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God’s hostel still raises a glass for good causes

Emily Commander visits Beaune in Burgundy, where the town’s historic almshouse plays host to an annual charity wine auction

One of the most prestigious wine auctions in the world takes place every year on the third Sunday in November in Beaune, Burgundy. Organised by Christie’s, it attracts fine wine connoisseurs with big budgets looking to buy grands crus and premiers crus, and the amounts raised act as an international barometer for that year’s vintage.

Surprisingly, though, its goal is not to make private profit, but to raise money for a 500-year-old charitable foundation known as Les Hospices de Beaune.

The Beaune Hospices were originally a charitable almshouse, founded in 1443 by the Chancellor of Burgundy, Nicolas Rolin, as a hospital for the poor. The original building, called the Hôtel-Dieu, with its colourful roof tiles, is now a museum, with patient services located in state-of-the-art modern facilities on the same site.

Since 1457, the property has also included 60 acres of vineyards, originally donated by Guillemette Levernier, which to this day produce the wines sold in auction in the great hall of the Hôtel-Dieu.

When Rolin founded the Hospices, Burgundy was ruled by Duke Philip the Good, and the Hundred Years’ War was drawing to its bloody end. Bands of marauders were still roaming the country, committing massacres, and leaving the population poor and starving in their wake.

It was to cater for the people of Beaune, left destitute and ravaged by the plague, that Rolin and his wife founded the hospital, in conjunction with which they established the religious order called Les sœurs hospitalières de Beaune (The hospitable sisters of Beaune). From the day after its completion until the 1970s, when they were transferred to modern accommodation, the Hospices welcomed the sick, elderly, orphaned, destitute, and pregnant mothers about to give birth.

It is thought that the Hospices were designed by Flemish architect, Jacques Wiscrère, and the historical record shows that a mixture of Flemish and French masons, painters and glass cutters worked on the project.
The Hôtel-Dieu consists of two buildings, each two storeys high, ranged around a stone courtyard. The wings originally contained offices, the kitchen and the apothecary, run by the nuns, whilst the central section housed patients and the religious order.

The interior of the 15th century buildings illustrate Rolin’s belief in the healing power of beautiful objects. They contain one of the finest European collections of panel paintings, and a world-renowned polyptych altarpiece from Dutch master Rogier Van der Weyden, entitled The Last Judgement.

It transpires that Rolin and Levernier left their most enduring legacy for the poor in the form of the vineyards attached to the Hospices, 50 hectares of which are given over to Pinot Noir grapes and 10 to Chardonnay.

Twenty-two winemakers produce its world famous wines, which account for 85% of the bottles sold in the annual auction (a record €13.5million in 2017), and the proceeds are used to improve the hospital’s equipment and to preserve the historic buildings.

It was a model that took hold in the region, with similar institutions being established in the surrounding villages of Meursault, Pommard and Nolay, forever linking the business of producing fine wine with philanthropy in local culture.

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