At $3,200 a glass, Hong Kong tops wine world

But given the indulgent attitude of buyers at Hong Kong wine auctions, it is a fair bet that the collector who bought the case of burgundy for $232,000 has sampled his purchase.
The prices fetched at the Sotheby's October auction, including $93,000 for three double magnums of 1989 Petrus, crowned a year in which Hong Kong has conquered the world wine market.

"We will sell more wine in Hong Kong this year than we will in New York and London combined," said Robert Sleigh, Sotheby's head of wine for Asia.

More than 60 percent of the world's best wines are now bought by Asian collectors through Hong Kong auctions - and both auctions and auctioneers have moved to the city in response to the trend.

The most significant single factor driving the fine wine market to Hong Kong was the decision in 2008 to make wine tax-free which Sleigh described as "a huge stimulus and a very smart move".

Gregory de'Eb, principal of Crown Wine Cellars in Hong Kong, said the impact of abolishing tax on wine had been immense."It was an absolute masterstroke," he said. "It has placed us rightfully as number one on the rare fine wine map.

"If you go back to 2000, we already owned 15 percent of all rare fine wines in the world in Hong Kong. We were already the most prolific collectors of wine in the world back then. But we traded through New York, London and Paris," he said.

"Now suddenly Hong Kong, greater China and Taiwan account for 60 to 70 percent of the merchant's market and we've woken up and said 'Hang on, why are we trading through New York and London?' We realized we were old enough and ugly enough to run our own market."

De'Eb estimates that Hong Kong people now own 18 percent of all the world's rare and fine wines, and mainland Chinese buyers 3 to 4 percent.

"I have local Chinese university students who have bought their first cases of wine and keep them with us," he said. "I have 22-year-old personal assistants who have learnt from their bosses that a buck can be made out of wine collecting and that it's very romantic too."

David Elswood, London-based head of wine at Christie's, said the most refreshing aspect of people's passion for wines in Asia was their enthusiasm.

"It's a new market," he said. "In Europe, we have been spoilt for centuries. These wines have always been around.

"People in Europe and America are buying more for investment now. They say 'I used to be able to drink these wines but now I just buy for investment'. But you talk to the typical Asian buyer and they say 'Fantastic. I bought them, I drank them, I want some more'."

Wine is an aspirational product for Asian buyers, Elswood said. "You have the Rolex, Ferrari, Yves Saint Laurant, Gucci, and you have Chateau Lafite," he said.

"If you are wearing that watch or driving that car or serving that wine, it's an indication that you have arrived, and not only have you arrived but you understand what the right thing to buy is. Top wine names have become brands."

With such a deep-rooted appeal, it is impossible to forecast how long demand will continue to rise and how high prices might go, he said.

"We haven't seen any softening of the market yet. Demand has been extremely strong. The potential size of the market is huge."

For now, experts are thrilled to see Asia's new wine collectors savour their newfound passion. "Whatever you say about expensive wine - whether or not you think it's morally defensible - the fact is that it is for drinking," Elswood said.

"Whether you are paying $10 or $1,000 a bottle, ultimately, it is something that has to be enjoyed to be justified - and there is a lot more of that in Asia than there is in Europe and America at the moment."

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