Source: Sotheby's

New York Wine Auctions Make Splashy Return With Château Margaux Cellar Sale

Of late, Hong Kong has dominated the wine auction market, with marquee names and big numbers. No longer.

Last week, I was happily swooning over a glass of the plummy, violet-scented 1982 Château Margaux at a preview tasting at Sotheby’s in Manhattan. On Saturday, that vintage will be one of the star offerings at an auction devoted exclusively to bottles direct from the cellars of this first growth Bordeaux château. The 239 lots span vintages 1900 to 2012.

That the sale is happening in New York is a big deal, and not just because the wines are among the world’s best, more seductive than other first growths when young and wonderfully fragrant.

In the past five years, similar sales of wines from first growth châteaux Lafite Rothschild, Latour, Haut-Brion, and Mouton Rothschild have all been held in Hong Kong, chasing high Bordeaux demand in Asia—and more open wallets.

The historic Château Margaux.
The historic Château Margaux.
Source: Sotheby's

As Sotheby’s president of wine, Jamie Ritchie, put it, this Margaux sale sends a message that New York is back on top of the wine auction game.

That’s a big change.

A year or so after scrapping wine import duties in 2008, Hong Kong jumped to the top spot with skyrocketing auction prices, while New York still reeled from the economic downturn. (At one December 2008 auction in the Big Apple, only 35 percent of the wines sold.)

Quick to respond, auction houses began sending their best-of-the-best collections to Hong Kong to cash in. In 2010, the year of Sotheby’s Lafite auction (three bottles of its 1869 vintage brought $232,692 each!), the majority of its revenues were coming from Hong Kong.

Not for Long, Hong Kong

But signs of a New York renaissance started appearing about two years ago. American buyers began bidding big again, with Burgundy leading the way, and a growing number of collectors from Brazil and Mexico entered the game.

A bottle of Margaux from 1900.
A bottle of Margaux from 1900.
Source: Sotheby's

In 2014, U.S. auctions surged 26 percent over 2013, while Hong Kong sales declined. And U.S. sales were up another nearly 10 percent in the first half of 2015, while Hong Kong again declined.

Sotheby’s largest 2015 sale in the U.S. so far was Burgundy collector Don Stott’s cellar for $8.4 million, 22 percent over the high estimate.

“Asian buyers bid in New York, but U.S. buyers don’t bid in Asia,” says Ritchie.

Other houses are equally bullish on New York. “The excitement and energy here at New York auctions is the highest it’s been in many years,” says Zachys President Jeff Zacharia. So far this year, the company has sold 52 percent more wine (in value) at New York auctions than in Hong Kong.

David Elswood, international head of Christie’s wine department, concurred, telling me that Christie’s is now directing top European collections to New York instead of Hong Kong.

A Personal Preference

But New York also seemed like the right spot for the Margaux sale simply because, as the château’s Commercial Director Aurélien Valence explained, “We like the U.S. Ninety percent of the requests we get for old vintages come from the U.S.”

More scenes from the winery at the château.
More scenes from the winery at the château.
Source: Sotheby's

Personal emotions were partly at play in the choice, too. Sotheby’s chairman of wine, Serena Sutcliffe, has been talking up a sale to Margaux owner Corinne Mentzelopoulos for more than a decade, and Mentzelopoulos loves New York.

The Oct. 17 sale is the culmination of a celebratory year for Margaux, which marked the 200th anniversary of its grand Greek-columned château by opening a new winery and cellar designed by prize-winning architect Norman Foster. The hardback auction catalog is filled with flashy photos of every part of it, as well as smiling photos of Mentzelopoulos with her beloved beagles.

An Event of Significance

The catalog for the Château Margaux Sotheby's sale.
The catalog for the Château Margaux Sotheby's sale.
Source: Sotheby's

Why is the sale so special? Wines that come direct from a château’s cellars are the ultimate blue chips. Bottles that have been aging in perfect conditions in the château’s cool, dark cellars easily command the highest prices.

Even more important, you know they’re not fakes. A report from the French Foreign Trade Advisory Board, recently leaked to the press, says that counterfeiting is now a serious industry in China.

For the last 20 years, Margaux’s bottles have carried special laser marks and serial numbers. The sale bottles, some of which have been recorked, have a special back label indicating they are direct from the château and have a Prooftag authentication and traceability seal on the capsule.

Recent History

Mentzelopoulos, whose father purchased the estate in 1977, began running it after his death in 1980 when she was only 27 years old. The estate underperformed in the 1960s and early ’70s, as the previous owners were strapped for cash. With the help of famous Bordeaux oenologist Émile Peynaud and Paul Pontallier, now the managing director, the estate was brought up to snuff, starting with the 1978 vintage.

Corinne Mentzelopoulos and Paul Pontallier.
Corinne Mentzelopoulos and Paul Pontallier.
Source: Sotheby's

At the press tasting, we sampled six excellent vintages of the grand vin, of which the 1982 (estimate $10,000 to $15,000 a case) was surely the most spectacular: plump with the savor of red plums and cassis, deep and fragrant. Rich, rose-petal-scented 2009 ($7,500 to 10,000) was the other brilliant vintage, dense and velvety.

To get a sense of Margaux’s recent history, you could go for Lot 131 or 132, each of which includes 35 bottles from vintages 1978 to 2012 ($18,000 to $35,000). And the ultimate is the legendary 1900 ($10,000 to $15,000 for one bottle), which was still vivid and gorgeous when I reveled in it 15 years ago.

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