Wine's nose for recovery

Click to follow
REPORTS OF the demise of the international economy have been greatly exaggerated. Judging by the buoyancy of the demand for some of the finest burgundy wines at the annual charity auction in Beaune yesterday, a bellwether of global economic trends, the world is in rude economic health. Obscenely so, to some minds.

Bids for barrels of 1998 burgundy exceeded last year's exorbitant prices by an average of 22 per cent (even though this year's vintage is provisionally judged by "those who should know" to be only mixed - good in some vineyards; doubtful in others).

Prices for a barrel of 228 litres - the equivalent of 304 bottles - vary from pounds 3,500 to pounds 15,000 (from pounds 11 to pounds 50 a bottle). By the time the bottles reach shop or wine list, in 4 to 10 years, the price will have doubled.

Dozens of bids were received from Japan, which is in the midst of its worst post-war recession but remains prodigiously thirsty for fine French wines, red ones especially.

One in four bottles of red burgundy grands et premiers crus goes to Japan. Other Asian buyers, who were very active last year, have had to zip their wallets. Their place was taken by bids from Europe, Germany especially, and the United States.

How accurate a guide to the world's economic health is the Hospice de Beaune auction, which takes place every third Sunday in November? Not precise, but a fair indication.

The bidding, mostly conducted by local traders on behalf of French and foreign clients, is suspiciously orderly. The Burgundy wine industry, alarmed by the wider commercial implications of last year's 46 per cent rise, said beforehand that it wanted only a modest increase, at most, and that is roughly what it got.

"Perfect," said Marc Jambon, president of the main burgundian wine-industry association. Smaller wine growers have watched in alarm the boom in burgundy prices in recent years but the demand, for both high quality and cheaper bottles, has not diminished.

The charity bids - from wine-traders, hotels, restaurants, and airlines - reflect the strength of global demand for burgundy and therefore the amount of money available for luxuries swirling in the world economy.

In the past, the prices bid at the Beaune auction have zig-zagged with the quality of wines, especially those made for the Hospice de Beaune, which once had a poor reputation. Since these are now judged to be of excellent standard, only serious global economic difficulties could have sharply deflated the bidding this year.

"The truth is, odd as it may seem, that demand for even the most expensive burgundies remains very high in Japan. Japanese women, especially, have fallen in love with French wines, " Robert Drouhin, head of one of the big Beaune wine-shipping companies, told The Independent. "Even the Russians are still pretty active ... As for the Koreans ..." Mr Drouhin whistled and drew his finger across his throat.

Mr Drouhin said the 1998 red and white burgundies - afflicted, at various times, by frost, hail, disease, excessive sunshine and excessive rain - were "heterogeneous" (ie a mixed bunch). Some were excellent, he said; others less promising.

The Hospice de Beaune auction is one of the great events in the world's wine calendar. The wine on offer comes from tiny plots of the best Burgundy vineyards, which have been bequeathed by growers over the years to the five-centuries-old local hospital charity. Traditionally, the bids go up to double the real value of the wine.

Bidding takes place "by the candle". After each bid, one of the two auctioneers uses a candle to light a small wick. If two of the tiny lights expire without a new bid from the floor, the lot - of between two and six barrels of wine - is sold.

Bids from bargain-hunting wine-lovers are not common. The high-priced Hospice de Beaune wines are a question of prestige, not value. However, part of one lot yesterday - five barrels of Volnay Blondeau at pounds 3,600 a barrel - was bought on behalf of a "Nicola Davies of London". Tired of Threshers or Oddbins, maybe.