Uncorked: Vintages under the hammer

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Wine auctions are plenty of fun, writes Alasdair Nicol, but be wary of your wallet

So what’s with all these wine auctions in Hong Kong? Well, The tax cut of 2008 not only opened the floodgates for unregulated wine imports to our city, it also started a feeding frenzy among the auction houses to set up wine auctions in the territory. The result is that Hong Kong is now the epicentre of world wine auctions and the turnover in these sales now exceeds both London (historically the centre for wine auctions) and New York.

Since 2008, there have been more than 70 fine wine auctions in Hong Kong, from institutions such as Acker Merrall & Condit, Bonhams, Christie’s, Sotheby’s and many more local and overseas companies. While this has established Hong Kong firmly on the wine map, it’s also caused a spike in wine prices due to the avarice of those with bottomless pockets both in Hong Kong and the Mainland.

In the past, wine auctions sold bottles that were rare or hard to find, or were a great bargain for the buyer. Sadly, these days are now over as wine has become just another traded commodity used for investment and financial gain.

Take the recent Acker Merrall & Condit auction for example, which was held in Hong Kong earlier this month. The two-day event accumulated a total sales figure of HK$112.8 million – the highest total for any wine auction this year. What’s scary is not the volume of wine sold, or even the amount it sold for, but rather the labeling of these sales figures as ‘world records’. Records are there to be broken, but for that to happen the prices of fine vintages will have to increase. Want solid figures? The Antique Wine Company auctioned off a 1787 Château d’Yquem for HK$649,000 only to be ousted this year by a 1811 Château d’Yquem for HK$885,000. The buyers of these record-breaking bottles were either Asian or based in Asia.

What many people may not know about auctions is that there is a buyer’s premium on all prices at approximately 20 percent (some houses are higher, some lower). Thus, the price you see in the catalogue is simply an estimate made before the bidding begins, and once the gavel comes down you need to add that premium on top. At a recent auction I attended, a 2000 vintage of Vega Sicilia Unico, the legendary wine from Spain’s Ribera del Duero, sold for $3,600. It’s currently available from the Hong Kong wine market at just over $2,000. So unless you’re planning to find wines that are otherwise unobtainable on the market, there is really not a huge need to go to auctions to source your classic vino. Most current vintages are available from local suppliers and they’re almost always cheaper than those sold at auctions.

Don’t get me wrong, auctions are plenty of fun and a great experience to boot. However, make sure you do your research on the wines’ current market value before you bid, especially if you’re looking for the recent vintages of fine wines. Oh, and If you’re going to an auction to buy that special bottle of 1947 Cheval Blanc, expect to pay through the nose for it because everybody else will also have their eyes on the prize.

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