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Hospices de Baune is one of the most famous and recognizable buildings in the world of wine. It is located in the centre of Beaune, the economic capital of the Burgundy wine trade.

Nicolas Rolin the chancellor and duke of the Duchy of Burgundy founded it in 1443 as a charitable hospital to cater to the needy. Since then, many rich Burgundians including Begerze de Lanlay, Dr Loppin, Dr Peste, and Guigogne-de-Salin bequeathed the foundation some of the finest vineyards of the region,  Every year, on the third Sunday of November the new wines of Hospices de Baune’s 45 vineyards ( cuvee ) are auctioned – a tradition started in 1851 to support the foundation.

Annually, pending on the size of vintage 700-1000 barrels ( 225 litres ), are auctioned. Most bidders are Burgundy shippers and prices paid are an economic barometer for that vintage’s quality and potential value. Prior to the auction each potential bidder is given a card recording the wines offered. Tasters use tastevins to evaluate. Each cuvee is poured by a server stationed in front of the lot. The samples are spat into a spittoon on the floor if you can reach it. Burgundy shippers and winemakers wear old and tatty raincoats for the occasion! They know how accurately new tasters spit! Participants make their brief notes about Savigny-Les-Beaune, Pernand-Vergelesses, Auxey-Duresses, Monthelie. Volnay, Beaune, Pommard, Corton and Mazis-Chambertin cuvees. All are red.

The whites come next starting with Corton , Corton-Charlemagne, Meursault, Meursault-Charmes ( cuvee Albert Grivault and cuvee Begerze de Lanlay )

Endowed vineyards increase over time, but these days endowments are far less than they were in the 19th century and before. The following day the General Exhibition of Burgundy wines takes place at the Town Hall. Every Burgundy wine -growing village is represented from Chablis down to Villefranche-Sur-Saone, in three huge halls. One hall is a tent measuring 50 meters in length and 10 metres, the floor of which is covered with sawdust. (Wear old shoes and an old raincoat for this occasion! ) Thousands mill around and just point to the wine they would like to sample. A little is poured into the tastevin and you taste. Try to make notes and don’t forget to spit! Here you can taste over 60 Gevrey-Chambertins, 50 Meursaults, 40 Pommards and 60 Montrachets among others. Many wine aficionados feel as though they died and went to heaven! But the event is a crush! People mill around with the objective of tasting as many wines as they possibly can. Some of the wineries attract less attention due to their reputation or lack of it.

The first of Les Trois Glorieuses  (The Three Glorious ones) meals is served in the evening after this general tasting. This banquet takes place in the 12th century Chateau de Vougeot set in the middle of vineyards; it started in 1851 with the inception of the auction. For the occasion, the chateau is illuminated providing a more impressive effect than during the day. (Clos de Vougeot vineyards measure 56 hectares and are split amongst 77 growers. Some own as few as two rows of vines and must sell the fruit to a merchant. Vinifying such a small amount of fruit is not feasible. This unique situation is the result of France’s antiquated heritage laws).

Six hundred guests are served a gourmet meal accompanying fine Burgundy wines. Entertainment is provided by the members of Confrerie de Chevaliers du Tastevin. New members are inducted in a pompous ceremony, only French can master. The auction takes place on Sunday at 2.30 pm in the Old Town Hall which sits 100, and strictly allocated to those who patronize the Hospices i.e Burgundy shippers of good standing and those large enough to bid on a number of lots.

The 18 Hospices de Beaune notables sit on a dais in front. The auctioneer sits in the middle, flanked on his left by the “candle man “ who is in charge of lighting slim candles. (The auction takes place  “a la chandelle “, meaning between the lighting and burning out of the candle, the lot must be sold. Next to the candle man is the crier (le crieur) who actually points to the bidders and shouts out the bid. Six “spotters“ on the peripheries of the bidding crowd scan the crowd and alert the crier.

Traditionally Pere Patriarche buys the first lot offered, and other shippers up the price by bidding high. While the auction rules indicate that the lot must be sold before the candle burns out, exceptions are made, if the auctioneer feels he can extract a higher bid. A new candle is lit, or if the candle was extinguished, re-lit! French are famous for making the rules then breaking them! But everything is done to support financially the Hospices de Baune.

The bidding goes on for seven, sometimes nine hours, until all the lots including eaux de vie and marcs of Burgundy are sold. It can be a challenging experience if not trying. Each cask yields 288 bottles, although strictly speaking it should be 300, but 12 bottles are discounted for evaporation (Too much if you ask me, but rules are rules ).

The auction is rounded of by the second of Les Trois Glorieuses. Same idea as the previous one, but this one is held by candle light and in the bastion of the Old City Walls of Beaune.

Le Consomme de Volaille au Xeres

La Terrine des Ris de Veau au Foie Gras Frais de Bresse
Chablis Les Clos 1998

Le Feulliette de Langouste a la Crème d’Estragon
Meursault-Charmes Cuvee Dr Peste 1999

La Noisette de Boeuf Poivrade et la Mousseline des Celeri aus Airelles
Beaune Cuvee Guigone-de-Salins 1995

Le Plateau des Fromages
Pommard Rugien 1994

Le Vacherin aux Cassis de Marc de la Cote d’Or
Champagne l. Roederer

Les Petits Fours

Le Café Colombien
Le Vieux Marc
La Prunelle de Bourgogne

The third of the Toirs Glorieuses takes place Monday in La Paulee de Meursault; this is an equally elaborate meal. During this function the best book published in the previous year on Burgundy is prized and offered 100 bottles of Meursault ( A fortune at today’s prices ).

The Hospices de Baune auction sets the tone of that vintage in Burgundy, and in effect is a promotional event for the region. The French know how to promote their wines- Bordeaux and Burgundy excel.

There is also a Hospices de Nuits in March, and a Hospices de Beaujeu in Beaujolais, where less food is consumed, but more wine offered to lubricate the humour!

If you can manage to get an invitation through a Burgundy shipper, do not miss this unique once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It is a fine event, educational and highly entertaining!

Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu

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