Before Andrew Lloyd Webber's sale, the noble lord commented that one of his reasons for selling was "my liking for some recent vintages and New World wines which I'd like to get to know more about". The same, it now emerges, is true of the anonymous Norwegian whose "Grand Crus" cellar fetched over pounds 7 million at Christie's. Having sold half his cellar, he is now, says Christie's, contemplating a shift in emphasis in favour of Italy, Spain and the top wines of Australia and California.
Traditionally, the fine-wine action has centred on Bordeaux because top Bordeaux is a marketable commodity. This is due, according to Christie's Price Index of Vintage Wine, "to the reliability and predictability of good claret". The demand for young wines, fuelled by the lack of really good Bordeaux vintages between 1990 and 1995, has been a major factor in the soaring prices of the two most recent Bordeaux vintages. Although considered exorbitant at the time, 1995 now looks almost a snip compared with the cream of Bordeaux 1996. 1996 Chateau Margaux, for instance, which cost around pounds 800 this spring, is now changing hands (although not yet in bottle) for pounds 2,000 a case - more than any other vintage, that is, between 1961 and 1982.
Outside Bordeaux, few wines achieve the status of a luxury brand. In Burgundy, the roll call is pretty much limited to Domaine de la Romanee- Conti's La Romanee, La Tache, and Montrachet. The Rhone's brightest stars go little further than Jaboulet's Hermitage La Chapelle and Marcel Guigal's three strictly allocated "crus", La Mouline, La Landonne and La Turque.
Italian and Spanish wines have, until recently, largely failed as fine-wine brands, probably because, as with Burgundy, no one outside Spain or Italy (and probably not that many within) really knew which were the best wines or the best vintages. But a Christie's sale last July helped to raise the profile of Italy's best wines. A case of the 1985 Tuscan red, I Sodi di San Niccolo, for instance, exceeded its estimate fourfold to sell for pounds 1,155. Barolo, arguably Italy's best red, suffers from the Burgundy factor, but a brand name can make all the difference.
Angelo Gaja features in a list of Italian blue chips - which also includes the Tuscan reds Sassicaia, Ornellaia and Solaia - published recently in the Wine Spectator, America's influential fine-wine magazine. About the only Spanish wine that can command a super premium at auction is Vega Sicilia, although when Marques de Riscal releases limited quantities of its 1961 later this year, a dignified scramble is on the cards.
If demand for the finest wines has until recently focused largely on Bordeaux, it is because the top dozen or so Bordeaux blue chips satisfy the requirements for exclusivity, rarity and, above all, longevity. One of the New World's charms, California Cabernet apart, is that its wines are generally more accessible when younger, which possibly counts against the need to compete on longevity. But, although the New World's track record for tried-and-tested wines over decades is sketchier, signs are emerging that certain regions can really compete.
In contrast to Bordeaux, California has moved up a quality gear in the 1990s with two dozen or more wineries showing themselves capable of matching top Bordeaux. If California's wines rarely feature in Britain's salerooms or on brokers' lists, the opposite is true in America. Fine-wine auctions such as those of Sherry Lehmann with Sotheby's in New York feature names as familiar to American collectors as Bordeaux First Growths to the British.
To feature alongside top French chateaux in the Wine Spectator's auction index, confers due respectability on the likes of Beaulieu Vineyard Private Reserve, Heitz Martha's Vineyard, Robert Mondavi Reserve and Opus One. The list might equally extend to Caymus Special Selections, Diamond Creek, Dunn Howell Mountain, Stag's Leap Cask 23, Ridge Montebello and Dominus, or to some of the fashionable fringe boutique wineries such as Marcassin or Araujo, jockeying to become the priceless new Pomerols of California.
In Australia, Penfolds' Grange has become an icon since it got top billing in the Wine Spectator's Top 100 wines. At Christie's Grands Crus sale last month, the 1971 vintage netted a cool pounds 6,500 a case, 1976 nearly pounds 1,200 a bottle, and even the 1990 sold for pounds 400 a bottle. These results show that Australia can compete on the international stage, and indicate a likely revaluation upwards of some of Australia's other top wines, among them Henschke Hill of Grace, Mount Mary Cabernet, Yarra Yering, Penfolds Bin 707, Elderton, Clarendon Hills and Wynns John Riddoch. Maybe I should sit for a little longer on that ancient bottle of Koala Ridge, or the carafe of Paul Masson gathering dust under the front steps. Then again...
`Grapevine 1998' ,by Anthony Rose and Tim Atkin, is published by Ebury Press at pounds 8.99. `Independent' readers can order a copy for only pounds 6.99 (p&p free) by telephoning 01206 255800 White of the week 1997 Ryland's Grove Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc, pounds 3.49, Tesco. Reduced from pounds 3.99 for Tesco's promotion featuring a handful of wines with screwcaps which runs until 5 November, this Stellenbosch white is fermented in oak to add texture and subtle oak complexity to the ripe, peachy flavours of South Africa's Chenin Blanc grape.
Red of the week
1996 Western Cape Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon, pounds 4.49, Tesco. Also reduced by 50p for the duration of the screwcap promotion, this is a smooth, blackcurranty Cape blend with a deft touch of vanilla oakiness made by Australian winemaker John Worontschak specially for Tesco. The back label recommends storing horizontally, which seems to defeat the object of the exercise. Just drink, I say.