THE Great Elysee Cellar Sell-off last month infuriated many French oenophiles, who viewed President Francois Hollande's budget-conscious move as a gratuitous act of national sabotage. But the successful disposal of a tenth of the presidential collection (some 1,200 bottles for €718,000, more than double pre-sale estimates) has been a fillip to the wine trade which, after a decidedly groggy two-year hangover, has been pinning its hopes on a return to form in 2013.
Fine wine has traditionally been a fairly stable, low-risk investment class, reliably delivering non-spectacular annual returns. There were good and bad years; but the market had evolved a natural rhythm that smoothed them out.
Then, an explosion of interest from deep-pocketed Asian buyers put fine wine prices on speed. By 2010, prices of the five great "premier cru" (first growth) red wines of the Bordeaux – Châteaux Lafite, Mouton, Latour, Margaux and Haut-Brion – had risen by twelve fold in a decade. Having achieved near-mythical status in China, Lafite in particular went through the roof.
Wine investment used to be relatively straightforward: the easiest profits were always to be had from buying the best Bordeaux and Burgundy reds (which still comprise 95 per cent of the fine wine market) "en primeur" – ie when still in the cask – and then sitting on it. Basic laws of supply and demand dictated that, unless the vintage was a real dog, prices invariably rose as more was drunk and the quality improved.
But many in the trade think that the Bordelais producers are still charging too much for their "en primeurs". The 2009 vintage, although of unequivocally good quality, was sold at such wildly over-inflated values that prices have actually fallen since release. And London buyers attending this year's en primeur campaigns maintain the chateaux are still setting release prices too high.
Some have also detected an outbreak of democracy in the market, with wines other than Bordeaux creeping into investment portfolios. Burgundies (produced in even more microscopic quantities) are having a moment, stretching beyond the charms of their most high-profile member, Chateau Petrus. So too are some champagnes. In time – sacre bleu! – a classical investment portfolio might even include wines produced beyond France. Let's hear it for the "super-Tuscans".