Asian collectors fuel wine buying spree

By Leslie Gevirtz

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Wine collectors, particularly from Hong Kong, bought more than $200 million worth of fine wines at auction in the first half of 2011, nearly doubling the amount for the same period last year.

But while the buying opportunities have expanded, prices for individual bottles have stabilized.

"The rate of price growth has definitely slowed," said Jack Hibberd of Liv-ex, the indices of fine wines. "Lafite has certainly hit a plateau."

A case of Lafite Rothschild, depending on vintage and provenance, has been selling for $12,000 to $20,000 for the last five months, he said.

Christie's auction house sold $46.8 million of fine wines - many of them the top five growths known as Premier or Grand Crus - for the first half of the year -- a 125 percent increase in sales over the same period last year.

Sotheby's auctioned $53.1 million of wines during the same time period, which represented a 43 percent rise in volume year-on-year.

Buyers in Hong Kong bought more than half of the wine sold by both houses, toppling New York from its perch as the market leader.

"The market in Hong Kong is growing year after year. The pie is getting larger. There are more and more collectors," Charles Curtis, Christie's head of wines for Asia, said.

"More and more of the wines, which used to stay in Hong Kong, are now going to the mainland. There seems to be an insatiable thirst for wine in every corner."

Sotheby's Jamie Ritchie said the U.S. buyer had been the least price sensitive for 15 years.

"From '94 through mid-2008, New York was the leader. Now, it's someone else's turn," he explained.

Hart Davis Hart, the Chicago auction house, sold more than $23 million of Bordeaux and Burgundies in the first half of the year, up 45 percent from last year. New York's Acker Merrall & Condit reported selling $54 million and Bonham's said it sold almost $9 million in the first half.

Other auction houses, such as Zachy's and Spectrum, each reported selling at least $10 million worth of wines during the same period.

Looking ahead, Christie's Curtis predicted Asia would continue to dominate the market for the next 20 years at least.

"Now, they are looking for older vintages and DRC," he said referring to Domaine Romanee-Conti, considered Burgundy's top wine.

Ritchie said he was not anticipating any sharp price increases and Jeremy Howard, a former equities researcher who now runs the UK online retailer Slurp, described last year's prices as "unsustainable."

"If I thought there was some speculation or a huge amount of inventory building up, I'd be more cautious, but most of the information we're getting is that Lafite and Latour are still being drunk with gay abandon," he said.

Chateau Lafite produces between 15,000 and 18,000 cases a year.

"I don't really see a major price correction in the offing," he added.

(Reporting by Leslie Gevirtz; editing by Patricia)

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