Planet of the grapes

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 May, 2012, 12:00am


Hong Kong wine collectors seem to think Bordeaux is becoming frayed at the borders. There are signs that wine lovers here and on the mainland are becoming sated with high-priced claret and, in some cases, concerned they have paid too much for what they have bought. Tastes are diversifying, and alternatives are being sought.

Although the organisers of next week's international wine and spirits trade show, Vinexpo Asia-Pacific, are based in Bordeaux, and the show has a certain regional bias, there is likely to be more interest in high-quality wines from other regions.

Following a long run of world-record prices paid for first growth Bordeaux at Hong Kong auctions, some offerings have failed to make their reserves at recent sales.

The spotlight has shifted to Burgundy. Even so, that region's production of the grand cru and premier cru wines so coveted by local collectors - such as Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, Henri Jayer, Domaine Leflaive - is a fraction of that of Bordeaux.

Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, for example, produces only about 450 cases per year compared with Chateau Lafite Rothschild's 15,000 to 20,000 - so there simply isn't enough supply for the burgeoning demand.

So, what's the next big thing? Which regions can offer wines of equivalent quality to classified Bordeaux and have comparable potential to appreciate in value over time?

Tuscany is often said to be Italy's Bordeaux, and Piedmont its Burgundy, so it should be no surprise that those regions are attracting serious attention.

Considerable interest was shown at Acker Merrall & Condit's March auction of rare wines direct from the cellars of Marchesi Antinori in Tuscany, including vertical lots of Solaia and Tignanello.

A lot comprising 24 bottles and 12 magnums of 1997 and 2007 Solaia sold for HK$165,920, and a vertical collection of 10 vintages of Solaia encompassing 60 bottles went for HK$117,120.

'We are witnessing strong interest in the great red wines of Italy, from Piedmont and Tuscany specifically,' says Acker Merrall & Condit CEO John Kapon. 'Those are great, great wines, and I believe their collectability in Hong Kong is accelerating and won't slow down for many reasons.'

Adam Bilbey, Berry Bros & Rudd's Hong Kong direct sales manager, has noticed the trend.

'In terms of investment and drinking many of our customers have been looking at the Super Tuscans,' he says. 'The emphasis is on the iconic wines - the likes of Sassicaia, Solaia, Tenuta dell'Ornellaia Masseto, Ornellaia and Tignanello. Our customers certainly are focusing on those.'

The 'Super Tuscans' emerged in the early 1970s when several winemakers in the Chianti area decided to make wines outside the restrictive rules of the Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) of the region.

The wines had to be classified as lowly Vino da Tavola but were quickly recognised as superior to much DOC Chianti, and they were given the unofficial designation 'Super Tuscan'.

The first Super Tuscan was Sassicaia. Today it's the only single estate wine in Italy granted its own DOC - a Bordeaux-style blend of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, which first became commercially available in the 1970s, but has been made by Tenuta San Guido since the 1940s.

Antinori's Tignanello - a blend of sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc launched in 1971 - was the wine that won international recognition for the Super Tuscans, and in 1978, the same house introduced Solaia, blended from the same grape varieties but grown in an adjacent vineyard.

The Tenuta dell'Ornellaia estate is next to San Guido, and Ornellaia has been produced there since 1985.

'People see the blue-chip Super Tuscans as being of equivalent quality to Bordeaux,' says Bilbey. 'Sassicaia is probably the Lafite, and Ornellaia would probably be considered the Petrus.'

For the wine lover with one eye on investment returns Super Tuscans appear to be Italy's strongest suit. But Bilbey insists there is now considerable value to be had in the great wines of Piedmont.

'Some of the Barolo wines are so cheap. Maria Teresa, daughter of Bartolo Mascarello, for example, makes wine of the quality of Rousseau Chambertin at about a tenth of the price,' he says, referring to the Cantina Mascarello Bartolo winery.

He also sees growing interest in the top Spanish wines from the Rioja, Priorat and Ribera del Duero regions.

'In Spain the icon has always been Vega Sicilia, and lately Artadi, as well - one of the newer breed of Rioja producers,' Bilbey says.

Like the Super Tuscans, Ribera del Duero's Vega Sicilia is strongly influenced by Bordeaux. The winery was established in 1864, but its intense concentrated style is thought to date to about 1900. Recognised by connoisseurs worldwide as being as good as a Bordeaux first growth, Vega Sicilia is well established as a long-lived investment wine, but the 'newer breed' of Riojas are unproven over the long haul.

Artadi Bodegas y Vinedos' intense, well-structured wines such as Grandes Anadas and Pagos Viejos may well turn out to be modern classics, however, and the match of tempranillo grapes and terroir are calculated to appeal to a seasoned Bordeaux drinker.

Despite Vega Sicilia's status and the success of cult wines such as Alejandro Fernandez's Tinto Pesquera and Peter Sisseck's Pingus in Ribera del Duero, Priorat in Catalonia is the only wine region in Spain acknowledged to rival Rioja.

'Priorat is a slightly tougher region to understand,' says Bilbey. 'If Rioja is like Bordeaux, then Priorat, with its smaller producers and smaller vineyards, is probably a bit more like Burgundy. The big names at the moment are Alvaro Palacios, who produces L'Ermita from a single vineyard, and Clos Mogador.'

L'Ermita is made from old vines and has the ageing potential beloved of collectors. Clos Mogador is owned by winemaker Rene Barbier, who along with Palacios is credited with establishing Priorat's wines as a force to contend with, and was one of the first wave.

Among the other areas making collectible wines at a high level, Bilbey argues that Burgundy, despite its limited production and elevated status, can still offer good value.

'All the press at the moment is Domaine de la Romanee-Conti and a few of the others, but across the board, the quality now coming out of Burgundy is probably better than it has ever been, and you can still pick up a good Premier Cru for less than GBP600 to GBP700 (HK$7,400 to HK$8,600) per case. That is the quality equivalent of a second growth Bordeaux, and they are selling for a lot more than that. And you are talking about a more limited production, so over time they will become even more highly sought after,' Bilbey says.

The top estates of the Rhone have been widely touted as the wines Hong Kong collectors will gravitate to next and, according to Kapon, there is evidence of increasing interest in them, and in vintage champagne.

'Those wines age beautifully and achieve the complexity that every wine lover seeks. And we are also seeing a real desire among collectors in Hong Kong to own the top Bordeaux beyond the famous first growths. Those wines can sometimes be very close to first growth quality and sell at auction for much lower prices,' says Kapon.

Bilbey adds that small grower champagnes are becoming highly sought after, and he singles out Egly-Ouriet and Jacques Selosse as two that have built up a strong cult following.

In the New World, it is harder to name whole regions as Bordeaux alternatives - although Bilbey identifies the wines of Washington state and Oregon in North America as being 'top drawer' - with collectors gravitating towards 'iconic wines' from particular producers, many of them festooned with Robert Parker points. Obvious examples include Penfolds Grange and Henschke's Hill of Grace, both from Australia, and California's Screaming Eagle and Opus One.

'Looking at it from an investment point of view, whether it's a New World region, or any other region, people start with the iconic wines, and then it tends to be up-and-coming producers afterwards,' says Bilbey.

Kapon adds: 'Collectors have a passion for wine, and that passion often means they know who the great estates or vineyards are in France, Italy, Germany, Spain, the US and Australia. It's a short list compared with all the places making wine. Just as there are only so many athletes at the world-class level, the combination of a great vineyard and the right climate for a particular grape, plus the skills of truly great winemakers, rarely happens. Those are the wines sought by collectors everywhere.'