May 16 (Bloomberg) -- Can Chateau Latour catch Chateau Lafite? We’ll find out on May 27, when vintages from Latour’s cellar in Bordeaux spanning almost 150 years go on sale at Christie’s International in Hong Kong.
Wines resting in the perfect storage conditions of a chateau’s cellar command a serious premium. That was part of the story behind the mindboggling prices at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Lafite sale last autumn -- a case of 1982 sold for $132,594, or $11,050 a bottle, double the average current price.
The key factor, though, was the continuing Chinese love affair with Lafite. At Zachys Hong Kong auction last month, Lafite accounted for only 19 percent of the lots, but brought in more than 40 percent of the dollars.
So this month’s 392-lot all-Latour sale looks like a bid to woo more Asian attention, and get higher prices, for this famously long-lived first growth. No one at Latour, of course, is admitting they want to nudge out Lafite.
“We’re going to China because we need to build knowledge and pass on messages,” Latour president Frederic Engerer said last month as we tasted 2010 barrel samples in the chateau’s light-filled tasting room. “Many people don’t know what to look for in older vintages.”
It’s nice that they want to educate the Chinese, but the real reason to show your face is to pull in bidders and hot-up a brand.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the great 1961 vintage. The Latour sale, which spans vintages 1863 to 2009, includes seven cases of the legendary 1961 in regular bottles and magnums that Christie’s estimates will fetch HK$650,000 to HK$850,000 ($84,020 to $109,873) each. From the same vintage, there’s an imperial (estimated at HK$600,000 to HK$800,000), a double-magnum (HK$220,000 to HK $300,000), and a jeroboam (HK$400,000 to HK$600,000).
There are also rarities like 1899, 1928, 1929, 1945, and 1959. The catalogue features not just bottles, but also attractive photos of the horses now used to plow the vineyard, a nod to biodynamics experiments.
As an added provenance guarantee, wooden cases are branded with the auction date. Each bottle carries a special back label and uses a capsule seal from the Prooftag authentication and traceability system that verify the wine was released directly from the chateau.
Excessive? Provenance is becoming ever more important. Empty Lafite bottles trade briskly in China for $450 and up, increasing concern about fakes.
Everyone in the auction business has a prediction about which first growth is going to be the next big Bordeaux in China. Latour may not be Lafite’s nemesis.
Ben Nelson, president of Chicago’s Hart Davis Hart, and Jamie Ritchie, president of Sotheby’s wine department, are both big on Mouton Rothschild. The price of the 1982 has nearly doubled in the past year, and other vintages are rising.
In some sales, Lafite is trending down. Ritchie sees prices for younger Bordeaux flattening out and Latour increasing only gradually. Burgundy is hot, he says, and there’s interest in older vintages and labels like Pontet-Canet.
Maybe that’s because the Asian auction market is awash in the very top Bordeaux.
“In 2011, it’s not just China. The whole of Asia -- Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand -- is driving sales,” said Ritchie. Sotheby’s has already sold $32 million of wine in Hong Kong this year, nearly 70 percent of its worldwide sales.
While the majority of mega wines still go to Hong Kong, U.S. auctions have seen higher prices since January, typically with 95 percent to 100 percent of lots sold.
“U.S. buyers have more cash now, they’re more confident and new Asian buyers are bidding here,” said Nelson, “This is going to be the best first half of the year Hart Davis Hart has ever had, by a long stretch. Everybody is looking for wine.”
Under the Sea
“The price insanity for some labels can’t last,” said Nelson, who is concerned about inflation in China. Still, the dozen auctions before the end of June offer new wines, new venues and new technology to keep everyone interested.
I reached John Kapon, chief executive officer of New York-based Acker Merrall & Condit, as he was gearing up for May sales in New York, Hong Kong and, for the first time, Finland. On June 3, he’ll auction off two bottles of 19th-century champagne that had been aging for two centuries at the bottom of the Baltic sea in Finland’s Aland archipelago.
Last summer divers salvaged 145 bottles of champagne, including 46 of Veuve Clicquot, from a shipwrecked vessel. It’s believed that the ship and wine were headed to the Russian czar’s court at St Petersburg.
Talk about provenance! At an underwater laboratory in Spain, scientists are using aquatic cameras, sensors, and taste tests to determine whether undersea aging is good for wine.
Naturally, the sale, to be held in Mariehamn, Aland, will feature 25 to 35 other lots of “interesting” champagnes to get momentum going. There’s nothing like bubbly to make auctioneers giddy.
As Kapon put it, “2011 is on track to be another record breaking year.”
(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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