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Inside the Hospices de Beaune auction

At the prestigious charity auction that’s an annual highlight of the wine trade, Peter Richards MW gets the inside track on how wines bought here are helping one UK retailer to tap into a growing premium sector..

Inside the Hospices de Beaune auction

‘En voulez-vous monsieur?’ The auctioneer conducts the room like an orchestra, his insistent refrain urging potential buyers on from the stage. sitting a discreet distance from the front is a hunched bidder, ostensibly studying the brochure, in reality alert to every fleeting detail of the buzzy, fluid auction.

The bidding moves onto a Meursault premier cru. The bidder has had sotto voce instructions from the buyer sitting directly behind: get this wine. in the context, it looks to be a rare bargain. The buyer is excited – yet increasingly jittery at the bidder’s inscrutable, unmoving demeanour. Had he heard the instructions? Barrel after barrel is sold. soon it will be all gone. The buyer can’t remonstrate – it risks undermining the bidder’s strategy – and this powerlessness only adds to the tension. Memories of 2015’s ‘dramatic’ and ‘stressful’ auction resurface, when the plan ‘had to be torn up halfway through’.

Finally, the paddle is raised on one of the very last lots: the deal is done, the game expertly played, the wine secured at 40% less than the price of last year’s vintage. The tension diffuses; the auction proceeds. It’s a good buy. A bonus to complement the Beaune and the Volnay already in the bag.Such was one of the many scenes at the 2016 Hospices de Beaune auction in Burgundy. It’s a moment whose basic emotional and tactical plays will have reoccurred many times since 1859 at what is probably the world’s most iconic wine auction. What wasn’t so usual was the identity of both bidder and buyer on this occasion. The bidder was Mounir Saouma of micro-négociant Lucien Le Moine, the buyer Emma Dawson MW from British retailer Marks & Spencer.

Pre-auction tasting in Hotel-Dieu cellars

Pre-auction tasting from the barrel in the Hôtel-Dieu cellars

Trading up

British supermarkets have a reputation for driving a hard bargain rather than supporting charitable causes – so what was M&S doing there? Is it just good PR or part of a bigger plan? And how do the Hospices wines, pricey at the best of times (newer M&S vintages will be more than £100 per bottle), sit in the range?

The answers reveal much about the current state of British retailing. ‘We want to see how far we can push the boundaries when it comes to fine wine,’ explains Dawson. ‘We have a traditional customer base who trust us. These wines offer them a chance to trade up – and we want to explore this area more.’

In a competitive marketplace, retailers are increasingly focusing on what sets them apart from their rivals. The broader M&S business, whose offering ranges from banking to home furnishings via dependable underwear, has performed indifferently of late. Yet its food and drink category has long held a reputation for quality – witness M&S’s commendable performance at the Decanter Retailer Awards in recent years – albeit with a price premium to match. The company’s accent on luxury itself took centre-stage in the company’s memorable 2005/6 advertising campaign, which featured luxuriantly shot foodstuffs and a lascivious voice-over intoning words to the effect: ‘This is not just food. This is M&S food.’

In short, the received wisdom is that we Brits turn to M&S when we’re treating ourselves or buying gifts. Noting positive reactions to fine wine parcels, M&S developed a new fine wine strategy to capitalise on this. It has evolved over time to incorporate the Hospices wines (first bought in 2011), as well as the launch earlier this year of 30 Bordeaux 2014 wines bought en primeur including the first growth Château Lafite (at a cool £420 per bottle). The fine wines go into key stores and online, the latter channel being particularly important for fine wines, and the retailer’s periodic 25% discounts also boost sales.

Foothold in fine wine

So is M&S aiming to poach clients from fine wine merchants? Dawson chuckles. ‘We have a buying team with experience and excellent relationships – we can get hold of great wines. We want to use this to become a destination for people who know their wine.’ She also notes how the M&S wine category has ‘momentum’ within the business, with fine wine a small but growing part that has important value, ‘in the way it makes customers feel when they come into store’.

The feel-good factor is on Saouma’s mind too. His Lucien Le Moine wines, much like the man himself, are renowned for their intensity, marrying an expansive character with an almost forensic comprehension of nuance and detail. He and his wife Rotem buy wines from producers (the Hospices being one example) and age them, often for far longer than the norm, with extended lees contact in barrel a signature technique. Though neither is originally from Burgundy, both feel a strong loyalty and kinship to the region.

‘Our children were all born in Beaune; it’s important to us,’ enthuses Rotem. ‘We are proud to continue this chain of history and support the Hospices – even if it’s not our core business.’ To which Mounir adds: ‘It’s great that the Hospices is more about the wine, charity and people than just business and prices. It’s the best weekend of the year!’

Mounir Saouma

Mounir Saouma of Lucien Le Moine

Vintage preview

It’s not only charity and tourism that benefit from the Hospices. The weekend also helps set the tone for the new vintage, from quality to pricing. Christie’s wine consultant and Burgundy expert Jasper Morris MW describes the first half of the 2016 vintage as ‘the most difficult in living memory’, and the latter half ‘as close to perfect as anybody could hope for’. First hail, then a terrible frost and mildew devastated many vineyards – others were unscathed. Thereafter, fine and balanced weather saw ‘pure and refined’ wines being made, more restrained than the opulent 2015s, but which many are touting as fine quality in a classical style.

Hospices winemaker Ludivine Griveau told me that 2016 was a ‘ripe’ vintage, describing the reds as ‘softer, rounder than 2015 but still powerful’ and the whites as ‘balanced’ and ‘supple’. The auction itself delivered a softening of prices for those wines in decent supply, but an upshift for those that are scarce. While Mounir expresses ‘admiration’ for M&S’s support of the auction, I quiz Dawson as to how many people buying the Hospices wines really appreciate the charitable aspect and story behind the wines. ‘You do wonder,’ she muses, before adding: ‘Ultimately, we hope people are buying these wines for their quality. But if we can raise awareness of the charity, that’s great.’

As ever, Dawson is counting on her good buys translating into good buys for M&S and its customers. Not to mention for the remarkable charity that is the Hospices de Beaune.

Peter Richards MW is a widely published wine writer, broadcaster, author and consultant

Conducted by Christie’s, the 157th Hospices de Beaune wine sale will take place on 19 November 2017

The wines:

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