The winning bid was made via Internet to an unnamed European trade buyer, so it will be hard to wangle an invitation for the day the bottle is opened, assuming it isn’t just stored for another 100-200 years.
Just in case, here’s the per glass price: CHF5,287 for a one decilitre glass, something to keep in mind as the glass is raised.
Make that CHF529 per sip, if you work out 10 small sips to the deci. Here’s what you should get, according to Christie’s: “No label. Registered in the cellar book of Pierre Millet since 1774. Superb lightly ambered colour. Shrunk and fragile cork.” Also see my earlier article on this bottle.
I joined the bidders Tuesday in the lush auction room at Hotel des Bergues, but I didn’t carry a bidding card. There were only about 20 of us, with a bank of staff taking online and telephone bids.
I almost regretted my common sense in not picking up a card, as some of the wines were almost affordable. I briefly toyed with the idea of bidding on 15 lesser bottles of 1988 Bordeaux, with the group to be had for under CHF1,000, a steal compared to the winning bids my auction seat neighbour, an elegant blond gentleman, was paying for his numerous Château Lafite-Rothschilds.
Here’s what I would have bid on, thinking it was maybe in my budget: Château Pavie, vintage 1988 with levels of 8 base of neck and 1 top of shoulder. Château Cos d’Estournel, vintage 1988, three into neck and one base of neck. Château Ducru Beaucaillou, vintage 1988, 2 with levels base of neck.
The lot was estimated at CHF700-900. The level of the bottle matters when you’re calculating the price per sip. The condition of burgundies suffers less than Bordeaux wines from what is known as the change in “ullage”, or the space that isn’t filled (vindange in French) of a bottle over time.
My neighbour had a classier look than the retailers who also bid in Geneva to fill gaps in their store holdings. He was several levels upmarket from my fantasy budget.
A quiet lift of his card and the first Lafite-Rothschild, vintage 1982, went his way. A bit tatty, with a torn label and top-shoulder, but he got a deal: CHF2,400 for the one bottle, when the pre-sale estimate was CHF2,800-3,400. Nice.
Then he went on a roll, first with 12 bottles of Mouton-Rothschild 1988 for CHF3,000, then Lafite-Rothschild 2002, 6 magnums for CHF6,500 and 12 bottles for CHF7,000. Another CHF19,000 on 12bottles and 6 magnums of the 2003. After that I lost track of what he was spending. I decided it was too much for one man’s cellar, so he is probably a buyer who resells to private and corporate customers who feel safe getting big-name wines from him.
The most impressive sale of the day was a lot of 1945 Mouton-Rothschild that went for 2.5 times its estimated value: CHF161,000 rather than the pre-sale starting figure of CHF65,000.
An alternative, if we’re looking for expensive sips, is the 1921 Château Y’quem that went for a mere CHF25,300 for 3 bottles, which makes a sip about half the price of that of the 1774 vin jaune. Two of the bottles were recorked at the chateau in 1989 and the other in 1992.
Here is just part of the description from Michael Broadbent in 2006:
“Very pronounced warm amber; bouquet of soft toasted demarara sugar and coffee; medium-sweet, dry finish. Glorious. Most recently, probably the best-ever.” He then describes its beautiful appearance and returns to the aromas: “Its bouquet both easy and, in truth, difficult to do justice to; the anticipated crème brulé, old apricots, honeyed, whiff of caramel and unplumbable depth medium-sweet, drying out a little after 85 years, gloriously rich, intense and persistent flavour, perfecct sustaining acidity and lingering aftertaste. Sheer perfection.”
I do hope someone opens it and enjoys it soon.
Note: Christie’s in 2010 published an account of a day in the life of Michael Ganne, wine auctioneer, inspecting the wine cellar of a connaisseur in canton Valais, great fun to read.
There are two types of wine investors: those who buy wines they want to explore, and who set them aside for later when the sensory value will have increased, and those who buy, gambling that the price will rise neatly. The investors will either sell it or open the bottle when it is time to impress someone, a second business transaction.
“Wine Investment and the Financial Crisis”: plenty of money, little drinking
A research paper published in 2009 and updated in March 2010 by University of Fribourg economics professor Jean-Philippe Weisskopf and co-author Philippe Masset has been making the news around the world, but wine lovers should beware that it’s about the second group, the investors. “Raise your Glass: Wine Investment and the Financial Crisis” , reviews how wine auction prices performed from 1996-2009 in order to determine if wine was a better investment than shares during this period. They concluded that wine was indeed a good investment, confirming popular media reports: “Our findings show that the inclusion of wine in a portfolio and, especially more prestigious wines, increases the portfolio’s returns while reducing its risk, particularly during the financial crisis.”
The study covers a longer period than earlier ones and includes “two significant economic boom phases (1996-2001 and 2003-2007) as well as two major economic and financial crises (2001-2003 and 2007-2009).”
My initial reaction: this is bad news for lovers of fine wine, with investors driving prices so high that top wines are often unavailable to all but the very wealthy – who are not necessarily winelovers.
Australians take advantage of nuclear fallout
Brits and French prefer to shoot ion beams from particle accelerator
Update 17:35 Australian researchers have succeeded, after 11 years of research and several hundred bottles of wine, in coming up with a new carbon-dating method to check the real age of vintage wines. It’s not cheap, but the team that did the research at the University of Adelaide says fraud accounts for about five percent of all expensive vintage wines, and with auctions pushing up the prices to nearly undrinkabe levels, investors want to be sure they are not buying fakes.
One of the researchers, Graham Jones, reported the team’s findings at the American Chemical Society’s annual meeting in California Saturday 21 March.
Jones and his colleagues found that radioactive carbon dioxide produced from atomic bomb tests in the atmosphere absorbed by grapes can be used to accurately determine wine vintages. “The new technique is similar to radio-carbon dating, used for years to estimate the age of prehistoric objects.
“It works by comparing the amount of carbon-14 (C-14), a less common form of atmospheric carbon, to carbon-12 (C-12), which is more stable and abundant. The ratio of these two carbon forms, or isotopes, has remained constant in the atmosphere for thousands of years,” says the ACS in its press release.
C-12 and C-14 are, captured by grapevines when they absorb .
Jones told GenevaLunch that “the thrust behind the method is that it is different to carbon dating which relies upon radioactive decay of 14C. The bomb pulse method uses dilution of 14C and is much more accurate for the peroid specified.”
Jones told the ACS meeting that “until the late 1940s all carbon-14 in the Earth’s biosphere was produced by the interaction between cosmic rays and nitrogen in the upper atmosphere. This changed in the late 1940s, up to 1963 when atmospheric atomic explosions significantly increased the amount of C-14 in the atmosphere. When the tests stopped in 1963 a clock was set ticking – that of the dilution of this ‘bomb-pulse’ C-14 by CO2 formed by the burning of fossil fuels.”
He explains that traces of radioactive carbon are captured by the grape plants through the absorption of carbon dioxide and eventually transformed into alcohol and other carbon-based components of the wine. The “bomb-pulse” of the atmosphere is eventually absorbed into the wine.
“The year that the grapes were grown fixes the age or vintage of the wine,” Jones says. “The carbon-14 isotope ratio of the wine alcohol can therefore be used to determine the vintage of a wine.”
The researchers used an accelerator mass spectrometer to determine the C-14 levels in the alcohol components of 20 Australian red wines with vintages from 1958 to 1997. They then compared these measurements to the radioactivity levels of known atmospheric samples. They found that the method could reliably determine the vintage of wines to within the vintage year.
Jones argues that measuring the age of other wine components such as tartaric acid and some phenolic substances can help improve the reliability of the technique to detect fraud.
“Wine also is a reservoir of environmental data which will complement the results from trees,” the team said in 1999, when they began their research project. The initial results were publishedin 2004.
The university of Adelaide noted in a 1999 press release that “The scientists plan to extract that data from vintage wine series supplied by some of Australia’s leading producers.”
A tough job – all in the interest of science, of course.
The particle accelerator solution
Meanwhile a British firm, the Antique Wine Company in London, which specializes in costly vintage wines, teamed up in 2008 with the National Centre for Scientific Research in Bordeaux, France to develop a fraud-detection system that shoots ion beams from a particle accelerator, comparing the bottle tested with a baseline of wines from the same producer.
The business of wine authentication is clearly taking a scientific turn, which the particle accelerator specialists at Cern in Geneva might like to explore with nearby wine producers in France and Switzerland. Fortunately for those of us limited to checking the quality of our wines by tasting them, no one is yet turning up his nose at this traditional approach.