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Wine Spectator Auction Index Posts Tiny Gain in Fourth-Quarter 2012

U.S. market for fine wines may have stopped its prolonged slide

Peter D. Meltzer
Posted: January 10, 2013

The Wine Spectator Auction Index, which tracks sales at fine wine auctions in the United States, rose 0.02 percent to 306.57 points in the fourth quarter of 2012. Minuscule as the gain was, it’s a halt to the consecutive declines over the past six quarters. Most auction executives now feel the market has stabilized, buttressed by percent-sold rates, which have held at a healthy 95 percent.

Domestically, 15 auctions comprising 12,794 lots went on the block for an aggregate value of $40 million in the fourth quarter of 2012, down 15 percent from the same period of 2011, when there were more wines on the market. However, the average price per lot in the fourth quarter of 2012 actually rose to $3,127 from $2,964 in 2011, as the wines, though fewer in number, sold at strong prices.

The Hong Kong auction market—tracked separately from the auction index—was more erratic. Fourth-quarter 2012 sales totaled $58.5 million compared to $58.7 million in the fourth quarter of 2011, while the average price per lot in the fourth quarter of 2012 was $5,713, down from $7,964 in 2011. Clearly, Hong Kong collectors have become more restrained in their bidding tactics.

Global sales in the last quarter of 2012 seem to indicate that prices are not falling further, said Richard Harvey, senior international director of Bonham’s wine department. “Even young vintages of Bordeaux are selling at the right level. Burgundy has generally remained strong throughout, no doubt the result of the small volumes available, and Champagne, Vintage Port, Cognac and whisky have been very buoyant. I feel confident that 2013 will continue in the same vein and anticipate a period of stable prices.”

Bordeaux listings in the current auction index were essentially flat, down a statistically insignificant 0.3 percent. The biggest gainer was the 1990 vintage, which rose 5 percent as a category, led by Château Gruaud-Larose 1990, which increased 27 percent from its previous auction index average to $173 per bottle. The 1989 vintage increased by barely 2 percent, yet Château Palmer 1989 beat the norm, rising 25 percent to average $359 per bottle. The 2000 and 1995 vintages dropped 3 percent and 4 percent, respectively. Laggards included Château La Mission Haut-Brion 2000 at $550 per bottle, down 17 percent, and Château Le Pin 1995 at $1,412 per bottle, down 14 percent.

Burgundy listings, which are tracked separately from the auction index, fell 5 percent overall, largely because prices for some popular labels such as Domaine Leroy Romanée St.-Vivant 1999 and G. Roumier Bonnes Mares 1999, tumbled by about 30 percent. However, demand for all labels of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti continued unabated: 48 of the 50 top-selling Burgundies in the fourth quarter hailed from DRC.

A jeroboam of DRC Romanée-Conti 2002 took the top spot at $43,050 at Acker, Merrall and Condit, and a methuselah of DRC La Tâche 1996 brought $22,990 at NewYorkWinesChristie’s. A methuselah of DRC Montrachet 1993 fetched $17,080 at Zachys, and a single bottle of DRC Romanée-Conti 1996 hit a high of $12,250 at Sotheby’s.

As a group, premium California listings were somewhat soft, declining 2.2 percent in value. Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Reserve 1985 fell an even greater 25 percent to average $65 per bottle, and Opus One 1985 was down 13 percent from its index average at $178 per bottle. California cults declined 3 percent on average, but Harlan Estate 1994 bucked that trend, posting an increase of 22 percent to average $929 per bottle.

Italian estate wines fell 13 percent. Antinori Solaia 1988 experienced the biggest drop, down 44 percent to $123 per bottle. Gaja Langhe Sorì San Lorenzo 1997 was down 31 percent at $405 per bottle, and Tenuta San Guido Bolgheri-Sassicaia Sassicaia 1999 declined 29 percent to average $152. In contrast, Luciano Sandrone Barolo Cannubi Boschis 1996 climbed 13 percent to average $259 per bottle.

Rhône reds and Vintage Port were largely unchanged. Exceptions were Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage 1999, which averaged $291 per bottle (up 83 percent), and Domaine de la Mordorée Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée de la Reine des Bois 2000, which averaged $102 per bottle (up 57 percent). Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port 1963 averaged $305 per bottle, up 16 percent.

Vintage Champagne was a big winner in the fourth quarter, largely because of a major collection sold at Sotheby’s that was consigned directly from the cellars of Krug. Krug Brut Blanc de Noirs Champagne Clos d'Ambonnay 1995 averaged $7,350 per bottle (up 284 percent), and a magnum of Krug Brut Champagne Collection 1973 averaged $12,250 (up 259 percent). Krug Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Clos du Mesnil 1990 was up 125 percent, averaging $2,610 per bottle.

Looking forward to 2013, Frank Martell, director of California-based Heritage Auctions, saw key signs that the market is healthy and stable. “At the moment we are seeing spirited bidding in the middle market [$90 to $180 range] and ample competition in the price levels immediately above and below, which bodes very well for 2013. It allows everyone to take an even look at the final shape of the new marketplace, which includes an integrated and thriving, but less dominant, Hong Kong market.”

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