Forgive me for stating the obvious, but I always thought wine was for drinking. I’m not averse to a glass myself, although these days I actually prefer chilled mineral water, from a rather nice crystal tumbler, of course. And so I asked Bonhams, whose Fine and Rare Wine Sale takes place in October, which wines are currently fashionable, if indeed there are fashions in buying rare and fine wine? “Wines at auction do go in and out of fashion though the great names will feature in most sales,” says Jérôme Fouillade, a specialist in Bonhams’ wine department. “Burgundy, for example, has been very popular over recent years, driven by demand from Asia and by its scarcity in comparison with its great French rival Bordeaux. “The quantities of Burgundy produced each year are around one tenth of the size of Bordeaux-Château Lafite Rothschild might produce 20,000 to 25,000 cases (of 12 bottles) a year, while Domaine de la Romanée Conti, the most celebrated vineyard in Burgundy, produces around 500 cases a year. Since the beginning of 2016 demand for Bordeaux has definitely strengthened. “Bonhams’ February and April sales featured more than four hundred cases from the five vineyards which constitute the First Growths – ‘Premiers Crus’ in French – in the 1855 official classification of Bordeaux wines. These, which are regarded as the greatest clarets, are Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Latour, Château Margaux, Château Haut-Brion and Château Mouton Rothschild. The wines sold out in their entirety, most for above their high estimates. Champagne is also currently in demand, with interest at auction centring on mature vintages from houses such as Krug, Louis Roederer and Dom Pérignon.”
But does anyone buy the rare stuff actually for drinking or does it merely get laid down for posterity, never to be tasted and enjoyed? “People buy for a variety of reasons but in our experience the majority of clients do buy to drink or, if they are hoteliers and restaurant owners, they are buying for other people to
drink. There are people who buy to invest but they tend to do this on the advice of consultants and as part of a wider investment portfolio. We are always happy to discuss upcoming lots with collectors although we do not offer investment advice,” says Jérôme. How would we know if, say, Champagne from the reign of Queen Mary was still drinkable? “Champagne as we know it doesn’t go back that far, but there are a number of ways of determining how a wine is likely to taste at any given point of its life,” Jérôme tells me. “The vast majority of fine wines are subject to constant tasting by the producers and wine writers and there are a number of guides online and on paper. All great wines reach a peak before which they will be drinkable, but too young, and after which they will gradually start to deteriorate. However, there is a vast amount of information and advice for buyers/ drinkers and it is relatively straightforward to acquire a basic grounding,” he assures me. Some wines do have rather remarkable staying power! “In 2014 we sold a bottle of 1914 Pol Roger (Churchill’s favourite Champagne) which is legendary for its quality and longevity. Richard Harvey, Master of Wine, and the head of our department, tasted this and described it as having ‘a deep yellow colour, with honeyed aromas and a flavour of orange peel’. It’s very rich but still dry, remarkably fresh and alive for a 100-year-old wine,” says Jérôme.
Can he tell us more about some other highlyprized wines? “The wines of the Rhône valley, particularly Côte-Rôtie single vineyards from Guigal, Hermitage La Chapelle from Paul Jaboulet Aîné and Château Rayas from Châteauneufdu-Pape are always in demand. From Italy, leading growers in Piedmont such as Gaja and wines referred to as super Tuscans (usually made from Bordeaux grape varieties often blended with the indigenous Sangiovese) such as Sassicaia, Ornellaia, Masseto, Tignanello and Solaia have always sold for high prices. From Spain, sought after Vega Sicilia from Ribera del Duero has been joined by Pesquera and Pingus, and it is also worth noting Marqués de Riscal and Artadi from the Rioja region and L’Ermita from Priorat. “Outside Europe, the greatest demand for Californian wines remains in the US, sold in limited quantities to mailing lists on release. Among these wines are Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate, Shafer Hillside Select and Joseph Phelps Insignia. Australia is headlined by Henschke, as well as Penfolds, notably Grange (Shiraz or Syrah), but also Bin 707 and Block 42 Kalimna (both Cabernet Sauvignon): 12 handblown glass ampoules of the 2004 vintage from the latest wine were offered in 2012 retailed at around £100,000 each.”