The 152nd annual charity auction of the Hospices de Beaune– which I attended last Sunday on a coveted press pass – was a fascinating one on several fronts. In spite of a very “short” or low-yield vintage, which resulted in fewer “pieces” or 228-liter barrels (minimum 24 cases) being offered for auction, when the last gavel of the Christie’s auctioneer hammered the podium, a record had been set – more than €5.9 million or more than $7.5 million bid for 516 barrels. And the streets outside the auction house were crowded by locals and international visitors enjoying the weekend fête and street fair and hoping to catch a glimpse of former French first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, whose charity was one of those being funded by the auction.
But the back stories were perhaps even more interesting.
I spent the three days leading up to the auction talking with winemakers and drinking their 2010 red and white Burgundies from bottles and the 2011s and 2012s from barrels. Several interesting notes came from this.
One: The 2012 was disastrous from a standpoint of quantity but a triumph from the standpoint of quality. Bad weather during flowering and early summer hailstorms drastically reduced crop throughout Burgundy – by 30 to 70 percent depending where the vineyard was located. From Chablis in the north to Beaujolais in the south, everyone was affected. And I saw many clusters still hanging in the vineyards, once healthy grapes that became sun-burned when the hail decimated foliage. But what was harvested was healthy and perfectly ripened small berries. The reds I tasted were potentially very good to great, and the whites were good to very good, with perhaps less structure.
Two: Almost as interesting as the fermentation and aging cellars were the storage cellars. There isn’t much wine there. The official number quoted is 11 months of stock, which is dangerously low. After a large and great crop in 2009, the 2010 and 2011 vintages were good quality but low quantity. What this means is that there is no incentive from producers to keep prices down on the 2012. Moreover, wine merchants and people who like affordable Burgundies will be buying what 2011s, 2010s and remaining 2009s are left on the market before those prices go up or before they simply become unavailable.
Three: Many producers do not set the prices of their wines until they are ready to be bottled, so it will be some time before we know what the prices of the 2012s will be. The auction is an indicator, of course, but not the final word. The auction wines are all produced from Hospices-owned vineyards and donations and all will carry the Hospices label. And it is charity, after all, so these prices will be inflated. Plus, although five of the 10 priciest lots sold were bought by “amateurs” or collectors, the other five were purchased by negociants who, while wanting to support a good cause, also know that buzz and high prices will raise all bottles, or at least their prices. That being said, the best guess I heard – for now – is price increases in the 12 percent range.
Four: Don’t look for relief from the 2013s in terms of quantity. Growers won’t know for sure until after winter pruning and ultimately bud break how badly their vines were damaged by the hail. A bumper crop for 2013 is possible but not probable.
Five: “I have a concern that we don’t have enough entry-level wines at under-10 euros, 10 dollars or 10 pounds,” says Louis-Fabrice Latour, who heads the famous Louis Latour wine house. The point is that Burgundy needs new customers who either don’t have, or aren’t willing to spend, a lot to try their wines. This has led to the embracing Beaujolais – a historic but not often recognized part of Burgundy – by bottling wines from there as “Bourgogne Gamay.” And previously ignored fringe areas of Burgundy such as Châtillonnais and Couchois, which make good if not great wines, are suddenly showing up in large type on Burgundy maps, and their wines are being poured at trade tastings.
But for those Burgundy lovers who are more interested in the romance of region and the seductive qualities of its wines than they are in prices and the politics of business, rest easily. If you had a child born in 2012, buy a case of 2012 red premier or grand cru when it comes to market. The wines should be drinking marvelously when you pull the cork in about 2032.