Every year on the second Saturday of December, you can participate in the oldest wine auction in Europe. Held in the council chambers of Lausanne’s Hôtel de Ville, the Mise aux enchères of wine produced by the Ville de Lausanne has taken place for over two centuries. In 2014, the Swiss canton of Vaud designated this as a tradition vivante (living tradition).
Free and open to the public, the Mise aux enchères gives potential buyers the first opportunity to purchase wine from Lausanne’s vineyards for that year. I went to the auction a few weeks ago to learn more about this historic event, and I have some tips if you’re planning to go next year, as I am.
Lausanne’s Wine Auction Started in 1803
In Switzerland, some government entities own and manage vineyards. At about 33 hectares, the Ville de Lausanne has the largest among all the municipal governments in the country. The profits from the wine sold by the vineyards goes back into maintaining them and to the extent possible, supporting other public services.
The auction began as a way for local Lausannois to purchase wine made within their city. In 2016, the auction was held for the 214th time. Pretty impressive, yes? The Ville de Lausanne is proud of its long-time tradition and wants to preserve it for future generations.
Vins de Lausanne, the city’s department responsible for overseeing the production and sale of wine, organizes the auction, as well as two special tasting events leading up the big event and other activities throughout the year.
When I arrived at the Hôtel de Ville on Saturday morning, Lausanne’s Town Crier—the last public position of its kind in Switzerland—was standing out in front of the building announcing the opening of the Mise aux enchères. Playing his drum and calling out to passersby, my introduction to the auction was quite festive.
Inside, I found the atmosphere to be less formal than I had imagined. People greeted one another as colleagues or friends, and the tone of the auctioneer and the bidders was friendly and fun. Applause would erupt spontaneously after a winning bid, and I heard a few friendly jokes made about people’s names. This year I observed the auction, and even though I didn’t place any bids, I hope to be a more active participant at next year’s auction.
Vins de Lausanne Manages Five Vineyards
Vin de Lausanne has five vineyards or domaines that produce its wine, all of which have historic buildings with red and white-striped shutters for the two colors represented in the city’s coat of arms. Three are located east of the city in the Lavaux area, and two are located west of the city in the area known as La Côte. The wines produced in each of the following domaines have an AOC designation (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée), indicating that they meet particular production standards specific to this geographic region.
The wine produced in Lausanne falls under two categories—the more traditional “Gamme Classique” and the more contemporary “Sélection L.” I was told that about 75 percent of the wine produced falls under the Gamme Classique, with the remaining 25 percent under the Sélection L label. At the auction, only the Gamme Classique was up for sale.
If you missed the auction, you may still be able to find bottles of the Gamme Classique from revendeurs. Sélection L can be purchased directly from the Ville de Lausanne via their website. Also, you may find both categories of wine at local retailers, restaurants or the individual domaines (you can look them up here).
The 214th Mise aux Enchères Featured 10 Wines
Of the 10 wines auctioned off at this year’s Mise aux enchères, seven were Chasselas—a white wine that’s typical of this region of Switzerland. I like Chasselas because it’s generally light and dry. The three red wines at the auction were Assemblage rouge, a blend of grape varieties, such as gamay, garanoir and pinot noir.
While the majority of bottles sold were 75cl, the auction also featured 50-cl bottles and 140-cl bottles—double the size of ordinary wines bottles, these “magnum” bottles can be stored for a longer period of time, like 10 to 30 years. New this year were the Cuvée Réserve, two special Chasselas produced under strict criteria in terms of the quality of the soil, the age of the vines and more.
Lot sizes varied for the wines, from 3 of the large bottles to hundreds of 75-cl bottles, for example. This year, the lot sizes were reduced to help make the wine more accessible to a larger number of buyers.
Here are some quick numbers from the 2016 auction:
- Highest price per bottle: CHF 20.40 per 75-cl bottle of Assemblage Rouge – AOC Dézaley Grand Cru from Clos des Abbayes
- Lowest price per bottle: CHF 8.00 per 75-cl bottle of Chasselas – La Côte AOC from Abbaye de Mont
- Total cost of all the wine sold: CHF 356, 296
The Louise Albertine Wine-Tasting Contest
For this first time this year, as part of the auction’s festivities, Vins de Lausanne also hosted a contest. If you attended one of the two wine tastings held before the auction in the City of Lausanne’s Carnotzet (a Swiss-French word for a small cellar used for serving wine with friends), you could participate in this contest. Participants had to sample five white wines and one red wine from its domaines. Then, without any other guidance except the smell, taste and color, they had to try and identify the type of wine. The contest received its name from Louise Albertine David-Marcel (1795-1814), one of the first owners of a villa near Lausanne’s Languedoc Park, a public space and urban vineyard.
How to Participate in the Mise aux Enchères
As I mentioned, entry to the event is free, and the auction is conducted entirely in French. The bids generally rise in increments of 10 or 50 centimes, and the bidding goes quickly. No number paddles here—you just raise your hand, shout out an amount and hope that no one outbids you!
The Ville de Lausanne hosts tastings on Thursday and Friday in advance of the auction, and I recommend stopping by and sampling some of the wines to help you determine what you might want to bid on. Also, review the catalog for the auction that is available in advance. It lists each of the wines, their descriptions and all the lot numbers. The more research you do in advance, the better prepared you will be on auction day.
Once a bid is accepted during the auction, the auctioneer takes your last name and then moves on to the next lot. Afterwards, you provide your full name and contact information, so they can send you a bill. For this year’s auction, the bill will likely arrive early in the new year and must be paid by June 30, 2017. The wines will be sent roughly between April and June.
A new feature of the auction allows those who purchase wine to become a member of the “gardiens de la mise.” This means that for the coming year buyers will receive invitations for wine tastings and other surprise opportunities. Also, the Ville de Lausanne recognizes loyal buyers. I saw city officials hand out several awards for people who had attended and purchased wine at the auction every year for the last 15 and 25 years. All of these efforts are being made to help cultivate relationships between the buyers and the sellers, the local vineyards and the wine itself, in order to help support and continue this important living tradition for the Ville de Lausanne, and all of Switzerland.
Mark your calendars! The 215th Mise aux enchères is Saturday, December 9, 2017. See you there!
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