When an enterprising young man named James Christie opened his sales rooms in London in December 1766, his first auction consisted of the estate of a “deceased nobleman” containing “a large Quantity of Madeira and high Flavour’d Claret.” The records don’t relate how much these delightfully described “high Flavour’d clarets” fetched but as the whole sale realized a grand total £175, it is a sure bet that if Christie had known that two hundred years later, in 1985, his now famous auction house would sell one bottle of wine for £105,000, or $160,000, he might have held back a bottle or two to enrich his future heirs.
This bottle was a Bordeaux, a 1787 Chateau Lafite, and, according to The Guinness Book of World Records, 18 years later it still is the world’s most expensive bottle of wine. Its great age alone would have ensured a good price but what gave it its special cachet, especially to American collectors, and ensured the record price tag were the initials Th.J. etched in the glass.
The bottle had belonged to Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States and one of the most revered of its founding fathers. A philosopher, scientist and statesmen, the aristocratic Jefferson was also an avid oenophile. When he was ambassador to France he spent much of his time visiting the vineyards of Bordeaux and Burgundy, buying wine for his own collection and on behalf of his friends back home. He is also associated with two other bottles of very pricy wine, a 1775 Sherry ($43,500) and the most expensive white wine ever sold, a 1787 Chateau d’Yquem ($56,588).
Of course none of these wines are actually drinkable now; it is unusual for even the best Bordeaux to last more than 50 years, and 200 years is beyond any wine’s limit. The allure of these high-priced bottles of vinegar, and other wines of its ilk, is purely in the joy of collecting, not consuming. The 1787 Lafite was explicitly bought as a piece of Jefferson memorabilia, not as a bottle of wine, and it now resides in the Forbes Collection in New York. These wines are rather like old stamps, something to be collected, horded but never used, and they command such high prices not because of their utility but because of their scarcity and consequent appeal to collectors.
Compiling a list of the World’s Most Expensive Bottles of Wine is not as simple as it might first appear. How do you compare the price paid for a double magnum–that’s four bottles–to a single bottle? Do you rate them on the same scale or do you divide the price of the big bottle by four in order to determine its per-single bottle price?
So, rather than compiling a league table we determined 11 separate categories, then sought out the most expensive bottle in each category, and a pretty interesting search it turned out to be. One of the first things you’ll notice is that all the wines on the list were sold at auction, because, except in rare occasions, the seller knows that the publicity surrounding a special bottle, and the heated atmosphere of competitive bidding, often results in even higher prices.
The world’s most expensive bottle of wine that could actually be drunk today is also the most expensive wine ever sold in America, a Montrachet 1978 from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti that was hammered down at Sotheby’s in New York in 2001. The lot of seven bottles fetched $167,500, or $23,929 per bottle. This is an extraordinary price for a white wine, even in the rarified world of wine collecting. What happened was that two avid collectors were bidding against each other and got carried away, each refusing to yield as the price rose through the stratosphere.
Michael Broadbent, the former head of Christie’s wine department, relates a similar story concerning the sale of the Jefferson Lafite. As the bidding approached £100,000 for this unique bottle, he changed bid steps, that is the amount the bids increased by. One of the two remaining bidders was Marvin Shanken, publisher of the Wine Spectator, and according to Broadbent, he didn’t notice the change until, to his very obvious horror, he realized that he had just offered to pay £100,000 for one bottle of wine. As he sat there ashen faced a great hush fell over the packed auction room as everyone waited to see if the other bidder, Christopher Forbes, would come back in. He eventually did, at £105,000, much to Shanken’s very palpable relief.
Then there is the strange case of the most expensive bottle of winenever sold. In 1989 William Sokolin, a New York wine merchant, had a bottle of Chateau Margaux 1787, also with Jefferson’s initials, on consignment from its English owner. He was asking $500,000 for it but had had no cash offers when he took it along to a Chateau Margaux dinner at the Four Seasons restaurant. (Why would it cost so much more than the 1787 Lafite? It didn’t cost more than the Lafite, just that Sokolin was asking $500,000. I don’t think he expected to get this much and had had no offers by the time of the accident. However, just by asking such a huge sum he generated a lot of publicity, which some people speculate was the whole point of the exercise. He did however get $225,000 from the insurance company which he claims, with some justification, makes it the world’s most expensive bottle, even if it was never sold. Besides everything else it’s a fun story about a very expensive bottle however you rate it.)
At the end of the evening he was getting ready to leave when a waiter carrying a coffee tray bumped the bottle, breaking it. Luckily, Sokolin had the foresight to insure his valuable vin, and shared the $225,000 payout with the owner, which makes this the world’s most expensivebroken bottle of wine. History does not tell us what happened to the unfortunate waiter.
What all these wines have in common, whether it’s the undrinkable 1787 Lafite or the eminently drinkable 1945 Mouton, and what makes them command such astronomic prices, is their scarcity value.
The world seems to have an ever-increasing appetite for collecting unusual old things, be they baseball cards, 1950s Formica furniture or steam train memorabilia, and it’s only natural that rare wines are subject to this same collecting mania.
Now, with more and more people discovering the pleasures of drinking wine, especially the newly rich of China and East Asia, the prices of all fine wines will continue to rise and it will only be a matter of time before Mr. Jefferson’s bottle, and several others on our list, see their formally eye-popping prices surpassed as ever richer and ever more determined collectors compete for that one, must-have bottle of wine.
Most expensive regular wine bottle
Chateau Lafite 1787 sold at Christie’s London in 1985 for $160,000.
Bought for the Forbes Collection, this bottle of Lafite bears Thomas Jefferson’s initials etched into the glass, a practice not that unusual in the 18th century when large purchases were made directly from the Chateau.
Most expensive big wine bottle
Jeroboam (5 lovely liters) Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1945–considered one of the great vintages of the 20th century–sold at Christie’s London in 1997 for $114,614. One of the great vintages of the 20th century was 1945, and although the buyer remains anonymous, if he decides to sample it, please know that I am available to help him evaluate its drinkability.
Most expensive fortified wine
1775 Sherry from the Massandra collection, sold at Sotheby’s London in 2001 for $43,500.
Situated 4 kilometers from Yalta in the Crimea, the Massandra winery was considered the finest in Czarist Russia. Its cellar contains over a million bottles of both Russian, some bearing the Imperial seal, and Western European wines, the oldest of which was this Sherry.
Most expensive lot of wine sold at auction
Fifty cases! Six hundred bottles of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1982, by Christie’s/Zachy’s New York in 1997 for $420,000.
Most expensive white wine
A bottle of 1784 Chateau d’Yquem sold at Christie’s London in 1986 for $56,588. This bottle also bears Thomas Jefferson’s initials.
Most expensive dry white wine
Seven bottles of Le Montrachet, DRC 1978 sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2001 for $167,500 or $23,929 per bottle.
Most expensive bottle of red burgundy
Romanée-Conti, DRC 1990 6 magnums at Zachy’s New York in 2002 for $69,600, or $5,800 per regular bottle.
Most expensive lot of Burgandy
Set of seven Methuselah’s (6 liters or eight bottles) of Romanée-Conti, DRC 1985 sold at Sotheby’s London in 1996 for $224,900.
Most Expensive america wine
Three bottles of Screaming Eagle 1994 sold at Christie’s Los Angeles in 2000 for $11,500 or $3,833 per bottle.
Most expensive wine bottle ever broken
Chateau Margaux 1787 insured for $225,000.
Most expensive wine ever sold at charity auction
Imperial of Screaming Eagle Cab 1992 sold at the Napa Valley Wine Auction in 2000 for $500,000.
Bought by Cisco Systems executive Chase Bailey, this is technically the highest price ever paid for a bottle of wine but as it was at a charity auction, much of the price must be discounted as a charitable contribution.