No sooner had we gone to print with La Gazette, with news that the record auction price for a bottle of wine had been smashed, then another record comes along.
Three bottles of Lafite 1869 went for £147,000 each to a buyer at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong last month, and now Christie’s have sold a six-litre bottle of Cheval Blanc 1947 for £192,000 in Geneva.
For me, there are four remarkable things about these new records:
1. Prior to last month, the record for the highest price paid at auction for a single bottle of wine hadn’t changed for 25 years. In 1985, a bottle of 1787 Lafite was sold at Christie’s in 1985. A jump now to nearly £150,000 each, for not just one but three bottles, is quite a leap.
2. The pre-sale estimate for the Lafite 1869 was just £3200 – £5200 per bottle. It seems that even the experts have as much of an insight into the Chinese market as the rest of us – not unlike the £1.2 million top estimate for the Qing dynasty vase that sold this month at an auctioneers in Ruislip, of all places, for £43 million (£53 million was the total bill).
3. Hong Kong has established itself as the Fine Wine capital of the world in under four years. Tax on wine was as high as 80% at the beginning of 2007, then slashed by half that year, and then abolished completely in February 2008. The number of wine merchants, I’m told, has increased from 400 to 4000, and the number of tourists – splashing out on fine wine and fine dining – has increased dramatically.
4. As for nearly £200,000 for an Imperial of Cheval Blanc 1947 – well, I once claimed for a bottle of this wine on expenses.
Twenty years ago, when I was an account manager (i.e. a salesman) for a leading systems integrator (we sold computers), I helped a large Japanese bank install a new dealing room in the City of London (they bought a shed load of kit).
After the project was completed, I took my Japanese customer out to dinner at the Four Seasons Restaurant at the Inn on the Park Hotel on Park Lane. We had already been out once before and as I perused the list on that occasion, I casually asked him what sort of wine he might like with his lunch. “I like…” he said with quite an authoritative Japanese manner, “Domaine de la Romanée Conti.” I think I swallowed an olive.
I recall little about the Four Seasons restaurant but I do remember that it had a fantastic wine list at the time, with stacks of old vintages at amazing prices. I decided that I should try and persuade my new best friend that Bordeaux could be just as great as Burgundy. And there it was, winking at me: Château Cheval Blanc 1947. £395.
Now £395 is a very expensive bottle of wine today, so twenty years ago it was a lot of money. Even so, it really was dirt cheap for what it was – the trade price at the time was far higher – especially as it was Chateau-bottled (there are different bottlings of the 1947). After checking the provenance and that my friend wasn’t having the curry, I ordered the Cheval Blanc, which was then ceremoniously proffered and gently decanted before us.
It remains the finest bottle of wine I have ever drunk. Very deep, blood red in colour, almost viscous and Port-like for a forty-year old claret, and the amazing perfume and aromas were worth the entrance money alone. On the palate, the wine was extraordinary – velvety, heady, rich, complex, multi-layered, still exotically fruity – and I think I had a sort of out-of-body experience. It was profound and deeply moving. I might have even shed a tear, and I don’t think we spoke for what seemed like a very long time. The flavours, the length, the finish – it just went on and on. I could see that my friend was also utterly transfixed.
Over dinner, we talked about wine – and the project. I was keen to understand why we had been selected, as we had originally lost out on the tender. What prompted the call asking if I could still deliver on the project when their existing supplier let them down, prior to the big order being placed? Why me ahead of the other bidders? I asked. “Because, after you lost, you were the only one to send us a Christmas card.”
After dinner, he took the empty bottle and the cork home, and I’d like to think that he still has them in a display cabinet at his home in Tokyo today.
(Meanwhile, that Imperial from Christie’s should be perfect for drinking now, as it will have matured more slowly in such a large format.)
Of course, putting in an expense claim for a dinner like this raised more than an eyebrow, but the total bill for the computer project certainly helped. In fact, I was promoted to Regional Sales Manager for London soon after, which lead in turn to becoming Head of Sales, and the share options which came with the role subsequently went a long way in paying for Château Bauduc.
So you could say that I have a soft spot for Cheval Blanc 1947.
Time now to write a few Christmas cards.