PO Life goes to Beaune… 

By Jane Mann 

Each November, on the third Sunday, a remarkable Wine Auction is organised by Christies in the Hôtel Dieu in Beaune. Accordingly, last weekend in Beaune, in the heart of Burgundian wine country, in the 148th Auction of the wines of the Hospices de Beaune, 544 “pièces” in 43 “cuéees” come under the hammer. Anyone may bid. Last year the average price of a barrel (pièce) was 7062 euros. You don’t want to be putting your hand up by mistake. The proceeds go towards the improvement of medical equipment and structures and the upkeep of historical monuments such as the beautiful Hôtel Dieu in which we were sitting.
The Hôtel Dieu was begun in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, Chancellor of the Philippe le Bon, Duke of Burgundy, to help and succour the sick and the poor. There were plenty of both sick and poor to be succoured, it being a time of many famines and towards the end of the Hundred Years War. Wealthy vignerons were encouraged to donate parcels of vines to the Hospices on the understanding that by so doing, upon their death, they would be entitled to a place in heaven. In 1459 Jean Plampays and his wife were the first to do so, many others have followed his lead over the centuries and now the Hospices owns over 60 hectares of some of the most valuable vineyards in the world. (50 red and 10 white.)
Since 1945, the profit from one barrel of 228 litres (a pièce) is given to a named charity. This year the “President’s Barrel” as it is called, was to be shared by the League against Cancer and the Children of Asia. The “President” each year is chosen from the world of entertainment.

Sunday Morning 16th November 2008, before the splendid Press Lunch and the packed afternoon auction was the Press Conference.

An exceptional one in that, for the first time, P O Life was there in the Salle des Pôvres . Bed alcoves lined the walls, in the centre rows and rows of chairs were facing the dias from which the Grand Fromages of the Burgundian Wine world would tell us about the 2008 harvest.

High above, beautifully decorated beams disappeared into the supporting mouths of painted dragons mouths.

Mini croissants, pains au chocolat and pains aux raisins were waiting for wine correspondents of the world press to breakfast on before the conference. The afternoon before, we had had the opportunity to taste the fruits of the harvest, a difficult task for the uninitiated. I find fine wines in their infancy are good at masking their future glory and potency. We knew the whites would be good. Roland Masse, Manager of the Hospices de Beaune had told us so. “As good if not better than 2002.” Had been his verdict.
Pierre Henri Gagey, President of the Burgundian Wine Board, gave us the run down on the 2008 harvest (excellent) and the state of play in world wine markets. The harvest was smaller owing to an increasingly organic approach involving careful selection of the grapes; the prices lower owing to the credit crunch.

But he was not despondent. As all the speakers confirmed, Burgundy’s place in the world market is uncontested. The quality remains hyper high, they have a few problems but they are all surmountable. Between each speaker there were questions. (I have to admit P O Life was content just to listen.)
At the end of two hours there was a swift drift to the back of the Salle where award winning wines of the association of young wine makers were open and the traditional gougères (cheesey puff pastry thingys) were being served. A delightful prelude to the press lunch. Prepared by chef Jean-Louis Vernet and served by the students of the Lycée Hotelier Savoie-Leman de Thonon-les-Bains. The food was, of course, exquisite and the wines, starting with a Meursault Genevrières 2005, followed by a Nuits St Georges 2004 then a Corton Grand Cru 2002 were more than a treat.

Out into the beautiful courtyard of the Hotel Dieu to wait for this year’s “Presidents” to appear. Jean-Pierre Marielle and Michel Blanc, two French actors and Sophie Vouzelaud, deaf from birth, runner up Miss France 2007. They were hustled through the press of both press and public into the hall. The auction could begin.
Crowded to the hilt, with crowds outside pressing their faces against the windows, the wine of 2008 was sold. I had to leave. Collecting my case from the little press-room I was amused to notice a Virgin and Child standing in a niche above a screen relaying the action in the auction room across the way. In the streets dancing girls and fanfare bands wove their way past the café terraces and a “Tire Bouchon” contest was in rowdy progress as I made my way back to the station for the 5 hour train journey back to Perpignan.


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