The Buzz Wears Off: Auction Houses Reel as Once-Unquenchable Chinese Thirst for Wine Becomes More Erratic

The Buzz Wears Off: Auction Houses Reel as Once-Unquenchable Chinese Thirst for Wine Becomes More Erratic
(alejaeger via stock.xchng)

In recent years, there has been a new star in the high-end auction world: fine wine. Wine sales at Christie's — mostly driven by demand in Hong Kong from Chinese buyers — grew a massive 70 percent from 2009 to 2010, making wine more important to Christie's bottom line than American paintings or Russian art. Bordeaux ruled, and Chateau Lafite was king. However, in the summer of 2011, the cracks began to show, and as the spring sales wrap up in China, the wine market is becoming much more multifarious than it once was.

For one thing, there's a new cool kid in town, he's from Burgundy, and his name is Romanée Conti. Lafite is a great wine for sure, but there is nothing more than personal taste that makes it the best wine in the world, worth more than other premier grand cru Bordeaux likes Latour or Margaux, or any top Burgundy, for that matter. This fact had commentators last year talking about a "Lafite Bubble." Now, it seems, the market has started to recognize that fact.


Preferences are changing. The Chinese are paying slightly less for wine — according to the Liv-Ex Fine Wine 100 Index, which tracks the prices of 100 of the most sought-after wines in the world, wine prices are down 18.2 percent from April of last year, and a hefty 23 percent if you only take the top 50 wines — and they are picking new favorites. So what's up with the wine market in Hong Kong lately? ARTINFO picked out three lessons that this Spring's wine market fluctuations have taught us.


Lafite is out, and Conti is in, according to the last few major wine auctions in Hong Kong. That much was clear last year, when the Lafite market tanked at the November wine sales. The auction houses had gotten used to being almost 100 percent sold every sale, but in the fall of 2011 prices dropped precipitously and Christie's sold only 84 percent of the lots offered. Many of the failed cases were Lafite. The bright spots of those auctions, however, were wines from the Burgundy region of France as well as Italy.

Burgundy's dominance has continued into this spring. At Sotheby's Hong Kong on April 1 (which, for the record, was 100 percent sold), two lots of the 1988 vintage of Romanée Conti (12 bottles each) sold for HK$1.5 million each ($205,000), far above the HK$800,000-1.1 million ($103,000-155,000) estimates. The trend continued at Christie's wine sale in Hong Kong on April 21. The top lot was Burgundy — a La Tâche vertical (56 bottles from consecutive vintages, 1951-2008, except 1968), which went for HK$1.2 million ($156,000). But even its hammer price was below the HK$1.2 million low estimate (with the buyer's premium it inched above it). Burgundies accounted for the top five lots sold.


Top Bordeaux wines that did sell had one thing in common: age.

To say that Bordeaux is out is to simplify the picture. Sure, Burgundies have topped the last few sales, but that doesn't mean that first-growth Bordeaux wines aren't still in high demand. However, no one want to pay much for wine bottled in this century, which will have years before they reach their peek drinkability. The younger the wine, the less interest there is from bidders. At this week's Christie's sale, which was a dismal only 74 percent sold in total, an extremely rare 1900 vintage Château Latour sold for HK$423,500 ($54,820), quite a bit above its HK$250,000-350,000 ($32,000-45,000) estimate. Similarly, a number of 1982 Lafites were sold in the $50,000 per 12-bottle case range. But many of the wines made in the aughts were spurned. 


This move away from more recently made wines in favor of well-aged and ready-to-drink bottles is not something that has been lost on the wine industry. Last week, Chateau Latour, one of the first-growth Bordeaux vineyards, announced that 2012 would be the last time that it participated in the "en primeur" wine futures market — the ancient system where the vineyards sell the newest vintage of wine to "negociants," who will then eventually distribute it (often when it has aged more and will fetch a higher price). Instead, Latour will distribute its own wine once it is ready to drink — a move that is being read as a bet on the continued ascent in proces for read-to-drink bottles.

While many have debated the wisdom of this decision over the course of the week, the intention seems clear: eventually capture the Chinese demand for ready-to-drink wines. According to Agence France-Press, "this move would enhance the position of Latour in that market and capture the margin for the chateau." But, that's at least a decade if not more away.

By then, will the Chinese even want French wine anymore?