Regions

Regions

Investment-grade wines can come from regions all over the world, but those that can be deemed ‘fine wine’ are subject to strict controls. Regulations vary from country to country, but are generally enshrined in law, with some classifications dating back more than 100 years.

Vintage Associates will build portfolios consisting of wines from the following five regions.

The global influence of the Bordeaux region in the fine wine investment market remains unsurpassed, with the top properties contributing near £2bn annually. Wine has been traded in the region since the 12th century and the high grade investment wine produced here today remains the cornerstone of the industry, Bordeaux Wines currently account for around 80% of fine wine traded worldwide. The best Bordeaux wines continue to dominate fine wine auctions and their names, with their noble lineages and international cachet remain essential currency for anyone involved in investing in wine.

The River Gironde, weaving its way to the South Atlantic coast, cleaves the region in two with substantial consequences for the characters and histories of the vineyards to either side of it.

The “Left Bank” is made up of the Medoc, Pessac-Leognan and Graves wine-growing regions whose gravelly soils with iron and limestone deposits favour the Cabernet Sauvignon grape and structured, powerful wines that age beautifully for decades. Further inland, on the banks of the Garonne, the Sauternes region produces luxuriously perfumed sweet whites desired the world over. In past centuries, it was the Left Bank which saw most investment, thanks to its closer geographic proximity to the Atlantic coast from which trading galleys visited the region. Thus, the famed wine producing estates on the Left Bank, such as Lafite, Margaux and Mouton, tend to be physically larger and have ornate, stately chateaux attached to them. These properties were ranked under the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux Wines, at the behest of Napoleon.

The “Right Bank”, whose most famous and important regions are Saint-Emilion and Pomerol, has more mixed soils of clay, sand and gravel and supports predominantly Merlot grapes, and quite often Cabernet Franc. Due to the varied terroir, Right Bank Bordeaux wines differ in style but are generally softer and fruitier than that of the Right Bank. The wineries here are smaller and less opulent but are nevertheless vital points of reference for anyone thinking of investing in wine: properties like Ausone, Petrus and Le Pin are among the most sought-after wine brands in the world. The 1855 Classification left out the wineries of the Right Bank. Some, like those in Saint-Emilion, have devised their own ranking systems, whilst those in Pomerol do not submit to classification of any kind.

Without Bordeaux wines, the thriving global fine wine investment market we enjoy today simply would not exist. Its sensual allure and effect on the imagination speaks an international language that has led the finest Bordeaux wines to be sought by collectors from all over the planet. When one considers the rich history of Bordeaux, its pedigree and cultural currency, it is easy to grasp why this region is currently held in such monumental regard in the Far East and possesses luxury status in the burgeoning economies of China and Hong Kong, to such an extent that buyers in these two nations make up the single biggest market for Bordeaux wines. In fact, the interest in investing in wine from this region is so great that recent years have seen a number of chateaux being bought by companies and individuals from the Far East.

Performance

The Liv-ex 50 index, which tracks the last ten vintages of the five First Growth wines (Lafite Rothschild, Mouton Rothschild, Latour, Margaux & Haut Brion) has increased by nearly 300% since its inception in 2000. The Liv-ex 50 index is the industry benchmark and is what many financial institutions will use to monitor the performance of fine wine. Although this view of the index can quite often dictate the global opinion of the market, it is important to understand that this is a snapshot of the overall market. With the market broadening now more than ever, diversification across more than just these five wines is imperative.

Moving on to more recent performance, First Growth wines remained extremely stable in 2020 after not having the best year in 2019. The US imposed 25% tariffs on importing Bordeaux wines to the states back in 2018, which saw the market broaden significantly. While the Italian regions seem to have been the beneficiary of the move, the US election result has improved Bordeaux’s forecast as talks of the 25% tariffs being removed have gathered momentum. Despite the global economic uncertainty and political unrest, the Wine Owners First Growth 75 index appreciated by 5.97% in 2020. Although much lower than the long term average of 12.4% p.a, 2021 is looking extremely positive for Bordeaux red and may be the investors region of choice.

Burgundy by nature has always attracted keen interest and devotion from the world’s top wine collectors. The region’s idiosyncrasies and complexity have often left it second to Bordeaux in terms of the general investment market, but it has always offered specialist investors and collectors great enjoyment and financial reward. Since 2011 we have seen the burgeoning Far Eastern markets diversify their interests, familiarising themselves with Burgundy Wines and the guaranteed returns granted by their extreme scarcity. As a result, astounding auction results have become commonplace and prices have been on a stratospheric rise.

Burgundy is simplicity and diversity intertwined. There are just two primary grape varieties used in Burgundy; Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Producers here produce the most beautiful, pure expressions of both without the blending that is such an integral feature of Bordeaux. In this way, terroir becomes of the utmost importance. Whilst Bordeaux has long been in the thrall of big business, insurance companies and, increasingly, Asian millionaires buying up land, Burgundy retains more of the traditional, bucolic romance of winemaking and this is a key part of its appeal.

If Bordeaux wines are about power and concentration, it would not be unfair to say that Burgundy reply with sensuality and elegance, and possesses an altogether softer and more feminine character. There are of course exceptions because the defining characteristic of the region is its variety thanks to the acute effects of terroir. Burgundy is a richly varied tapestry of patchwork plots scattered along hillsides and ridges.

In the regions of France, Burgundy is notorious for its red wine and white wines. The much lower production on these wines and their iconic status make the bottles that remain in circulation a much sought after commodity and thus an incredible investment opportunity with prices increasing into the wines drinking window from their vintage year. Red Burgundy is the prominent colour in production in the region but do not dismiss the White Burgundy as the region produces some of the world’s best white wines also.

Performance

After Bordeaux peaked at the end of the China-led bull market in 2011, buyers started to seek out other corners of the fine wine world. Burgundy attracted the greatest attention. There was nothing particularly new going on in Burgundy – old hands were still quietly going about their business – but there was a step change in the market. Some would argue that this shift was due to changing taste, from bold tannic reds to the more elegant expressions that Pinot Noir offered, but the more likely explanation was the simple allure of small specialised vineyards producing rare, hard-to-source, wines. The top wines were soon to become trophy assets.

Burgundy boomed. Demand outstripped already tight supply driven in the most part by the rarity of the wines. Prices reached record highs in 2018. DRC Romanee Conti 1945 became the most expensive wine ever sold at auction at over $500,000 for one bottle. Others saw their prices soar on the back of less predictable energy. Dujac, already a much admired domaine, was the highest riser (up 142 places) in the 2019 Power 100 due in no small part to DJ Khaled’s enthusiastic endorsement. In the 2019 Liv-ex Classification, Burgundy accounted for 59% of the top tier wines (the most expensive category).

Burgundy has been the top performer since the launch of the Liv-ex regional indices in 2003. Over the past sixteen years, the Burgundy 150 index has risen 445%, compared to 235% for the Liv-ex 50, which tracks the First Growths, 248% for the broadest measure, the Liv-ex 1000, and 202% for the industry benchmark, the Liv-ex 100.

Much of Burgundy’s impressive price performance, however, has been recent. Burgundy has never seen such high levels of interest. Prices are not only rising rapidly as a consequence of a weaker Sterling post the Brexit vote, but the rising allure of the region has been met with a string of small harvests, exacerbating the problem of already limited supply. Between June 2016 and December 2018, the Burgundy 150 rose 86.2%, recording only two monthly declines.

While interest in the very top wines of the region (as reflected in the Burgundy 150) seems to have softened over the past year, a window has opened for other, smaller domaines, to shine. The number of active markets from Burgundy (wines with either a bid or an offer on them) rose 35% in 2020, reaching 21,160.

The ultimate mark of aspirational living, Champagne – the sparkling wine produced in the north eastern French region of the same name – is synonymous with luxury, quality and celebration. But its history is far from a happy one, and the quality product we know today, with an industry valued at €44bn, is borne of centuries of trial, error and refinement.

The area itself served as a crossroads for military and trade routes throughout history, and over the centuries has been subject to destruction and devastation at the hands of religious battles, political strife, two World Wars and the Russian revolution – not to mention the plague of Phylloxera that wiped out most of Europe’s vineyards in the late 19th century.

And were this not challenging enough for the region’s wine producers, the area’s difficult growing climate – namely its high altitude and mean annual temperature of just 10˚C – created a complex environment for Champagne’s three main grape varieties: white Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunir . It was no mean feat, then, for the wine producers of yesteryear to create a wine they hoped would rival that of their neighbours in Burgundy.

But efforts from Benedictine Monks, English scientist Christopher Merret and the famed Dom Perignon (who, contrary to popular belief, was not solely responsible for the invention of Champagne) eventually added up to a sparkling offering that was for some time dubbed ‘The Devil’s Wine’ as bottles exploded and corks popped in a bid to contain the fizzing beverage. The first incarnations of Champagne appear in 1531, and even in 1844 producers were struggling to bottle it efficiently.

But as glass quality and cork technology developed, Champagne rapidly gained popularity, with producers later marketing the wine as a royal and aristocratic drink, and launching many high-profile advertising campaigns aimed at political groups and women. The 19th century saw an explosive growth in Champagne production, from 300,000 bottles a year in 1800 to 20 million in 1850. Nowadays, around 349 million bottles are enjoyed around the world every year, with the UK dominating the export market, followed by the US and Germany.

Performance

Champagne enjoyed impressive growth over the past decade. The Liv-ex ‘Champagne 50 index’ – which tracks the price performances of 50 of the finest vintage champagnes – rose by more than 80% in the 10-year period ending 30 September 2020. Over the same period, the broader industry benchmark Liv-ex 1000 and the Bordeaux 500 index added 47.6% and 29.5% respectively. Since the indices inception back in 2003, it has risen in value by 326% averaging out to 19% p.a.

Champagne’s growth is increasing the region’s investment potential as investors can identify shifting trends and find new opportunities. The region’s share of secondary market trade more than tripled in the past ten years. Champagne’s trade share from 2009 to 2014 averaged at 1.9% but rose to 7.5% from 2015 to 2019.

Despite being just 30 miles long and a few miles wide, California’s Napa Valley produces a not-insignificant 49.7 million cases of wine per year, contributing $50bn to the total US economy and accounting for 27% of California’s total wine industry economy – no mean feat considering only 4% of California’s wine grapes come from the region.

Napa Valley is small, but it’s a major player in the wine world. Its dry, Mediterranean climate – which covers only 2% of the Earth’s surface – coupled with more than 100 soil variations and half of all soil orders found in the world means Napa Valley vintners are able to produce consistent quality wines from a wide-ranging selection of grapes, although the region is probably best known for its Cabernet Sauvignon.

California’s first recognised AVA (American Viticultural Area), Napa Valley – an appellation itself – is home to 16 sub-appellations, with terroir ranging from the cool, mountain-influenced temperatures of Atlas Peak’s 2,600ft-above-sea-level elevation, to the hotter, drier climate of St Helena, the narrowest part of the Napa Valley floor.

Over 700 wineries have developed within Napa’s young history. While records show the first commercial vineyard opened in 1858 (where John Patchett sold his wine for $2 a gallon), premium wine production didn’t begin until the 1960s – the area had to contend with a phylloxera outbreak, Prohibition and the Great Depression in between – and it wasn’t until the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, when a Napa Valley Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon bested several famous French labels, that the area’s reputation as a producer of world class wines was cemented.

This status (coupled of course with the area’s good weather and near-coastal location) means Napa Valley is now a one of ecotourism’s most popular destinations, with 4.5 million people visiting the area’s 1600 vineyards every year.

However, such is the impact of its tourism industry – and the relatively intense environmental footprint that comes from producing so much from so little – that the area is generally regarded as one of the most environmentally-conscious wine-producing regions in the world. Indeed, it became the first agricultural preserve in the United States in 1968, and is now home to a number of green winemaking initiatives and certification schemes, designed to ensure sustainability now and in the future, lest the delicate balance of economy and environment be disrupted.

It’s no surprise, then, that Napa Valley wines tend to command higher prices than wines from the region’s more unassuming neighbours, such as Sonoma Valley. Its consistent climate and extraordinary combination of diverse soils and topography make the area unlike any other wine-producing region in the world, and its wines are held in high acclaim by critics throughout the industry. The Cardinale 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon scores a perfect 100 points from Wine Enthusiast, while famous critic Robert Parker gives no less than 14 different producers full marks for their offerings. Shafer Vineyards, Schrader Cellars, Lokoyo and Harlan Estates are stand-out names, while Robert Mondavi and Rubicon Estate offer Napa’s unique New World quality at a more accessible price. 

Yet despite the flourishing economy surrounding Napa’s wine production, there remains a solid sense of community – no doubt due to the region’s modest size. Some 95% of all the area’s wineries.

The USA has long been a major buyer of European wines and a significant force in shaping the fine wine market. Wine produced in the States, however, has had less of an impact on the broader market than one might think. Its influence was confined to a few collectible estates. Ten years ago, only four labels saw secondary market trade, and the USA’s trade share by value stood at miniature 0.1%. Much of what the US produced was collected and consumed in the US. Today things look very different. American wine has accounted for a record share of trade so far this year, up from 2.3% in 2019 to 6.8% in 2020. Year-to-date, the number of unique American wines traded is more than double that of 2019.

Although wine production exists in all fifty states, California produces 85% of all US wine yet it makes up roughly 98% of USA’s trade by value on the secondary market. Ten years ago, California was synonymous with Napa Valley. More recently, the market for California’s wines has been diversifying. Napa Valley’s market share has fallen from 87.4% in 2019 to 79.6% year-to-date. Increasingly, Oakville (3.7%), Rutherford (2.6%), Sonoma County (1.9%) and Sonoma Coast (0.8%), Santa Cruz Mountains (1.5%), Russian River Valley and Paso Robles at 0.4% each, have been taking trade share.

Performance

The California 50 had a relatively strong 2014, outperforming both measures of the broader market as the fallout from the China-led bubble rumbled on. Between January 2014 and January 2020, the California 50 index rose 86.1%.

The California 50 index is up 191% since its inception in 2003, with a solid 5 year performance of 41%. 2019 and 2020 wasn’t the best years for the Californian region as growing concerns of US wine tariffs being imposed on imports from the UK and Europe began to grow, however since the US election it has been confirmed that this will no longer be the case and we expect 2021 to continue the surge we have seen in the years before.

It is a simple case of supply and demand. The position of American wines in the global marketplace is still in development. It is too early to know where its natural market share will settle but having played virtually no role only ten years ago, its rise of late is notable. While the focus will doubtless remain on the leading estates, it might well be the emerging estates – the second and third tier producers – that deliver the better returns for collectors going forward.

Italy has been an enormously important force throughout the history of wine. Yet in the fine wine market, it is France – especially Bordeaux and Burgundy – that has historically ruled the roost. Despite its long, diverse history and age-worthy wines, Italy has only really joined the wine elite in the past forty years. Some have attributed its relatively recent premiumisation to a concept adopted earlier by its French counterparts: the “cruisation” of wine – making wine from a single vineyard label that is the expression of an individual site. Others have acknowledged improvements in the style and quality of Italian wines. This report considers the emergence of Italy’s top wines over recent years, their current place in the market, and what their future might hold as technology continues to open up the wine world.

While wines from all over Italy are traded in the secondary market, the two most important regions are Piedmont and Tuscany. Piedmont (in the north of the country) and Tuscany (in the centre) contribute to a healthy overall market in complementary ways. The top price performers come from the north. These are principally made from the indigenous Nebbiolo grape in tiny quantities. But Italy’s steadily rising market share has been driven by trade in the Super Tuscans. These are typically made in much larger volumes and tend to include, or be made entirely of, the international varieties Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Merlot. This, combined with their brand strength and critical acclaim, has put Italy firmly on the international fine wine map.

Performance

Thirty-nine wines from Italy, of which thirty were new entrants, qualified for the 2020 Liv-ex Classification, which ranks the wines of the world based on their average trade prices. While various factors influence the price of wines, critical acclaim cannot be overstated. Only a few hours after Wine Spectator named Sassicaia 2015 their “wine of the vintage”, its price rose 25%. Sassicaia 2016, awarded 100 points by. the Wine Advocate’s Monica Larner, has appreciated 71% since release. With more critics following the wines of Italy than ever before, the market for Italian wines seems certain to heat up.

Collectors are following the wines of Italy with increasing interest. Technological initiatives such as automated trading have helped Italian wines garner greater attention on the market, as more stock from more regions becomes readily available. This rising exposure has led to a broadening of the Italian wines on offer and a subsequent increase in trade volumes and value. In an increasingly diverse market, the fine wines of Italy are making their mark on the global stage.

Compared to the broader market, prices for Italian wines have been rising at a steady pace, experiencing minimal volatility. The Italy 100, which is up 209% since its inception in 2003, has not been shaken by events that have affected the industry benchmark, the Liv-ex 100, such as the financial crisis in 2008 and the Chinese antigraft campaign from 2011.

The Italy 100 tracks the price performance of the ten most recently physical vintages of ten leading Italian wines that attract a regular market on Liv-ex. The index, which is based on transactional data, is weighted towards the Super Tuscans where large production fuels an active market. Rather than being subject to the whim of changing tastes and trends, these wines have slowly and steadily gained popularity among fine wine collectors – and their prices have climbed steadily too.

Like other Liv-ex indices, the Italy 100 received a boost from sterling’s devaluation following the Brexit referendum, which stimulated activity from euro and dollar buyers. Over the past three years, the index has risen 28.3%, making it the third best performer after Burgundy and Champagne.

Despite the Italy 100 index’s gains, Tuscany continues to offer one of the cheapest entry points into the fine wine market. Solaia, Sassicaia, Tignanello, Ornellaia and Masseto represent very affordable alternatives to Bordeaux’s finest.

Although Piedmont prices are higher – more than double that of the Super Tuscans – top Barolo and Barbaresco is still less than half the price of Bordeaux and a quarter of the price of red Burgundy. Due to a combination of relatively low prices and comparable quality, both Tuscany and Piedmont are garnering greater interest from merchants and collectors alike.

As regional activity has become more evenly distributed, Italy has now accounted for 15.1% of the total trade by value in 2020. This means, more Italian wines are being traded on the exchange, suggesting stronger liquidity for the region. In particular, Tuscan wines continued to lead this trend with significant increase in market activity. Measured by price performance, some of the biggest market movers come from Super Tuscans such as Sassicaia, Tignanello and Solaia but also from Barolos from Piedmont.

Both Sassicaia and Tignanello have delivered positive gains over the last two years across all of their vintages from 2005 to 2016, with an average total return of 26% and 15%, respectively. Outside of Tuscany, recent performance of Piedmont, led by Bartolo Mascarello and Bruno Giacosa, has also been very strong.

The divide between Piedmont and Tuscany needs to be acknowledged to better understand the fundamentals of the Italian market, and the investment potential of these two distinctive wine regions.

Tuscany has historically led the way in terms of trade share. Due to a combination of quality, volume and brand strength, the Super Tuscans have been very active on the secondary market, elevating Italy’s share of the total trade by value. In 2020, Tuscany has accounted for over two thirds of Italian trade, with wines from Piedmont making up the lion’s share of the rest.

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