Most fairy tales have a happy ending, but there’s a wonderful story that unfolds every year in the middle of France, bringing wealth and riches to the poor every time it’s told. And, as if by magic, the bags of gold grow bigger with every telling. Are you sitting comfortably?
Way back in 1440 the Chancellor of Burgundy, Nicolas Rolin, decided to build a hospital for the sick and needy. He created a foundation, and thanks to his influence, the venture soon gained support from the wealthy burgers of Beaune. It may have been keeping up with the medieval Jones’, but seeing that Rolin had endowed the Hospice with his prestigious vineyards inspired many to follow suit. The first donation was made in 1457 with 33 hectares of Corton Grand Cru. Not bad for starters!
The first patient hobbled up to the gates of the Hospice de Beaune (pictured above), or L’Hotel Dieu as it was known, on New Year’s Day of 1452 and to this day, its fine work is supported by the wines from vineyards donated over five centuries. For these are no ordinary vineyards but amongst the planet’s finest, boasting some of the world’s most expensive real estate!
As centuries passed, donations kept rolling in and today the portfolio boasts over 60 hectares, mostly Premier and Grand Cru vineyards that read like a ‘’Who’s Who’’ of top Burgundy plots. The best parcels of Montrachet, Morey St. Denis, Corton Charlemagne, Meursault, Mazis Chambertin, Pommard and Volnay are just part of a mind-blowing list that envelopes the magical Cote D’Or, (the Golden Slopes), the narrow vineyard strip that links the wine towns of Nuits St. Georges and Beaune.
In the early days the wines from the Hospice’s vineyards were sold by private treaty, but in 1820 it was decided to sell by auction. In 1824 the third Sunday in November was set aside – the date that remains today for France’s, and probably the world’s, most famous wine sale. Initially the auction was held at the Hospice when its priceless tapestries were hung around the magnificent courtyard to produce a sumptuous auditorium, but in 1956 with its increasing success, the event was moved to the more spacious, albeit less palatial, Halle de Beaune across the square.
Not satisfied with a conventional auction, for what kind of fairy-tale would that make, the Hospice auction was originally “a la chandelle” – where a candle was lit to start the bidding, the winner being the one that holds the last bid before the flame goes out. Sadly, la chandelle was recently extinguished, giving way to a traditional hammer. Not so romantic, but the auction’s excitement still remains.
According to Christies, the auction organisers, last November’s auction, the 157th, achieved sales of Euro 13.5 million (US$16m) beating the previous record set in 2015. All the wines were from the latest vintage and were bought in barrel – 787 barrels in total, 630 red and 157 white. Bids were received from 18 countries on 4 continents.
The prices increased by 8.6% on 2016; +3.15% for the reds, +29.65% for the whites, an increase that shows the ever-growing interest of foreign buyers for Burgundy wines, especially the Grand and Premier Crus. It’s interesting to note, however, that the prices of the whites are back to the 2015 level after last year’s significant decrease of 35.94%. Last year saw only a moderate increase in the prices of the reds.
The results mark a return to form for the annual Hospices de Beaune auction … there was also more wine to sell from a 2017 vintage that proved relatively plentiful versus previous vintages.
The special “Pieces des Presidents”, (the President’s Barrels) whose proceeds go to outside charities, fetched the highest price of all thanks to the traditional help of celebrities. This time three charities benefited, namely The Foundation Tara Expéditions (supported by French designer Agnès b and actress Julie Depardieu), The Federation for Brain Research (talk show host Marc-Olivier Fogiel) and The Foundation for Alzheimer Research (French singer Charles Aznavour). Fairy tale stuff indeed.
This year the Pieces des Presidents consisted of two barrels of Corton Clos du Roi Grand Cru. They were bought jointly by Maison Albert Bichot and a China-based investor for a whopping Euro 410 000.
Albert Bichot have been at the forefront of sales for 20 years and it was the 6th time in the history of the Hospice that they had acquired the prestigious President’s parcel. In 2017 Albert Bichot again confirmed its position as the leading buyer at the auction with the purchase of 115 barrels (out of 787) for an eye-watering total of Euro 1,746,600.
“As a leading actor in Burgundy, our role is to promote the reputation of the region and its wines at an international level whilst, at the same time, supporting local, national and international charities”, explains CEO Alberic Bichot. Bravo Bichot!
The Hospice is no longer used as a hospital, but reflecting the wishes of Rolin and the earliest benefactors, the show goes on with the sick now being treated at four centres around the town. The ‘must-see’ Hospice with its colourfully patterned tiled roofs, exquisite colonnades and brightly decorated balconies, remains, however, the jewel in the centre of Beaune, attracting about 200 000 tourists every year.
So the fairy tale goes on, continuing to give riches to the needy and enormous pleasure to all who taste the wine. The magic is as fresh today as when Nicholas Rolin first wrote the story over 550 years ago, and even in these troubled times, its ending gets happier and happier as the years roll by.