Exploring Burgundy- The Hospices de Beaune

It can be cold in November in Beaune, at the heart of Burgundy’s Cote d’Or. But no matter how frosty the weather, the atmosphere on the third weekend of that month is warm when the world’s oldest charity wine auction takes place.

Traditionally, some legendary lots go for high prices, others can be bargains. It has been happening since 1859 and provides a chance for locals and visitors to party in a very Burgundian fashion while pundits try to work out the effect the auction prices will have on the market down the line, when growers and merchants put their wines on sale.

Open to trade and private buyers, some see this as an early opportunity to gauge the quality of, and the demand for, the latest vintage. The Hospices de Beaune’s en primeur wines are sold in barrel in aid of its charitable work.

The Hospices de Beaune is in the plural because it comprises the Hôtel- Dieu, with its famous coloured tile roof, and an old people’s hospice, whose cracked bell you can hear if you are passing its discreet door on the main street on the hour. It is an historic site, the owner of an extensive domaine of vineyards – more than 60ha (hectares) – a charitable institution and a modern hospital.

Founded in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, chancellor to Philippe Le Bon, Duke of Burgundy, and his wife Guigone de Salins to look after the impoverished sick, the institution has been funded ever since by legacies, many of them gifts of vineyards.

The tradition continues to this day. Most vineyards are in grand crus and premier crus appellations, mainly reds, and largely on the Côte de Beaune.

Known as the Trois Glorieuses, the weekend of the year centres around three main events. On Saturday evening at the Château du Clos de Vougeot, 600 members of the Burgundian order the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin and their guests, dressed in their finest, arrive at the spectacular floodlit building in the vineyard for a formal banquet, accompanied by much blowing of hunting horns, speeches and singing of traditional Burgundian drinking songs.

Sunday is the day of the auction which takes place opposite the Hôtel-Dieu in the covered market, officially starting at 2.30pm. Each year the committee in charge of running the Hospices chooses one or more celebrities to ‘preside’ over the proceedings – these are usually French starlets, sporting heroes or fashion names, and generate lots of publicity in the local media.

La Paulée de Meursault is the final official event on Monday. Traditionally, a paulée is the meal for harvesters to celebrate the end of picking, but over the years this lunch has become a great convivial banquet, held in the cellars of the restored Château de Meursault. Growers and their guests bring bottles to pass around, and the eating, drinking and talk continue late into the afternoon when many go on to taste in the cellars of their hosts.

In the past, the auction was dominated by the local trade, bidding on behalf of themselves, or their retail customers and restaurants.

In 2005, the Mayor, Alain Suguenot, decided to shake things up. He put out to tender the contract to run the auction with a brief to open it up to private buyers and to make it a more international event. Christie’s got the contract and has been running the auction ever since.

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