Dateline: Beaune, France
Last Sunday was auction day in Beaune for the 161st Hospices de Beaune charity wine auction, one of the premier wine events in the world. As I typed up some notes in the press room above the auction hall, the carillon in the tower of Beaune’s iconic Hotel Dieu serenaded attendees as they filled the room. Later in the afternoon, auctioneers from Sotheby’s (who replaced Christies as the auctioneer this year) sold the famed President’s Barrel for a record 800,000E, the most in auction history and a nice jump up from last year’s record 660,000E.
This year’s barrel of Corton-Renardes was auctioned to benefit two major charities, Fédération Nationale Solidarité Femmes and the Institut Curie. One can’t overlook the price for this showpiece and the philanthropic connection to Burgundy, which contribute to the theoretical 2,666E per-bottle price. Wine writers attach a lot of importance to the Piece des Presidents result as a leading indicator of next year’s Burgundy prices—already sky high. But that may or may not be the case.
For any given year, there are a number of factors at play which may contribute to what you’ll eventually pay for a bottle of Burgundy. Ultimately, while the prices aren’t likely to ever go down, I’m not convinced we’ll see huge increases in prices from the winemakers. We may, however, see prices rise due to other factors.
What’s in a Number?
First, let’s look at the 2021 vintage. Because of the horrific late frosts and summer mildew problems, the 2021 vintage is incredibly small. (The entire auction only offered 329 barrels this year down from 828 barrels last year). However, 2021—reviews of which are decidedly mixed—follows a plentiful 2020 and good years in 2017 and 2019. Distributors are heavily buying the 2020s, currently selling for reasonable prices.
Second, one can’t underestimate the support for this charity in France, especially in the time of Covid. The President’s Barrel has increased in price exponentially for the past several years (selling for only 230,000E just a few years ago) and purchasing it these days brings a certain cachet. The proceeds benefit charities championed by the celebrity weekend hosts—this year, actors Jeanne Balibar and Pio Marmaï. It seems a better bellwether to look at the prices of the 1er cru and lesser barrels, which were still high, but not showing price increases on par with the showpiece of the sale.
What is going to drive your Burgundy prices up in 2022 and beyond? Importing, shipping, and distribution will still be the biggest contributors to the hefty price tags. However, with some careful study and a little producer knowledge, you can still find some solid wines to lay down in your cellar that will show well in years to come.
Maybe Next Year
Interested in buying a barrel in next year’s auction? Here’s how it works. First, if you’re attending in person, you want to taste the new juice. This is, quite literally, juice from grapes that were picked only a few months ago. The barrels up for sale are set up in the modern-day cellars of the Hospice du Beaune and professionals, potential buyers, and even locals file through to taste during the course of the week. The reds are raw, tannic, and offer only a hint of what they will become. The whites can be rich, round, and sometimes, depending on the conditions, already beginning fermentation.
To buy a barrel, you can bid in person, via Sotheby’s, or via a negociant like Albert Bichot. Once you secure your prize, you’ll need to engage a winemaker to actually make your wine (a process called “élevage”). If you carefully read the label of a wine purchased at the auction, you can see the purchaser and producer who made the wine.
Be ready to wait, since this process can take more than two years depending on decisions about barrel aging, bottle sizes, and more. Once winemaking and bottling are complete, you can take delivery of your 300 bottles.
Is it efficient or cost effective to buy Burgundy? Probably not, especially at the prices of the Hospices de Beaune auction, but it can be a way to support a worthy cause, and even more importantly, join in the celebrations as visitors to the region reawaken.