In just over a month, wine lovers, critics, bon viveurs and buyers will descend on Burgundy for the world’s most famous wine auction: the Hospices de Beaune. Established in 1859 to raise funds for the town’s historic hospital, it drums up an astonishing amount of money for charity – last year’s sale achieved over €14m.
All the wine for the Hospices comes from plots donated by benefactors over the past 500 years. It’s an opportunity to buy a barrel, or pièce, of something unique. And many regard it as a useful barometer of the market (albeit a rather inflated one, given its charitable aims). In 2018, the average barrel price was €16,850 – up 19 per cent on the year before. But the star lots – known as the Pieces des Présidents – can go for many times that. In 2015, a single barrel of Corton Renardes Grand Cru sold for a record €480,000.
Beaune comes alive during the Hospices weekend. There are parades, dinners and tastings and even a half marathon. On the Friday afternoon, I joined a very jolly preview of the 2018 wines, which saw hundreds of us crammed together in the freezing cellar of the Hospices’ winery, sampling wines straight from the barrel.
The centrepiece of Saturday night is a banquet for 600 at the magnificent Clos de Vougeot. After an aperitif in the courtyard – accompanied by flaming torches and hunting horns – guests sit down to a six-course dinner in the great hall. There are endless speeches, lots of bad jokes and increasingly rowdy songs that require everyone to wave their napkins in the air. At times, it can feel like you’re in a Belgian beer hall, rather than a black-tie dinner.
The auction is on Sunday afternoon, and, in some ways, it’s the least interesting bit. Hosted by Christie’s in a hall adjoining the Hospices, it goes on for hours. I watched from the press gallery, but rather wished I was outside with the crowds in the cobbled square, feasting on pot-au-feu and crémant and watching it on a big screen.
The smart way to bid for a barrel is through a well-connected négociant, or merchant. I was a guest of the négociant Albert Bichot, which is consistently the biggest buyer at the Hospices. I got to know some of Bichot’s clients and they were a fun lot. Some were pals going in on a barrel together, others were connoisseurs after a serious investment. A couple were just there for the craic. “I come every year,” said one, over an exquisite glass of Hospices de Beaune Bâtard-Montrachet 2006. “You get to know the people and they become friends. It’s the heart and soul of Burgundy.”
Alice Lascelles is Fortum & Mason Drinks Writer of the Year 2019. @alicelascelles.