BEAUNE, FRANCE -- There were few American buyers Sunday at the 127th annual wine auction at the Hospices de Beaune. But, despite earlier concerns that the weakened dollar might lead to a slump in wine prices, the average price for both red and white burgundies was up.
The overall average price was up 8 percent over last year's auction. For white burgundies the average price was up 3.5 percent; for red burgundies it was 9 percent.
Because the dollar has weakened in relation to the franc in recent months, the 9 percent increase in francs for the reds represents a 40 percent increase in dollars.
"The difficulties of the dollar and the successive cascades of the stock market create uncertainty over the auction," said Henri Moine, president of the Hospices de Beaune, a few days before the auction.
"We don't know yet what will be the final impact of the dollar problem. We hope the effect will be to slow down the increase in prices," said Louis Latour of Maison Latour hours before the auction.
Only six out of the 200 successful bidders this year were American. Two years ago 24 out of the 200 buyers were American. Of all wine exported from the Burgundy region, 12 percent of the reds and 36 percent of the whites go to the United States.
At a meeting shortly before the auction began, Beaune's major wine merchants said they hoped prices would stabilize in Burgundy this year. After several years of annual price increases, topped by a whopping 80 percent increase in 1985, prices went down about 20 percent at the 1986 auction.
"Now we are back to normal," said Latour, in comparison with '86 prices.
"As a producer, of course, I'm always very happy when prices go up. As a wine merchant, I'm very happy with the present situation," said Robert Drouhin, head of Joseph Drouhin in Beaune. "With more stability, the speculators are gradually out of the market," Drouhin said. "Prices today reflect more the difference in quality," he said.
The wines sold are from vineyards owned by the hospices as part of their endowment. Proceeds support the hospices' charity hospital established in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, chancellor of the Dukes of Burgundy. Auction prices are regarded as a bellwether for wine prices in Burgundy.
But, "the auction should not be viewed as an exact barometer of what the prices will be" throughout Burgundy, said Bertrand Devillard of Maison A. Rodet, Beaune. Devillard is president of the Interprofessional Committee of the Wines of Burgundy.
"It is a small production here and there are always more and more people who want the hospices' label" carried by all the wines sold at the auction, said Denis Santiard, director- general of Reine Pedauque, wine merchants in Aloxe-Corton.
This year adverse weather conditions in May and June considerably reduced the crop. The red wines this year are "well structured and quite tannic" and "are already displaying rich, fruity aromas," according to the official verdict of the Interprofessional Committee.
The '87 whites have "a fine, pale yellow color with green tints, and their vigor augers well for their longevity," the official verdict said.
Burgundy exports to the U.S. "are heavily dependent on the restaurant trade. With the stock market crash, it's going to be more difficult to justify luncheon bills of $200," said Robert Joseph, editor of The Good Wine Guide and author of "The White Wines of France."
"The stock market crash could be the catalyst that would cause a slump in the wine market," Joseph said.
"There is going to be a lot more reason to be drinking Perrier with your lunch and it could become chic to drink California jug wines," he said. "Why do we need Burgundy at $50 a bottle?