Despite there not being much good news to raise a glass to at the moment, Champagne is holding its own at auction, with prestige cuvées flourishing and grower-producers becoming increasingly popular.
2020 has been a rollercoaster year for Champagne. With little in the way of cause for celebration, the sector had a difficult start to the year, the beginning of lockdown being an especially tough period for exports.
Such was the withering of global demand that Champagne growers and houses agreed on a sharp cut to the annual grape harvest. But a strong summer testifies to a market made dynamic by continued demand from consumers worldwide.
Champagne’s positioning as synonymous with luxury – as well as significant market demand – is one of the reasons for which this notoriously expensive fizz commands such higher prices than other sparkling wines, as well as the region’s variable climate and its time-intensive production method. The auction market for Champagne continues to be highly dynamic, driven by the ability of a select few major Champagne houses to command elevated prices despite less than favourable economic conditions.
The most desirable Champagnes are undoubtedly the ‘cuvée prestige’, a house’s top cuvée. The region’s finest Champagne houses are steeped in history, and each prestige cuvée is inextricably linked to their individual stories. Therein lies the attraction for these highly prized releases. Contributing factors include the rarity and age of a Champagne; in many cases these go hand in hand.
Vintage Champagnes are even rarer than still wines, because only the best grapes are used to produce them; the rest of the production is used to produce the non-vintage cuvées. Landmark years or vintages of the century are particularly sought after. The most expensive Champagne to be auctioned in 2020 so far was a bottle of Dom Pérignon Rosé 1959, the first vintage of this Dom Pérignon cuvée ever produced, of which only 300 bottles are thought to have been made. It sold for €5,526 (£4,936).
Finally, large format bottles are highly coveted, owing, once again, to their rarity. Thus, when a highly prestigious cuvée in a very old vintage or large format bottle is sold at auction, it almost unfailingly realises several thousand euros, the kind of price only seen in Burgundy, with certain spirits, or old, prestigious Bordeaux releases.
The most traded Champagne of the year at iDealwine
was Dom Pérignon: 215 bottles, totalling over €57,000. Having gone down in history as the man who “invented” Champagne, 17th century Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon sold the brand name to Moët & Chandon, which used it as the name for its prestige cuvée, first released in 1937. The Grandes Marques dominate our rankings of the most expensive champagnes to sell at auction in 2020: Moët & Chandon, Krug, Bollinger, Salon and Louis Roederer.
Established in 1843, Krug specialises in producing only prestige Champagnes, all of which are rested in small oak casks, an essential element that contributes to Krug’s intense and complex bouquet. This year, its top-selling wine was a magnum of Krug Collection 1979, which reached €5,250. Bollinger’s extraordinary Vieilles Vignes Françaises cuvée, an incredibly delicate wine, almost lacy, is produced from the only vines in the region not destroyed by phylloxera. To many wine enthusiasts, this auction bestseller serves as a symbol of a bygone era. A bottle of the 1990 vintage sold this year for €1,474, a price that the cuvée has consistently reached in recent years.
Salon, a tiny house on the Côte des Blancs, produces minuscule amounts of Champagne (around 50,000 bottles a year, if at all) from 40-year-old vines in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. Since its first vintage in 1905, the incredibly rare cuvée ‘S’ has only been commercially released in 41 vintages. Highly sought after by overseas Champagne lovers – 80% of sales are generated outside France – all vintages are steadily increasing in value. A magnum of the 1985 vintage went under the hammer for €1,351 this year, while the 1959 vintage has seen a dramatic price increase: currently priced at €4,134, it has doubled in value in just two years. Louis Roederer’s Cristal completes the list. Created in 1876 at the request of Alexander II, it is one of the most luscious, deeply flavoured Champagnes available.
The Champagne auction market is dominated by a handful of houses and their top cuvées. But the share of grower-producer Champagnes doing well at auction is increasing every year, following in the footsteps of the iconic domaine Jacques Selosse. Widely regarded as one of the most fascinating winemakers at work in Champagne today – thanks in part to the unique solera system used for some of the Champagnes – Selosse employs a Burgundian philosophy in the chai, vinifying all of his plots separately in small Burgundian barrels sourced from Domaine Leflaive.
Selosse strives for extreme ripeness of fruit, harvesting grapes as late as possible, and eschews malolactic fermentation, resulting in beautiful balance in all his cuvées. Dosage is kept low. His Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs was the fifth most expensive Champagne sold at auction this year so far, reaching over €1,200 a bottle.
Other overachieving grower Champagnes often features similar characteristics. Farmers before winemakers, their philosophy embraces biodynamics, and they eschew blending, bottling more from single harvests. Releases from Billecart-Salmon, Pierre Péters and David Léclapart are incredibly sought-after. Léclapart’s cuvée l’Apôtre, a blanc de blancs produced from very old vines aged for 30 months in the bottle on lees, went under the hammer for €442.
Other grower producers that have been attracting interest at auction include: Egly-Ouriet (Brut Grand Cru 2008: €295, up by 60%); Pol Roger (Winston Churchill 2002: €282); De Sousa (Cuvée des Caudalies 2008: €147, +11%); Jacquesson (Dizy Terres Rouges); Boulard (Les Rachais); and Bérêche (Reflet d’Antan).
While grower-producer releases aren’t commanding prices comparable with that of the top houses, demand is becoming increasingly pronounced as many gain international recognition and oenophiles’ tastes evolve. For now, what’s certain is that the Grandes Marques are thriving, and that isn’t going to end anytime soon.
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