Hospices de Beaune preview and harvest news
By Panos Kakaviatos for wine-chronicles.com
25 October 2016
In late September this year, I had the good fortune to visit the Hospices de Beaune to preview next month’s famous wine charity auction that has been held there annually since 1859, taking place on the third Sunday in November amid a three-day festival devoted to the food and wines of Burgundy called Les Trois Glorieuses.
The charity is preceded by a black tie dinner at the Clos de Vougeot on day one, followed by the famous all-day and into the evening lunch La Paulée de Meursault on day three. I was invited to that lunch back in November 2013, and it is one of the most enjoyable wine events I have ever experienced, with plenty of singing, speeches and great wines with food.
The Domaine des Hospices de Beaune is a non-profit organization which owns 61 hectares (150 acres) of donated vineyard land, much being classified Grand and Premier Cru terroirs. The day before the auction, journalists get a chance to taste the wines – both white and red, some still in the fermentation phase – and get a good sense of what the new vintage is like.
With bidding by professional and private buyers, the barrels, typically from 31 cuvées of red wine and 13 of white wine (depending on yields) usually sell in excess of current values, but I have found that results can indicate wine price trends for the vintage from the rest of the region.
As I have been reporting on the Hospices de Beaune auction for several years now, that trend has been up, up and further up – but that should be no surprise to most readers. Indeed, back in 2012, when the wife of former French president Carla Bruni-Sarkozy emceed the auction, sales records were broken. Last year’s auction once again broke sales records, although the ambiance was bittersweet, because it was two days after terrorist attacks in Paris claimed over 130 lives.
More expensive to be sure in 2016
As I wrote in this article for Meininger’s Wine Business International this month, Burgundy wine industry representatives say that a lower-than-average harvest in 2016 will result in more expensive wines for many appellations – and they wonder if key markets would accept the price increases.
Record-breaking frost in late April that killed many buds in vineyards throughout much of Burgundy – combined with devastating hail in Chablis, and mildew which challenged organic vintners as well as oidium later in the year – means that the overall harvest will be about 30% less in volume than average, said Louis-Fabrice Latour, president of the Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bourgogne at a press conference held in Beaune on Friday 7 October.
While both 2014 and 2015 replenished supplies after several low-volume vintages previously, demand has kept prices increasing for many appellations, he added. “It is no secret that we will see price increases in 2016 on already expensive wines, although not for all appellations.”
The visit just whet my appetite for the auction at the Hospices de Beaune next month, including a tasting of the 2015 wines the day before the auction.
In a rare visit to the records room, we examined the founding document of the domain, dating back to 1443, and which was restored about 10 years ago. We also looked at signatures of the guest book, still in use today, which includes a 1658, Louis XIV “Roi de France” signature, when the Sun King was but 20 years old.
The guest book, which is still in use today, includes countless other celebrity signatures, from the Queen Mother of England back in 1976, to Madame Bruni-Sarkozy’s. We then enjoyed lunch in the adjoining Louix XIV room with some great wines and foods.
The Hospices de Beaune received its first patient on 1 January 1452. Elderly, disabled and sick people, with orphans, women about to give birth and the destitute have all been uninterruptedly welcomed for treatment and refuge from the Middle Ages until today. This Catholic institution focused on healing both the body and spirit of its patients.
The building wings are well-preserved today, and they contain half-timber galleries and ornate rooftops with dormer windows. The hospital is arranged so that the wings served the office, kitchen and apothecary functions. The nuns and patients were housed nearer the chapel, towards the center of the complex – and life-size dioramas recreate what it was like back then.
I learned during the visit that the gorgeous glazed tiled roofs had been recently restored, hence their particularly striking luster.
We visited the ornate chapel, whose location was chosen to allow the bedridden to attend Mass from their beds. Indeed, the chapel was the original location of the Rogier van der Weyden polyptych altarpiece, now housed in the museum, and which can be closely examined by a large magnifying glass, revealing the intricate painting and its scenes of those judged good enough to go to heaven – and those condemned to hell.
Thank goodness wine tasting is not (so often) so drastic :-).
On the quality of the harvest
When I visited the vat room of the Hospices de Beaune with Bernard Burtschy and other journalists, we heard that acidities were a bit low, given higher-than-average temperatures in the later summer that even stressed and sometimes blocked development. I later heard from vintners that 30mm of mid-September rains relieved vines and permitted a smooth harvest with rather successful reds, especially in the Côte de Nuits, where vineyards were not nearly as affected by the frost as the Côte de Beaune.
To the vat room to welcome the 2016 harvest
Today, the building is invariably associated with the auction and winemaking, and so it was with great pleasure that I met Ludivine Griveau, director of winemaking there, who was very busy dealing with grapes that were just arriving on 26 September to be fermented. While the Mazis Chambertin grapes looked really good on the sorting table, a just arrived batch of Batard Montrachet included some bunches affected by oidium, which Griveau promptly sorted out.
Extractions were somewhat soft in 2016, Griveau said while looking over the fermentation of red wine grapes the same day. She explained that ripeness was not as optimal as in 2015, so she was careful not to extract too much tannin from potentially under-ripe grape pips.
As a result, an early verdict is for somewhat softer, easier-drinking reds, compared to 2015. “We tasted some reds at Corton Grancey, with smooth tannins and fine expressions of fruit, although acidities were perhaps just a bit low,” remarked Louis-Fabrice Latour, director of the negociant house Maison Louis Latour and president of the Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bourgogne. He was speaking at a press conference held on 7 October in Beaune.
I also visited the fermentation vats of Bourgogne negociant Bouchard Père & Fils, which spans 130 hectares across the region, and thus offers a good “bird’s eye view” of the vintage. The domain reported that frost mainly hit precocious vines in the southern Côte de Beaune, while vineyards in the Côte de Nuits were not so affected. Some vineyards lost as much as 90% of the harvest, such as Savigny Les Lavieres, while Corton Charlemagne and Corton were virtually unscathed, with respectable yields of over 30 hectolitres per hectares.
Comparing Bouchard Père & Fils’ Enfant Jesus, with the 2015 vintage, revealed how 2015 is more concentrated, while the 2016 came across as more charming and seductive.
Given lower acidities, Latour said that 2016 could slightly favor reds, but that is was too early to say so definitively.
“There may be less concentration for whites at this early stage,” Latour added.
The case seemed to depend on microclimates and domains. Some white grapes from Meursault vineyards at Bouchard, for example, reached 13.8 potential degrees of alcohol, albeit yields amounted to just 12 hectolitres per hectare, said Weber. Tasting through fermenting whites, it was clear that the village level Puligny Montrachet, at 12.5 natural degrees and about 4 grams of acidity, showed precision and did not seem to lack verve.
You can read more of the nitty gritty of the vintage in this article that I wrote for Harpers Wine & Spirit.
For more on the Hospices de Beaune weekend, check out this page.
Hope to see some of you there!