There’s no better time to hit the cobbled streets of Beaune than for the Trois Glorieuses and its Hospices auction, says Rosi Hanson.

There’s no better time to hit the cobbled streets of Beaune than for the Trois Glorieuses and its Hospices auction, says Rosi Hanson.

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.

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.

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.

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 grands crus

and premiers 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.

Party town

If you have not managed to lay hands on tickets for the weekend’s prestigious

events, you need not feel left out; there are many other entertainments. Local people pour into the beautiful centre of Beaune, intent on having fun.

The smell of snails in hot garlic butter wafts across the central Place Carnot, which is filled with stalls offering these and other regional specialities, along with crafts.

Those with children head for the funfair in the nearby Place Madeleine. You can wander down little cobbled streets, popping into cellars which advertise tastings for a small fee – the wines may not be the most interesting but the cellars themselves are often historic; many offer snacks of cheesy gougères (choux pastry puffs) and charcuterie to mop up the alcohol.

One of the buzziest of these venues is the Chapelle St-Etienne in Place Ziem, usually full of happy people eating oysters (six for €6.50/£5.15), plates of local cheese (€3/£2.40) or foie gras (€5.50/£4.35) and tasting wine. On Saturday it’s like a moving feast. Banks of chrysanthemums decorate the streets and it seems there is a marching band round every corner.

You can warm up with a bag of hot chestnuts or a mulled wine, watch a cooper demonstrating his craft in the market place and have a go at the bottle-opening competition. The sporty types can take part in the halfmarathon which, starting in Beaune, follows a route through the villages of Pommard, Volnay, Meursault and Monthelie.

On Saturday afternoon, 3,000 international runners compete in this and a shorter course of 11km, and are offered wine as well as water en route. You can pick up the programme for all these events and many more from the main Tourist Office on Boulevard Perpreuil.

By Sunday morning, speculation will be rising about the level of prices that will be reached at the auction, which may, or may not, have a bearing on the

prices asked later by growers. The many bars and bistros enter into the spirit with special pre-auction lunch menus.

Members of the public start queuing to get a place standing at the back of the auction – seats are allocated to those that have registered to bid – and others crowd round outside the Halles de Beaune, listening to the proceedings which are broadcast across the square.

In the past, the auction was dominated by the local trade, bidding on behalf of themselves, or their retail customers and restaurants. The merchants would then tend and bottle the wines.

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 was the successful bidder, and its contract has since been renewed. Its arrival was greeted with some scepticism, but each year innovations have been made, more international customers take part, and local attitudes are softening. Although some felt the mayor had put the cat among the pigeons, Suguenot was safely returned in last year’s elections.

Whether or not this indicates local acceptance of the controversial change, one thing is certain – the partying is as much fun as ever. What’s more,

consumers around the world are beginning to realise they can join in.

Written by Rosi Hanson