A number of wine speculators have been looking anxious in recent months and it is all to do with what is happening in Asia rather than the current woes in Europe. Most of the large wine dealers in London will admit that for the past few years, the vast majority of their sales have been to Chinese buyers, whether they live in Hong Kong or mainland China. It is not just the emergence of new Chinese buyers, but also Hong Kong's decision in 2008 to slash duty on imported wine from 80 per cent to zero. As a consequence, major auction houses such as Bonhams have been holding highly successful sales in Hong Kong.
Although China seems partially immune from the economic uncertainty that is permeating Europe and North America, prices for trophy wines such as Chateau Lafite-Rothschild have eased by up to 20 per cent since the summer. There is one wine that has shown itself to be immune from these swings: the wines of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC), the most prestigious Burgundy producer in the world.
Bonhams is offering several vintages of La Romanée-Conti, the most rarefied and sought after of the Domaine's stable. There were fewer than 550 cases of the La Romanée-Conti 1988 vintage produced, and while it is perfectly possible to open a bottle now, it should really be kept for at least another decade to truly fulfil its promise. Robert Parker, the renowned American wine writer, said of the 1988 Romanée-Conti, "It is staggeringly concentrated with a bouquet that almost defies articulation. There is no doubting what it is and who made it. It is a flashy, dramatic wine with astonishing length and mystique." While no one ever claimed that prices for any Domaine de la Romanée-Conti wines were cheap, Parker makes them sound good value by saying that "the 1988s are celestial wines selling at stratospheric prices". This year, a case achieved £74,750 at Bonhams New Bond Street.
The other La Romanée-Conti wine on offer is the fabled 1990, which already has a cult following – Bonhams sold a case for £126,500 in London in September. Allen Meadows, author of burghound.com, the most informative database on all Burgundy wines, awards it 99 points (the only wine he ever gave 100 points was the 1945 Romanée-Conti and that was the greatest wine he has ever drunk in his life). He says he considers it to be as great a post-1945 Romanée-Conti as he is ever likely to drink: "Initially, this is aromatically tight and closed, but after two hours, it explodes from the glass with a breathtaking panoply of Asian spices, exotic fruit aromas and a touch of earth followed by rich, lush, almost opulent flavours that melt in the mouth and coat the palate with a layer of velvet." The optimum time for opening a bottle is after 2020, but it can still give immense pleasure providing it is decanted for two hours or more.
Although there is every sign that serious wine drinkers in Asia know the attractions of DRC wines, they are not sought after in the way that certain Bordeaux chateaux are, such as Lafite-Rothschild and Lynch-Bages.
One factor may be the relative rarity of top Burgundies compared with Bordeaux. On average, there are more than 100,000 cases produced annually of the top ten Bordeaux, whereas the equivalent production of the leading ten Burgundies would be about 20 times less. While Burgundy may never reach the demand of Bordeaux, there is every reason to expect it to grow in Asia. Some of the more old-fashioned wine lovers in Europe sniffily say it is too difficult for relative newcomers to the fine wine world to comprehend. This is dismissed by Bill Nanson, producer of the highly regarded Burgundy Report. "I think the argument that it's too difficult for Chinese wine drinkers to understand Burgundy is rather facile – that may make it rather harder to deliver mass-market appeal, but it only takes a few knowledgeable connoisseurs (and 'few' in a China context is quite a lot). In my view, the market will sway."
Bruce Palling writes for The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek.
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