Red alert

Will Burgundies follow Bordeaux into another price collapse? Madeleine Ross investigates

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 November, 2013, 10:58pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 November, 2013, 10:58pm

Since opening up, the mainland has done a lot of things in fast-forward. Almost nothing comes close, however, to the speed and voracity with which the nation has consumed wine over the past five years.

The mainland's wine sales soared 142 per cent from 2007 to 2011 according to International Wine & Spirit Research, reaching almost two billion bottles, and it's set to jump a further 40 per cent between 2012 and 2016.

"I don't think anyone has really seen an expansion in wine from what was a very niche base in Asia to something which was driving the world's wine market. That hasn't happened in living memory," says Robert Sleigh, head of wine at Sotheby's Asia. It all began with Bordeaux. This part of southwest France is renowned as the birthplace of wine and home to the cabernet sauvignon producers that were the first luxury wines to make a splash in the mainland market.

Between 2004 and 2010, prices of the most prized Bordeaux wines (the "first-growth" labels made by Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Mouton and Haut-Brion) rose by an average of 600 per cent according to Liv-ex, a wine trading service. Mainland demand fuelled most of those price gains.

Hong Kong auctioneers believed Bordeaux was the bubble that could not burst. Until it did. En primeur prices - the prices people pay for wines still in barrels - for the 2011 vintage slumped by about 39 per cent from the 2010 vintage, and sales dropped across the board, according to Liv-ex.

Simon Staples, sales director, Asia, at wine merchant Berry Bros & Rudd said his firm sold £110 million (HK$1.4 billion) of Bordeaux in 2010 but that sales figures have dropped by about half for each subsequent year - last year the merchant sold just £18 million of Bordeaux.

Wine merchants tell a consistent story to explain Bordeaux's price collapse. In 2009, consumers paid a premium for what was hailed by critics as the "vintage of the century". When the 2010 was released, critics again hailed it as perfect. But instead of pricing it on par with its predecessor, the Bordeaux vineyards raised prices an average of 17 per cent. It didn't make sense. "The Chinese and Hong Kong customers felt as though they were ripped off in 2009 and 2010," said Staples. While en primeur prices of the 2010 were astronomical, waning demand saw these slip upon release of the wines to the public.

The Bordeaux bubble showed mainland consumers are inclined to throw entire regions by the wayside if they feel producers have overcharged for hyped wines.

The recent scandals involving counterfeit French wines and the recent "dumping" of sub-par French wine on the mainland market may be enough to turn locals off French wines altogether.

That said, red Burgundy has soared in popularity since the Bordeaux crash. Mainland drinkers have basically substituted orders for Bordeaux for Burgundy. Names like Domaine de la Romanée-Conti - the most famous Burgundy producer - are dominating the auction houses of Hong Kong and bringing in huge business for local wine merchants.

"In the last two years Burgundy prices have basically skyrocketed and now you need to pay a tremendous amount for a top growth from a great domain from a fabulous vintage at the same, if not above, [Bordeaux] first-growth prices," says Paulo Pong, founder and managing director of the Altaya Group, a wine merchant.

At Sotheby's April auction, a bottle of Vosne Romanée, Cros Parantoux 1985, Henri Jayer sold for HK$490,000. A Sotheby's auction on September 7 showcased only Domaine de la Romanée-Conti wines. One Methuselah - a six-litre bottle - was auctioned for HK$857,500.

"You have lots of mainlanders chasing that brand. Part of it has to do with the eagerness to learn about these other producers but of course there is also the fact that it is a luxury brand item; it's the most expensive wine in the world, it's rare, therefore they want it. They want to show off," says Altaya's Pong.

"[Domaine de la Romanée-Conti] is probably the perfect brand for China - it's like the Hermès of wine. You need to get an allocation. You just can't find it easily. These people go all over the world to find these wines."

Grand cru Burgundies - the top tier wines, equivalent to first-growth Bordeaux wines - are much scarcer than their Bordeaux counterparts. Geographically, Burgundy is a quarter of the size of Bordeaux, and only 1 per cent of Burgundy vineyards by geography are officially designated "grand cru".

"Top Burgundies will make up to three barrels, or 75 cases, therefore it's more rare than any case of Bordeaux you'll find," said Staples.

The question on the lips of merchants and collectors is whether this is another bubble. With prices already exceeding those paid for the finest Bordeaux in 2009 and 2010, a bust would be bigger than Bordeaux's.

The optimistic perspective holds that hailstorms that thrashed the Bordeaux and Burgundy regions this summer bodes well for prices. Up to 90 per cent of this year's Burgundy crop was lost, according to The Guardian and other newspapers. Both regions will have slashed output in the next two years which, if the surviving crop proves good, may prompt a swell in demand for the remaining bottles.

The pessimistic perspective notes that the Beijing crackdown on conspicuous consumption of goods and luxury gifts is crimping the mainland's taste for expensive French wines.

"People are much more cautious. First of all they're not really buying wine as gifts anymore. I talk to other [luxury] merchants … and they all say business has dropped between 30 per cent and80 per cent. And we are part of it," said Pong.

Staples says some of the gloss is already off French wines, and that New World may well be the new thing.

"If I was an investor looking to buy land I would buy up pinot noir [vineyards] in New Zealand because I think that will be the future for China. But it's possible that Argentinean wine or Chilean wine might be 'the wine' in China. You're taking a market that is completely virgin. It could be anything."