BURGUNDY'S BEAUNE CHANCE

Beaune, the best-known town in Burgundy, is also the focus of the wine trade. The Hospices de Beaune, a medieval hospital and now an alluring tourist attraction, holds an auction of wines from its vineyards every year that draws celebrities from afar and unofficially influences the prices for all burgundies of the vintage. The narrow, cobbled streets of Beaune pass through walls built in the 14th century, when Beaune was the seat of the dukes of Burgundy. Before that it was a Roman settlement and before that a haunt of the Gauls.

Below the streets of Beaune are subterranean corridors full of old burgundies, the walls and stacked bottles thick with mold that flourishes in the constant cool and humidity. The wines stored here are 20, 50, even 100 years old and are beyond price.

Some of the caves belong to Robert Drouhin, negotiant and inheritor of the family firm, Joseph Drouhin, founded in 1880. The firm owns about 130 acres of vineyard in Burgundy, including a healthy portion in Chablis. That may not sound like a vast holding, but in a wine-making area where a few square feet are precious, it is substantial. Drouhin also has formal contracts with many growers and makes wine from their harvests in the new wine-making facility just outside the gates of Beaune.

As negotiants, Drouhin handles many wines of widely divergent price and good quality. They include the Montrachet from the vineyards of the Marquis de Laguiche, one of the finest chardonnays made, and the Beaune Clos des Mouches, substantial reds and whites capable of considerable age. Drouhin's domain also includes wine from Corton-Charlemagne, Batard-Montrachet, Chambolle- Musigny, Chambertin and Chablis.

Drouhin, like other negotiants, provides small growers with markets for their wines and stakes his reputation on their character. The less expensive Drouhin line of red and white, called Laforet, provides clean, uncomplicated wine at a reasonable price. "I believe in the terroir (soil)," Drouhin is fond of saying, "and I believe in men," thus summing up in classic French fashion the combination that makes burgundy one of the world's great wines.

Another prominent negotiant in Beaune is Louis Latour, founded in the 18th century and owner of a ch.ateau at nearby Aloxe-Corton, one of the first big wineries ever built in France and a showcase. Its 125-acre domain includes 25 acres in Corton-Charlemagne and holdings in other equally famous designations. Visitors to the ch.ateau are driven there from Latour's Beaune headquarters in a vintage black Citroen. Last summer I tasted fine wines there, as well as less expensive ones. An '82 St. V,eran from the southern-most communes of Burgundy was as good as any Puilly-Fuisse I had encountered and was about one- half the price. The '82 Meursault-Blagney had a full, toasty nose and great complexity.

Much of Latour's wine is sold abroad. "The strength of the American dollar," Latour said at the time, "is enough to swallow up everything in Burgundy." There are no stocks of burgundy because of the constant "pull" (demand). "If prices go up next year," he added, "people will complain." They have, and they are, but then it's burgundy you're paying for.