The First-Timer’s Guide to Les Trois Glorieuses of Hospices de Beaune

As some of you know, I spent the week before last tramping around Burgundy and then spent the weekend at the 150th annual Hospices de Beaune wine auction, which in many ways was the fulfillment of a fantasy I’ve had ever since I learned about the auction several years ago.

Just why attending this event has been a fantasy of mine has to do with a number of factors, not the least of which is the fact that it takes place in the heart of a picturesque city in one of the world’s greatest wine regions. Most importantly, though, this event is simply legendary for being one hell of a party for those who love Burgundy wines. So legendary, in fact, that the three main events of the weekend have become known as “Les Trois Glorieuses” or “The Three Glories.”

Through a combination of luck, timing, and the kindness of strangers and friends, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend all three of these events. Hence my offer to provide you with a guide to getting the most of these occasions should you ever have the opportunity, or at the very least, a glimpse into what a great time they actually are.

ONE: Dinner at Clos Vougeot
The kickoff to the weekend, and the highlight for many, comes in the form of a black-tie dinner at one of the oldest and most prestigious wine estates in the world. Clos Vougeot was founded in the 12th Century by Cistercian monks from the Citeaux Abbey. They planted a vineyard, eventually be surrounded by a wall, that quickly became, and remained one of the most famous vineyards in France. Today Clos de Vougeot remains the largest Grand Cru vineyard in the Cote de Nuits, and is farmed by around 80 different producers. The old Chateau is one of France’s top historic landmarks and is one of the most visited in the country after the Eiffel Tower.

Perhaps most relevant, however, is that since 1945 this historic building has been the headquarters of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, a society of Burgundy producers and wine lovers that has the loose charter of promoting and celebrating everything Burgundy.

The Saturday evening before the Hospices de Beaune Wine auction, the Chevalier’s throw a gala dinner that involves the induction of the latest round of members to their society, and a great deal of drinking and eating in one of the grandest settings you can possible imagine.

As a guest, you stroll into the cobblestone courtyard and enter the rich warm light of the front hall, where you leave your coat and have a glass of pink Cremant de Bourgogne with the other 600 or so guests that are dressed to the nines. If, heaven forbid, you are a man and have forgotten a black bow-tie you will be given one to wear, or escorted to the door. These folks are serious about the pomp and circumstance.

After about 30 minutes the room fills to near bursting, and then the doors are thrown open for you and everyone to take your seats.

The room is packed. As in sardines. When everyone is seated, only the most svelte of people can slide up and down the aisles between the tables, which makes it difficult for you to contemplate a run to the washroom at any point in the meal. It also makes you marvel at the fact that hundreds of servers manage to negotiate the room to provide full table service for the six course dinner.

The rest of the evening is a mix of speeches, wine, and food, punctuated by whatever conversations you choose to weave with your table mates. And then more speeches. New members are inducted to the Chevaliers du Tastevin, and they are gently knocked about by the gnarled old vine stump that has no doubt been used for this arcane purpose for decades. All the while you eat and drink.

The menu for the evening I was there:

2008 Chevaliers de Tastevin Bouzeron
La Tarte Fine aux Pommes Caramelisees et Foie Gras de Canard

2007 Corton Grand Cru (forgot to write down the producer)
Le Supreme de Turbot Souffle aux Langoustines

2004 Hospices de Beaune 1er Cru Dames Hospitales Beaune Rouge
L’Estouffade de Joue de Veau Confite Facon Meurette

2002 Chevaliers de Tastevin Clos Saint-Denis Grand Cru
Les Bons Fromage de Bourgogne et d’Ailleurs

NV Chevaliers de Tastevin Cremant de Bourgogne Brut Rosé
L’Escargot en Glace
Les Souffle Glacé a la Mandarine
Les Petits Fours

The food was generally excellent, the wine was good, but not as great as I expected it to be. The wine of the evening was definitely the Morey Saint-Denis I’m not complaining, mind you, but I was especially surprised not to be served any Clos Vougeot, given that we were dining there, and the significance of the place to the evening.

As someone who doesn’t speak much French at all, the evening was heavy with speeches, so I missed out on a lot of the experience, including what was by all accounts a very funny speech by the guest of honor, actor Fabrice Luchini (who made the major faux pas of showing up without a tuxedo, or even a suit).

The evening ended around 1 AM, as everyone piled into buses back to Beaune.

Summary for first timers: if you speak excellent French this is a fabulous event, though one which you might only feel the need to go to once. It’s hard to beat the glory of the atmosphere, and the sheer glamour of the evening, but the wine doesn’t measure up to those heights, and it is a long evening with a lot of speeches. If you don’t speak French, bring along a translator, or prepare to feel like a bit of an outsider.

TWO: The Hospices de Beaune Wine Auction
The main event of the weekend occurs on a Saturday afternoon as 640 barrels of 2010 wine are auctioned off for charity.

The auction itself is not exactly thrilling (perhaps with the exception of the sale of one lot) and doesn’t distinguish itself auction_window.jpgfrom many other such events in the wine world, but for a few unique aspects.

One of the things that struck me most about the auction was just how many people seemed to care about it. The hall itself was fairly packed, and bustling with activity, but standing outside the glass windows, spectators stacked ten deep to watch the auction for hours and hours.

I thought at first it was simply because actor Fabrice Luchini was there, but the crowds persisted long after he left the building. It takes a certain amount of dedication to stand outside in the cold and watch barrels of wine be auctioned off for six hours. Whether these were tourists or locals, and whether they had any stake in the outcome I do not know, but they were there and rapt.

The wines on offer at this auction are somewhat unique as well. They are made from vineyards that have been donated to the Hospices de Beaune over the years, and they are all made by the Hospices de Beaune winemaker, Roland Masse.

I will offer my tasting notes on the 45 unique wines in another posting, but they are each from the 2010 vintage, and they are offered up in quantities ranging from one to thirty barrels.

Buyers may generally purchase one or more barrels for their successful bid, though most seem to purchase only one or two.

Interestingly, because these are 2010 wines, and in some cases they haven’t even finished fermenting, you can’t exactly walk out of the auction with your wines. You must make arrangements for your barrel to be stored somewhere until it is ready for bottling, and then you must make arrangements for the bottling as well. Veteran buyers told me that the costs associated with these steps are not insignificant, and often equal the price that you might pay for the wine itself.

The wines rarely end up in price ranges comparable to similar wines that may be purchased on the open market, but then again, the point of such an auction remains the funding of charitable activities, not the competitive pricing of wine. This means for mortals like me, however, the auction will likely always remain a spectator sport.

This year’s auction prices were up significantly from last year (12-17%), despite the vintage lacking the uniform excellence of 2009. This was generally celebrated as a very positive sign for Burgundy in the world market.

In the evening following the auction, a formal dinner party is held at the Hotel-Dieu, the historic hospital itself, but I was not able to attend.

Summary for first timers: if you’re attending just as a spectator, you don’t have to stay long at the auction to get the general idea. If you’re attending as a buyer, then make sure you taste the lots ahead of time and know your math when it comes to the costs of elevage, bottling, and shipping.

THREE: La Paulee de Meursault
The single reason above all others that I looked forward to this trip with such anticipation lies in the winemakers’ lunch the day after the wine auction. Now having attended it, I can honestly say that for a wine lover, it represents one of the finest expressions of the joy and camraderie that wine produces among friends and strangers. For me personally, it was the greatest party I’ve been to, with the exception of my own wedding.

The afternoon begins with a ceremonial tour of the cellars of the Chateau de Meursault, a venerable old Chateau at the heart of the village. With a small glass of Bourgogne Blanc in hand, most of the 600 attendees file through the cellars chatting and sipping before emerging into the courtyard and entering the main hall where lunch is served.

Aside from the actual tickets, which are notoriously hard to get ahold of for non-winemakers, everyone’s symbolic ticket into the event is a bottle of wine to share with your table mates. While some guests like myself (who had to hurriedly purchase a bottle at a local wine store when I found out I would be able to attend) show up with just a single bottle, most people bring just about the most (or a little more) wine than they can personally carry without mechanical assistance. My host for the afternoon brought 21 bottles of wine, and he was far from a minority in the crowd.

Everyone sits down for lunch at around 1:00 PM and before napkins have hit many laps, the wine bottles are being opened. And they keep being opened for the next seven hours until the end of “lunch” at around 7:30 PM when the coffee is served.

In short, you sit down for lunch with your friends, you start opening wine, and drinking it, and you don’t stop for more than six hours. Your bottle must be opened at the appropriate time, and shared with not only your friends, but total strangers as well, for that is what you experience throughout the course of the boisterous and lively event. There’s a little more space (though not much more) than the dinner party at Clos Vougeot, which allows for the vast circulation of people amongst all the tables, bottles and glasses in hand, pouring and talking, singing and laughing.

The sheer quantity of wine consumed at this event is staggering. I never would have believed it until I saw it with my own eyes. And what’s more, the wine is not just some current releases from run-of-the-mill producers. People bring special bottles. Old bottles. Obscure bottles. Big bottles. Mostly Burgundy, but also other stuff as well (one of the folks at my table was from Spain and had some tremendous old wines with him). The quality of the wines rises to the level of what I’ll just call stupid because world-class doesn’t begin to describe the taste of a 1930 Pommard in your mouth.

There’s lots of singing both by a group of men hired for the purpose, and by everyone else — you will be expected to join in — and by the end of the lunch, everyone is having a really good time:

The food, if you can remember to return to your seat to eat it, is also quite good, and more than necessary to offset the alcohol, even if you do choose to spit 98% of the wines as I did.

The menu for my afternoon was as follows:

Tartare de Homard et Saint-Jacques mi-cuit
Legumes croquants arrosés d’Huile de Crustacés
Creme battue facon Chantilly

Turbot au Beurre blanc,
Epinards Branches et Riz parfumé

Sot-l’y-laisse de Volaille a la Royale

Tournedos de Filet de Boef
laqué d’un Jus de Cuisson au Poivre de Séchouan
Rosti d’Echalotes confites au Sel et Brunoise de Legumes

Plateau de Fromages Affinés
Pain aux Noix

Les Saint-Michel
(Chocolat noir, Eclats de Caramel au Beurre salé)
et sa Glace Vanille

And the wines? Well let’s just say I will be writing up my tasting notes for some time. I will post about many of the wines I tasted that afternoon, but some highlights were some very old Buisson-Battault Pommard (1930, 1943), a 1988 DRC La Tache, a 1965 Bichot Charmes Chambertin, a 1988 Raphet Clos Vougeot, a 1973 Buisson-Battault Puligny-Montrachet, a 1947 Domaine Coffinere de Verget Batard-Montrachet…. You get the idea.

I’m young. There’s a lot of the wine world I haven’t seen yet. I’m not rich. There are a lot of parties I have not been, and never will be invited to. But based on everything I’ve been lucky enough to experience in my life so far, I can say that if there is one wine event that every serious wine lover should attend in their life, this lunch is it. Do whatever you have to in order to attend. It’s amazing.

Drunk driving laws are extremely strict in France (the legal threshold for intoxicated driving is a blood alcohol content level of .05, compared with .08 in the USA), and consequently most of the French are quite strict with themselves on this point — never driving if they’ve had more than 2 glasses of wine.

Yet most of the local Meursault winemakers and their families drive to and from this event (those that aren’t walking distance). When I commented on this, two separate people told me the same amusing anecdote. Apparently the local police force is hired to control traffic leading up to the lunch, and then they are all invited upstairs to have a lunch at the same time as La Paulee, and all the winemakers of Meursault donate wine to ensure that they “have a good time, and take the rest of the day off.” It apparently works very well.

After the lunch, those that can still stand can wander around the village of Meursault and visit the caves of three or four vignerons, who open their cellars up to all attendees for barrel tasting, something which most of the winemakers take them up on, as there apparently aren’t many chances to taste their neighbors’ wines.

Shouts of laughter echo through the narrow streets of Meursault, and you can sense the great big collective smile. Truly Bacchanalia.

Summary for first timers: bring a nice bottle that you’ll be proud to share. It doesn’t have to be Burgundy. Dress nicely, but not too nicely — many people are wearing suits, but many are not. Bring a corkscrew, and if you’re able to, bring a couple of nice wine glasses (I saw some folks who had brought in Riedel Burgundy stems and I was a little jealous) as the small tasting glasses at the table don’t do justice to some of the wines. Bring a little notebook and pen to take notes if you care to. Drink a ton of water, and try to spit out most everything you taste (buckets are plentiful and used by everyone) otherwise you won’t remember a thing.