In a shift from tradition, Burgundy's 145-year-old Hospices de Beaune charity auction will be organized by Christie's this year. With the international auction house comes a number of other changes to the annual sale, which has long been considered a barometer for prices for Burgundy's newest vintage.
For the first time, the auction will be open to private buyers and not only Burgundy négociants, who have long supported the sale and who are responsible for aging and bottling their purchases. The sale will also include a selection of bottled wines, rather than only barrels of just-harvested wine from the nonprofit Domaine des Hospices de Beaune's holdings. As a result, the auction, which has always been held on the third weekend of November, will take place over two days, Nov. 19 and 20.
"The famous Beaune auction is to be opened up to a global audience, where any private individual, regardless of location, will have the same access to the bidding as any local Burgundian," said Rik Pike, a Christie's spokesman in New York, explaining why the auction house was brought on. He added that the goal is "to expand the worldwide appeal" of the event.
Louis-Fabrice Latour, president of the Syndicat des Négociants en Vins de Bourgogne, said the négociants' organization favors this direction. "We are welcoming Christie's and encouraged that move for a few years, but we did not choose Christie's ourselves. That was the Hospices," he said. "From our point of view, it's good news. It [the auction] will be more international now, and we want to be part of it."
Proceeds from the annual sale will continue to go to the modernization of the Beaune hospital's facilities and medical equipment, as well as to the conservation of the Hospice's historic buildings and artwork.
As always, the thrust of the sale--which Christie's estimates will bring in 3 million to 4 million euros, or $3.6 million to $4.8 million--consists of barrel lots produced from Hospices-owned vineyards, which include 148 acres of grand and premier crus sites. Wines on the block will include Côte de Beaune reds (such as Corton, Pommard, Volnay, Beaune Premier Cru) and whites (Bâtard-Montrachet, Corton-Charlemagne, Meursault), along with grand cru reds from the Côte de Nuits (Mazis-Chambertin and Clos de la Roche).
The prospects for the 2005 vintage look good, according to Burgundy vignerons, who reported excellent weather and a healthy, smaller-than-average crop. Anthony Hanson, Christie's senior consultant and a specialist in Burgundy wines, said, "Having just spent a week in Burgundy while the harvest began, it is possible to say without risk that the Hospices wines in 2005 will be exceptional."
The sale will also include a selection of 750-ml bottles and magnums from the personal reserves of the Hospices. This portion of the sale, which takes place on Saturday, Nov. 19, includes labels such as Cuvée Dames de Flandre Bâtard-Montrachet 2000, Cuvée Charlotte Dumay Corton Rouge 1999, Cuvée Madeleine Collignon Mazis-Chambertin 1996 and Cuvée Baudot Meursault-Genevrières 1990.
Christie's will provide a detailed auction catalog--another first for the Hospices--with detailed notes on all the wines. The auction will be conducted primarily in French, but Christie's will accommodate non-French-speaking bidders. Telephone and absentee bids (including those placed online) will be accepted, enabling foreign buyers to participate even if they can't be at the Hospices in person. The buyer's premium will be 15 percent for the bottled wine and 6 percent for the wine purchased in barrel.
Private buyers can take part in the barrel sale in two ways. As in previous years, they can contact a Burgundian négociant and instruct them to bid on their behalf at the auction, then take care of the tending and bottling for a charge. Or individuals can send their bids to Christie's directly, and after the sale, the auction house and the Hospices will advise the purchasers on where to age and bottle their wine. After maturation, a barrel typically yields about 288 750ml bottles; the wines are then given the Hospices label, which also mentions the buyer's name.
Latour believes the impact of opening the bids to private buyers will be minimal, because of the minimum lot size of one barrel. However, he noted that the sale of individual bottles of older wines could destabilize the market between négociants and growers if the prices end up lower than "the established price" négociants pay for grapes and wine. But, remaining upbeat, Latour said, "The Saturday sale is a test. It's only a couple thousand bottles of wine."
The négociants are concerned about their traditional role in the auction. In the past, they have bid on the barrel lots, matured the barrels in their cellars and bottled the wines. "If the Hospices is bottling their own wine, we will lose our leading role in the bottling," Latour said.
However, Latour is optimistic about the changes overall. "We want it to work. If it fails, it's bad for Beaune and bad for the négociants too."
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