Late last fall, what first seemed as a rather innocuous email turned into a press trip to both a region I had never visited (Beaujolais) and an event of near mythic proportions (Hospices de Beaune). I took the opportunity to also spend some time visiting some dear friends in Paris before turning southward.
My trip to France came on the heels of the Wine Bloggers Conference where I got very little sleep, and coupled with a sleepless overnight flight, I was at best on fumes. My greatest fear–being ill during two rather important wine-centric events–was a distinct possibility.
Before going to the Hospices de Beaune, I honestly did not have a firm grasp of what it was. I knew that it was an annual celebration of Burgundian wine centered around an auction for charity, but that was about it. I knew that the term was used for both the auction as well as the physical building in the center of Beaune; a former charitable hospital that provided care for the poor.
Nicolas Rolin established the Hospices de Beaune in 1443 at a time when the residents of Beaune were destitute, suffering from results of the Hundred Years’ War and the Bubonic Plague. He recognized the need for a hospital to serve the residents of the town and construction of the Hôtel-Dieu (a hospital for the needy) was started soon thereafter.
In 1453, the Hospices received the donation of its first vineyard, the beginning of what would become over 60 hectares (138 acres) of mostly Premier and Grand Cru vineyards throughout Burgundy. Over the years, those vineyards served as the major source of income for the Hospices (which remained an active hospital until 1970).
For over 150 years, the wines produced from those vineyards have been auctioned off, in barrel, shortly after harvest on the third Sunday in November in what has become known as the Hospices de Beaune (it is officially called the “Venue des Vins des Cuvées de la Récolte du Domaines des Hospices de Beaune” but shortened for obvious reasons). The money raised is used both for the upkeep of the Hôtel-Dieu as well as improving the modern hospital.
I, of course, had one of the worst colds of my life (I am pretty sure it had to be the flu), but there were two events that I simply could not miss. The first was the private tasting for the press of all the wines up for auction on Saturday afternoon. After the walk around tasting the day before, I immediately went to bed and stayed there for about 16 straight hours.
The tasting was to start after a lunch provided by Les Vins de Bourgogne, which like all of the other ancillary meals and parties, I skipped. I simply did not have the energy nor the olfactory ability to appreciate any of it. So I stayed in bed until the last possible moment before the tasting. Good thing. I needed to conserve as much as I could to brave the hordes.
I made it back to the Hôtel-Dieu just as the tasting was about to start and then something hit me. I had not experienced it for days, so it was a bit odd, but … I was able to smell! It was some sort of Hospices miracle, but as I sat down to taste through all the wines being auctioned off, my body realized the significance and decided to pull itself together just enough to experience the wines.
The following day was the second must-attend event: the auction itself. I had planned to stay for the whole event, but I just couldn’t—I felt like complete crap and sitting through a three-hour auction was just not going to happen. I did stay for a few pictures, but then rushed back to bed. I was going down to Beaujolais the next day—the “real” purpose of my trip to France.