Back to all articles
  • Jancis Robinson
Written by
  • Jancis Robinson
30 Oct 2010

What a hit for Sotheby's and Château Lafite! I wonder how they celebrated last night in Hong Kong the fact that yesterday's auction of wines direct from the château exceeded pre-sale estimates threefold? The sale, in the rather uninspiring setting shown here, totalled £5.3 million / HK$65.5 million / US$8.4 million, tripling the pre-sale high estimate of £1.6 million / HK$20 million / US$2.5 million.

It is a sign of the times that those of us who follow Twitter, even when on the road in Burgundy and on the train therefrom to Paris, learned that a new record for the world's most expensive bottles sold at auction almost as it happened, and certainly hours before Sotheby's themselves made an official announcement. The three bottles of Lafite 1869 went for £147,170 / HK$1,815,000 / US$232,692 each when the estimate had been a mere HK$40,000-65,000) apiece. Below you can see the winning bid on the screen on the right - peanuts to a Chinese billionaire, obviously.


Lafite's reputation in China is clearly unassailable (see Lafite in China explained). I am told by locals that at least part of its aura is as the ultimate tradable commodity in the complex, distinctly oriental process of winning new business and cementing commercial relationships in China.

It is another sign of the times that there is a long queue of others keen to benefit commercially from the historically unique position this one wine finds itself in. Here is this morning's press release on behalf of Stephen Williams of The Antique Wine Company about the auction, and in particular (pause for licking of lips) 'its impact upon his forthcoming sale of an exclusive 19th Century Chateau (sic - accents not included) Lafite Rothschild Collection':

'The record sales achieved at Sotheby's Chateau Lafite Rothschild auction in Hong Kong pays tribute to the ever escalating prices Chateau Lafite can command. We expected the 19th century bottles to achieve bids of approximately 100,000 HKD but to exceed the auctioneer's high estimate tenfold and make $1million is astonishing. These wines are of impeccable provenance, and it makes me highly confident that the equally precious items we are about to put on the market, such as our Giant Imperial of the 1899, will be snapped up by an Asian buyer.

'Any "value minded" wine collector should go immediately to their cellar, count their cases of Lafite, and send us instructions to sell right away. Chateau Lafite Rothschild has become an icon in China. However, wine consumers in this market have an enormous appetite to learn and, before long, I am sure we will see other Bordeaux Grand Crus taking some of the limelight. This might just soften the exponential curve on Chateau Lafite's value.

'The Chinese market continues to be driven by some rather unconventional factors. For example the price of Chateau Lafite Rothschild 2008 rocketed by 20% overnight this week when it was announced that the bottles would be etched with the Chinese figure eight, with this vintage boasting a staggering 500% rise in value compared to 18 months ago. What other investment can provide returns like this? [Rare earth stocks, according to knowledgeable Purple pagers in a thread entitled A Market Full of Hot Air on our forum - JR.] Who would have believed that 20 years ago the Rothschilds, who own and manage Chateau Lafite, would be such marketing geniuses: it is just another credit to this family's impeccable 300-year track record spanning finance, wine and commerce.

'I was especially interested to see Sotheby's accelerate the 1899 offering through its high estimate of 65,000 Hong Kong dollars to a stellar one million Hong Kong dollars. When the world is saturated with young wine, there is something even more irresistible about the collecting and enjoyment of older vintages. With this in mind, we are proud to announce the sale of an exclusive collection of 19th Century Chateau Lafite Rothschild, covering the vintages 1873, 1881, 1882, 1888, 1890 and, rarest of them all, an Imperial of 1899 itself worth US$289,800 (HKD 4,419,620).

'In impeccable condition and with flawless provenance*, this is a remarkable selection of bottles, each of which is at least 111 years old. This rarest of Chateau Lafite collections is unavailable at auction but is offered by The Antique Wine Company by private sale for US$933,800 (HKD 7,120,500)**. The scarcity of these wines makes them a Chateau Lafite collector's dream and, with no doubt, we predict that they will be purchased by a serious collector or Chateau Lafite enthusiast in Asia.'

* The collection includes copies of correspondence from Yves Le Cannu [actually Le Canu; see below - JR], cellar master at Chateau Lafite Rothschild during the decades 1970/1980, describing the evaluation of these magnificent wines, which were then contained in the cellar of the restaurant Le Coq Hardy, Bourgival [actually Le Coq Hardi, Bougival - JR] (Versailles) France.

** Individual pricing on each bottle in the collection is as follows:
1873 LafiteRothschild 1 x 75cl $64,400 / HKD 491,070
1881 LafiteRothschild 1 x 75cl $64,400 / HKD 491,070
1882 LafiteRothschild 1 x 75cl $64,400 / HKD 491,070
1888 LafiteRothschild 1 x 75cl $96,600 / HKD 736,610
1890 LafiteRothschild 1 x 75cl $64,400 / HKD 491,070
1899 LafiteRothschild 1 x 600cl $289,800 / HKD 4,419,620

Total Collection - $933,800 / HKD 7,120,500

Funnily enough, I went to double check the spelling of Yves Le Canu's surname in my 1982 set of profiles of great wine producers, The Great Wine Book. I noted here in the Lafite profile how the Forge restaurant in Miami had 200 bottles of Lafite carrying vintages between 1825 and 1899 (remember that the Rothschilds acquired Lafite only in 1868, which may have affected the vintages chosen for the Hong Kong auction) and how Le Canu was rather bemused by the Rothschilds' fascination with ancient vintages, preferring the 1959. The profile ends with this quote from Le Canu: 'Although I am against it, it's impossible to stop speculation in wine, especially Château Lafite-Rothschild'.