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Tasting at the Hospices de Beaune triggers memories and high hopes

James Suckling
Posted: November 18, 2005

My teeth are red. My gums are sore. And I feel great. I just tasted 40 barrel samples (12 whites and 28 reds) of 2005 Burgundy at the winery of the Hospices de Beaune.

Over the centuries, the Hospices has been given some extraordinary vineyards by generous benefactors; every year, they auction the wine from the new vintage to support this ancient and highly respected hospital. This annual event caps a weekend of festivities in Burgundy. The vintage preview and the parties around it draw merchants, collectors and plain old Burgundy lovers from around the world.

Josh Latner, a Canadian wine collector based in Paris and Zurich, invited me to join him and a group of wine-loving friends in Beaune. I had nothing to do this weekend, so my answer was an immediate yes. The last time I tasted the young wines at the Hospices was nearly two decades ago. The experience of returning has been emotional. It's like running into an old flame and having a new fling.

These young wines are so beautiful, so sexy and so Burgundian. If the barrels at the Hospices are an accurate indication of what the 2005 vintage will deliver in general, we are in for some wonderful wines. The reds show ripe fruit, ripe tannins and wonderful harmony; the terroir-driven whites offer bright acidity, good fruit and mineral-accented aftertastes.

"Burgundy is great when it is born great, and 2005 is just that," said Mounir Souma, the owner of négociant Lucien Le Moine, who took our group through the wines. He said that the Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays were equally outstanding in 2005, and that the young wines reminded him of the outstanding 1990 vintage. "Everything that the Hospice made this year is outstanding."

It's not my job to review young Burgundies (Bruce Sanderson is now Wine Spectator's lead taster for the region), but I reviewed Burgundy for the magazine from 1985 to 1993, so I know something about the subject. Souma's praise is an overstatement, typical of a vigneron with wines to sell. But there's plenty to like about the 2005 vintage.

My favorite of the Hospices' reds were those with ripe and almost sweet fruit character that combined the aromas and flavors of ripe raspberries and strawberries and opened to silky, refined tannins and a fresh finish. Here they are: Savigny-lès-Beaune Forneret, Beaune Clos des Avaux, Volnay Muteau, Volnay-Santenots Gauvain, Pommard Billardet, Corton Docteur-Peste and Mazis-Chambertin Madeleine Collignon.

Among the whites, I preferred those with lots of mineral, apple, lemon and light citrus skin character on the palate with fresh acidity and long finishes—mostly the Meursaults as well as the Bâtard-Montrachet.

Christie's, the London-based auction house, will be conducting the sale this year, and they say that it will attract more private individuals than in years past. I am not sure this is so. Bidders still have to buy at least a barrel of wine—the equivalent of roughly 25 cases. Plus, they have to arrange with a local wine merchant to age and bottle their purchase. That's a pain for your average wine collector. Most of us buy by the case, at most. Who wants hundreds of bottles of the same wine?

Nonetheless, my Canadian friends looked very tempted. They know, like the rest of us, that good quality Burgundy is hard to come by due to its limited production, and 2005 appears to be a very good quality vintage. Besides, if you have enough friends and enough cash, what's wrong with buying a barrel? Tune in later to find out what happened ...

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