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Connoisseurs are getting a real taste for fine wines at auction

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Madeira wine

Madeira wine

Madeira wine

THIS is the time of the year when the auction houses bring out their finest wines which have been carefully collected throughout the year because experience has shown that, although highly specialised at times, there is a significant demand for fine wine to be satisfied approaching the Christmas festive period.

Referring to the quality of age, Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774) listed five items. "I love everything that's old: old friends, old times, old manners, old books, old wines." And Francis Bacon (1561-1626) observed that "age appeared to be best in four things: old wood best to burn, old wines to drink, old friends to trust, and old authors to read". The home and international auction houses now have departments to handle this growing market.

The services that a saleroom can offer in respect of selling wine are worth examining - there are inspections, valuations, advice on shipping, investment, and storage problems.

Although very little wine is produced in Ireland and the UK, there has always been an important retail market here which has become even more significant through the sales in supermarkets and off-licences.

Also, the long tradition of importing wines from a large number of countries and regions make it an ideal testing ground for new labels of winemakers worldwide. If a wine is successful here, it will be successful in most places.

The two specific categories of wines are those made for almost immediate consumption, like Blue Nun or Mateus Rose and other simple everyday wines, while the more important examples as far as the auction houses are concerned are the fine wines which require a degree of ageing before they are at their best.

The advice usually given in fine wine categories usually include the name and classification of the wine, and details of the condition of labels, ullages (the level of wine in the bottle), and other useful information.

The auctioneers Christie's of London are the oldest established wine auctioneers in the world. The first sale James Christie held on "Fryday, 5 December, 1766" included "Madeira (right) and high Flavour'd Claret" in its inventory, and in his first wine-only sale just three years later, it took two days to auction over 400 dozen bottles. To date they have held almost 3,000 wine sales.

The first time a vintage was mentioned at a Christie's sale was in 1772 when a 1748 hock was sold, and it was not until 1788 that a vineyard or chateau was specified when bottles of Lafete and Chateaux Margeaux were on offer.

When Christie's started wine auctions, claret and madeira were the most popular. Although claret is still up there at the top, madeira came upon hard times during Victorian days when a higher rate of duty was applied to fortified wines. And sherry slumped in the market at the beginning of last century when vast stocks held by Edward VII were sold off; he preferred champagne.

The public interest in German wines has never fully recovered since the First World War and only 20 years ago an acknowledged world expert on wines lamented that "people still don't realise how beautiful German wines are, or how well they keep".

In 1152, the Duchess of Aquitaine married Henry Plantagenet, Count d'Anjoy, who later succeeded to the throne of England with all of Bordeaux, Gascony and Guinne. The latter three remained British possessions for 300 years - until 1453.

In the year 1400, 90pc of the wine consumed in the British Isles came from Bordeaux and around 1,000 ships were in constant use supplying the wine. Ever since then, claret - the wine of Bordeaux - has been a great favourite in Britain and Ireland.

The finest claret is that which is obtained from the districts which lie within 40 miles of Bordeaux in the Medoc region. In many places the vineyards extend a long way from the river-sides, covering thousands of acres.

What is meant by 'first growth' claret is the quality or, strictly speaking, the character of the wine. First growth claret was originally produced on four properties - Chateaux Lafite, Margaux, Latour and Haut-Brion. In the classification of 1855, Mouton-Rothschild was ranked as second growth.

In 1972 after over a century of rivalry, the owner of Mouton-Rothschild offered his second growth wine at a higher price than the first growth Chateau Lafite. Using the market's acceptance of this differential, he proved the superiority of his own wine and was given first growth in 1974.

It is now generally agreed that the three greatest chateaux are Lafite, Latour, and Mouton-Rothschild.

Incidentally, history has it that Haut-Brion was named after an Irishman and the suggestion is that the name is a derivation of John O'Brien, a Cork wine merchant of the 16th century. There was a Seigneurie d'Aubrion and the chateau was called d'Aubrion and then Hault-Brion before becoming Haut-Brion as it is known today.

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