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Burgundy Region Redolent of Wine, Mustard, History

November 28, 1987|STANLEY MEISLER | Times Staff Writer

BEAUNE, France — The region of Burgundy was once an independent state, a powerful rival of France, boasting the most elegant and fashionable court in Europe. But all that power dwindled away half a millennium ago, leaving Burgundy with little more than memories and wine.

Since then, Burgundy has had its ups and downs. In his 1934 novel, "Tropic of Cancer," Henry Miller described Dijon, the ancient capital of Burgundy, as "a hopeless, jerkwater town where mustard is turned out in carload lots, in vats and tuns and barrels and pots and cute-looking little jars."

Its past glories as the seat of a great duchy were lost on him. Today, no one can accuse Burgundy of wielding imperial power. But its wine--prized throughout the world at breathtaking prices--has made Burgundy one of the richest regions of France. In fact, it has only one economic problem: whether its vintners, powered by greed, are driving away customers, especially Americans, by charging too much.

Symbol of Burgundy

With the dollar declining in value, the Burgundy merchants profess that there is little that they can do about price anyway. "We will have to have our friends from abroad swallow more increases in the cost," said Burgundy merchant and producer Louis Latour in mid-November, just before the annual charity auction of wine for the medieval hospital known as the Hospices de Beaune here in the heart of Burgundy.

In many ways, the auction, held every year a couple months after the harvest of the year's grapes, symbolizes Burgundy, deftly blending history and wine, the two dynamic forces that make this region special. For three days, in a dizzying festival featuring bacchanalian banquets in 15th-Century surroundings, merchants from all over the world come to Burgundy to taste, buy, talk and celebrate wine.

The hospital, founded by the chancellor of the Dukes of Burgundy in 1442, is one of the wonders of Burgundian architecture. Its spires and colored slate roofs have the look of old Flanders in Belgium, for the domains of Burgundy extended that far north in those days. Its artistic treasures include an altarpiece attributed to Roger Van der Weyden, the 15th-Century Flemish master.

For centuries, the Hospices de Beaune, which stopped functioning as a hospital in 1971, supported itself from the sale of wine from its vineyards. Since 1859, these sales have come in the form of the annual charity auction. The proceeds are now used to help support a modern hospital in Beaune and to maintain the Hospices as a kind of monument to Burgundy.

Prices Likely to Drop

The wine industry has long touted the auction as a barometer for the trend of prices for the year, but it is a confusing barometer. The price of 1987 wine, for example, according to good business sense, should have dropped at this year's auction. But, instead of dropping, red Burgundies rose 9% and white Burgundies 3.5%.

Wine experts insist that the market price of Burgundy will probably drop a bit, at least in French francs though not in dollars, despite the auction. They said the wines from the hospital's vineyards were not representative of the crop as a whole this year and that sentimental bidders let their charitable hearts get in the way of good business sense. Some merchants and producers simply advised analysts to look on the auction as more of a celebration of wine this year than a barometer of price.

Most Americans who drink Burgundy wine know almost nothing about the history of old Burgundy. But its brief flash of glory has a romantic appeal to Europeans. A young German woman, who went to Dijon to study at its university three years ago, explained recently why she decided to stay and work for the Burgundy office of tourism. "Every time you take a step," she said, "you touch history."

The Valois Dukes--Philip the Bold, John the Fearless, Philip the Good and Charles the Bold--ruled Burgundy from 1364 until 1477. Largely through marriage, this dynasty expanded the domains of Burgundy until, at its height, it extended from eastern France north through Alsace and Lorraine and Luxembourg to Belgium and the Netherlands.

Although the court travelled often to cities like Bruges and Brussels, the Dukes kept their capital in Dijon. The towns of Belgium and the Netherlands were among the richest, most enterprising and most artistic of Europe in those days, and the duchy of Burgundy was regarded as a European power with a court of unrivaled splendor.

Reminders of Glory

The dynasty ended, however, with the death in battle of Charles the Bold, who had no son. His daughter married a Hapsburg, and the Netherlands and Belgium were handed to that Central European dynasty. The French kings seized the rest of Burgundy for France.

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