Hospices de Beaune open for business but without the fun

Beaune won't be buzzing next week but the legendary charity wine auction – the first look at the 2020 vintage – is going ahead, and bidding should be as fast and furious as ever

Words by Adam Lechmere

Inside the auction hall at the Beaune charity auction
In happier days: bidding in person at the Hospices de Beaune 2019

Update 15 November: The Hospices de Beaune charity auction has been postponed until further notice. Organisers have given no direct reason for the postponement but it is assumed present Covid restrictions in force in France made it impossible to go ahead. The trustees of the Hospices de Beaune said in a statement:

“The 160th Hospices de Beaune wine sale will be organised as soon as possible, taking into account all the comments and contributions to further improve the conditions and its smooth running. Our history is marked by much more difficult trials and we have always overcome them with the help of our faithful and loyal supporters: they are thanked. We would particularly like to thank the regional prefect and the Beaune sub-prefect for their support. Our priority is always that of our patients and residents of EHPAD (établissements d’hébergement pour personnes âgées dépendantes – the French care home network) who honour us with their trust.”


Beaune, the attractive medieval town that is the spiritual home of the Burgundy wine trade, will be bereft of visitors when the Hospices de Beaune auction opens for business next week.

The Hôtel-Dieu, that extraordinary testament to Northern Renaissance and early Gothic architecture, will miss the usual 500 bidders waving their red paddles to secure a barrel of the very finest cru Burgundy from the latest vintage. The fine cobbled square outside the hall will not be thronging with wine lovers of every age and nationality watching the bidding on the big screens (only in Burgundy could a wine auction be a spectator sport), and the cafes that line the square will be shuttered. The gargantuan lunches, the parties, the raucous dinners, will be cancelled.


Exterior of Hôtel-Dieu
The fine cobbled square in front of the medieval marvel of the Hôtel-Dieu will be bereft

This year Les Trois Glorieuses – the three days of November marked by 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 legendary repast which starts at midday on Monday and lasts well into the evening – have been cancelled.

Instead it will be Une Gloire: the auction, the 160th Vente des Vins des Hospices de Beaune, is emphatically going ahead. Bidding – most of it online – should be ferocious, given that 2020 is a warm, sunny vintage (all the grapes were picked in August) and excellent acidity in the reds.

Of the whites, Jasper Morris MW said he was “humbled” by the experience of tasting them. “2020 is the fourth exciting white wine vintage in a row, and destined to be the greatest of them all,” he says in his official notes for the auction.

The third Sunday of November is regarded by Burgundy lovers as the high point of the calendar

The Hospices was founded in the Hôtel-Dieu at the end of the Hundred Years’ War. It received its first patients in 1453, and remained a hospital and refuge for the next 600 years – the last patients left in the 1970s.

Over the centuries, gifts of vineyards have been donated by benefactors, so that Domaine des Hospices de Beaune, a non-profit organisation, owns 150 acres (61ha) of vineyards, with a number of premier and grand cru sites including Bâtard Montrachet, Corton Charlemagne, Échezeaux and Mazis-Chambertin.

The charity auction began in 1859 and has been run by Christie’s since 2005. It takes place on the third Sunday of November and is regarded by Burgundy lovers as the high point of the calendar, a weekend of cellar visits and parties that attracts thousands of visitors from every corner of the wine world. Last year it raised €12.3m for various charitable concerns.

The auction itself, of wines in barrel from the current vintage, is regarded as a bellwether for the quality of the vintage. Barrels, which are all 250l and hold 288 bottles, are bought by wine merchants, individuals and wine clubs. They are left in Burgundy to be matured by a négociant-éleveur until they are ready for bottling in 12 to 14 months.


Paddle down at the auction
Bidding at the Hospices will be almost entirely online
Tom Harrow paddle in hand before the auction
Under the hammer: Tom Harrow and paddle with Ludivine Griveau, winemaker at the Hospices de Beaune, in 2019

Club Oenologique correspondent Tom Harrow is a regular attendee. Last year he and his colleagues bought three barrels for their wine club Honest Grapes – two Pommard 1er Cru Cuvée Dame de la Charité, and one barrel of Meursault Cuvée Goureau. “We’re going after a Volnay this year,” he said. “The Santenots looks really good but all the 1er Crus are of interest.”

Harrow isn’t concerned about not being able to travel to Burgundy (almost impossible in the current climate) to taste the wines before the event. “I have built up a reasonable palate for young Burgundy, but frankly these wines were still hanging on the vine a couple of months ago. You have to be a specialist to taste them. They are are pre-malo[lactic fermentation], the whites are still cloudy, and the reds really show the acids, tannin and new oak.” Instead, he is going for Volnay on the advice of Jasper Morris MW, whose assessment of the wines up for auction will be published by Christie’s next week (the catalogue of the sale can be viewed here).

Morris says the Volnay 1er Cru Les Santenots, Cuvée Jéhan de Massol has a “sense of majesty… It is the most complete of the Volnay bottlings… An excellent balance of fruit and just the right acidity, with a persistence of finish that promises extremely well for the future.” His standout appellation of the exceptional white vintage is the Corton Charlemagne.

There are 640 barrels of 50 different cuvées of 2020 to be sold. The highlight is a single barrel, the Pièce du Président, which commands record prices (the highest ever was €450,000 for a Corton Bressandes Grand Cru in 2015). This year the Pièce du Président is a Clos de La Roche Grand Cru, to be auctioned on 15 November. The bidding for this lot only is still conducted “à la bougie” – the time it takes a candle to burn down. Funds from the Pièce this year will go to families of hospital workers who have been affected by COVID-19.

The fact that most bidding this year will be online presents no problem for Christie’s, its head of European sales Pablo Huarte told Club Oenologique. “We converted to digital ten years ago and have been running online sales since 2011. We have all the means to do it and we’re encouraging everyone to bid online.”

Huarte said that in a normal year “about 30%” of the bids are online. This year the figure will be very much higher.

And for those who might not be able or willing to splash out a few thousand on wine, there are also barrels of Eau de Vie de Marc de Bourgogne and Fine de Bourgogne up for grabs with a starting price of around €600. “You have to really love your Eau de Vie, but it might be a fun way of getting involved without spending too much,” Harrow said.

The 160th Vente des Vins des Hospices de Beaune takes place on Saturday 14 (preview) and Sunday 15 November (sale). For more information visit christies.com