• By Richard Esling BSc DipWSET
Richard is an experienced wine consultant, agent, writer and educator. An erstwhile wine importer, he runs a wine agency and consultancy company called WineWyse, is founder and principal of the Sussex Wine Academy, chairman of Arundel Wine Society and is an International Wine Judge. @richardwje www.winewyse.com
Every year in the third week of November, the most famous wine auction in the world takes place in Burgundy. This is the wine sale at the Hospices de Beaune and this year was no exception. Founded in 1443, the Hospices provided free care for the poor after the Hundred Years’ War, right up until 1971. Since then, it has become world famous for the auction of some of the most prestigious wines of Burgundy, taking place this year some 10 days ago.
The auction takes place on a Sunday, but there are a whole host of festivities, parades, wine tastings and gourmet dinners in the days before, all based on the traditions of this world-famous wine region. In the town of Beaune and in the surrounding vineyards, wine-makers offer tastings of both their new and older vintages in their cellars. The auction itself is organised and run by the top auction house, Christies and involves the sale of Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines from the 60 hectares (150 acres) of vineyards owned by the Hospices, for charitable purposes. To some extent this acts as a barometer of prices for these wines, although since the sale is for charity, the prices are often somewhat beyond the norm.
Many people travel from all over the world either to attend the auction, or simply to enjoy and participate in the wine festivities. One of the best hotels in which to stay and enjoy the fun, is the Hotel Le Cep, located in the heart of the medieval walled town of Beaune. The four-star hotel has 65 rooms, all different and personalised, distributed through a cluster of 14th and 16th century buildings and courtyards and is part of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World.
Owned by the Bernard family, under the direction of Jean-Claude Bernard who is often present in the hotel, the management and quality of service is faultless, driven by sheer passion for hospitality, Burgundy and the pursuit of excellence.
A visit to the hotel is sheer enjoyment, more like being in a luxury home than a hotel, with first class, friendly, highly trained staff, whose only ‘raison d’être’ is to make your stay as comfortable as possible. A testament to the way in which the hotel is run, is that many of the staff have spent their entire working careers there.
Apart from staying to enjoy the town of Beaune and visiting the surrounding vineyards – which can be arranged by the hotel - the most interesting facet for me concerned the one star Michelin restaurant housed in the hotel – Loiseau des Vignes. It’s not just the excellent, inventive, locally based cuisine which appeals, but the fact that they have over 70 wines served by the glass. Yes 70. I often complain that restaurants do not serve enough wines by the glass, but here I almost had too much choice. Almost.
The clear majority of these wines are, understandably and thankfully, from Burgundy and the concept allows the diner to enjoy wines which otherwise may be beyond the normal budget. How many restaurants do you find serving, not just one, but a choice of Puligny Montrachet Premier Cru, together with Meursault, Gevrey Chambertin and Grand Cru Corton Charlemagne, all by the glass? It’s due to an impressive bank of high tech wine servers (see picture), which keep the wines away from oxidation and in perfect drinking condition.
Guided by restaurant director Christophe Gines, a different wine can be matched to each course of your meal, to create the ultimate Burgundian gourmet experience and prepare you for an exploration of the vineyards and cellars of the Burgundy region, now deservedly classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Altogether a very special place.