What slowdown? Rich Chinese thirst for liquid luxury

Demand for ultra-expensive wine
Demand for ultra-expensive wine

Anyone who thought rich Chinese had stopped splurging should develop a taste for fine wine.

More than 120 world records were set for lots of wine sold in Hong Kong last weekend by auctioneer Acker Merrall & Condit. The auction, which was the firm's largest to date in 2014 with $5.8 million in sales, was led by buyers from mainland China, according to CEO John Kapon.

65 bottles of Chateau Latour sold at auction for $70,0000.
Source: Acker Merrall & Condit

Four of the top 10 buyers were Chinese, including the biggest spender who bought more than $400,000 in wine, Kapon said. A Chinese buyer also purchased a single lot that tied for the sale's top-selling item: a 65-vintage "vertical" composed entirely of bottles of Chateau Latour, a famous red from France's Bordeaux region. That bundle of wines cost the buyer a cool $70,000.

The strong demand may come as a surprise after recent signs of a pullback in indulgences among wealthy Chinese. The slowdown has been blamed on a variety of factors including a deceleration in economic growth, a cooler property market, along with a government crackdown on gift-giving and entertainment.

Cartier parent Compagnie Financiere Richemont, for instance, has noted softer jewelry sales in the China region in the last several months. Even General Mills said last week that sales at its Häagen-Dazs ice cream cafés have been hurt by a cutback in entertainment and gift-giving in China.

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China's high-class taste
China's high-class taste

The pain has been especially acute in Macau, which is known to attract Chinese gamblers. Macau's gaming revenue declined in June, July, and August after a long string of gains, according to government data.That has caused a sharp selloff in U.S. listed casino companies with major exposure to Macau. Shares of Wynn Resorts have fallen 17 percent in the last six months while Las Vegas Sands has declined 24 percent.

Strong wine sales just might be a sign that Macau's troubles are coming to an end. A recent Deutsche Bank study pointed out that there is a 72 percent correlation between Macau gaming revenue and prices of fine French wine. The link could make sense: Rich Chinese have long had a penchant for French wine such as the famous Bordeaux sold at last weekend's auction.

Some casino moguls remain bullish on Macau. This week, Wynn founder Steve Wynn said he was "not concerned" about the recent slowdown in Macau gaming revenue. "I think the future of Macau is terrific," he was reported to say on Wednesday by the South China Morning Post.

Kapon said that the auction attendees seemed as enthusiastic as ever. "We had a packed room both days," he said. "That's one of the leading indicators—how many people show up."

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In Hong Kong, wine buyers are much more likely to appear in person than in the U.S., Kapon said. "It's much more of a culture where you bid in the room than absentee," he said. "People like the action. It's kind of the gambling mentality that goes out here."

Fine wine has some unique characteristics that may make it more resilient than other markets. For one, people tend to drink what they buy. "Supply of the best stuff is constantly dwindling," Kapon said. "There's probably more strength in the wine market during times of adversity."

Other highlights from last weekend's auction included a rare 12-bottle case of 1978 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tache from France's Burgundy region. The case, which went to an American buyer, tied for the most expensive lot at the auction at a price of $70,000. Kapon pointed out that other Burgundy wines were also snapped up by Chinese buyers, who have branched out from their traditional focus on Bordeaux.

Certain Bordeaux wines remain below their previous peak levels from 2011, when wealthy Chinese buyers helped drive prices to stratospheric levels. While those wines have pulled back, prices of others such as Burgundy wines have continued to grind higher and account for a larger percentage of auction sales.