Wine sales at the world's five biggest auction houses fell by a quarter to about US$160 million ($199 million) in the first six months of 2012 as lower prices for top growers combined with investor caution sparked by the economic slump.

A decline in prices for top vintages of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild since the start of this year contributed to the drop as demand from Chinese investors focused more on Burgundy.

Lafite extended a slide which started in mid-2011, taking prices for top vintages such as 2000 and 2005 down more than 25 per cent from their peak.

A switch in focus by buyers away from the most expensive first-growth Bordeaux wines to second-tier producers, lesser vintages or rival regions such as Burgundy, Rhone and California contributed.


"The Bordeaux market has come off the highs of a year or two ago," Acker Merrall & Condit chief executive John Kapon said. "It's stabilised."

"Bordeaux's more susceptible because of the larger quantities.

"You won't find that volatility anywhere else, unless there's a major financial crisis."

Acker led global wine sales in the first half with US$46.5 million, including internet auctions, while Christie's International sold about US$35 million, Sotheby's US$34.2 million, Zachys US$30.3 million at its live auctions and Hart Davis Hart Wine Co US$15 million, according to figures from each company.

Asia Ahead Hong Kong maintained its lead, accounting for about US$75 million, or 47 per cent, of global sales by the top five houses.

US sales, split between New York, Chicago and California, accounted for around 35 per cent and Europe 18 per cent. The total of about US$160 million sold in the first half by the top five houses compares with more than US$220 million in the same period a year ago and about US$405 million for the whole of 2011, a record year. Wine totaling US$350 million was sold at auction in 2010.

"The change in the market was obviously the decline in the Bordeaux market," said Paul Hart, chief executive of Chicago-based Hart Davis Hart.

"Although we saw a decline in dollars, we saw an increase in the number of new buyers and bidders."


At an Acker New York summer sale in the Hamptons on June 23 which raised US$3.67 million, Burgundy featured as top lot and as 10 of the top 25, with a six-magnum case of 1999 Domaine George Roumier Musigny fetching US$79,950.

A 12-bottle case of 1959 Chateau Petrus achieved US$55,350 and eight other Petrus lots featured in the top 25.

The top three lots at Sotheby's two-day London auction on June 13 and 14 were six bottles of Montrachet 2000 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Burgundy, which sold for £17,625 ($34,330), a double magnum of Chateau Latour 1961 which went for £15,863 and 12 bottles of Cote Rotie La Mouline 1976 Guigal from the Rhone, which achieved £14,688.

"There certainly has been diversification," said Serena Sutcliffe, Head of International Wine at Sotheby's in London.

Asked about signs demand in China for Bordeaux is cooling as attention focuses on Burgundy, she said: "I think it's settling down. In the first years many people were starting collections from scratch."

The Liv-ex Fine Wine 50 Index, which tracks 10 recent vintages of the five Bordeaux first-growths, has declined 8 per cent this year.

That contributed to a 30 per cent drop in the past 12 months, having gained 50 per cent over the previous 15 months.

- Bloomberg