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The Most Expensive Bottle of Wine in the World (For Now)

Record Lafite sale an indication of escalating wine prices in Hong Kong market

Suzanne Mustacich
Posted: November 22, 2010

When the hammer came down on the extraordinary sale of a bottle of 1869 Château Lafite, history was made. Estimated to reach $8,000, it sold for $233,972, making it the most expensive 750ml bottle of wine on the planet.

“There was a big round of applause, some cheers, and a little bit of shock and amazement,” recalled Robert Sleigh, head of Sotheby’s Asia wine department. “People were conscious of witnessing history.”

The sale of 2,000 bottles direct from Lafite’s cellars, held by Sotheby’s in the Hong Kong Mandarin Oriental on Oct. 29, generated 65,473,000 HKD ($8,440,124). From the first lot of 2009 to the aforementioned 1869, prices sometimes hit three times the U.S. market rate.

“It was ridiculous,” said Seline Fong, director of Hong Kong wholesaler Five Star Wines. But maybe not surprising—Fong, who sells 80 percent of her Bordeaux to mainland China, admitted that her clients want Lafite and “they don’t look at the price.”

Nevertheless, the 1869, sold to an anonymous Asian bidder, was a stunner.

“It was surreal,” said Christophe Salin, Lafite’s president and CEO. “But it was a unique piece, so why not?”

“This was the hottest wine town and the hottest wine of the moment creating the excitement,” said Sleigh, who recently transplanted his family to Hong Kong. With Sotheby’s Hong Kong wine sales doubling New York and London combined, “there was no way not to be here.”

Prices for Lafite are stratospheric in Asia, where it is considered a luxury purchase and coveted gift item. After being (gently) pressured for years by the major auction houses to hold an ex-cellar sale, Salin gave the nod to Hong Kong.

“I’ve been traveling to Asia for 20 years. I thought it would be a nice way to say both ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ to the Chinese people,” said Salin. “It was a way to show our respect for a new market.”

When deciding on the vintages for the auction, Salin had to reach far back in his inventory to have enough old vintages to make the sale unique. The 1869, a rare pre-phylloxera vintage with ‘very good tasting notes,’ seemed a unique pinnacle for the sale. Neither Salin nor Sleigh could remember another 1869 Lafite sold.

“But the big difference here that makes any previous sale irrelevant is the provenance,” said Sleigh. “All bets are off when it’s straight from the château.”

There was such demand to attend the auction that Sotheby’s had to issue tickets. “We could have filled the room three times over with the people who wanted to watch,” said Sleigh.

One of the happy few to have a ticket, Fong sat back to soak up the excitement when prices shot out of her range. “There were only a few people who are actually buying these wines and it always seems to be an absentee bid on the phone.”

Sotheby’s declined to comment on the underbidders for this particular lot, but it’s worth noting that all it takes is two bidders to escalate the price, not a roomful.

Now that the euphoria of the auction has had time to fade, there’s been an interesting development: The excitement hasn’t diminished. “The auction has had an interesting effect on the market. There’s been a raft of further speculation,” said Nick Pegna, managing director of Berry Bros & Rudd.

“We must have sold 600 cases of Lafite in the 10 days after the auction. There’s been a 10 percent to 15 percent uptick in the prices—across the board, all vintages,” said Gary Boom, a wine merchant specializing in Bordeaux.

“The headline wines are not giving us the underlying picture,” said Pegna, “which is that the market is very strong.”

Quek Li Fei
Singapore —  November 22, 2010 7:43pm ET
Whilst it's certainly very good news for auction houses operating in Hong Kong/China and also for Ch. Lafite (particularly in this case), it's bad, mad & dangerous for the rest of the wine consuming population. From being a luxury item (alongside the other First Growths and the Right Bank superstars Petrus, Le Pin and Lafleur) with still reasonable (relatively speaking of course) price to quality/rarity ratio, the sky rocketing (and there's no upper limit in outer space I guess) price of Lafite brings it into uncharted territory where price is determined with no rational nexus to either quality nor rarity.
Daniel Sherer
Healdsburg, CA, USA —  November 23, 2010 3:45pm ET
Can it be drinkable?
Thomas Matthews
New York City —  November 23, 2010 5:11pm ET
In his landmark "Great Vintage Wine Book," Michael Broadbent describes drinking an 1869 Lafite (magnum) in 1969. He wrote it showed "just a touch of decay at the edges but otherwise complete." So it's possible that this bottle is not only drinkable, but pleasurable, instructive and engaging.

That said, the purchase price is clearly based on the label, not the liquid. Is that "bad, mad & dangerous"? I guess I would agree with "mad," but dangerous to who exactly? I'm satisfied to let the market decide the bottle's value.

Thomas Matthews
Executive editor
Louis Robichaux
Highland Village, Texas —  November 24, 2010 11:46am ET
Quek Li -

Don't fret my friend. I agree with Tom that it's "mad", but I'd say it's neither bad or dangerous. Headline grabbing auctions like this ... while indeed irrational ... serve to elevate the profile of, and interest in, the wine industry overall. It was this type of heightened interest during the 1990s and 2000s that resulted in an explosion of top-quality, widely-available and reasonably-priced wines we all enjoy today ... particularly from New World regions.

So, let's let the elite part with their wealth at these ridiculous auctions while the common folk enjoy the results of a terrific global wine industry.

Cheers,

Louis
Leonard Danna
Monte Sereno, CA —  November 29, 2010 4:24pm ET
If I was Margaux, Mouton, Latour, Haut Brion or Petrus, I would clean out my cellar too and take the money. I saw a bottle of 1868 Margaux in their private cellar at the winery and I was wondering what on earth would they keep that around for. Now I know.

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