Hospices de Beaune charity wine auction a barometer for latest Burgundy vintage

  • Tuesday 2 November 2010

Next month’s Hospices de Beaune auction, the 150th, will provide an insight into Burgundy’s 2010 vintage. But what can buyers expect of the wine they are bidding on, and how is it made? Clive Coates MW explains

The Hospices de Beaune is one of the largest, most important domaines in Burgundy. Since about 1450, as a religious foundation set up to help the sick and poor of the area, it has received donations of land in the Côte d’Or, and more recently in the Mâconnais. Today it spans 62ha (hectares), of which 58ha is in production. Wine from the Hospices’ latest acquisition, 0.75ha of St-Romain blanc, was auctioned for the first time in 2009. Most of the holdings are in the Côte de Beaune, and most is village or premier cru. But there is a large cuvée of Mazis-Chambertin, traditionally the most sought after and expensive of the Hospices wines, and also some Clos de la Roche, and a token amount of Bâtard-Montrachet (just four pièces in 2009; a pièce being a 216-litre barrel). Proceeds of the annual sale – the wine has been sold by auction since 1859 – are a major source of income for Beaune’s large, modern general hospital.

Roland Masse – tubby, balding, of medium height, in his 50s – has run the wine side of the Hospices de Beaune since the 2000 vintage. Prior to this he spent 18 years at Domaine Bertagna in Vougeot.The Hospices de Beaune wine set-up is, as Masse will willingly concede, an anomaly. The Hospice vines are tended by one group of people; the wine is made by the Hospice’s own team; and following the famous auction on the third Sunday of November, directly after the harvest, the barrels are collected by a third party and matured until bottling – by yet another team. On the face of it, it’s a nonsense. But this is the status quo, dating back to before there was widespread domaine bottling. It would be a cruel dent in the amour-propre of the grand Beaune négociants if this were to be rationalised.

So how does it work, this anomalous domaine? Firstly, what control does Masse and his team have over those who tend the vines? How are they paid?

’We keep the vineyard workers on a very tight rein,’ says Masse. ’It’s the main job of my number two, Stéphane Lacoste, for most of the year. The vignerons are paid à la tache – for the job – and they are all paid the same, regardless of the prestige of the vineyard. The basic amount they earn only varies according to the size of the plot. Our agreement with each of them is loose, so that if they want to give up or we are not content with the quality of their work, we can discreetly move on to someone else. But naturally we usually use someone with vines in the neighbourhood, if not next door to ours.

’Additionally, we pay the vineyard workers a bonus,’ Masse continues. ’This is based on the quality of the work they do and the prices the wines fetch at auction – not on the quantity produced. We decide everything: the treatments, the size of the crop and the date of the harvest. All except three small parcels are ploughed. We no longer use herbicides or pesticides. The yields were substantially reduced in the time of my predecessor, André Porcheret.’ Masse concludes: ’We are in control.’

Mixed cuvées

We come to a second point: a potential problem. Many of the Hospices cuvées are made up from vines of different
origins within the same commune. The Cuvée Blondeau, Volnay, for example, comprises Champans, Taillepieds, Ronceret and Mitans; the Cuvée Nicolas Rolin, Beaune comes from Cent Vignes, Teurons, Grèves, En Genêt and Bressandes. Multiple origins are the rule, not the exception. How do you get over the difficulty, I ask Masse, that on the appointed date of harvest, some parcels may be ready but others aren’t at their optimum?

’I’ve been mulling this over for years,’ he says, ’and over the past two vintages we’ve been arriving at a solution. The first thing to say is that I’m against micro-vinifications for red wines, and anyway we don’t have the small vats that this would require. What we do do is to nuance the red cuvées a bit – rationalise them so that, for example, if we had two small bits of Ronceret from Volnay we’d amalgamate them into the same cuvée. Or where we have a lot of wine destined for several cuvées, such as in Clos du Roi from Corton, we’d vinify them all together.’

As far as the vinification is concerned, Masse is ’100% free. We now have double the sorting tables of a few years ago. Some wines are vinified with the stems, usually 25% to 30%. And not only the Mazis and the Clos de la Roche, but some of the Beaunes and Volnays. It all depends on the fruit quality and the concentration of the vintage. I like to start the fermentation at a temperature of around 14°C and let the must naturally cold soak for four of five days.

Unfortunately the winery is all on one level. We can’t do much by gravity. But we have much more gentle pumps these days, and can ensure that the berries arrive in the vat whole. From then on, techniques vary according to the vintage. We adapt. In 2008 we did both pigéage (punching down the cap) and pumping over. In 2009 only pigéage.’

The oak issue

Now for the most vexed question; the criticism that almost everyone throws at the wines of the Hospices – that they are over-oaked. Even wines that have been collected by buyers on 1 January and immediately racked into old oak turn out unbalanced. ’Yes. I accept the criticism,’ says Masse. ’Being a domaine that does not do its own élévage (maturing of the wines), we do not have many old barrels. As we hold back 10% of our production there is some – our Pouilly-Fuissé and a few other lighter cuvées are vinified in one-year-old wood. I wish I had total control of everything.

But it would be dangerous to buy second-hand barrels. You can’t be certain they have been looked after properly. What do domaines do with them between the bottling of one vintage in the spring and the decanting of the fermentation vat into cask in October? I guarantee not only the wine, but the barrel as well.’

There’s a further problem. Traditional domaines assemble the wine from the new casks with the old every time they rack. What goes into bottle has been homogenised. The Hospices can’t do this. Even if they were to secure good, one-year-old barrels, how can you organise a sale where you will have some wines in new oak and some in old? Most people will want to buy the cuvées in the one-year-old barrels. This would be impossible unless both the Hospices were able to run as a traditional domaine and the auction was postponed by a year, by which time what was offered would be from a judicious mix of old and new casks. Which, thinking of it, might not be a bad idea. It’s the only way round this problem. At the moment it is tragic that what otherwise is now very good wine should be rendered unpalatable by the conservatism of the system. And at least a year on rather than six weeks after the harvest, potential buyers would be able to assess something assessible. ’Impossible,’ shrugs Masse. ’They would never accept it.’

Counting the cost

Which brings us to the auction itself. Until 2005 this was a very tedious, drawn-out affair à la chandelle, involving little candles being lit as you came to the bidding crunch point. That year the governing body decided to modernise, and Christie’s won the contract. The auction house has made it much more open to outside, even private, buyers. Today, the winner of any bid has the option to rest with that single barrel or to buy any further number of barrels within the parcel.

The wine still has to be reared and bottled by someone in Burgundy with a merchants’ licence. But today this covers a number of domaines as well as the traditional négociants. The Christie’s catalogue clearly explains how to set about this; and the auctioneers will put the buyer in contact with a merchant if they do not have one to hand already. In 2009, says Christie’s, 210 pièces were sold as single-barrel lots – a third of the total.

So how much does it cost? We start with the hammer price. To this must be added 7% buyer’s premium. Then comes €500 for the barrel. The fee for the merchant who rears and bottles the wine can either be fixed, say €1,600 (as Christie’s estimated in 2009) – advantageous for expensive wines – or be a percentage, say 30%, of the hammer price. An average might be €1,500. Divide this total by 288 and you have your ex-cellar price per bottle, before shipping, duty and local taxes.

The Cuvée Gauvin, Volnay-Santenots sold for an average of €3,718 in 2008 and €4,350 in 2009; Cuvée Baudot, Meursault-Genevrières for €8,251 and €8,500. Using these figures, this works out, in 2008, at €19.42/€21.11 a bottle for the Volnay, depending whether the merchant’s fee was fixed or a percentage (the 2009 prices are €22.43 or €23.45), and €40.99 or €35.76 (here paying a fixed élévage fee is cheaper) in 2008 for the Meursault (€42.17 or €38.87 in 2009).

This compares favourably with prices in the shops. The 2008s were launched by merchants in January 2010. Berry Bros & Rudd, one of the best for Burgundy, offered premier cru Volnay at between the equivalent of €40 to €50, and Meursault-Genevrières at €40 or more, ex-cellar. (I have translated sterling prices back to euros at £1 to €1.10).

The downsides are as follows: you are shelling out several thousand euros (€12,145 for the Meursault on the most expensive of the calculations), and you are doing this a year in advance of your merchant’s opening offer. Moreover you have undertaken a purchase of 24 cases of wine. Do you really want as much as this? Are you going to get bored with it? Secondly, the wines are pretty well impossible to assess this early in their development. Even the experts on the spot and the UK trade buyers are really only guessing by instinct and track record. You’ll get a good wine (albeit an oaky one), but perhaps not, as life turns out, the very choicest plum of the vintage.

But the advantages are persuasive: it’s your wine – you can even have a personalised Hospices label – which you’ve chosen yourself at the outset; you have stolen a march on your wine merchant; and you have supported a very deserving charity – so you are bound to go to heaven. But not until you have consumed every single bottle that you’ve not given away, of course.

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