Burgundy wine price records were shattered last Sunday at the 125th annual wine auction at the Hospices de Beaune. Reports of a great vintage and auction fever combined to drive the average price of 1985 burgundies up 80 percent over last year's level.
The news is particularly bad for American buyers. Because the dollar has weakened in relation to the franc in the past year, the increase for U.S. buyers was 125 percent, more than double last year's record high average price.
The average price increase in red burgundies at the auction was 86 percent in francs and 133 percent in dollars. White burgundies were up 33 percent in francs, 67 percent in dollars.
Even with a somewhat weakened dollar, American buyers were not deterred by what the French press termed "flambe'ed" prices. In 1984, there were 15 American buyers among the successful bidders at the auction. This year, 25 of about 200 successful bidders were Americans and a majority of them bought the red burgundies despite the whopping price jump.
The increasing presence of American buyers has caused concern among the major wine shippers in Beaune. "The fact that the dollar was so strong for the last two years has disrupted the prices," said Louis Latour of Maison Latour. "We are forced to sell to the Americans. They come here with greenbacks in their pockets."
"Increasingly foreign markets are most important for Burgundy year after year. The valuation of the dollar currency is very important to us," said Bertrand Devillard of Maison A. Rodet, Beaune. Devillard is president of the Interprofessional Committee of the Wines of Burgundy.
"We could sell all our white wines to the Americans. We have to set limits on our sales to U.S. customers," said Robert Drouhin, head of Joseph Drouhin in Beaune.
A few hours before the auction, Drouhin suggested that major shippers in Beaune might follow the lead of top Paris restaurants, which are limiting the tables they will reserve for Americans so that their traditional French customers will not be crowded out.
The wines sold are from vineyards owned by the Hospices as part of its endowment. Proceeds support the Hospices charity hospital established in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, a tax collector for the dukes of Burgundy. Auction prices are regarded as a bellwether for wine prices in Burgundy.
"We know prices will be up. We don't know what percentage yet, but we hope it won't be too much higher up," Drouhin said hours before the auction. "But one thing we do know -- the individual wine quality is either good, or very good, or excellent or superb."
This year's red burgundies have "intense aromas" are "well balanced and harmonious, rich and concentrated" in the official judgment of the Interprofessional Committee.
For the first time in recent years, there were several small but well-known restaurants in France among the buyers. One was Jacques Cagna, owner of the two-star Paris restaurant that bears his name.
"The wines this year will be very, very, very expensive. It will be crazy," Cagna said the week before the auction. Cagna bought some of the Corton Doctor Peste at 57,500 francs per barrel, more than double last year's price of 26,000 francs.
One of Beaune's major shippers was conspicuously absent from the list of successful bidders this year. "I will not be part of the madness," said Paul Bouchard of Bouchard Aine et Fils before the auction. Bouchard said he had put a "strict limit" on what his firm would bid.
"Why is it that one wants to identify a price level for burgundy at the auction? I fight against that idea," he said. "I'm not saying it doesn't have an impact on prices. I'm saying it shouldn't."