Allegrini 2018

Wine auctions conquer Italy: top lots and wines within wine lovers’ range

The leading auction houses in the sector, Finarte, Wannenes and Bolaffi talked to WineNews about the trends of a growing market
Wine auctions in Italy

Just like art, wine is experiencing, after a few decades, a season of enormous dynamism on the auction channel. This trend has been confirmed by the figures from the major International houses, such as Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Acker Merrall, but also the 2020 auction sales - obviously online - of the Italian auction houses: Finarte, Wannenes, Bolaffi and Pandolfini. The turnover is not the same and neither are the wines that end up being sold at auctions. In Milan, Rome and Florence, as well as in London, New York and Hong Kong, the great French wine brands catalyze the attention of collectors. Romanée-Conti is the leader, which is increasingly becoming the Leonardo of wines at auction sales. Then, there are the legendary Bordeaux - Château Haut-Brion, Château Lafite-Rothschild, Château Latour, Château Mouton Rothschild and Château Margaux – that still command, making obvious proportions, prices worthy of Picasso, Modigliani, Jean Michel-Basquiat, Francis Bacon and Edvard Munch. However, right behind them there is a myriad of wines, including the top Italians, which are getting more and more space in catalogs, starting, of course, with the auction houses in Italy, which, in 2020, collected just over 5 million euros from auction sales dedicated to wine.
The numbers narrate a reality that is now far beyond niche status. They also, however, tell the state of health of a sector, which, while the world was looking for a way out of the Pandemic crisis, continued to attract investments and new enthusiasts. Many are searching for old vintages and verticals, from the now legendary wines of Monfortino by Giacomo Conterno, Sassicaia, Ornellaia, Masseto, Brunello di Biondi-Santi and Soldera to Tignanello, Solaia di Antinori, as well as the great Piedmont wines of Gaja and Giacosa, to enrich their wine cellars or, more simply, their portfolios. Yes, because the finest wines rarely end up on the table. More often than not, they remain in the vaults of those who approach wine as an asset in which to invest.
Investing is the distinctive feature of all auctions, also in Italy, but there is something exceptional that makes the sector particularly interesting. It is the growing interest, thanks to an increasingly “vertical” offer, of many wine lovers who, at auctions, know how to find unobtainable vintages and niche producers, at very affordable prices. Of course, it is not the lots that make an auction successful, but they do have the advantage of bringing wine lovers closer to auction sales, which have recently been made more accessible, because of the need to go online. Therefore, many more wines have found space in the catalogs of Finarte, Wannenes, Bolaffi and Pandolfini (which in 2020 collected 2.27 million euros). Furthermore, in the next few years, there will be many more. They will not be only from the top territories and the most quoted denominations, such as Brunello di Montalcino, Barolo, Barbaresco, Bolgheri, Super Tuscan and Valpolicella, but also, even though somewhat timidly, from Etna and Abruzzi, where Valentini and Emidio Pepe are also looking at International sales. It is very similar to the young emerging artists who were pushed by critics and the market to leave small galleries and land in the most prestigious museums.
“The lockdown, for a lot of people, did not mean a decrease in income. The impression we have is that there are a lot of people with a lot of money to invest. There is another aspect, as well. The auction market in Italy was, and still is, inadequate, and has not yet reached a category that has a lot to give, that is, consumers, those who buy to drink do not attend auctions, and that’s where the future is”, Guido Groppi, director of the wines section of Finarte, told WineNews. “There are many bottles in the catalogs at prices starting at tens of euros, which could be interesting to the wine lover looking for old vintages, but not having to spend thousands of euros. The segment has great potential for expansion”.
The big numbers, at least for now, are “the same wines as always: the top Super Tuscans, Brunellos, Barolos and Bolgheri, plus a couple Amarones. Looking ahead, however, Etna and the northern Piedmont area will also get to auctions, as well as some emerging names from Valpolicella. The problem is that it takes famous wines and small productions to get the highest values at auctions. The Aglianico area, namely Taurasi and Vulture, could also have a chance tomorrow. The feeling, at this moment, is that fine wines already get the highest numbers, while the many other wines at an auction still need International consecration to achieve significant increases.
“There is a particular fact that”, Guido Groppi pointed out, “risks turning into a weakness. It is the variety of Italian wine, which in this sense, does not help. We have very good brands all over the country, but it takes a lot to become a Tignanello. It is sometimes difficult to describe all the Italian wine varieties. For instance, Barolo and Brunello sell themselves; however, using the auction as a marketing lever for others is difficult. The auction really works if you reach sensational increases, which usually only the well known wines achieve”. The path to fame, even today, is mainly through International criticism; that is, through “Wine Advocate”, James Suckling and Wine Spectator, the non-Italian evaluations of Italian wines, which we still depend upon. The only Italian guide that manages to have an extra Italian dimension is Gambero Rosso, which, though, does not have a great affect on the evaluations of the wines at auctions”, concluded the director of Finarte’s Wines Section.
A new auction house has recently entered the wine world, which is Wannenes that “held only one auction in the year of Covid-19”, Alessio Leonardi, head of the Wine Department, together with Gelasio Gaetani Lovatelli, told WineNews. “2020, as well as 2021, was a challenging and stimulating year. Online auctions have definitely passed the test and are here to stay. They have simplified things and brought more people closer to wine auctions. But, unlike what Christie’s and Sotheby's do around the world, in Italy we cannot expect to make millions of euros in turnover with a few hundred, mostly French, lots. Instead, we must expand the offer to more accessible bottles, involving wine lovers and young people. There are not only top lots and rare bottles, such as the very large formats, and if the base of low and medium-range buyers widens, there will also be medium and high-end ones”.
At the end of the day, the bottle is front and center. “The product makes the auction, and the product that attracts the buyer”, continued Alessio Leonardi. “Anyone can put 100 Magnums of Masseto up for auction, as long as they have significant credibility. In all of this, the auction landscape has changed a lot over the years. More and more often collectors buy to resell, while wine lovers focus on more accessible bottles and are giving life to exchanges reminiscent of children exchanging soccer cards. This is the reason why auctions must be held on all levels: the most important lots of Romanée-Conti, Bordeaux and Sassicaia, collections even just for the historical value of the bottle, and the most accessible wines. However, it takes time to build a brand capable of staying on the auction market, the time that for example, Etna will need, which in about ten years could increase its prices”.
It seems evident that the territory of origin is not enough to build one's success - it takes the strength of the brand. “Currently, auctions are held at market prices, and there is nothing to be done about it. A legend can be created, but not from today and tomorrow, which is evident, for instance, from the quick surges of Valentini and Emidio Pepe from Abruzzi, a region completely extraneous to these dynamics”, emphasized the head of the Wine Department of Wannenes. “After all, decades of history divide us from France, but the market always makes the rules. When you reach a certain level, however, you must be able to maintain and support it with the right investments”.
In the world of auctions in Italy, and not only wine, the auction house that has been most successful is Bolaffi, led by the managing director Filippo Bolaffi. In 2020, between online and in person auctions, they collected almost 1.7 million euros, auctioning the most expensive bottle in Italy, the double Magnum of Romanée-Conti Grand Cru 1990, which sold for 100.000 euros. “Online auctions have proven to be effective. Wine is quite suitable for online purchases, as shown by the performance of both e-commerce sites and auction houses. During the lockdown, the problem was finding the bottles, as 2020 was a difficult year to go around to wineries, individuals and companies. The second consideration is that wine at an auction, historically, has always been the prerogative of top bottles and top collectors, and catalogs made up of highly selective lots. Lately, though, we have seen that bottles at lower average prices have also sold quite well”, continued Filippo Bolaffi.
People are talking about bottles that are “very good to be drunk, which once would never have ended up at an auction, but that have not yet reached the price level of the most prestigious wines. They have sold well in recent auctions to a different audience than usual, made up of enthusiasts and consumers who do not have large spending budgets, such as what is needed, remaining in Italy, for Monfortino and Sassicaia. Only already famous and popular wines end up under the hammer at auctions”, said Filippo Bolaffi, “or niche wines that in circulation get prices worthy of the top bottles. It is somewhat similar to a young artist who wants to be launched to the general public. It is unlikely that the auction house will build his fortune, if anything it will confirm it, but first it takes the work of the gallery owner and fame. It works the same way with wine. It is not the auction that builds the reputation of a wine”.
The market, on the other hand, “has become quite aware that the existing gap, for instance, between Burgundy and Langhe, makes no sense. The prices that Giacomo Conterno's Monfortino as well as those of Bruno Giacosa have gotten, confirm this. The market is beginning to understand that there are many good wines, and many of these are Italian. Interestingly, in this sense, it is the work that Ceretto is doing, which is greatly increasing the quality of many bottles, as critics’ reviews have confirmed. Today, they are getting attractive prices, and in perspective they could also be somewhat successful at wine market auctions”, adds the CEO of Bolaffi. “To understand the potential success of a territory, the only question to ask is: would anyone buy a lot from this territory? The answer, when we talk about Piedmont and Tuscany, is yes, but when we talk about Etna, it is still no. If, exceptionally, Etna were to become an enormous success, we would then see the bottles in the catalogs in more or less five years, the time for the market to acknowledge and consolidate the success of a new territory”, concluded Filippo Bolaffi.

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