“I wrote the foregoing chapter in two hours directly on the typewriter, and then went out to lunch with John Dos Passos, who I consider a very forceful writer. …we lunched on rollmops, sole meuniere, civet de lievre à la cocotte, marmelade de pommes, and washed it all down, as we used to say (eh, reader?) with a bottle of Montrachet 1919 with the sole, and a bottle of Hospice de Beaune 1919 apiece with the jugged hare.”
Ernest Hemingway’s author’s notes for his book, Torrents of Spring – 1925
At first sight the Hôtel-Dieu is a rather austere building, imposing but externally rather grey. Move into it’s courtyard and you are met by an astounding sight and perhaps one that might help cure the sick: the fabulously patterned, multicoloured roof-line – the most famous feature of the Hôtel-Dieu – it can seem iridescent when caught by the sun.
The Hospices de Beaune was invested on August 4th 1443 by Nicolas Rolin (1380-1461), the chancellor to Philippe le Bon, Duke of Burgundy. Despite allegedly modest family circumstances, Rolin had shown enough skill by his early twenties to achieve the position of legal advisor to Duc Jean-Sans-Peur (John the Fearless) – predecessor of Philippe le Bon. Under Philippe le Bon, Rolin managed both the property holdings and the finances amassed over many campaigns by the Dukes of Burgundy. The Dukes’ territories ran from Lyon in the South, North into Holland and West to the Kingdom of France which at that time was not much bigger than today’s metropolitan Paris. Position and skill allowed Rolin to become very, very wealthy. Perhaps it was envy that brought accusations of mismanagement of funds, though these accusations came to naught, however, some of the envious assumed that the Hospices and the Hôtel Dieu were both sign and measure of Rolin’s penitence.
Whether it was actually for penitence or his true wish to aid the recovery of the city of Beaune (birthplace of his mother) from the effects of the Hundred Years’ War the construction of his hospital was conceived and completed in a little over eight years, though 5 was the plan. Rolin chose Flemish artist Jean Wiscrère to construct the Hôtel-Dieu based on the design of the Hôpital Saint-Jacques in Valenciennes; today the Hôtel-Dieu is perhaps the best preserved example of Gothic Architecture in France. Despite Rolin’s insistence that the project should take no longer than 5 years (he was after-all very old for the 15th Century), it was on December 31, 1451, that Rolin and his third wife, Guignone de Salins, dedicated the hospital; the chapel was even consecrated by their son, Jehan Rolin, Bishop of Autun. The following day six nuns from Flanders arrived to take care of the sick, the first patients were admitted that same day – a time when the plague all-too common. The organisation responsible for the care of these sick were (and still are) Les Dames Hospitalières; they are a non-secular organisation and as such were able to avoid the State’s confiscation of properties during the French Revolution – not that the Hôtel-Dieu escaped completely unscathed, amongst other things, the large stained-glass window from the Great Hall was lost in the revolution.
Following the death of Nicolas Rolin in 1461, Guignone de Salins renounced her title and gave her efforts fully to the service of God and the Hospices. She met her maker in 1469 and was buried under the floor of the chapel in the Great Hall – her tomb was also vandalised during the time of the revolution.
As to that multicoloured roof-line, this most enduring Burgundian symbol, sad to say it has not endured all that long; it was actually installed between 1902 and 1907, inspired by a mid 18th century straw model of the Hospices and a handful of coloured, old tiles. For all that, since opening to the public in 1971 it now attracts around 400,000 paying visitors per year.
For those with more historical interest; a super, scholarly book detailing the history of the Hôtel-Dieu, it’s construction, its contents and its various renovations was published by Somogy éditions d’art in April 2005:
The Hotel-Dieu at Beaune, ISBN 2-85056-848-1
The Hospices and war
During May 1942 there was an interesting twist to the holdings of the Hospices: Marshal Pétain, ‘Hero of Verdun’, the octogenarian leader of Vichy France who had signed the armistice with Germany was ‘honoured’ with a donation of vines from the Hospices. Actually it was the regional prefect in Dijon that suggested the donation. Pétain was still widely admired in France so the administrative board of the Hospices, concluding that life could have been far worse had it not been for him, concurred.
A portion of vines used for the Dames Hospitalières cuvée in the Beaune 1er Cru of Les Theurons – vines that had been part of the Hospices holdings since 1508 – was chosen and renamed the Clos du Maréchal Pétain. Vineyard workers and stonemasons then set about building a wall and a large gated entrance to make it a true ‘Clos’. The following year saw the 500th anniversary of the Hospices.
By the summer of 1944 things had changed and Pétain had been moved to Germany to avoid incarceration by the new government of de Gaulle. Following the end of the war, the rather embarrassed Burgundians went to the courts to see if they could retrieve their vineyard – after-all, the rest of Marshal Pétain’s possessions had been sequestered in 1946. The court found in their favour and the vines went back to the Hospices; probably the same workers that built the wall and gate immediately began demolishing any references to Pétain.
The story was not yet quite over, as the wines still needed to be sold at auction. Many veterans protested about selling the wines under the name of Pétain, but over several bottles of the cuvée agreed to buy the wine themselves for resale – they even suggested the Hospices could label the following year’s wine as ‘ex Clos du Maréchal Pétain’ – the Hospices declined! The Marshal’s label is now a collectors item, the one in this picture fetching around 40 Euros – I stopped bidding at 30!
The Hospices and wine
The Hospices civils de Beaune is a charitable medical foundation. Its holdings include the Hôtel-Dieu; the Hospices de la Charité, a hospital founded by the Rousseau-Deslandes family in 1645 and now a home for the elderly; the Centre Hospitalier, an intensive-care facility completed in 1971; and the Centre Nicolas Rolin, a long- and medium-term care center, opened in 1984.
The French social system today allows for adequate medical coverage, but many hospitals have investments which they can proactively manage to bring a higher-level of local health cover. Some hospitals own forests or farms, but it is wine that has, for generations, literally been the currency and lifeblood of the Hospices de Beaune, or the Hospices civils de Beaune to give it today’s full name; the charitable foundation to which the Hotel-Dieu belongs. They own a roll-call of high-class (predominantly 1er and Grand Cru) vineyards. The income derived from these vineyards affords the local people medical facilities beyond the reach of most provincial towns.
Their first donation of vines to the Hospices dates from 1457, when one Jehan de Clomoux from Beaune bequeathed land in Corton to the Hospices. Vines were also bequeathed by a certain Antoine Rolin in 1471. Antoine was another of Nicolas and Guignone’s sons and was patron of the Hôtel from 1471 to 1497. Already by this time the Hôtel-Dieu was very well equipped for wine production; an inventory from 1501 details a “handsome” lever-operated press plus seven large and five smaller vats totaling 16,700 litres capacity; a second press was soon to join. This equipment was based within the Hospices until ~1660 when the building was converted to a 12 bed ward. As far as wine consumption was concerned, in the refectory cellar (today’s ticket office) the same inventory lists 25 barrels of wine – some 11,250 litres.
For hundreds of years people continued to donate vines to the Hospices, hoping to atone for their Earthly sins. The names of many of these benefactors are commemorated on plaques or engravings within the walls of the Hôtel-Dieu and also, enduringly, on the labels of the cuvées still produced in their name. In 1696, Louis XIV incorporated the holdings of the much smaller hospices of Pommard and Volnay into those of the Hospices de Beaune. In 1766, with the help of the Bishop of Autun, the holdings of the Hospices de Meursault were added to those of the Hospices de Beaune. This ‘help’ meant that by the mid-18th century the Hospices de Beaune was one of the most important vineyard owners in Burgundy, despite this, they managed to further double their ownership by the 20th Century. A donation in 1995 of 4 hectares of Pouilly-Fuissé vines was the very first donation of vines from outside the main Côte d’Or region. The most recent donation, in 1997, was of 4 hectares of Beaune 1er Cru, by a Monsieur Floquet – sold for the first time in 2004. It’s no surprise that most of the vineyards are close to Beaune, for most of the last 500+ years, Nuits for instance, was over a day’s travel from the Hôtel-Dieu.
Enabled by bequests of money, property, land and family silver, the administrators of the Hospices have also been able to buy vineyards to add to their bequests. One such example is the administrators foray into the Côte de Nuits in 1991 for their parcel of Clos de la Roche to add to their only other Côte de Nuits vines – a parcel of Mazis-Chambertin which was bequeathed in 1973 – another example of purchased vineyard being their cuvée ‘Dames de Flandres’, a Bâtard-Montrachet.
Vineyards, vinification and the art of blending
Today there are just under 60 hectares of vines overseen by regisseur Roland Masse and his team of 23 vignerons. Replacing the retiring André Porcheret, Roland came to the Hospices in 1994 with almost 20 years behind him at Domaine Bertagna. This was the same time that the Hospices new cuverie was opened near Beaune’s new Hospital – at the foot of so-many Beaune 1er Crus. Each of Roland’s team are responsible for approximately 2.5 hectares of vines, roughly the same area that many of the cuvées represent. Of those 60 hectares, approximately 50 are planted to pinot noir.
As you will see from the list of Hospices cuvées at the foot of the page, the majority are not from single vineyards, but blends of various 1er and even grand crus – most of the Hospices’ cuvées typically represent ~2.5 hectares. There are some that blend village lieu-dits with 1er Cru appellations, hence, producing a village-level wine. Despite being predominantly from highly rated vineyards I’ve heard people suggesting that this blending is a good thing for consistency – not quite what I would consider ‘on-message’ regarding the expression of terroir etc.! As long as you are comfortable with a ‘generic’ Beaune or Volnay 1er Cru then this is fine but from an intellectual standpoint I’m less comfortable with the concept of blending different (red) Cortons, particularly when the holdings are quite large – though I do understand that some will insist that this is the only way to get Grand Cru quality from Corton! Anyway, for the wines of the Hospices’ you typically need to think of them as cuvées rather than representing individual vineyards.
The Hospices’ vineyards are quite easy to spot, marked as they are with their stone shields. Like the labels that the bottles will bear, the shields show the three keys from the Rolin coat of arms and the round tower of the Salins – ‘collectors’ are presumably responsible for plaques with chipped shields or shields missing completely!
Throughout their 60 hectares the domaine use no herbicides, choosing instead to plough during both the Summer and Winter. The regime, such as it is, is somewhere between biodynamic and lutte raisonée; any treatments that the vignerons need to make are first to be agreed with the regisseur, Roland Masse. The vines are ‘green-harvested’ each year, aiming to leave 5-7 bunches of grapes per vine; this helps achieve the target yields of 30 hl/ha. Grapes are collected in small baskets before sorting at the ‘table de trie’ and then follows what Roland describes as a ‘traditional’ vinification – but without recipes. Traditional in this case meaning approximately 2 weeks maceration and fermentation in tanks with only light and occasional pigeage. Sometimes they fully de-stalk, sometimes a proportion are retained – but only when ripe enough. For the whites; a gentle pneumatic pressing before running into the new-oak barrels.
The Hospices is a big buyer of new barrels – something close to 800 per year – because of the way the wines are sold, virtually no older barrels remain in the cellar, every wine gets its-own new barrel. Roland admits that the ‘smaller wines’ such as the Pouilly-Fuissé, the Monthélie and the Savigny might be better off in older barrels, but given the way that the domaine works, it’s not possible. Anyway says Roland; the buyers have the opportunity to rack into older barrels after purchase, so the wines could spend as little as three months in the new barrel. The barrels are anyway specified with a low toast, Roland says that the wines are difficult enough to assess in November each year without the added complication of toast, coffee and other barrel effects getting in the way!
The cuverie itself is a large building full of stainless steel vessels above the barrel cellar. Here in the barrel cellar remain a few casks; the Reserve Particulaire du Hospices. These wines stay in their new barrels for roughly 9-10 months before spending 4-5 months in stainless-steel tanks prior to bottling. Roland describes the average style of the domaine to ‘quite powerful’ – no surprise given the combination of low yields, ripe grapes and 100% new oak. Two examples from their ‘Reserve Particulaire’:
2000 Beaune 1er Cru, Guignone de Salins
Medium, young colour. The nose jumps out of the glass with very bright and red-fruity notes, then after a time closes a little. The palate shows sweet, ripe fruit. There’s a nice character to this wine, a little ‘tender’, not high acidity for sure, but still mouthwatering. The tannins are in the background with just a little grain. Medium-plus length – a tasty and well mannered wine, particularly for 2000 Côte de Beaune.
2000 Meursault 1er Cru Genevrières, Philippe le Bon
Medium golden colour. A deep, waxy and quite exotic nose. The palate shows a super waxy-smooth texture, depth and interest coupled with a real mid-palate punch. This wine is very long too. I had to take a second glass – super.
Buying and selling
From the very beginning, the profits from the selling the Hospices’ wines have been used to finance all the Hospice’s operations. For hundreds of years the wines were sold to regular customers who had the right of first refusal. By the mid 1800’s, it was becoming more difficult to attract buyers, hence, the domaine’s stocks started to edge higher and higher – a new route to market had to be found. Joseph Pétasse who was the bursar of the Hospices, began proactively visiting and selling the wines to the public – all over Europe, door-to-door – in the process building up a client-list. At the time, this would have been considered quite risky, after-all, only the négociants sold direct to the public. This initiative actually proved to be very successful and attracted many new clients to Beaune, so successful in-fact that in 1859 the Hospices’ Administrative Commission decided and announced; “from this year on, our buyers will decide their purchases at public auction… our clientele is made, our wines are known, and now it is their devotees who will come to us.”
With two exceptions – 1956 and 1968 when the quality of the wines was deemed too low – the wines have been sold by auction ever since. The sale was held in the courtyard of the Hôtel-Dieu until 1925 when it moved into the cuverie. As the sale gained notoriety the cuverie rapidly became outgrown, so in 1959 the sale moved to it’s current home, the covered market opposite the Hôtel-Dieu. Each year at 2:30pm on the third Sunday in November there are 41 cuvées sold – 39 wines of that vintage, and from the previous vintage an Eaux-de-Vie de Marc and a Fine de Bourgogne. The profits go to fund the activities of the Hospices civils de Beaune and pay the staff and growers.
The date of the sale was chosen in 1924 to coincide with the newly created Dijon gastronomic fair. Although the timing hasn’t changed, the sale is now an integral part of the ‘Trois Glorieuses’. The first ‘glorieuse’ being the dinner of the Chapter of the Château du Clos de Vougeot, the second is the sale of the Hospices and finally the third – the Paulée de Meursault. These events happen over a three day period. The auction is often looked upon as an indicator of the profession’s opinion of the quality of the vintage, but the prices for the cuvées are not typical, as first-and-foremost this auction is about charity, hence, the cuvées can sell for 2-3 times more than equivalent cuvées from other producers.
Prices were down in November 2004 prompting discussion that the sale should be opened to the public, because if you were interested in bidding, you needed to get friendly with a négociant – they were the only ones allowed to bid at the sale. In was in-part a control mechanism – young, pre-malolactic wines are very difficult to judge. If, however, your bid (through the négociant) was successful, the barrel will be delivered to your négociant for them to complete the elevage. The Hospices also supplying 288 labels per cask with your name on; acquired by…
Buying and selling – all change 2005
As mentioned above, the 2004 prices were a little depressed and there was much discussion at the time about what the Hospices could do. This was the catalyst for the big news of September 2005; after a long courtship, Christie’s auction house would take over the management of the 145th auction in 2005. Although the old route for bidding remains, for the first time, private individuals will be able to bid directly for casks, and for the first time also, a portion of the Reserve Particulaire wines will be sold – in this case the day before the main sale.
What will that mean for the prices? Certainly it’s all positive for the Hospices; in a year like 2005, a year that offers almost perfect grapes, the prices will most likely astound. (I’m prepared to bet a bottle of 1999 De Vogüé Musigny Vieilles Vignes that at least 75% of the cuvées will set new record prices – anyone want to take me up on that?)
In a difficult year, where the raw materials do not inspire confidence, the wines will mainly find their old homes – the négociants – and the prices will be in-line with past precedent. There will simply be a significant extra premium in better years. For the charity (and no-doubt Christie’s corporate image) it is great, for the wine buyer it will become ever more expensive.