Asian grapevine

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 February, 2012, 12:00am

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No other auction has been as successful over the past six months as the one held by Christie's last weekend. What Christie's had in its favour this time, despite the sombre global financial mood, was timing. The timing was perfect for an ex-domaine sale of wines from the cellars of legendary Burgundy wine maestro Henri Jayer. He was more than just a talented winemaker or vigneron; in Japan, he is a wine god immortalised in the popular manga, Les Gouttes de Dieu (The Drops of God). In Burgundy, he was indisputably one of the most influential wine growers influencing an entire generation of young talent from a very small base - only 6.3 hectares of vineyards around Vosnes-Romanee.

In the private rooms of Hong Kong's fine dining venues where wine connoisseurs often gather, it isn't DRC (Domaine de la Romanee-Conti) that most often draws superlatives but Jayer. Bringing a first-growth Bordeaux these days is almost considered gauche and DRC just a bit too obvious. While Bordeaux prices have been on a continual downward spiral since early last year, Burgundy has been growing steadily. Sales of DRC have been the most noticeable beneficiary of this trend, but other top Burgundy domaines are doing well. These include Domaine Comte Georges de Vogue, Domaine Leroy, Domaine Meo-Camuzet, Domaine Armand Rousseau, Domaine Emmanuel Rouget (Jayer's nephew), Domaine Ponsot, Domaine Leflaive and Domaine Raveneau.

The other reason the Jayer sale was so successful was that the wines had impeccable provenance. Consider the two other successful sales over the past 18 months - the ex-cellar Lafite sale in October 2010 and the ex-cellar Latour sale in May. Given concerns over provenance and authenticity, it is worth the premium to pay extra for genuine products.

Jayer died in 2006, and this is probably the only time we will ever see so many of his wines sold directly from his own cellar. There have been many Jayer wines offered at auction, and one fine wine importer confided: 'Jayer is probably one of the most widely faked wines, and I would never consider buying a Jayer at auction, except for this previous one, where we know all the wines come from the great man's cellar.'

Christie's has a knack for timing: its ex-cellar sale of Chateau Lafite Rothschild was at the peak of the 'Bordeaux fever' in October 2010, and this Jayer sale is in the midst of a growing love affair with Burgundy.

For Bordeaux, price adjustment is hitting the top wines fairly hard. Since early last year, Lafite prices have been slowly deteriorating. It is still clearly in the lead, far ahead of its peers, but wines such as Chateau Latour and Chateau Margaux are closing the gap. The value of the 2008 vintage, with the Chinese character for the lucky number eight written on the bottle, dropped by nearly half over the past year. At its peak, it was fetching US$2,000 per bottle but it can now be bought for about US$1,000.

From 2008 until the end of 2010, prices rose steadily at auction, and more than 90 per cent of the trading consisted of Bordeaux. Despite the financial crisis in the United States, the fine wine market, especially in Hong Kong, continued to move upwards. The mood started to change early last year, however, and prices at fine wine trading sites such as Liv-ex started to show a downward trend. Many wine professionals breathed a sigh of relief when the inevitable price correction finally arrived.

With the new prices came an opening up of the wine market beyond the top chateaux. Burgundy is the biggest beneficiary of this new direction. Every sommelier, wine merchant and importer I've spoken to over the past six months has said Burgundy is their fastest growing category. The shift may have started in Hong Kong, but the demand has expanded beyond the city, as buyers in wine shops, restaurants and at auction may just as likely be from Japan, South Korea or Taiwan as from the mainland. Unlike the purely Chinese fascination with Lafite and a handful of other top Bordeaux chateaux, lovers of top Burgundy exist throughout the region. DRC lovers, who are willing to pay astronomical prices for the best bottles, exist not just in greater China but also in Japan, South Korea and Singapore.

With wine auctions focusing on Burgundy, prices are likely to increase rapidly. The Jayer auction was completely sold and raised HK$66 million: three times the pre-sale estimates. The question now is whether this marks the beginning of the shift towards Burgundy or its peak. I am willing to bet on the former purely because of supply and demand. The top grand cru wines by producers such as DRC, Dujac or Vogue number in the hundreds of cases compared with tens of thousands of cases for cru classe chateaux in Bordeaux. There is simply not enough to go around. If you have favourite producers and wines from Burgundy, stock up on them now before prices rise further.

Jeannie Cho Lee is the first Asian Master of Wine. E-mail her at foodandwine@scmp.com. Find her at www.asianpalate.com