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World's oldest wine sale enters the internet age

Burgundy auction reaches out to new crowd

The medieval and the ultra-modern will join hands tomorrow when the world's oldest and most prestigious annual wine auction enters the age of Facebook and Twitter.

The annual auction of the Hospices de Beaune, which sells wines from fragments of leading Burgundy vineyards bequeathed to charity over six centuries, is a key event in the calendar of wine experts and traders all over the world.

In recent years, efforts have been made to open up the auction to remote bidders and to ordinary wine-lovers. The auction still takes place by the medieval "candle" method, which means that bidding for each lot ends as soon as two small candles have burned down.

In theory, bidders must buy at least one pièce or large barrel, of wine, equivalent to 288 standard 75-centilitre bottles. In recent years, however, the auction has been open not just to those who travel to Beaune but to bids from the internet. Starting last year, and even more elaborately this year, a system has also been created to allow ordinary punters to bid for mini-lots of as little as six bottles at a time. The price varies with the bidding but could be as "reasonable" (for the finest red and white burgundies) as €25 a bottle.

The success of bids can be followed on Twitter and Facebook as well as on the auction's official site.

Group purchases have to be registered long in advance with the Beaune wine trader, Albéric Bichot, who has been appointed to bid on behalf of small punters. It is already too late to apply this year, unless you want to bid for a whole barrel of Montrachet or Volnay at – depending on the precise plot and particular vineyard – between €2,000 and €50,000 a barrel. There is, however, always 2011.

The 2010 auction is the 150th in a series which began in 1794 and has been interrupted from time to time by revolution, war, pestilence and disease. This year 45 different types, or appellations, of Burgundy are on sale, in 643 barrels, down from the bumper crop of 799 barrels last year.

The fall in quantity reflects the relatively small wine harvest in Burgundy this autumn after a summer plagued by bad weather. None the less, both wine growers and independent experts believe that the quality of 2010 Burgundy will be high, though perhaps not quite as high as 2009 – an exceptional year in both Burgundy and Bordeaux.

Another feature of the 2010 auction is expected to be the fervent interest of Chinese buyers. Sales to China have become an important part of the market for the finest French wines in the last two or three years.

The Hospices de Beaune auction has an honorary host each year, usually a French film or TV star. As a sign of the times, the 2010 auction will be co-hosted by a French actor, Fabrice Lucini, and a Chinese actor, Liu Ye, star of, among other movies, Curse of the Golden Flower.

Only four of the 45 different appellations on sale tomorrow are available for group bids by small punters. If successful, the experiment may be extended next year.

The four on offer for 2010 are a Meursault-Porusots 1er Cru, a Beaune 1er Cru, a Volnay 1er Cru, and a Corton Grand Cru, all red.

Small buyers register their maximum purchase price with Mr Bichot. He bids on their behalf for whole barrels. If the price goes higher than a small buyer's bid, his or her deposit is returned.

Note, however, that the wine must stay in barrels in Burgundy for another 16 months and will not be delivered, in bottles, to buyers until 2012.