Top 10 Most Interesting, Expensive Wines In The World
When talking about the most expensive wines in the world, it is a little hard to be precise about prices. Bottle sizes can be wildly different, and even non-standard for very old vintages, like the 1787 Château Lafite bottle initialed by Thomas Jefferson.
Collectors of high-priced wines seem to pursue them mostly for the delight of owning them, not so much for drinking them. It reminds you of other collectors (of stamps, for instance) and the way they treat their prizes. It’s the rarity and perceived interest value that makes the prices so high, even when the original drinking value is long gone, again as with Jefferson’s Château Lafite.
We were going to tell you all about the most expensive wines, but we had too much difficulty in comparing prices and resolving discrepancies in reported values. So instead, here are ten of the most interesting super-expensive wines. Get ready for your eyes to pop and your jaw to hit the floor, sometimes at the prices, other times at the stories. We begin with Jefferson’s Château Lafite.
1787 Château Lafite: $160,000
Thomas Jefferson traveled in France in 1787, and over a five-day period toured the major vineyards in Bordeaux. A little-known result of his intelligence was a selection of the four wines most likely to achieve excellence in the future. It turns out that all four of his picks were correct, and one of them was the Château Lafite. He took some bottles back home with him and became a lifelong customer, and after he died his collection still contained at least one bottle of Lafite, engraved with his initials.
Almost 200 years later, that bottle together with others of his collection was discovered behind a basement wall. Put up for auction in 1985, the Château Lafite fetched $160,000 (at least $315,000 after inflation now) and went to Malcolm Forbes. The next stage in the bottle’s history then ensued. It was already doubtful whether the wine was drinkable any more, but that question soon became moot. Displayed under bright lights, the cork heated up and dried out, and the resulting shrinkage allowed it to slip into the wine. At that point, it became extremely important that the bottle had been purchased as a collector’s item and not for consumption.
That fact is fortunate because it’s the only reason that the Jefferson 1787 Château Lafite is still one of the world’s most expensive wines, regardless of the nature of its contents.
1787 Château Margaux: $519,750
Actually, that price is one of the more interesting points about this wine. The fact is that nobody ever paid that amount. The 1787 Château Margaux was another one of the wines from Jefferson’s collection, and had been presented to the New York wine merchant William Sokolin. While coming up with a value for it he happened to see a dilapidated stool that was priced at over $200,000, and on impulse decided that he might as well set a wild price for his wine. He also insured it for $225,000 in 1989 dollars, or $390,000 now, after inflation.
Soon after pricing the bottle, Sokolin was attending a dinner at the Four Seasons restaurant at which the guests of honor were the actual owners of Château Margaux. He suddenly had the idea of showing them his bottle, so he ran home and came back with it, and then rammed it into either a table or a chair arm. The bottle somehow survived without shattering, but even so it was holed. The wine inside began running out, and then Sokolin began running out. He did save part of the wine in his freezer at home, but the value of the bottle nevertheless dropped precipitately. At least he recouped the insurance value.
1907 Piper Heidsieck Monopole: $275,000
There is a certain amount of romance behind the story of this wine. One of the last shipments of wine to the Tsar’s family, including bottles of 1907 Heidsieck, was in the cargo of the ship Jonkoping bound for Finland. The Jonkoping encountered a German submarine and was sunk on November 3, 1916, taking with it the wine shipment. It was soon forgotten and lay on the seabed for 80 years until it was discovered in 1997.
When the wines were found, there was instant interest. Nobody was much surprised to find that the burgundies and cognacs had not survived. Against the odds, however, the Heidsieck champagne was still drinkable. In fact, it had fully matured and was delicious. The Moscow Ritz Carlton quickly procured a number of the bottles of Heidsieck and announced that ten were for sale. You sometimes find their price listed as given above. That price would be wrong, though. The real price is $35,000. According to a hotel representative, there was some miscommunication outside of the hotel’s control.
$35,000 is still a hefty sum for a bottle of even Imperial champagne, you may be thinking. It’s true: the value is partly in the legend behind the bottles’ preservation, like a time capsule from an earlier world. We are clearly not just hard-nosed buyers and sellers – we do like a bit of sentiment as well.
1869 Château Lafite: $233,972
What makes the 1869 Château Lafite so valuable is a combination of four factors: the basic quality of the wine, its provenance traceable back directly to the château, the fact that it is a rare vintage predating the phylloxera epidemic that decimated European vines, and last but not least a mania for Château Lafite in eastern Asia. When an auction house in Hong Kong included the bottle in its sale, everyone expected it to bring perhaps $8000.
Much to their surprise, the bidding continued until it was knocked down for $233,972 to a phone bidder. Unlike most of the wines in our list, this price was for a modern standard-sized bottle of only 750 ml. The auction house owner herself thought the price was “ridiculous”, but didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Given the popularity of Château Lafite in East Asia, who knows what pricing surprises the future holds?
Château Lafite Rothschild Pauillac: around $1300
Just as a note of interest, we thought we’d share how Château Lafite, whose name keeps appearing whenever expensive wines are mentioned, got to be so classy. “Classy”, it turns out, is exactly the word you need to describe it. It seems that the French statesman Maréchal de Richelieu was being sent on a mission abroad, and had a doctor’s examination before leaving. The prescription was for a health tonic, namely (you guessed it) Château Lafite!
Richelieu dutifully indulged, and next time he was in the royal palace, King Louis XV exclaimed, “You look 25 years younger than last time I saw you!” To which Richelieu replied, “I have discovered a drink as fine as the ambrosia of Olympus!” The King took up the tonic himself, and Château Lafite thenceforward was known as the “King’s wine”. Pretty high-class, no?
Lafite was managed by the Ségur family from the 17th century, but in the 1800s it passed through several hands, among them a man named Jean Goll de Franckenstein. In 1868, it was purchased by the Rothschild family (yes, the rich one), which is now memorialized in the name. World War II saw some depletion of the ancient holdings in the cellars due to a German garrison stationed there. Since that time, things have been better, and the label maintains its mystique.
1947 Château Cheval Blanc: $304,375
If there is any proof needed for the notion that chance plays a big part in success, you will find it here. After World War II was over, from 1945 to 1949, French wines experienced several amazing vintages. The best of all is probably the 1947 Château Cheval Blanc.
1947 was a terribly hot year. It killed vines, reduced yields, and in many cases even stopped fermentation in the normally-cool cellars. The maker of the Cheval Blanc saw his fermentation about to be “stuck” and ruined, so he added ice to the tanks, trading off some dilution for the chance to save his wine. His numbers were not good: 3 grams per liter of sugar, high acidity, and 14.4% alcohol. By all conventional wisdom, the wine should have turned out almost undrinkable.
Instead it developed into a unique and wonderful taste. It is as sweet as port, thick as oil, profound and miraculous. All critics agree it is perfect or so close that we can’t tell the difference. Yet it came about through impossible weather and cellar conditions, sporting what should have been fatal defects. Some oenologists conclude that they should reconsider everything they know. Others attempt to explain it away. We think that it just proves that we don’t know everything we think we do.
2004 Block 42: $168,000
We thought this wine’s packaging was amazing enough to warrant including in the list. The most expensive wine in the world that is sold straight from the winery, 2004 Block 42 is presented in a large sealed glass ampoule with no cork or mouth. The ampoule is once again encased in a glass sculpture, itself set in an artistically-designed box with double doors. If you do manage to scrape together the $168,000 to purchase this one, you will be given a private opening ceremony including special glass-cutting instruments to make sure your wine has no shards of the glass ampoule when it’s time to take your first sip. In addition, you get the cachet of a designer name on the glass sculpture that the wine came in.
1811 Château d’Yquem: $117,000
Now for a touch of outer space. 1811 was the Year of the Comet, when the Flaugergues Comet passed close to the Earth. The vintages of that year are sometimes known as the Comet Vintages. This is one of them.
That is not the only special point about this wine. It is a Château d’Yquem, which enjoys a combination of residual sugar and high acidity that help to preserve it and enable it, unlike almost all white wines, to age forever but keep its quality. The 1811 vintage is still drinkable.
The third thing that makes this wine special is the price which a bottle of it fetched when it was sold to Christian Vanneque, a former sommelier, for $117,000. He has good taste, because it is said to be one of the best wines ever made, rated 100 by more than one critic.
Mr. Vanneque is very clear about his reason for buying the 1811 Château d’Yquem. Whereas most collectors think of their collections as akin to a treasure hoard, he actually intends to drink this particular wine. His plan is to open it in 2017, the 50th year of his career. We think he has good taste for more than one reason.
Romanée Conti 1945: $123,900
Another pre-phylloxera wine, the Romanée Conti 1945 was produced during World War II. It’s very rare, as only 600 bottles were ever made. That might help explain the amazing price it brought – the highest price ever at auction for a standard-sized 750 ml Burgundy. Or perhaps it’s the knowledge that it was the last harvest ever from vines unaffected by phylloxera. Every vine in the vineyard was uprooted during 1946, marking the end of centuries of tradition. It was not until 1952 that the vineyard produced wine again.
Massandra 1775: $43,500
Hailing from the Ukraine, before the 1920’s Massandra wines were justly famous, dating back many generations. Massandra is the Ukraine’s oldest winery, and is located in a protected area surrounded by mountains but blessed with a warm climate that has led to many excellent vintages. The Massandra 1775 Sherry sold at Sotheby’s is the oldest bottle from Massandra so far.
Traditionally, the winery keeps one or more bottles of each wine that it produces, making it a treasure-house of centuries of wines. In addition, when the Soviets conquered the Crimea, Stalin ordered the winery to be left untouched. Later he had the Tsar’s wine collections transported to the Massandra cellars. Together with the unusual architecture of the cellars, this fabulous trove of more than a million wines is a draw for wine-wise tourists in the know.
We hope you enjoyed this little tour. If your wine doesn’t have quite the pedigree of some of these, don’t worry. Most of the older wines are undrinkable, anyway.
Furthermore, as one wine writer discovered on tasting the 1947 Château Cheval Blanc, sometimes it’s better not to experience perfection. He said that from now on, all other wines will seem inferior.
Perhaps these wines should always stay out of reach for most of us, a kind of pole star to keep us moving but never to be attained. You’ll have to decide that question for yourself.
Meanwhile, enjoy the wines you do have!