The Hospices de Beaune wine auction, the biggest weekend in the Burgundy calendar, is back this year with a new look and a new auction house in charge.
After running the auction since 2005, Christie’s is handing over the gavel to its arch-competitor Sotheby’s. The latter – quite as old and as prestigious as its London neighbour and rival – promises that it will use its international clout and dedicated wine department to make sure the Hospices comes roaring back after missing its physical 2020 edition and pivoting to a virtual auction format.
The 161st Vente des Vins des Hospices De Beaune, a weekend of vinous and gastronomic celebration, will take its rightful place in the calendar in the third weekend in November this year.
Les Trois Glorieuses – three events which place both the liver and the wallet in equal jeopardy – will be reinstated: dinner for 600 in the magnificent medieval stronghold of Clos de Vougeot on Friday; the Hospices de Beaune auction on Sunday; and the Paulée de Meursault, a feast which starts at midday on Monday and lasts well into the evening.
‘This is the most important wine auction that exists,’ said Jamie Ritchie, the New York-based head of fine wine for Sotheby’s, at a press conference in Beaune. ‘In 30 years at Sotheby’s, I’ve seen many prestigious sales, but this is unique – and it brings unique challenges.’
Chief among those challenges is the fact that the wine coming under the hammer is barely in the barrel: as Ritchie pointed out, the wines they will be selling at the end of November – all from the Hospices’ 60ha of vineyard – are still on the vine at the end of September.
The Hospices Civils de Beaune was founded in 1443, at the end of the Hundred Years War, with the building of a hospital in the centre of the town. The Hôtel-Dieu, which remains one of the most magnificent Renaissance buildings in Europe, was a hospital and refuge for the next 600 years (the last patients left in the 1970s – you can still see the beds in a hall so sumptuous it looks more like a cathedral or throne room than a ward).
Lavishly endowed with vineyards and farmlands at its founding, over the centuries more vineyards have been donated by benefactors, so that Domaine des Hospices de Beaune, a non-profit organisation, owns 150 acres (60ha) of vineyard, with a number of premier and grand cru sites including Bâtard-Montrachet, Corton-Charlemagne, Échezeaux and Mazis-Chambertin. Today, the Hospices runs hospitals across the region, including the Groupement Hospitalier de Territoire du Sud Côte-d’Or. All proceeds from the charity auction, which began in 1859, go toward these hospitals.
The Hospices is unique for many reasons. While it’s a high point for international Burgundy lovers, it’s also a holiday weekend for Burgundians. Local families – children on their fathers’ shoulders, toddlers wrapped against the late November chill – throng the cobbled square outside the hall where the auction takes place, watching on big screens as if it were a major sporting event.
The auction has often been taken as a bellwether for the quality of the vintage
The auction has often been taken as a bellwether for the quality of the vintage, but its celebrity now means hammer prices are somewhat divorced from the quality of the wines. This year is certain to garner interest: not only is it Sotheby’s debut and the post-pandemic comeback, but it’s also been a challenging vintage to say the least.
April frosts after a freakishly warm March decimated vines and yields in some areas are expected to be down by two-thirds or more. Privately, observers have described it as a ‘catastrophe’, but it’s a classic Burgundy vintage, Hospices head winemaker Ludivine Griveau says.
‘The 17 whites are already showing an incredible balance and promise a very strong aromatic future…they have a density in the mouth and good levels of acidity. Our only regret is that we have been able to produce very little in terms of quantity.
‘The reds…are energetic and rich in fruit, with noble textures and very silky tannins. Our 33 cuvées each have their own identity, and overall, they are both subtle and racy.’
One regular buyer, Tom Harrow of the fine wine club Honest Grapes, told Club Oenologique he would be purchasing barrels for his members, including ‘aiming for our first Grand Cru (Corton). We have also noted with interest the ongoing rise in quality of Beaune and Savigny 1er Cru so will aim for a couple of barrels here, too.’
Harrow noted however that with the new Sotheby’s team in place pushing sales, as well as the very short vintage, ‘we certainly don’t expect any decrease [in price] from last year’.
This year there will 349 barrels (and five half-barrels) on offer, representing 50 different cuvées of the 2021 vintage, produced from vineyards across the Hospices’ 60ha of vineyard.
Sotheby’s has also just announced the flagship lot – the Pièce du Président – which this year will be a barrel of Corton Renardes Grand Cru 2021, a lieu-dit within Aloxe-Corton in the Côte de Beaune. According to the auction house, the wine is aged in a barrel called ‘Vision…specially crafted by master tonnelier François Frères from a local Burgundian oak, taken from the nearby forest of Cîteaux, using only wood of the very finest grain, selected with cutting-edge optical technology.’
Funds from this particular lot will go to support two organisations that champion women’s causes: the National Federation Solidarity with Women (FNSF), which campaigns against violence towards women, and the Institut Curie, to benefit medical research into breast cancer.
Once bought, barrels are matured in the cellars of négociant-éléveurs until ready for bottling in 12 to 14 months.