“A dramatic sale, with prices much higher than expected thanks to new interest from Asia” — that was the comment by John Kapon, chairman of the Acker Merrall & Condit auction house in New York, after selling 3 magnums of Krug 1988 vintage Champagne for $8,028 (and another lot of Jacques Selosse 2002 for $6,175 on September 11, 2017.)
“With mainly Chinese buyers accounting for over 40 percent of the September sale, it is clear that demand in Asia is as strong as ever, arguably the strongest in the market this year,” Kapon said.
Demand for vintage Champagne at auction has, in fact, been growing around the world in recent years. Not only has very old wine been rising rapidly in price, but newer offerings, including a recent trend for “multi-vintage” Champagnes is on its way.
“For a long time, most of the market for vintage Champagne was limited to the UK and the US,” said Richard Harvey, senior international director, Fine & Rare Wines, Bonhams. “The UK was the leader; in fact, a taste for vintage Champagne was referred to as ‘le gout anglais’ (‘English taste’). But in the past few years, demand has risen from Russia, much of Europe, all around the globe.”
For Champagne expert and publisher of BestChampagne.fr, Eric Tirabassi, this is all part of the overall shift by the market from a focus on Bordeaux to other major wines. “We first saw a shift in Asian auction buyers’ interest to Burgundy, and since that move it has reached a much more eclectic stage which includes vintage Champagne. This explains why prices have been moving higher for even recent vintages at sales in both Hong Kong and in New York.”
Part of the reason for the new demand is that vintage Champagne seems to be ageless. In 2010, 145 bottles nearly 200 years old were found on a shipwreck near Aland, Finland. One from Veuve Cliquot broke open, and was rushed to a local sommelier named Ella Grüssner Cromwell-Morgan.
She was quoted as saying: “The aroma of the wine is of mature fruit, with yellow raisin tones and a considerable hint of tobacco. Though it was so incredibly old, there was a freshness about the wine. It wasn’t at all stiff, but rather had a clear acidity backing up its sweetness. Finally, an extremely clear flavor of oak cask storage.”
Stephen Mould, a senior director at Sotheby’s who is head of Europe Wine, said Champagne has a tendency to age well. “Vintage Champagne has the characteristics to age in the bottle for a very long time. The result is a wine that is less fizzy and has more sweetness than today’s Champagne, but it boasts an amazing complexity of nose and taste, with a perfect balance of acidity.”
As Mould explained, buyers aren’t just spending more for vintage Champagne to collect it. “Many acquire it to drink on a special occasion — it really is the ultimate celebratory drink.” This helps us to understand why the first auction of the shipwreck wines were such a success. The sale took place at Mariehamn, and was Finland’s first Champagne auction in 2011, run by Acker Merrall & Condit. There were 15 items from the Veuve Clicquot cellars in addition to the two bottles of Champagne from the wreck.
The Veuve Clicquot Champagne, dating back to about 1841, went for 30,000 euros, or about $35,000, setting a new world record (The previous record, set in 2008, was 28,000 euros for a bottle of 1959 Dom Perignon Rosé. A bottle of Juglar vintage Champagne fetched 24,000 euros.)
Importance of Provenance
Kapon called the auction “historic,” and it certainly set a precedent for a series of dramatic exceptionally-rare-Champagne sales that continues to this day.
For example, on September 29, 2014, Bonham’s sold a Pol Roger 1914 vintage for more than 5,000 pounds, or about $6,600, in London. Made at the start of World War I, Maurice Pol Roger famously observed, that the vintage was “harvested to the sound of gunfire but to be drunk to the sound of trumpets.” Some of the grapes were picked earlier than usual because of increasing hostilities, Pol Roger said at the time.
Harvey of Bonham’s described the wine as “very rich but still dry, remarkably fresh and alive for a 100-year-old wine, with a complex nose and deep, nutty flavor.”
“The century-old wine was highly valued because its provenance was exact,” Harvey explained. “The bottle came from a previously forgotten corner of the Champagne house’s cellars, and that ensures that storage over the many years has been perfect. This is a critical factor in rare vintage Champagne sales, and one that buyers are clearly looking for.”
This was born out in a sale on November 19, 2016, for example, when Sotheby’s sold a historic bottle of 1914 Bollinger (Lot 40) for $12,250. In 2010, an employee taking an inventory of Bollinger's cellars stumbled across a forgotten room filled with 600 bottles from the early 20th century.
“The certain provenance gave the wine a very high value,” Mould said. “Aged vintage Bollinger offers rich and complex aromas and layers of biscuity taste.”
One would think that the supply of such Champagne would be limited, Tirabassi noted, and in fact there will not be vast quantities of wine as old as the Bollinger and Pol Roger.
“But the ability to establish perfect provenance, and thus a high value for the vintage Champagnes has set every Champagne house into searching the nooks and crannies of its cellars,” he said. “We should expect to see much of the later, great vintages at auction, like the 1979 and 2008, of which there still is plenty in stock,” Tirabassi added.
For example, at Charles Heidsieck, now owned by the French luxury firm EPI, sales are expected for some of the old Champagne Charlie from five vintages, ’79, ’81, ’82, ’83 and ’85, and this will be released for direct sale, under an oenoteque concept in very small quantities, as well as sold at auction, according to Stephen Leroux, director of Charles Heidsieck. One which may be expected to reach a high price is the Royal Wedding Cuvée that the house released to celebrate the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in July 1981.
Heidsieck is planning with Christie’s a December auction of a range of bottles from the cellars of Charles Heidsieck — an unusual offering of wines from all five of the “Champagne Charlie” special cuvee vintages dating to 1979 and its Cuvee Royale from as far back as 1966.
“Champagne Charlie was one of the world’s favorite Champagnes, until the house stopped producing it about 10 years ago,” explains Christie’s Senior Wine Specialist Tim Triptree. “The house is going to start producing it again, but we can already begin selling the great vintages that Heidsieck has in its cellar. These sales with perfect provenance can be expected to attract premium prices, particularly as the buyer is guaranteed that the bottles are in superb condition.”
Vintage Versus Multi Vintage
Vintage Champagne costs much less on the secondary market because provenance and storage conditions can’t be guaranteed, even though the quality of the wine can.
By definition, a vintage Champagne, or “millésimé,” designates a year in which the harvest and quality of the grapes was exceptional. This year is expected to be such an occasion — at least, such is the word from the vineyards as the grapes were picked 15 days earlier than normal. Champagne grapes must be harvested by hand, such is the rule for a wine to bear the name.
Almost all Champagne is made from a blend of different grapes from a number of vineyards. The object is to choose those with the best quality. Most Champagne is made from a blend of red and white grapes, Chardonnay, the red Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier. The more delicate Blanc de Blancs Champagne is made only from white grapes.
What further distinguishes Champagne is, of course, the famous “methode champenoise.” First, still wines are selected from many different years and places, although all are from within the Champagne region, a great circle around the city of Rheims in northern France. The blends are then bottled and put on rack to age. A mixture of wine, sugar and yeast is added to each bottle, and a crown cap is put on the bottle. The bottles are then stored horizontally and the second fermentation begins when the yeast slowly converts the sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide.
Through a process called disgorgement, the spent yeast cells are removed from the bottle. The neck of each bottle is gently dipped into a freezing solution, causing the yeast cells to freeze together. The crown cap is then released from the bottle and the internal pressure expels the frozen sediment, along with a small amount of wine. The small amount of wine lost through disgorgement is then replaced with a “dosage,” or a small amount of still wine with a particular level of sweetness. The amount of sweetness in that still wine determines the overall sweetness of the wine and will dictate how it will be labeled for the consumer, such as with the terms Extra Brut (very dry), Brut (dry), Sec (slightly sweet), or Demi Sec (very sweet).
Non-vintage Champagne is produced without a year, for the obvious reason that still wines from a variety of years will be used to produce a Champagne that exemplifies the house style. When the grapes are good enough from a single year to make a vintage Champagne, the year is printed on the bottle.
In recent years, the Champagne houses have also been producing a “multi-vintage” Champagne. Some of the houses, like Krug, have done this for a long time, and the Krug “Grande Cuvée” which is fetching close to $1,300 a bottle these days at auction.
The jury is still out on how multi-vintage Champagnes will fare at auction in the future.
“But the future is more with vintage than with multi-vintage,” said Tirabassi. “The character of a vintage Champagne is more clearly demarcated than that of a multi-vintage.”
Others, like Sotheby’s Mould, see a growing appreciation coming for multi-vintages. Certainly nearly every major house has one on offer, so time will tell.
This article appeared in the current issue of BlouinSHOP magazine.