On Sunday, the Hospices de Beaune sold more wine for more money than ever before in the 140-year history of Burgundy's venerable charity auction.
The Nov. 21 sale pulverized last year's result, confounding earlier predictions of substantially lower prices. Bidders paid about $4.9 million (31 million francs) for the 1999 wines of the Domaine des Hospices de Beaune -- 25.5 percent more than the amount raised by the sale of the 1998 wines.
Although auction prices for the Hospices wines have doubled over the past five years, at this year's auction, the overall price for the wines stayed stable at the same high level as last year. (The 729 barrels of 1999 wine, each containing 228 liters, sold for an average of $6,700 per barrel.) But since Burgundy's crop was large this year and the Hospices made 25 percent more wine than usual, the auction resulted in more revenue than in 1998 and exceeded the record set in 1989, during a period of hyperinflation in the wine market.
The sale, which takes place on the third Sunday of every November, is considered a rough barometer of future Burgundy prices and offers a first signal of what buyers think of the new vintage. Only Burgundy negociants, or shippers, may bid at the Hospices auction on behalf of clients, and only the Hospices' own wines (from 39 different appellations) from the latest harvest are sold, essentially as futures. If Burgundy growers and shippers take their cues from the Sunday auction, consumers are unlikely to see lower prices for red Burgundy, which already stands at a record level.
At the auction, prices for the red wines inched up 3 percent, while the whites came down 9 percent. Overall, after combining the prices of both whites and reds, the average price of the wines decreased half a percent.
Several Burgundy vintners had expected a bigger drop -- as much as 5 percent to 10 percent, as the abundant 1999 harvest is believed to be the largest crop in decades. Leaving aside the quality of the Hospices' 1999 wines -- the reds were supple, ripe and accessible; the whites were uneven -- some Burgundy negociants at the auction felt that the large quantities made would have justified lower prices.
In the wake of the Hospices sale, it is likely that many Burgundian wineries will decide to keep '99 prices at the same level as '98, instead of allowing consumers to benefit from the huge crop in the form of lower prices.
The sale was held against a backdrop of controversy that has engulfed Burgundy since early fall, when it became clear that the region would harvest huge yields not seen in recent memory. Rain during the harvest made the situation worse when the grapes bloated with water. After stormy debates in Burgundy and Paris, the highest French wine authority, the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine, allowed wineries to vinify a tonnage that is 40 percent higher than the levels considered reasonable for making top-notch Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Burgundy.
To its credit, the Domaine des Hospices did a severe green harvest in the summer, cropping nearly half of all grapes on the vines. In the end, the Hospices' yields were about one-third lower than those of a majority of Burgundian wineries; its reds were made from 2.9 tons per acre, which is very reasonable for the vintage.
Andre Porcheret, the veteran winemaker and director of Domaine des Hospices, was delighted with the firm support that buyers showed for his '99. "They bought well," he said. "It's logical [that] prices came down on the whites, which are less good, and up for the reds, which are better."
Porcheret will retire from the Hospices on Jan. 1. His successor is Roland Masse, 46, who has been the winemaker of Domaine Bertagna in Vougeot for 18 years.
The Hospices, a nonprofit hospital with 700 employees, owns a modern winery and 150 acres of vineyards donated to it over the last 500 years. The revenues from the sale of the wine go to running the hospital, and the charity aspect of the auction encourages bids at relatively lofty prices.
For last year's report:
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