Meet The Hospices de Beaune

A Wine Auction History Lesson


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, looked from his grand house in Beaune onto the poor people of the town and decided to build a hospital for the sick and needy, ‘’in the honour of God, the poor must be fed and cared for until they regain their health’’, he famously pronounced.
He immediately set up 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 money and the vineyard deeds poured in and in August 1443, the Hospice de Beaune or L’Hotel Dieu as it was known, was officially proclaimed under solemn deed. The first patient hobbled up to the gates on New Years 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. 
Last November’s (2014) auction, the 154th, achieved sales of  EUR.8.08 million, a record total for the third year in a row. Receipts were about EUR.2 million up on 2013 for the 534 barrels sold with the average barrel price rising by 5.7% to EUR13,750. All the wines were from the latest vintage and were bought in barrel. Reflecting the international appeal of Burgundian fairy tale, the auction attracted 125 buyers from 17 countries. Recession? What recession?
Clos de la Roche Cuvee Cyrot-Chaudron reached EUR74,900, a record price for any barrel sold at the auction, whilst the sale of the white Grand Cru Batard-Montrachet Dames de Flandres for EUR70,620, was another record for that particular lot. With each barrel holding about 300 bottles …. you can do the maths! Total red sales rose by 3.4% over 2013 whilst whites rose by 14.6%. 

The special "President's Barrel," whose proceeds go to an outside charity, fetched the highest price of all thanks to the traditional help of a celebrity; this year it was Slovak fashion model Adrianna Karembeu, who presided over the sale ‘beautifully’. The charities to benefit were Toutes a l’ecole, a foundation that helps children go to school and the Imagine Foundation, a healthcare charity. ‘Fairy tale stuff.
The President’s barrel was Corton-Bressandes Grand Cru bought by Maison Alberic Bichot and its Canadian associates, who wrote a cheque for the eye-watering sum of EUR220,000. As an added incentive, Adrianna offered her diamond studded glasses to “any bidder that reached EUR.200,000”; she duly walked into the auditorium amidst loud applause to gently place her prize possession on the nose of a blushing Alberic 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; even in these troubled times, this is one story whose ending gets happier and happier as the years roll by.   
John Downes, one of only 320 Masters of Wine in the world and is a speaker, television and radio broadcaster and writer on wine.

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  • Snooth User: Norba
    1480200 15

    I have known fragments of this tale , as I visited the place myself. But must say the thorough article covers it all, and keeps the level of this site very high
    It is a privilege to be on the mailing list of Snooth when one learns so much about wine and related stories. Congratulations

    Mar 12, 2015 at 11:05 AM

  • Snooth User: Kari Seger
    1828116 7

    I too have been to Beaune and viewed the revered vineyards surrounding there. I felt like I was in the presence of royalty .. No where on earth like it.

    Mar 14, 2015 at 2:41 PM

  • I have known fragments of this tale , as I visited the place myself.

    Mar 19, 2015 at 11:55 PM

  • I have known fragments of this tale , as I visited the place myself.

    Mar 23, 2015 at 12:48 AM

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