We woke up to thick fog each morning, really thick. Eerily beautiful, and not easy for walking around or driving. We made our way slowly, nervous husband driving 6 months pregnant wife in tiny stick-shift car on narrow and windy roads through thick fog to Beaune for the Hospices de Beaune wine auction. The Hospices de Beaune (pictured below) has served the poor and sick in Burgundy for over 500 years now. The Hospices has inherited various vineyards and parcels of vineyards over the years, and puts out an enormous amount of wine that is auctioned off every November to great fanfare. The actual auction is impossible to sit in on unless you work in the industry, but Beaune turns into one large street festival for the weekend, with stall after stall offering delicacies like frog's legs, oysters, crepes, sausages and pates, cheeses, escargots, and of course wine.
BrooklynLady and I wandered around the festival munching on almost everything in sight. We were meeting Jean Marie, a woman who runs an export business and who would later take us to several Domaines for tasting, but she also scored a couple of tickets for us to the Sunday afternoon portion of the auction, sitting right in the middle of the front section! We sat behind Louis Latour, who was gray haired and dashing at about 80 years old in a pin striped suit. The Mayor of Beaune stopped by to say hello to Jean Marie and we were of course introduced. The auction was exciting, a real buzz in the air. Big shots competing to buy bigger barrels. Alliteration, anyone?
They use an interesting system in the auction, one that in my opinion probably leads to all kinds of gaming. Most wines are offered in several lots of varying numbers of barrels (about 24 cases in one barrel, they say). When you bid, you are bidding on the right to purchase any portion of the lot at that price. The winning bidder decides how many barrels they want at that price, and then the remaining barrels in that lot are auctioned - but ALL remaining barrels in that lot must be purchased at the winning bid. For example, the first wine was the 2006 Beaunes Dames Hospitalieres and there were 4 lots; two of 7 barrels and two of eight barrels. The winning bid on the first lot was 5,400 Euro and the bidder took 2 barrels, spending E10,800. Next, the remaining 5 barrels were auctioned, and the winning bid was something like E4,800 per barrel. Best strategy seemed to be to wait until the 3rd or 4th lot and hope that the winning bidder takes a few barrels, and then snap up the remaining barrels at a lower price, assuming most buyers already got the amount they wanted and could afford. But you risk getting nothing that way too...
It was fun to watch and follow the prices. The picture above is blurry in part because simply moving one's arm to scratch one's ear could easily result in the unplanned and unwanted ownership of 3,000 bottles of wine. Early on I pointed to the electronic board (visible, sort of, in the upper left of the picture) and started to ask Jean Marie something. BrooklynLady grabbed my arm and yanked it back, the usher in the aisle glared at me with an eyebrow arched, and Jean Marie said "You tell your 'usband don't move eef you don't want a lot of wine."
So I stopped moving. We witnessed the super exciting one barrel auction won for E200,000 by the man who owns the company that produces Gray Goose Vodka, all to benefit two charities, "Enfants et Santé" and "Princesse Margarita de Roumanie." It's funny - I found that watching the act of bidding on wine to be just as inspiring as looking at wine or thinking about wine, and after 2 hours, 15 wines with 46 lots (BrooklynLady = Patience), we wanted to taste wine more than we wanted to continue to watch people bid on wine. We said goodbye for the day to Jean Marie and left in search of a tasting.
There are amazing wine shops in Beaune, any of which carries loads of great Burgundy bottles, not to mention the Champagne and Cremant. Honestly, you would salivate walking into any of them, and if one were to move to your neighborhood you would need to work a second or third job to keep up with the bills. We saw a sign in the window of one shop near the big beautiful church (called Notre Dame, perhaps, but I am bad with church names) that promised a "Special Tasting" in honor of the auction, offering 6 wines including a Robert Groffier, a Lambrays, and an Armand Rousseau. I tasted and loved Rousseau wines once before, heard that Domaine des Lambrays is the bomb, and have been looking for a way to try Groffier wines. The price tag of E45, or $58 for the tasting seemed like nothing to me. I mean look, I just watched many people from all over the world spend thousands of Euros to buy wine. I can't spend $58? Louis Latour wipes the tannins off his teeth with $58. It was absolutely worth it. The staff in the store were very friendly and they poured 6 almost full glasses of wine for us, smiled, told us to call them over with questions, and left us alone with a spit bucket. It turned out that the Groffier wine was gone (sniff), but was replaced with another superstar, an Amiot. We had a ball comparing the smells and flavors of this impressive array of wine:
2004 S. Javouhey Pernand Vergelesses 1er Cru. Reserved nose, green smells. Pronounced minerality with tart citrus flavors. Seems very young.
2003 P. Chavy Puligny Montrachet 1er Cru. Open and fun nose of tropical fruit and flowers. A little fat in the mouth, with flavors that are far more austere than the nose would suggest.
2003 S. Javouhey Vosne-Romanee 1er Cru Les Beaumonts. Sweet smells of flowers. Jammy fruit, sappy, reflecting the heat of the vintage perhaps. Maybe with steak sandwiches at a picnic on a really hot day?
2001 Armand Rousseau Ruchottes-Chambertin Grand Cru Clos du Ruchottes. I tasted the 1997 vintage a while ago at the Sotheby's pre-auction tasting. This wine was darker and more lively, spicier. I am turning out to be a big fan of the 2001 vintage for red Burgundy. Smells of red fruit and earthy spices. Velvety mouthfeel with flavors of fresh and stewed cherries, and a cranberry bitter edge. Well balanced. I would keep this in my cellar if I could afford to. I may anyway...
2001 Pierre Amiot Clos St Denis Grand Cru. Sweet smells of red fruit. Clean and pure red cherry flavors, very fresh tasting. Vibrant mouthfeel. This one will continue to improve for quite a while, I would bet.
1999 Domaine de Lambrays Clos des Lambrays Grand Cru. Without any doubt the best of the tasting. Wine Journal has a complete description of the Domaine - worth reading. Bright and fresh smells bursting from the glass, red fruits and black, earth and spice. Interesting creamy stewed cherries and orange peel flavors with a distinctly savory layer of earth underneath. All I can say is WOW. And I imagine that this wine will not peak for another 5+ years.