Egon Müller likes to take his time – when greeting visitors, answering their questions, and most importantly, processing and marketing his complex wines.
His latest triumph has been a decade in the making. A wine matured in his private cellar has set a record at auction as the most expensive white wine in the world.
His Scharzhofberger Trockenbeerenauslese is only 12 years, but it fetched an an astounding €12,000 ($13,400), at the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer wine auction held by the German fine wines association VDP. That’s €1,000 for each year of maturation.
The recent success of German wines has astonished wine lovers, speculators and collectors around the world. The renaissance of the Riesling is an open secret. For the last decade, international wine critics have been full of praise for dry Rieslings priced from €20 to €60.
Vintners like Friedrich Becker can certainly charge more than €100 for the best of their high-quality pinot noirs. And German winemakers have embarked on such a strong quality offensive that, for example, Volker Raumland from the Rheinhessen region can charge up to €160 for his sparkling wines.
But €12,000 – that’s a different story altogether. The bidding began on September 19, 2016, in the conference room of the austere IAT Hotel just outside the west German city of Trier. There were 18 bottles of Müller’s TBA, at a starting price of €2,000.
“We have found that a younger audience from all over the world, including places like Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, along with customers from Eastern European nations, are interested in these wines”
There was strong demand and many potential buyers. The price would undoubtedly have gone higher still if Mr. Müller hadn’t released four additional bottles at €12,000.
“Egon Müller is going up to 22 bottles, so that we can remain within a realistic price range,” the auctioneer announced, to a burst of laughter and of applause.
By the end of the auction, Mr. Müller had earned €320,443.20, including the auction markup and sales tax, plus €240,332.40 for 36 half-bottles (0.375 liters) of the same wine. Two world records were set: for the most expensive bottle of “young wine,” sold directly by the winery for the first time, and the most expensive bottle of white wine in the world.
It is a wonderful punchline in wine history that Mr. Müller’s syrupy Scharzhofberger Trockenbeerenauslese is the new poster child of the German winemaking industry. Hardly fermented, it has all the grape’s sweetness, like Liebfraumilch, which conquered British supermarkets in the early 1970s and ruined Germany’s reputation as a winemaking country. If the wine didn’t contain around 8 percent alcohol, it could almost be a children’s drink, with its exuberant fruity aroma.
So, again, why are wine connoisseurs paying €12,000 for a wine like this?
While the most expensive French wines are usually dry, top German wineries pick the grapes that have been on the vine longest, and in the most expensive locations.
For the most expensive specialty, ice wine, they wait until the frost arrives. The grapes are picked at temperatures of no more than -7 degrees Celsius (19 degrees Fahrenheit), making the basis for a highly concentrated, almost viscous, deeply flavorful wine. It comes as no surprise that Egon Müller’s ice wines are ranked the sixth and seventh most expensive white wines.
But how can success at auction be marketed and stabilized? It’s a question on the mind of Nik Weis of the St. Urbans vineyard in Leiwen. Part of Mr. Weis’ job, as board member of the VDP for the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region, is to make the VDP’s 2016 auction a success. He’s not entirely satisfied with last year’s results.
“We could have done more with the magnificent outcome,” said Mr. Weis, who hopes to rekindle the fame of German wine. Auctions are a good opportunity for this. And records are important, but they aren’t broken every year. This time, no more than 13 of 11,201 bottles are clearly in the running, twelve bottles of 2005 Trockenbeerenauslese from the Graacher Himmelreich vineyard in the Joh. Jos. Prüm winery in Bernkastel-Wehen, starting at €2,000, and a magnum for twice the opening bid.
The wine auction business is not a secret science, and not everyone who wants to taste the most expensive provenances has to bid in an auction. On the day before the auction, every wine is available for tasting.
Joachim Ress, one of the seven commissioners allowed to bid in the auction said the wines range from opening bids of €15 up to those worth thousands.
The commissioners collect orders from dealers, restaurateurs and collectors. Mr. Ress is also a member of the so-called Tax Commission, which pre-tastes and appraises the wines in the spring, and provides vintners with opening bid receivables, which they can accept or reject.
Brussels-based management consultant Jean Fisch runs the online publication moselfinewines.com together with David Rayer, and publishes his tasting notes a few weeks before the auction. He says there is growing demand for German wines around the world.
“We have found that a younger audience from all over the world, including places like Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, along with customers from Eastern European nations, are interested in these wines.”
This is good news for German wines and winemakers – and for the future of wine auctions.
“The VDP was historically launched as an auction association,” said VDP National Chairman Steffen Christmann. “It’s part of our tradition.”
In fact, only half of the 10 regional associations attend three auctions, in Trier, which includes the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region, Eberbach Monastery, representing Rheingau, and in Bad Kreuznach, which brings in the Ahr, Nahe, Pfalz, Rheinhessen regions.
The auctions are not a sure-fire success. “We vintners must notify our potential customers, as well as dealers and private citizens, early on,” said Mr. Christmann.
Wines that do not enter the market directly through wineries but through the two major international auction houses, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, receive attention through marketing by the auction houses. “We, on the other hand, cannot stand there and just hope that a few wealthy potential buyers will stop by,” said Mr. Christmann.
This has resulted in a minor competition among the regions. While Kreuznach netted €333,382 in 2015 with 3,256 bottles, the Rheingau region earned far less, collecting €74,234 for 2,249 bottles. And the two taken together were a drop in the bucket compared with Mr. Müller’s triumph on the Mosel.
Mr. Müller certainly doesn’t mind the prestige that comes with auction success but he also warns against price explosions. “We want buyers to come back,” he said. For him, the trick is to create a balance between demand from his customers, knowledge of the quality of a given year, and the number of available bottles, until high auction proceeds are almost unavoidable. Mr. Müller is a master of this art.
But doesn’t the auction process, with its seven commissioners, seem hopelessly stale? Why, for example, don’t winemakers auction off their rare, precious items online? “Perhaps we should look into the process,” said Mr. Müller, “but tradition is tradition, and the benefits have outweighed the drawbacks so far.” For Mr. Müller, one of those drawbacks is that all bottles of one variety can only be had for the same price.
However, the Bernkasteler Ring, the second major auction in the Mosel region, is trying its luck with innovation. In 2016, photos of bottles are being shown in a catalogue. A new auctioneer handles the morning auction, when larger lots, rather than individual bottles, are sold.
But not everyone is going for the big bucks at auction.
Markus Molitor, one of Germany’s best-known winemakers, does not care for auctions.
Since the early 1990s, Mr. Molitor has been buying wine-growing areas not just near his newly created winery in Wehlen, but also in the Saar and Ruwer regions. He and his employees drive many kilometers to examine parcels and determine the best time for the harvest.
Mr. Molitor attended the auctions for 20 years, selling his Auslese wines. “I want the Mosel to get back to where it was 80 years ago,” he said. But he is sitting out the auctions in 2016, as he did in 2015. “Sometimes you have to hold things back,” he said.
The Wine Advocate, founded by Robert M. Parker, awarded three of Mr. Molitor’s 2013 white wines 100 points – the highest possible score – after Mr. Molitor sold them to existing customers for €70 a bottle.
Mr. Müller’s Trockenbeerenauslese, of which there are now only three bottles left in Great Britain, is now worth €19,000, suggesting a missed opportunity for Mr. Molitor.
In the end, though, what is better for the reputation of German wine, the record price for Mr. Müller’s Trockenbeerenauslese or the triple 100-Parker-point win for Mr. Molitor?
Thorsten Firlus is a correspondent for WirtschaftsWoche. To contact: email@example.com