What is red, gets better with age and costs more than a week at the Hotel Cipriani in Venice? You would be forgiven for getting this wrong. The answer: a case of Le Pin 1982, auctioned last December by Sotheby's for GBP30,300 (about HK$380,570) - big bucks even in the most rarefied wine circles. Le what? You might well ask. I had to reach for my Robert Parker guide. If you want to be up on your winespeak you had best brush up on Le Pin, the new darling of the grape set. The now legendary case of wine was, according to Sotheby's, bought by a Hong Kong collector. I did not manage to track the buyer down, but I did talk to David Webster, of Remy, who has tried the Le Pin 82. 'Yes, it certainly was very special,' said Mr Webster. 'It's a tiny property in Pomerol. It produces about 500 cases a year [compared to] Petrus' 4,000 cases. I can't say Le Pin is eight times as good, but it is eight times as rare.' Therein lies the rub. Prices of fine wines have gone through the roof over the past 18 months. Auction houses have announced record prices and huge increases in turnover. The media have reported shortages. Winemakers are rubbing their hands in glee. Buyers are in shock but seem to pay up without resistance. En primeur Bordeaux prices have put the Hang Seng to shame: the prices for 1995 first growth Bordeaux have spiralled 300 per cent in less than a year. So what is going on? First, in Bordeaux, 1991, 1992 and to a certain extent 1993 were poor vintages with low yields. Buyers dabbled and hesitated, waiting for a blockbuster vintage. The next two years were excellent, the buyers came back in a big way and prices spiralled. Buoyed by a more stable world economic outlook, the buying spree filtered down to older vintages in the 80s. In Hong Kong, a case of Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1982 now changes hands at more than $100,000 - and there would not be a shortage of takers. Secondly, the Asian market has entered the fine wine market in a big way. Fuelled by their cash-rich, tiger economies, consumers have found a new plaything in wine. And, the more expensive the better. Big new players include Taiwan, Thailand and South Korea. In Thailand, the rise was royally led. The king publicly declared that red wine was good for one's health, promptly switched from whisky to wine, and his loyal subjects followed suit. The wealthy ones anyway. There has also been a switch in drinking habits. Sales of expensive brandy, the drink of the rich and famous in Asia, have tailed off dramatically. The cellars of cognac are said to be awash with unsold stock. Those that polished off extraordinarily expensive bottles of XO are now sipping their way through equally (if not more) expensive bottles of Latour and La Tache. You can understand the appeal of fine wine. It is something you share over a meal with like-minded friends. You can discuss it endlessly - colour, nose, taste and so on. In addition to this amusement you can have with a bottle, there is the cachet of status. Like-minded souls will know the cost and rarity. A case of Petrus 61 in your cellar (or better still on your table) is as distinguishing as any whiff of Rolls-Royce leather or gems from Van Cleef and Arpels. What is more, you can collect wine, like you would stamps or porcelain, but it is even more fun because you can drink it. As Agustin Que, grand maitre of the group of wine lovers, The Commanderie de Bordeaux, says: 'The idea of building a wine collection is that you buy good, young wines early on comparatively inexpensively, and then cellar them for the future. 'There is the huge enjoyment of tasting the wine as it develops and the satisfaction that if you have bought wisely, you would have made a good financial investment.'' Mr Que started buying wine seriously in the early 70s and now has a collection of about 3,000 bottles, mostly Bordeaux, in Hong Kong, New York and London. I pestered him about how much his collection was worth. He never seems to have worked it out, but it is pretty substantial. He has the right attitude though, saying: 'I only hope I live long enough to drink it all.' Mr Que is not alone in having a quality collection. Mr Webster adds: 'There are quite a number of Hong Kong private collectors spending over $100,000 per annum on fine wines. That's only what they buy through us. They are, of course, buying from other sources as well.' Naturally, we are talking fine wine and for fine, read expensive as well. Of the thousands of wines produced worldwide, there are probably only a hundred or so labels that fall into this category. Of these, one really means the top wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy although a handful of other European and New World wines are also included. The en primeur prices for the 1996 vintage will be released to the Bordeaux negociants in a month or two. According to UK-based Simon Cox, a master of wine and a wine merchant who visits Hong Kong regularly: 'All indications are that 1996 is a thoroughly good year in Bordeaux, and as there isn't a good deal of fine wine about, you can expect prices to open firm. I shall be trying the barrel samples at the chateaux towards the end of March and will have a better idea then.' Mr Cox is cautious about the 96 vintage until he has tried it. Rightly so. The truth is that there is already a lot of media hype about it being another blockbuster year, and the cry seems likely to be 'buy, buy, buy'.