"The prices for whites will be outrageous," predicted Louis Latour of Maison Latour a few hours before the start last Sunday of the 124th annual wine auction at the Hospice de Beaune.
If a better than 50-percent increase in the price of white burgundies is outrageous, then Latour was right. American visitors to this medieval city and a strong dollar drove prices of 1984 white burgundies up 58 percent over last year's figures.
Prices are no longer based on "what happens here in the vineyards," said Terry Price of Maison Bouchard Aine et Fils in Beaune. The hospice auction, long regarded by those in the wine business as a bellwether of wine prices worldwide, is "not the thermometer anymore," said Price. "What is the thermometer is the dollar," he said.
One reason is the favorable exchange rate. For U.S. buyers the price increase for the white wines was 39 percent in dollars, still hefty but not so much as the 58 percent franc increase.
Another "key reason" for the increase in prices and exports of white burgundy is the change in American habits: "dry white wine before meals instead of whisky or gin," said Andre' Gagey of Maison Jadot.
Red wine prices at the auction were up 19 percent in francs over last year, an increase of less than 1 percent in dollars. The more modest increase in the reds was almost as much of a suprise to the Burgundian wine establishment as the whopping increase for whites.
Latour had predicted "no increase" for the reds "because the year is not as good as '83." "I am a little surprised," said Andre' Porcheret as the six-hour auction drew to a close. Porcheret supervises the 23 vineyards and winemakers for the hospice. "We had rain, bad conditions; we thought this year would be not too good," he said.
This year was described by many as "a difficult year." The grapes were harvested almost a month later than usual. "The wines are still undergoing a big change," said Robert Drouhin, head of Joseph Drouhin in Beaune. "It's still too early to judge the wines," he said.
"Preliminary reports from this year's vintage were completely incorrect," said Price of Bouchard Aine. "The real wine connoisseur knows to wait and see. We have 9,000 growers in Burgundy. So you've got 9,000 different wines," Price said.
The auction at the Hospice de Beaune is the world's biggest charity auction. The wines sold at the auction are from vineyards owned by the hospice as part of its endowment. Proceeds from the auction support the hospice charity hospital established in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, a tax collector for the dukes of Burgundy.
The mood was joyous at the celebratory black tie dinner for 500 in the 11th-century cellars of the hospice following the auction. Jacques Berger, director of the hospice, was smiling broadly at the news that the auction had raised 16 million francs ($1.8 million dollars).
The evening ended with the medical staff of the hospice joining other guests in dancing up and down the aisles between the tables to the tune of Sousa's "Washington Post March."