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Anthony's Trip Diary

The Hospices Building.                                                       Click to enlarge image. The third Sunday in November is traditionally the date for the annual auction of the wines produced by the Hospices de Beaune. Over a period of several centuries, this famous institution has been gifted parcels of vineyards by the wealthy of the region and it is now the owner of a substantial holding of both top wines and more humble regional appellations. Each year for the last 147 years the Hospices has raised much of the money needed to fund its day to day operations from the auction of the wines produced from these vineyards and we had been planning to come to the event for some time, as it is a it is one of the high points in the local calendar. For us this visit was always going to be a blend of social and business, with a tasting of the Hospices wines followed by the marathon tasting at the Palais des Congres on the Saturday, dinner at the Confrerie de la Loucholle, as a guest of Michel Prunier, then the auction itself, held in the main market building facing the Hospices and finally three days of essential travelling between Domaines, meeting vignerons old and new.

The business side remains exhausting, all the travel, communicating in French and the tight schedules with their permanent undercurrent of unanticipated delays; nevertheless, we have made huge progress on this trip. Aside from meeting almost all of our existing vignerons, we have also had time to visit some new ones who will be incorporated into the website during January. However, to start with, there was the Hospices tasting.

Michel Prunier had told us to make sure we arrived at the queue for tickets by 08.30 in order to be certain of being able to visit the cellars of the Hospices, as places are very limited for the tastings, which are conducted at 10.30 and 14.30. Unfortunately we arrived a little late to find a horde of people waiting. The guard on the gate explained that they had been here since dawn or even earlier and when I asked what happened when it rained he said "Well some of them have umbrellas". He kindly suggested that we might like to return at mid-day to start queuing for the 14.30 tasting but we both hate queuing, even for Wimbledon tickets and as there were plenty of other wines to sample (or so we thought) at the Palais, the equivalent of the local community centre, we headed there instead.

The tasting at the Palais des Congres.                              Click to enlarge image. The tasting at the Palais des Congres was a massive bunfight with hordesof people and it was virtually impossible to properly sample anything in the struggle. Added to this the only wines remaining were the 2006's, on account of the greedy gannets who had arrived when the doors first opened having polished off all the older vintages. The problem here is not that the 2006 vintage has anything much wrong with it, but that the wines are only just beginning the process that will turn them from grape juice into elixir and right now their most distinctive characteristic is their ability to give you terrible indigestion. Having lurched from one counter proffering a foolproof recipe for wrecking one's appetite for dinner to another, we were about to send for a twin seater ambulance when we saw the stand for Aloxe Corton. Now Aloxe is one of those wines that I find almost more enigmatic than any other. It has the capacity to stun, in both senses of the word! On song it is fantastic and I have had numerous superb bottles, while when it fails it can resemble some of those coffees I once described in my very first Visit Notes as being capable of being cut with a knife and eaten with a spoon. We muscled our way through the packed throng (why is it that people who are quite obviously causing a needless blockage take such umbrage when you gently point out to them that you would like to get through, if they would not mind awfully? A lady whose husband had the stature of a retired Toulouse prop-forward gave me the most unambiguous death-stare I have had in ages! I had invaded HER space and she wanted me to know it.) finally making it to the Aloxe stand, where we were greeted by a charming man who spoke excellent English. He explained that all he had left to offer was more of the 2006 and we manfully took the offered tasting samples. After sampling several I asked why he had not offered us any of his own wines. He brought us one, explaining that it really was not representative at this stage and as we chatted we found several areas of common interest so we agreed to meet again later in the week, at his Domaine, for a fuller tasting.

At this stage I did not know who he was, but we exchanged cards and this was how we found ourselves walking up the Remparts de Beaune, the fortified walls of the old town, getting drenched in the deluge of Tuesday afternoon, into the offices of Domaine Comte Senard, one of the most important Domaines in the whole of Burgundy.

Philippe Senard, for it was he whom we had met at the bunfight, laid out an absolutely glittering array of reds and whites going back to 1998 and we were both immediately aware that we were in the presence of something very special. Why is he not imported into the UK? Well, he explained that he has his hands full with Japan and the USA, but that seemed a poor reason to us and I am really pleased to say that he has offered us his entire range to put onto our JustBurgundy website. We tasted almost all of them and they are simply spiffing. Comte Senard does not appear to have a dog, which was a small disappointment. Monsieur Huguenot's son however has his golden retriever called Ovni who we met this time. Ovni is the term the French use for Unidentified Flying Object (Object Volant Non-Identifiee) and while he was safely anchored to the floor when we saw him last Tuesday morning, I can well believe that he might go into orbit if he spends too much time breathing deeply in either the tasting room or the cellars.

A fanfare of hunting horns.                                               Click to enlarge image. Oh, sorry, I have jumped a bit, because we were invited by Michel Prunier to join him for dinner with the Confrerie de la Loucholle on Saturday evening. This was one of those famous Burgundy dinners which began on Saturday evening, concluding with a fanfare of hunting horns shortly before day-break on Sunday. It was a splendid affair opened by a horn fanfare from the huntsmen in their pink, who were joined during the second of the five courses and for the rest of the evening by the Vieux Cep singers, a group of vignerons who enjoy singing wine related songs. As we have noted several times before, the Burgundinians take their traditions and their heritage seriously, but without spoiling the enjoyment and this was a wonderful occasion that we greatly appreciated.

Sunday morning we spent visiting the Hospices building as the Auction did not start until the early afternoon. Once again there was a huge crowd, so going into the hall was impossible and we watched from outside. The local paper the following morning announced that the results had been good, with white wine prices up by huge 60%, reds up by a modest 1% and a sale total of nearly 4,000,000.
Local press report Auction figures.                                     Click to enlarge image.
 
Michel Prunier feeding the 'Haut-Parleur'!                                Click to enlarge image. In Benoit's offices on the Monday morning I was struggling to explain how, although we had been unable to enter the auction hall on account of the crowd, we had been able to watch and hear from outside thanks to at this point, with my reservoir of French words exhausted, I resorted to a mixture of gesticulations and vaguely relevant words that merely caused confusion in the Benoit front office, as I attempted to explain how we had managed to listen to the auction. A microphone, a length of wire and a box with noise. It all began to remind me of the occasion two years ago when I asked Michel Prunier whether he understood me when I spoke French, because I understood myself very well. Finally Christian, who is taking over from Madame Forasacco when she retires at the end of the year, managed to break the deadlock. Clearly his family still play charades at Christmas because he called out "Haut-Parleur". He had cracked it! A loud-speaker is an haut-parleur. I had a similar situation with Michel Ampeau last year when between us we managed to establish, without the aid of a dictionary, that a fork-lift truck is a chariot elevateur. Try doing that with one hand tied behind your back!

Steve is always telling me that these notes are too long and I should cut out the irrelevant bits, but this gives me a serious problem in that I cannot tell which bits are irrelevant. A short visit might give rise to short notes, however if a series of events befall us, why leave them out? This visit has been nearly a week, so a lot has happened and on this occasion a little judicious censorship has been necessary! I will therefore draw these notes to a conclusion, hoping that they have been as much fun to read as they have been to write.

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