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World's Most Expensive Wines
When an enterprising young man named James Christie opened his sales rooms in London in December 1766, his first auction consisted of the estate of a “deceased nobleman” containing “a large Quantity of Madeira and high Flavour’d Claret.” The records don’t relate how much these delightfully described “high Flavour’d clarets” fetched but as the whole sale realized a grand total £175, it is a sure bet that if Christie had known that two hundred years later, in 1985, his now famous auction house would sell one bottle of wine for £105,000, or $160,000, he might have held back a bottle or two to enrich his future heirs.
This bottle was a Bordeaux, a 1787 Chateau Lafite, and, according to The Guinness Book of World Records, 18 years later it still is the world’s most expensive bottle of wine. Its great age alone would have ensured a good price but what gave it its special cachet, especially to American collectors, and ensured the record price tag were the initials Th.J. etched in the glass.
The bottle had belonged to Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States and one of the most revered of its founding fathers. A philosopher, scientist and statesmen, the aristocratic Jefferson was also an avid oenophile. When he was ambassador to France he spent much of his time visiting the vineyards of Bordeaux and Burgundy, buying wine for his own collection and on behalf of his friends back home. He is also associated with two other bottles of very pricy wine, a 1775 Sherry ($43,500) and the most expensive white wine ever sold, a 1787 Chateau d’Yquem ($56,588).
Of course none of these wines are actually drinkable now; it is unusual for even the best Bordeaux to last more than 50 years, and 200 years is beyond any wine’s limit. The allure of these high-priced bottles of vinegar, and other wines of its ilk, is purely in the joy of collecting, not consuming. The 1787 Lafite was explicitly bought as a piece of Jefferson memorabilia, not as a bottle of wine, and it now resides in the Forbes Collection in New York. These wines are rather like old stamps, something to be collected, horded but never used, and they command such high prices not because of their utility but because of their scarcity and consequent appeal to collectors. Compiling a list of the World’s Most Expensive Bottles of Wine is not as simple as it might first appear. How do you compare the price paid for a double magnum–that’s four bottles–to a single bottle? Do you rate them on the same scale or do you divide the price of the big bottle by four in order to determine its per-single bottle price?
So, rather than compiling a league table we determined 11 separate categories, then sought out the most expensive bottle in each category, and a pretty interesting search it turned out to be. One of the first things you’ll notice is that all the wines on the list were sold at auction, because, except in rare occasions, the seller knows that the publicity surrounding a special bottle, and the heated atmosphere of competitive bidding, often results in even higher prices.
The world’s most expensive bottle of wine that could actually be drunk today is also the most expensive wine ever sold in America, a Montrachet 1978 from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti that was hammered down at Sotheby’s in New York in 2001. The lot of seven bottles fetched $167,500, or $23,929 per bottle. This is an extraordinary price for a white wine, even in the rarified world of wine collecting. What happened was that two avid collectors were bidding against each other and got carried away, each refusing to yield as the price rose through the stratosphere.
Michael Broadbent Michael Broadbent , the former head of Christie’s wine department, relates a similar story concerning the sale of the Jefferson Lafite. As the bidding approached £100,000 for this unique bottle, he changed bid steps, that is the amount the bids increased by. One of the two remaining bidders was Marvin Shanken Marvin Shanken , publisher of the Wine Spectator, and according to Broadbent, he didn’t notice the change until, to his very obvious horror, he realized that he had just offered to pay £100,000 for one bottle of wine. As he sat there ashen faced a great hush fell over the packed auction room as everyone waited to see if the other bidder, Christopher Forbes, would come back in. He eventually did, at £105,000, much to Shanken’s very palpable relief.
Then there is the strange case of the most expensive bottle of wine never sold. In 1989 William Sokolin, a New York wine merchant, had a bottle of Chateau Margaux 1787, also with Jefferson’s initials, on consignment from its English owner. He was asking $500,000 for it but had had no cash offers when he took it along to a Chateau Margaux dinner at the Four Seasons restaurant. (Why would it cost so much more than the 1787 Lafite? It didn’t cost more than the Lafite, just that Sokolin was asking $500,000. I don’t think he expected to get this much and had no offers by the time of the accident. However, just by asking such a huge sum he generated a lot of publicity, which some people speculate was the whole point of the exercise. He did however get $225,000 from the insurance company which he claims, with some justification, makes it the world’s most expensive bottle, even if it was never sold. Besides everything else it’s a fun story about a very expensive bottle however you rate it.)
At the end of the evening he was getting ready to leave when a waiter carrying a coffee tray bumped the bottle, breaking it. Luckily, Sokolin had the foresight to insure his valuable vin, and shared the $225,000 payout with the owner, which makes this the world’s most expensive broken bottle of wine. History does not tell us what happened to the unfortunate waiter.
What all these wines have in common, whether it’s the undrinkable 1787 Lafite or the eminently drinkable 1945 Mouton, and what makes them command such astronomic prices, is their scarcity value.
The world seems to have an ever-increasing appetite for collecting unusual old things, be they baseball cards, 1950s Formica furniture or steam train memorabilia, and it’s only natural that rare wines are subject to this same collecting mania.
Now, with more and more people discovering the pleasures of drinking wine, especially the newly rich of China and East Asia, the prices of all fine wines will continue to rise and it will only be a matter of time before Mr. Jefferson’s bottle, and several others on our list, see their formally eye-popping prices surpassed as ever richer and ever more determined collectors compete for that one, must-have bottle of wine.
The pleasure derived from tasting Yquem is difficult to describe.
It offers a myriad of well-balanced, complex flavours that generate even more harmonies over time. The impression that remains is reminiscent of a quote from Frédéric Dard "the silence that follows a piece by Mozart, in which the listener remains suffused with the music". This reflects the fact that Château d'Yquem stays on the palate for a remarkable long time, providing a unique, prolonged pleasure. There is a lovely expression in French to describe Yquem's tremendously long aftertaste: il fait la queue du paon, which means that it spreads out like a peacock's tail.
It is always difficult to describe wine-tasting experiences with any precision. The senses of sight, smell, taste and touch are all stimulated virtually at the same time. While gifted tasters can identify some of the aromas and flavours in a glass of Yquem in an effort to define its complexity, they never really succeed in communicating its essence or explaining its mystery. Mere analysis, whether chemical or organoleptic, is not sufficient to account for Yquem's greatness. Yquem tells a unique story... It starts with the bouquet. Although not always very outgoing in young vintages, it is marked by fruit (apricot, mandarin, and occasionally tropical fruit) and oak (vanilla and toasty aromas). Older vintages, on the other hand, have an extraordinarily complex fragrance as soon as the bottle is opened, with hints of dried fruit (dried apricot, prune, stewed fruit, and marmalade), spice (cinnamon, saffron, and liquorice), and even flowers (lime blossom, etc.). The first impression of Château d'Yquem on the palate is always very silky, and often sumptuous. It then fills out, "coating the palate". This fine wine has a strong, but never overbearing character, with great elegance and poise. It always maintains a balance between sugar and acidity (sweetness and freshness). A touch of bitterness can also contribute to the overall harmony. Château d'Yquem's aftertaste is legendary, and it tells another story, which lasts and lasts…
Certain connoisseurs consider it outrageous to drink a young Yquem and believe that opening such a monumental wine before its thirtieth birthday is tantamount to a sacrilege. Others, on the contrary, think that Yquem can be enjoyed at all stages in its life.
Château d’Yquem—three from 1787 and three from 1784. One of the bottles of 1784 Yquem was the centerpiece of a wine tasting organized last year by Mr. Rodenstock for an international circle of wine connoisseurs and collectors, including Michael Broadbent, the director of Christie’s wine department. “The 1784 that I tasted was soft, still sweet, and without fault,” Mr. Broadbent told us when we visited him in his office the day before the sale. His tasting note, made at the time, is more lyrical: “Color is perfect old amber, bright and lively; bouquet perfect! Unbelievable. Scented vanilla and blancmange. On the palate, still sweet, with perfect weight, balance, and acidity. Dry finish. Flavor of peaches and cream.” How well the 1787 Yquem has stood up over two centuries will become known next year, when Mr. Rodenstock plans to open a bottle of it at a tasting that he has arranged to put on at Monticello.
Jefferson was not only very fond of wine, Mr. Broadbent told us, but a great believer in its social value. “No nation is drunken where wine is cheap,” Jefferson wrote to a friend, and throughout his life he argued consistently for low tariffs on wine, on the ground that “it is, in truth, the only antidote to the bane of whiskey.” His knowledge of wine was significantly broadened during the four years he spent as Minister to France, though he hardly went there as an oenological novice. Jefferson fell in love with France—its culture, its political philosophy, its cuisine, and its wines, which for the first time he was able to taste at their best. In 1787, he made a tour of the French wine regions and, with typical thoroughness, classified the various growths; those he named as being of the first quality were (in modern spelling) Margaux, Latour, Haut-Brion, Lafite, and Yquem. During his visits to the vineyards, Jefferson made it his business to become acquainted with the proprietors and to arrange to buy directly from them rather than from wine merchants.
After returning to America and accepting the post of Secretary of State in President Washington’s Cabinet, Jefferson continued to buy wine directly from French vineyards, employing as his shipping agents Fenwick Mason & Company, in Bordeaux. (Joseph Fenwick was United States Consul there.) In September, 1790, Jefferson sent off letters to a number of château owners for a considerable amount of wine for Washington and for him, the lots to be identified with the initials “G.W.” and “T.J.,” respectively. According to an impressive amount of written evidence (Jefferson saved the letters he received and copies of those he wrote) collected by Mr. Broadbent, the “1787 Lafitte Th. J.” coming up for sale was part of the September, 1790, order. “Of course, there is no proof,” Mr. Broadbent said. “What we can say with certainty, on the advice of Hugo Morley-Fletcher, who is our glass expert here, is that the bottle is of the correct age. Also that the lettering and wheel engraving on the bottle are absolutely right for the period. The cork appears to be original, and the cork of a bottle of 1787 Yquem found in the same cellar has been analyzed in a German laboratory and proved to be original. Furthermore, we have circumstantial evidence—masses of it—supporting the ordering of this wine and its identification. That’s about it.”