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Wine auctions have gone through a period of explosive growth in the past 20 years, turning what was once a connoisseur’s backwater to a bustling international marketplace.
Before 1994, wine auctions were illegal in New York. When the laws changed, the city became the hub of the world’s wine trade, taking over from the longtime center, London—that is, until Hong Kong overtook them both.
A typical sale at one of the top auction houses includes a glittering array of valuable wines, with a focus on France—Bordeaux and Burgundy in particular, but also Champagne and the Rhone—with limited stops in Italy, California, and Spain. And most of those wines are red.
Generally, only 5–15 percent of wines that make it to the auction block are white. There are many factors for this, from the longevity of red wines to collector habits and preferences developed over centuries.
But the limited palette of options actually creates opportunities for collectors to take advantage of quirks in the market to score fantastic, historic, and long-lived white wines. With spring in full swing and summer close behind, it’s the perfect time to analyze the landscape of whites at auction.
“It’s fair assessment to say that about half of the whites we sell are White Burgundy,” says Per Holmberg, head of the wine department at Christie’s New York. Made from Chardonnay, white Burgundies comprise one of the pinnacles of white wine expression, and collectors flock to a few domaines, as they call producers, in particular: Romanée-Conti, Raveneau, Leflaive, Drouhin, Coche-Dury, and Lafon. The most traded vintages include 1990 (a historic vintage that often brings the highest prices), 1996, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2006, and 2009.
Burgundy is all about terroir, so prices depends on what area and what specific vineyard you’re talking about. The average recent price at Christie’s (since January 2014) for a bottle of Comtes Lafon Meursault Charmes 2001 is just $150, but for Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet—from the top domaine in Burgundy and the world’s undisputed No. 1 white wine vineyard—the average is a whopping $3,000 a bottle.
Because of a problem known as “pre-mox”—premature oxidization, which can severely harm taste—drinkers have been moving to younger vintages in recent years. “It has made some buyers hesitant,” says Holmberg. “But people are drinking younger and fresher anyway.”
And if you can’t afford these wines, dry and flinty Chablis—technically a white Burgundy, too, just from a separate sub-section—appears at auction as well, generally at a lower price point.
This is a market dominated by three wines: Chateau Haut Brion Blanc, Chateau La Mission Haut Brion Blanc, and Domaine de Chevalier Blanc, all made from a blend of the grapes Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc.
“The production levels are small for white Bordeaux, and there's not much volume,” says Jamie Ritchie, the head of Sotheby’s wine department for North America and Asia. But they are delicious and can be quite long-lived; it qualifies as an under-the-radar category, since most people outside of the wine world don’t even realize that Bordeaux can be white. Try a good but less famous vintage to get a taste of this unique wine: the 2000 vintage has averaged $450 a bottle at Christie’s.
This wine is permanently the Cinderella of the auction market—ignored by too many, and rewarding to those who can see past outside appearances (in this case, indecipherable labels in Gothic script). The collectible Rieslings are generally sweet to very sweet, since those have always been the most sought-after and praised in the German taste tradition—plus, the sugar also acts as a preservative.
But people are even less interested in them than before. “It has to do with how we’re eating and drinking these days, sugar is the enemy,” says Holmberg. That means there are absurd bargains: JJ Prum Wehlner Sonnenuhr Auslese 1990 for $90 a bottle, and Egon Muller Scharzhofberger Spatlese 1990 for $100 a bottle, both at Christie’s. These are fantastic wines that will make you rethink your bias about sweetness in the glass.
This is a small market centered on producers like Marcassin, Sine Qua Non, and Kistler. Generally the trade is in vintages 15 years and younger—the Sine Qua Non The Petition 2005 goes for around $200 a bottle—except for historic vintages like Chateau Montelena 1973, which can fetch $1,500 a bottle since it was included in the famous Judgment of Paris tasting that put California on par with France. Remember that these wines are easily accessible in their younger vintages in various places online: The Chardonnays from producer Peter Michael can be found for $100–$200.
A New Player: Madeira
The Portuguese fortified wine has never exactly been thought of as an auction star, but according to Holmberg, “The hottest thing for us right now is Madeira.” At a Christie's sale in December, three centuries of Madeira were on offer, with one bottle setting the world record for the varietal: $26,950 for a 1715 Terrantez.
It wasn’t a fluke. In March, the house sold all 20 lots of Madeira it made available, ranging from 1790 to 1954. The top lot was 12 bottles of d’Olivieras Bastardo Reserva 1927, which sold for $4,288.
As you can see from these prices, don’t be afraid to think old, old, old with these fortified wines, as long as they have been well-stored. “We had a lot of bidding wars, people were really excited about it,” says Holmberg. And in the fairly stable, small world of white wines at auction, that’s big news.