,” says Liam Dunn, who leads a group of non wine-trade friends and colleagues in the wine and hospitality industry. “But a barrel that you’d pay €14,000 (£11,660) for would have been about half that sum in 2007 or 2008, and with the value of the euro against the pound, times have changed. We only buy a couple of barrels now. We get 288 bottles out of a barrel so we split them into 24 x 12-bottle cases or 48 sixes.”
It’s a sentiment repeated by other long-standing attendees: they are being priced out of the market.
Dunn adds: “At more than £100 a bottle because of demand from China, the Far East and Russia, it has become more a cachet to buy a barrel rather than for pleasure. Yes, it’s for charity, but your head has to rule your heart. You could possibly buy the exact same wine for a third less than you pay at the hospice.”
Locals were hoping that prices would stay stable in 2019, but an insatiable appetite for Burgundy, and smaller volumes (due to late frosts, unsettled weather during flowering, and a dry season) suggested that was optimistic. “We had half the quantity of white and 75% the normal amount of red wines: without water you don’t get a lot of juice: we can have concentration and ripeness but not quantity.” say Frédéric Barnier, Louis Jadot’s head winemaker. Official reports from the Burgundy wine board (BIVB) put the region’s 2019 harvest at 1.2mhl, regisering a 34% fall on 2018. It’s less than 2016 although a little more than 2013, which was the smallest harvest on record since 2000.
The prices of the first barrels are a sign of things to come: the first strike of the gavel signals the first transaction: a barrel of Beaune Premier Cru Dames Hospitalières is purchased for more than 11,000 euros (£9150)- the price paid last year was 9,000 euros (£7500). Over the course of the afternoon and into the evening, it becomes clear there will be no bargains: the average price of a barrel exceeds more than 20,000 euros (£16,667), raising 12 million euros (£9.95m) despite a relatively small harvest. The proceeds go to local charities including the local hospital. The Hotel Dieu, once the setting for the auction and home to the maternity ward in which most Burgundian vignersons over 50 were born, has now become a tourist attraction. The hope is that Burgundy retains its spirit and does not turn into a vinous Disneyland.
15 picks from the Hospices 2019
The depth of colour in the reds in 2019 is incredible. They are ripe and bright with sweet red and blackberry fruit and there are some cuvees that are drinking well already. Expect ripe tannins and despite the warmth of the season, there’s plenty of freshness in evidence.
Beaune 1er cru, Clos des Avaux
Despite its rich style and sweet fruit, this retains an elegance and restraint. Excellent core of fruit in a focused package with fine sinew and ripe tannins.
Beaune 1er cru, Maurice Drouhin
Beautifully ripe, sweet raspberry and blackberry fruit combine in this almost decadent Beaune. While expansive in the mouth, its tannins and fresh acidity provide the tension to tighten its frame on the finish.
Beaune 1er cru, Nicolas Rolin
An elegant mid-weight style with sweet red and blackberry fruits, and mouthcoating fine tannins. Might like a bit more acidity if I’m picky. If I tasted this blind, I might guess top of the tree new world Pinot.
Volnay 1er cru, Les Santenots Gauvain
What incredible depth of colour in this ripe, sweetly fruited Volnay. Light bodied with delicacy and delightful sinew in conclusion.
There’s an intensity and innate power to this Pommard. While sweet and ripe, there’s a savoury, broody core that adds an extra layer of complexity to this wine.
Echezeaux Grand Cru, Jean-Luc Bissey
Harnessed power is the phrase that best describes one of my stand out reds in the 2019 Hospices collection. While offering the vintage’s hallmark of sweet, ripe red fruit, it is firm and powerful with abundant tannins that coat the mouth and provide tension.
Clos de la Roche Grand Cru, Cyrot-Chaudron/G.Kritter
This wine is comfortable in its own skin, letting you sink into its caress on the mid palate. Fragrant and supple, you could almost drink this now it is so approachable. That said, chalky/chocolatey tannins and fine line of acidity ensure this wine has the structure for the medium-plus term.
Mazis-Chambertin Grand Cru, Madeleine Collignon
A reductive, powerful and purposeful Pinot. Offering blackberry and red fruit at this early stage, it has a real firmness that shows its potential for the long haul.
The wines were tasted before going through the malolactic fermentation but a few wines were already lacking a little focus in terms of aciity As a sweeping generalisation, the whites are round, ripe and in some cases downright fleshy.
Chablis 1er Cru, Côte de Léchet, Jean-Marc Brocard
A zingy, apple and citrus-led Chablis with lovely precision amd just the right amount of tension.
Meursault 1er Cru, Les Porusots, Jéhan Humblot
A rich and round style with lovely phenolics and delightful texture. High level of concentration and fine acidity.
Meursault 1er Cru, Les Charmes, Albert Grivault
A silken Chardonnay that is stylish yet understated. Finely fruited with a high level of concentration; aromatics reminiscent of citrus and red apple flavours. Long length.
Corton-Vergennes Grand Cru, Paul Chanson
While rich and round, this shows excellent balance between ripeness and freshness. Very good intensity on the mid palate. Shows great potential.
Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru, Roi Soleil
While rich, fleshy and impressive, this is never heavy. Almost sweetly fruited, it remains fresh and has a structured framework that provides persistence on the long finish.
Bâtard-Montrachet Grand Cru. Dames de Flandres
Even at this early stage in its life, this is at home in its own skin: silken in textue and almost meditative in impression. Huge concentration and ageing potential.