Sweeping aside a century and a half of tradition, Christie’s is to take over the running of this year’s Hospices de Beaune auction.

The auction house is to auction all lots over two days in November, and introduce bottle lots, a move that was last mooted, and thrown out, in 1980.

The auction of barrels of the latest vintage from the 60ha of Grands Crus and Premiers Crus vineyards held by the Hospices de Beaune, a charity set up in the 15th century, is widely taken to be a barometer of Burgundy prices.

Christie’s will depart radically from another venerable tradition, that only negociants can buy the barrels of wine. For the first time since the auction was started in 1859, private buyers will be able to bid directly, when previously the only way they could buy would be to contact a negociant and instruct them to bid.

‘There will be two ways in which buyers can take part in the sale,’ Christie’s says bluntly. ‘They can contact Burgundian negociant-eleveurs in the normal way…Or they can send their bids to Christie’s directly.’

After the sale, Christie’s and the Hospices will advise the purchaser on where to age and bottle the wine. As in the past, storing and bottling must take place within Burgundy.

Selling bottles as well as barrels may be a departure from tradition, but just how unprecedented direct bidding will be can be gauged by the reaction of Louis Fabrice Latour, president of the Burgundy syndicat des negociants, when such a move was suggested last year.

‘If the Hospices were to try to sell their wines themselves, that would be considered a declaration of war’, he said in November 2004.

However, a buoyant Latour clarified his position today, saying that he was ‘in no way’ at war with the Hospices and that his comment applied to suggestions that the Hospices might start bottling the wines.

‘It’s going to be more fun,’ he told decanter.com.

He said that Christie’s and the negociants had had several meetings last week. Although Latour was confident that the auction would go well – ‘we want it to work,’ he said – there are still a few worries.

‘As long as the role of the négociant is preserved, that’s okay,’ he said. ‘We don’t really know what’s going to happen, but it’s got to go well.’

Some sort of change has been on the cards since last year. 2004 prices were down one-third on 2003, and a bitter war of words broke out, with Hospices organisers accusing negociants of price-fixing.

Hospices staff insisted the auction should not lose sight of its charitable origins. Low prices would mean less money for the poor, sick and elderly of Beaune.

Negociants were equally adamant that prices as high as they had been in 2002 would result in less wine being bought from growers.

Christie’s – which sees its role as ‘harmoniously to combine tradition with modernity’ – will tread delicately between the two factions, both upholding untold centuries of tradition and financial interest. While the crisis afflicting French wines has raged most fiercely in Bordeaux and the south, Burgundy has not been immune. It is always in negociants’ interests to keep release prices low.

Expressing confidence in the quality of the 2005 harvest, Anthony Hanson, International Wine Department consultant, said, ‘In the world of wine, this is an event without equivalent. Thanks to the traditional generosity of the bidders and to the fine quality I am confident buyers will encounter, we believe this sale will be a great success.’

A Christie’s spokesman told decanter.com Christie’s had been ‘brought in to modernise and increase the accessibility of the auction. For the first time, a bidder on the west coast of America will have as much chance as a local Burgundian.’

The auction will take place on 19 and 20 November 2005. Bottle lots will be auctioned on the first day, the Saturday, and barrel lots on the Sunday. Wines to be sold in bottle include:

2000 Bâtard-Montrachet, Cuvée Dames de Flandre

2000 Beaune 1er Cru, Cuvée Guigone de Salins

1999 Corton rouge, Cuvée Charlotte Dumay

1996 Mazis-Chambertin, Cuvée Madeleine Collignon

1995 Volnay-Santenots, Cuvée Gauvain

1993 Pommard, Cuvée Billardet

1992 Corton-Charlemagne, Cuvée Francois de Salins

1990 Meursault-Genevrières, Cuvée Baudot

1982 Beaune 1er Cru, Cuvée Nicolas Rolin

Related stories:

Hospices de Beaune: prices fall

Bitter war of words breaks out over Hospices

Written by Adam Lechmere