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Last year, Eric Lenar, a Frenchman who organizes exclusive tastings of rare wines, got his hands on a stash of the fabled 1961 Bordeaux vintage, including bottles from the prestigious châteaus Margaux, Petrus, Cheval Blanc and Haut-Brion. More than four decades after their release, the 1961s—along with vintages from 1928, 1929, 1945, 1947, 1959 and 1982—remain one of the most coveted wines of all time, celebrated for their extraordinary concentration and subtle balance of fruit and tannin.
A magnum of 1961 Lafitte Rothschild, for example, typically costs more than $4,500, while a magnum of Latour a Pomerol—if you can find one—runs as much as $23,000.
With 10 bottles of the fabulous vintage, Lenar, who runs a company called Vira, arranged an exclusive tasting attended by 34 people, including Prince Albert of Monaco. “It was quite an experience,” Lenar says of the event, which cost almost $10,000 a head.
While the vast majority of wine is consumed within three years of being bottled, a growing number of aficionados are willing to pay astronomical sums to taste wines sealed long ago—even stretching back to Napoleon’s reign. “Old wine is gaining popularity,” says Tim Triptree, a wine expert at Christie’s auction house in London. “There’s more interest at auction.”
Last year, for instance, a six-bottle case of magnums of 1945 Mouton Rothschild sold for $345,000 at auction at Christie’s in New York, setting a world record. Nonetheless, the number of people interested in old wines—and capable of paying for them—remains relatively small. Sanford Weil, the former chairman of Citigroup, and the retired NFL quarterback Fran Tarkenton are among the most famous American devotees. “Real old-wine lovers are a very select group—maybe in the hundreds,” says Richard Harvey, a wine expert at Bonhams auction house in London. “An aficionado may never have tasted a 1921 Cheval Blanc. So when it comes up, they may be tempted to buy it.”
Experts say buying old wine should not be done cavalierly. For starters, there’s no guarantee that it’s aged well. Sloppy storage or reckless transport can kill it—no matter its initial greatness. “The color of the wine is an indicator of its condition,” says Triptree. “If it is still red, one can be pretty confident. But if it’s browned some, then there’s probably been oxidation.”
Despite the dangers, more wine fanatics are caving in to the temptation to taste a bit of history. After all, stocks are running out.
“Wine is meant to drink,” says Triptree. “De facto, the older vintages get rarer and rarer.”
French wines, particularly Bordeaux and Burgundy, are most sought after by collectors. But old Italian and Spanish wines are gaining in popularity—although they remain a curiosity, according to experts. And, even if speculation abounds in the current wine market, with prices reaching record levels at auction, experts say most old-wine lovers aren’t interested in turning a profit with their bottles.
“It’s all about having an ultimate experience,” says Lenar. “Those interested in this caliber of wine don’t often think about money.”