In the second half of 2006, the Wine Spectator Auction Index--the magazine's compilation of 154 frequently traded collectible wines sold at major U.S. auctions--posted its largest gain ever. Rising a record 31.54 points, it hit an all-time high of 278.44--a spike of 13 percent.
Put another way, the average price of the wines listed in the index has essentially doubled in value since the auction database debuted in the fourth quarter of 1995. The upward spiral in the cost of collectible wines has become increasingly entrenched over the past four years.
Anyone who doubted the auction market's ability to sustain the heady momentum seen in the first half of 2006 was mistaken. The second half's headline-grabbers tell the story in microcosm: A six-magnum case of Château Mouton-Rothschild 1945 was snapped up for an unprecedented $345,000 at NYWinesChristie's in Los Angeles last September; in October, Acker Merrall & Condit sold a record $24.7 million worth of fine wine from a single-owner cellar; in November, a superlot consisting of 50 cases of Château Mouton-Rothschild 1982 sold at Aulden Cellars-Sotheby's for an unparalleled $1.05 million. In total, U.S. sales of fine and rare wine exceeded $167 million in 2006, out of a worldwide record auction total of $240.53 million in 2006, according to numbers released by the major auction houses.
Of all the categories of wine listed in the index, Bordeaux is the largest. Its classified growths registered a 14 percent increase overall, led by the 1989 vintage, which soared 25 percent. Its twin, 1990, rose 19 percent. The 1982 vintage appreciated by 13 percent on average, yet select châteaus performed significantly better. Mouton '82 was up 66 percent, averaging $1,307 per bottle. (Its high was $1,753 per bottle at Aulden Cellars-Sotheby's.) Château La Mission-Haut-Brion '82 rose 56 percent to average $736 per bottle. (Its high was $1,383 at Zachys.) Demand for '82 first-growths and other top Bordeaux continues to swell.
Bordeaux from the 1995 vintage was up 12 percent. Several châteaus surpassed the norm. Château Cos-d'Estournel 1995 was up 30 percent at $136 per bottle, and Château Lafite Rothschild 1995 was up 28 percent at $307.
Due to major variations in the condition of the available lots and bottles, 1961 Bordeaux continued a somewhat erratic path. As a category, it rose 9 percent, with Mouton up 27 percent at $1,551 per bottle and Château Ducru-Beaucaillou down 48 percent at $428 per bottle.
Compared to Bordeaux, California listings saw less dramatic growth, posting an overall gain of 5 percent. The 1985 vintage fared best with a 9 percent increase, whereas 1997 rose only 3 percent. Standouts included Opus One 1997 and 1994 at $247 and $249 per bottle, respectively (both up 19 percent), and Opus 1985, up 18 percent at $231 per bottle. In contrast, Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 1999 was a relative bargain at $46 per bottle, down 22 percent.
Along with the 154 wines analyzed for the magazine's biannual Auction Index report, Wine Spectator's online auction database tracks the performance of more than 15,600 cellar-worthy bottlings, representing 880 wineries and more than 3,000 unique wine labels across a range of vintages and in a variety of bottle sizes.
Although two California cult wines, Araujo and Harlan, are included in the index, the rest of the cult pack is tracked separately in the auction database. The cults have actually appreciated at a greater rate than the index. Screaming Eagle remains the frontrunner of the group; both the 1995 and 1992 vintages rose 23 percent in the second half of 2006, averaging a staggering $2,344 and $4,446 per bottle, respectively.
Estate bottlings from Tuscany rose 22 percent in value, spearheaded by the 1988 vintage (up 34 percent). Both the 1985 and 1990 vintages increased by 25 percent, whereas 1997 and 1999 were up only 5 percent and 8 percent, respectively. Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia 1988 outshone the pack, rising 42 percent to average $459 per bottle.
With only 10 listings in the index, Piedmont wines are more susceptible to market swings. The category rose only 3 percent. Luciano Sandrone Barolo Cannubi Boschis 1997 fell 13 percent to average $154 per bottle, and the '89 dropped 11 percent to $311. However, the 1996 vintage of Cannubi Boschis rose 17 percent to average $216 per bottle.
As a category, Vintage Port rose 6 percent. However, the 1970 vintage showed an average gain of 12 percent, and the 1963, 1977 and 1994 vintages all rose 5 percent. Fonseca 1963 bested the group with a 40 percent increase to $331 per bottle, followed by Taylor Fladgate 1970 at $154 per bottle, up 19 percent.
Can the auction market maintain its frenetic pace? Continued high prices will tempt veteran collectors to thin out or "rationalize" their cellars, assuring a constant supply of cellar-worthy consignments. On the buyers' side, six- and seven-digit bonuses on Wall Street and huge profits in the commercial real estate sector have created a chunk of income available for discretionary purchases such as collectible wines. Regardless of its source, a deep-seated passion for fine and rare wine--and a willingness to pay or exceed the going rate--is evident on the salesroom floors.
--Auction data compiled by assistant tasting coordinator John Suidut
--Auction correspondent Peter D. Meltzer is author of the recently published Keys to the Cellar: Strategies and Secrets of Wine Collecting (John Wiley).
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