Chateau Lafite, Romanee-Conti Top Lots in Wine Sales: Preview

Romanee-Conti ''Superlot''
A ''superlot'' of vintages of Romanee-Conti. Ranging from 1952 to 2007. Source: Acker Merrall & Condit via Bloomberg

A collection of Chateau Lafite Rothschild valued at 850,000 pounds ($1.3 million) and a “super-lot” of Romanee-Conti estimated at as much as $800,000 are among the December highlights as another record year of international wine auctions draws to a close.

Global wine sales by the leading five international auction houses -- Acker Merrall & Condit, Christie’s International, Sotheby’s, Zachys and Hart Davis Hart Wine Co. -- have reached at least $367 million so far this year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News. The figure is about four percent ahead of the total for the whole of 2010. Hong Kong events account for close to half the volume.

Demand for France’s most prestigious chateaux has cooled in recent months. Distribution problems in China, the European debt crisis, a slowdown in the U.S. economy and the fallout from Bordeaux’s ambitiously priced 2010 “en primeur” campaign have contributed to an 8.4 percent drop in the Liv-ex 100 Fine Wine Index this year.

“The really tough months were September and October,” Joe Marchant, head of investment at the London-based brokers Bordeaux Index Ltd., said in an interview. “There was a big fall-off in demand from Asia. Volumes are beginning to recover in the run-up to Chinese New Year in January, though it will take a while for prices to rise again.”

The global trade in fine wine -- of which auctions represent just a part -- is worth about $4 billion, according to the London-based Liv-ex wine exchange. Prices for top investment-grade Bordeaux such as Chateau Lafite declined by as much as 20 percent from August to October, said Marchant.

Asian Demand

“Now the price has come down, we’re seeing more demand from Asia,” he said. “A lot of Lafite has been drunk and it maintains its position as Bordeaux’s No. 1 First Growth.”

Christie’s will be hoping for a bounce-back of Asian demand today when they offer more than 800 bottles of Lafite owned by Evelyn de Rothschild, a U.K. member of the family that owns the Pauillac vineyard.

Vintages range from 1998 to 2008. Three 12-bottle cases of Lafite’s highly rated 2000 are estimated at 14,000 pounds to 18,000 pounds each. The same wine was selling for HK$372,000 ($47,900) a case at Christie’s, Hong Kong, in April.

Christie’s two-day sale in London carries an overall estimate of 2.7 million pounds to 3.4 million pounds for its auction of more than 960 lots.

Rising Burgundies

Burgundy’s premier wine, Romanee-Conti, headlines at both Sotheby’s in London on Dec. 7 and at Acker Merrall in Hong Kong on Dec. 8 and 10.

The rise of Bordeaux prices has prompted Asian buyers to look further afield, pushing up values of top-name Burgundies, particularly those made by the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti.

DRC’s signature Romanee-Conti wine, made out of grapes from a tiny, sole-owned 4.3 acre vineyard, has been upwardly mobile in 2011. A case of the 1988 vintage fetched 52,900 pounds at Sotheby’s, London, in April 2010. The price rose to 86,250 pounds at Christie’s on June 9 this year.

Sotheby’s has placed an estimate of 60,000 pounds to 80,000 pounds on a 12-bottle case of the 1988 vintage in its London sale. A case of DRC’s less tannic and smoother 1990 is valued at 72,000 pounds to 110,000 pounds. Eleven bottles of Chateau Lafite’s equivalent vintage, produced from a 222 acre vineyard, is included in the same catalog, priced at 4,800 pounds to 5,500 pounds.

The 819-lot sale carries an overall estimate of 1.75 million pounds to 2.2 million pounds.

Luxury Thirst

“It’s not just DRC,” Simon Davies, head of marketing at the London-based wine brokers Fine + Rare Wines Ltd., said in an interview. “Domaines like Latour say they could sell all their Grand Cru production to Asia if they wanted to. The Chinese demand for wine is part of the luxury-goods market. And Romanee-Conti is the best of the best.”

New York-based Acker Merrall, which last year topped the league of auctioneers with $98.5 million of sales, has billed a “vertical” run of DRC Romanee-Conti bottles from 1952 through 2007 as the “most important wine lot to be sold in 2011 anywhere in the world.” From a European cellar, it will be offered in the company’s Hong Kong auction with an estimate of HK$4.8 million to HK$6.4 million.

Twelve bottles of 1962 Romanee-Conti in their original wooden case are priced at HK$1.6 million to HK$2.4 million.

Acker Merrall’s 825-lot event will be December’s most significant test of Asia’s continuing thirst for rare Burgundy and Bordeaux. The presale estimate is HK$70 million.

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