Bordeaux may be down, but it still reigns supreme, say the experts.
After strong showings at top auctions, the fine wine market is holding its own. Sotheby's two-day spring wine sale ended on April 1 with 100 per cent sold and sales totalling HK$63.6 million, including commission.
Bordeaux, Burgundy and champagne performed particularly well, according to the auction house. A case of Chateau Lafite 1996 sold for HK$147,000, much higher than its presale estimate of HK$90,000 to HK$120,000, and a case of Chateau Cheval Blanc 2000 went under the hammer at HK$110,250 - much higher than the estimated HK$65,000 to HK$85,000.
More recently, rival auction house Christie's International five-day spring sale, which started on May 26, also sold 100 per cent of its wine auction lots. Four imperials - six-litre bottles - of Petrus from 2005-08 sold for more than HK$780,000, including commission, well above a presale estimate of HK$500,000 to HK$700,000.
Acker Merrall & Condit's Hong Kong sale on May 25-26 brought in more than HK$70 million with 95 per cent of lots sold. Highlights included the top-selling Burgundy, a case of Romanee Conti 1990, which sold for HK$1.47 million. Among the Bordeaux, a case of Cheval Blanc 1947 also fetched HK$1.47 million.
These results come on the back of growing unease about the prospects of the fine wine market in the second half of last year, following several consecutive months of price falls for first growth Bordeaux wines. Some believed the price decline signalled the end of a golden era for these market leaders, but wine experts say it was a correction following exceptional prices in 2009 and 2010. Sotheby's Hong Kong wine sales, for example, jumped from HK$111 million in 2009 to HK$410 million in 2010 and still hit HK$349 million last year.
'We've seen extraordinary growth since 2008, when the tax came down,' says Robert Sleigh, Sotheby's head of wine in Asia. 'We saw incredible price rises in 2009 and 2010. We saw a market correction in the second half of last year, which I think was a factor based on the extraordinary price rises we'd had in the prior two years, plus probably a little oversupply in the market as well. Now I think we've seen that correction bottom out, and I think we see a healthier [market].'
Evidence of growing sophistication among Hong Kong wine investors is seen in the growing taste for wines other than Bordeaux. The Bordeaux wines have long been preferred for their excellent quality, rarity and provenance, but other regions, particularly Burgundy, are gaining.
'Burgundy has always been very desirable ... simply because of scarcity and obviously the beauty of the wine, but Burgundy is more of a connoisseur area where you need to be extremely knowledgeable and know [exactly] what you're doing,' says Greg Brossard, senior account manager at Goedhuis Hong Kong and wine adviser for Capstone Financial Group.
Sleigh agrees, saying: 'People usually start with Bordeaux because it's relatively easy to understand as a region. You've only got to know two things - you've got to know the vintage and the name of the chateau. Whereas in Burgundy, you've got the year, you've got the vineyard and you've got the producer. It's probably the most difficult wine region in the world to understand, Burgundy, because of the fragmented nature of the vineyards.'
While France remains the favourite, other wine regions are also gradually attracting interest.
John Kapon, CEO of Acker, Merrall & Condit, said: 'I think the market is strengthening by diversifying. The market's looking beyond Bordeaux a little bit over the past six months, and Burgundy's looking very hot. Also Italy and California have been moving up as well, and certain select brands in Spain, Germany and Australia are definitely areas to keep an eye on. Champagne has been a very strong segment as well as a little bit of Rhone as well.'
None of these, however, are threatening the dominance of Bordeaux. The region's rigid boundaries ensure only limited quantities are available, and given that all vintages previously produced were easily consumed by the European market in the past, the big numbers of new Asian investors will likely ensure demand continues to outpace supply.
'Bordeaux is never going to become irrelevant,' says Sleigh. 'It's the only place that produces the quality and quantity you can actually then track like an index.'
Kapon predicts there will be 'more interest in Burgundy and ... other top wines, but continued interest in Bordeaux.'
Bordeaux's premium position has made it a favourite target for forgeries. Wines bearing fake Lafite labels have appeared for sale on the mainland. The practice has damaged investor confidence and pushed the chateaux to incorporate anti-forgery devices such as microchips behind the label or in the caps, says Brossard, adding that the duped have largely been less sophisticated mainland buyers.
'In Hong Kong, all the serious wine collectors have been drinking fine wines for decades. It's really hard to fool someone who has been collecting wine for 20 years.'
Those without such expertise need to take precautions, such as carefully choosing whom they buy from. Sleigh says Sotheby's goes through everything possible 'to make sure that the wine tastes as it should do, so that means checking levels, colour, any signs of seepage, [the] condition of the cork as well.
'We'll taste extensively. We might go through one or two dozen wines in some of the older cellars we've been to, to make sure the cellar is in good condition.'
The euro crisis is having both a positive and negative impact on the wine market. Brossard says the buying price for wines has dropped, as both the euro and sterling have lost value. He has seen a slight increase in the number of private collections coming onto the market from European collectors. In contrast, the instability of markets and fears about the future of the euro have made investors cautious about buying fine wine.
Overall, though, the outlook for the market is good, says Sleigh. 'History says that if you buy the best wines from the best vintages, and are never forced to sell, you won't lose money in the long run.'
However, he says it is also a market that is unlikely to satisfy those seeking to make a quick buck. 'It's obviously attracted people that think this is a great way to make money very fast, and the fact is that that [appreciation in recent years] really is one of the few times in history that it has happened,' he says.
'I think wine can be a good investment in the medium to long term - in the short term, not necessarily such a good idea.'
Kapon says that even if you look at the low points, there is a significant upward trend. 'Now is actually a great time to be buying Bordeaux. I think the smart money is getting back in and realising the market has hit its [trough].'
For genuine wine lovers, wine remains the perfect investment, says Brossard. 'It's super appealing for wine collectors to have the choice in 10 years' time to sell and make quite a bit in return because you have much less in the market of a full, mature, delicious wine, or you simply drink it because you don't need the money.'