Every third Sunday in November, Burgundy hosts a charity auction of barrels of young wines from vineyards owned by the Hospices de Beaune, a charitable establishment born in a distinctive historical context of 15th century Europe – when France almost became part of England, when Burgundy was ruled by a succession of luxury-loving and independence-seeking dukes, when salt was a gold-bringer and wines were a powerful tool of political seduction. Julia Sherstyuk-Viswanathan looks back into the fascinating history of this unique institution
Built between 1443 and 1451 as Hotel-Dieu of Beaune, a hospital for the poor, later grouped with a local leprosarium, an orphanage and a nursing home to form the Hospices de Beaune, this charitable organisation has been for centuries receiving donations of land, money, artworks and, in the true spirit of Burgundy, vineyards which proved to be the hospital’s most sustainable and profitable inheritance.
Totalling 60 hectares (50 for the reds and 10 for the whites), 85% of which are classified as Grands and Premiers Crus, these vineyards, whose average age is 35 years, are tended by 23 handpicked vignerons to produce 50 cuvée, each named after an important donor or benefactor of the Hospices. These batches are mostly a judicious assemblage of grapes from different vineyard plots, making the wines of the Domaine des Hospices unique and original.
The wines are sold each year, by private sales in the beginning and at auctions since 1859, to collect money for the charity, which historically has been dedicated to healthcare. In today’s context, it translates into purchasing the latest equipment, increasing comfort for patients in Beaune’s medical centres and helping children with Williams and Beuren syndrome, a rare genetic disease.
The Hospices de Beaune sells vins primeurs – wines of the current year’s harvest, in 228-litre new oak barrels. Its red Grands Crus are auctioned in 456-litre queues (hogsheads). After the sale, Burgundy négociants-éleveurs will mature the wines in their cellars for 12 to 24 months, bottle them and deliver them to the buyers. Before bottling, the wine owners can add their name or that of their company to the label – a perfect way to personalise a family or corporate gift.
The capricious weather in spring 2019 reduced the yield of the Domaine des Hospice by 30%, resulting in 589 barrels sold on 17 November as compared to 828 barrels auctioned in the previous year. However, the scant harvest consisted of impeccably ripe and extremely healthy grapes of good natural acidity to balance the concentration of fruit, which has reconfirmed the Burgundian mantra that vintages ending in “9” are exceptional. It was reflected in the 30% increase in price per barrel – €21,823 – as compared to the year before.
It is impossible to fully understand the nature of the Hospices de Beaune and its wines without delving into the establishment’s 600-year-old history and the events predating its opening on 31 December 1451. In 1395, Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, pronounced the Gamay grape to be “a public enemy”. Although of abundant yields and easy to cultivate, Gamay, according to the duke made harsh, mediocre wines, disrupting Burgundy’s reputation among wine connoisseurs, who were predominantly foreign sovereigns and popes.
Apart from wines, another source of Burgundy’s wealth in the 14th and 15th centuries was the salt of Salins, located in what is today’s French Jura, of which the grand dukes were feudal overlords. “Salins” translates as “salty” and refers to the natural underwater brine that was pumped up and heated over fire to form salt crystals by the evaporation of water. In 1409, John the Fearless, the son of Philip the Bold, rebuilt the wooden salt factory of Salins. Now in stone, a very expensive building material, it flaunted the wealth of Burgundy (in addition to becoming more fireproof).
In 1459, the third Duke of the Valois dynasty, Philip the Good, revisited the problem of Gamay, still occasionally grown. “The Dukes of Burgundy are known as the lords of the best wines in Christendom. We will maintain our reputation,” he wrote in his edict banning Gamay, thus continuing his grandfather’s quality control policy. The concept of monocépage took hold and is still observed in Burdungy where Premiers and Grands crus are made totally from one grape variety: Pinot Noir for the reds and Chardonnay for the whites.
Despite his moniker, Philip the Good is best known for delivering Joan of Arc to the English, eager to annex France to the British crown. Duke Philip constantly changed camps in search of an ally who could help him fulfil his aspiration to make his prosperous duchy, which comprised present-day Burgundy and the whole of Benelux, an independent state. He, who had the most glamourous court, the richest private library in Europe and the best wines in the world, was unwilling to remain a vassal to his poorer royal relative, Charles VII, whose kingdom of France was not larger than the size of today’s metropolitan Paris.
To outshine European dynasties more ancient than his own which was founded by his Gamay-disliking grandfather, and to procure a loyal brotherhood of knights, Duke Philip created the Order of the Golden Fleece. Its announcement was made during the six-day celebration of Philip’s wedding in Bruges, the richest Burgundian city back then, with streets decked for the occasion in luxurious vermillion fabrics and fountains filled with… wines! This was one of the most extravagant celebrations in the Middle Ages. Such was the wealth, standing and splendour of the Dukes of Burgundy in the 14th and 15th centuries.
However, for the inhabitants of Beaune and nearby villages, it was a time of great suffering, when the Hundred Years’ War (1337- 1453), plague, drought and marauding bands of soldiers left thousands sick, orphaned, and ruined in this part of Burgundy. Moved by the misery of the common people, Nicolas Rolin, Duke Philip’s right hand and the second richest man in Burgundy, after 40 years of service as a lawmaker and head of government, decided to help those in need by building a Hotel-Dieu or charitable hospital.
Rolin was urged and assisted by his pious wife, Guigone de Salins-la-Tour. Born in Jura, to a rich family of Catholic benefactors who donated money, land and vineyards to hospitals and churches, Guigogne was no stranger to charity. Nor to finances, being as she was a great-grand-daughter of Salins’ very first bank owner, a savvy Lombardian who moved to Jura attracted by business opportunities offered by a region rich in forests, wines and salt, on which he made a fortune.
Guigone’s father, the noble knight Etienne de Salins, managed the household of John the Fearless (the Duke who rebuilt the salt factory in stone), also participating in and even sponsoring his campaigns. So Guigone came from nobility with money, and the money came from salt. Rents from the saltworks in Salins continued to bring a sizable income to the Rolin spouses who used it on the construction of the Hotel-Dieu, a charitable hospital in Beaune.
No cost was spared in the building of a self-sufficient charitable establishment with its hospital, kitchen, pharmacy, barns, wine-making equipment and a cooperage. Its main wing, known as the Hall of the Poor, is a richly decorated hospital ward incorporating a chapel so that even bedridden patients could participate in the daily Mass. Guigone was in charge of interior decoration and patients’ comfort, taking care of bed linen, gowns, bonnets, and tin bottles used as foot-warmers.
In the 1980s, the hospital moved into modern facilities. Today a museum, the Hospice de Beaune is one of France’s most prestigious historic monuments. Every year, about half a million visitors tread its floors that feature the word “Seule” (“the only one”) which stands for “You are my one and only star”, the motto of Nicolas Rolin, and a testament to his love for Guigone de Salins