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Record year for rare wines and spirits sales at Sotheby’s

Sotheby’s wine and spirits auction sales hit a new high last year, boosted by a host of single owner events, growing interest in rare spirits, and the company’s first Hospices de Beaune auction.

The 161st Hospices de Beaune Sale achieved a record amount (image, courtesy of Sotheby’s, picture credit: Micha Patault)

According to the newly released Sotheby’s Wine & Spirits Market Report 2021, the company’s 53 sales netted a record total of US$132m, up 44% on Covid-affected 2020, and 12% ahead of 2019.

“This growth was spearheaded by opening wine and spirits auctions in France, as well as innovative sales and partnerships including Hospices de Beaune, Distiller’s One of One, and Tea Treasures,” Sotheby’s said.

There were 19 single owner sales, with receipts totalling $75m, or a 57% share of global sales – the fourth year in a row that single owner sales accounted for the majority of Sotheby’s receipts, with 2021 auctions involving the likes of Château Mouton Rothschild, Châteaux Rauzan-Ségla and Canon, Ornellaia and Seña.

Perhaps the most notable feature of the 2021 auction season was the continued decline in the share of sales taken by Bordeaux – partly as a result of the greater breadth and diversity now present in the fine wine and spirits universe. In 2016, Bordeaux accounted for 62% of Sotheby’s auction sales, but last year its share had declined to 22%, far behind Burgundy’s 46% (up from 26% in 2016).

Burgundy dominated the top 10 producers list, taking the top four spots with Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC), Hospices de Beaune, Henri Jayer and Leroy/d’Auvenay. The region’s sales were boosted by the 161st Hospices de Beaune auction, over which Sotheby’s presided for the first time as part of a five-year partnership.

Hospices de Beaune pushed DRC hard to retain its spot as best-selling producer, with receipts totalling $15.2m (behind DRC’s $16.4m). DRC was boosted by the sale of a methuselah of DRC Romanée Conti 2000 in Beaune for $404,600.

Meanwhile, Bordeaux also took four spots in the producer top 10, with Petrus in fifth place, ahead of Château Haut-Brion (sixth), Château Mouton Rothschild (eighth) and Château Lafite (ninth).

Significant role for spirits

The increasingly significant role played by rare spirits in the auction world was illustrated again by the presence of The Macallan single malt (seventh place in the rankings, with sales of nearly $3m), and of Chinese baijiu producer Kweichow Moutai (10th), following the $1.4m sale of 24 bottles of “Sun Flower” Kweichow Moutai 1974 in London – the highest-grossing baijiu lot in history outside China.

Other notable spirits auctions during the year included the sale of four bottles of Glenfiddich “The 1950s Collection”, which fetched $1.4m in Edinburgh, and the Distiller’s One of One charity auction – a sale of one-off whiskies conducted in association with The Worshipful Company of Distillers at Barnbougle Castle, near Edinburgh, which raised £1.4m for disadvantaged young people in Scotland.

Overall spirits sales rose from $15m in 2020 to $22m in 2021, but their share fell from 19% to 16% thanks to the extra $15m netted by the Hospices de Beaune auction.

The breadth and depth of individual regions is illustrated by the proportion of sales taken by the top 10 producers in each: while Burgundy, Champagne and the Rhône are relatively narrow (their top 10 producers accounting for 94%, 94% and 93% of sales respectively), Bordeaux’s top 10 domaines took a 77% share, and the figure was only 72% for the US, and 74% for spirits. Sales for the Rhône were boosted by a centenary cellar direct auction of Paul Jaboulet Aîné Hermitage La Chapelle in London.

Asian collectors continue to drive much of the auction market, accounting for 52% of wine sales in 2021. However, this figure was down from 65% in 2020, thanks to the Hospices de Beaune auction, which boosted the share taken by Europe, the Middle East & Africa (EMEA) from 18% to 30%.

It was a similar story in spirits, where Asian buyers accounted for 51% of global sales, down from 77% in 2020. EMEA buyers increased their share to 26%, and the Americas to 22% – as a result of sales such as the Thoroughbred Collection (devoted to American whiskeys) and the Distiller’s One of One auction. However, buyers in Hong Kong and China spent $8.6m on rare spirits in 2021 – equal to the US, UK and the rest of Europe combined.

“Hong Kong, USA and UK buyers accounted for 57% of auction sales in 2021,” Sotheby’s said. “Partially due to the lifting of the 25% tariffs on French wine, we saw the USA share of buyers bounce back and become stronger in 2021. In addition, our French buyer base strengthened and increased as the Hospices de Beaune auction was introduced this year.”

The auction house was also encouraged by signs of a younger demographic taking an interest in rare wines and spirits: 37% of new buyers in 2021 were under the age of 40, boding well for the future.

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