How to collect vintage and contemporary wine

This article was originally published in Antique Trader
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Wine, coined the elixir of the Gods, has a vocabulary all its own – lush, sexy, sensuous, opulent, ethereal.

Full-bodied red wines, multi-layered bouquets of dark berries, black cherries, crushed plums, leather, for example, might be tart or astringent, smooth or silky, smoky or stony. If aged in oak barrels, they might also become vannilin, tarry or toasty. Cool, sparkling white wines, featuring hints of apple, lavender or peach with a kiss of cream, might be bright and bold, dry or sweet, elegant or refined. Some wines are especially friendly toward meat, others toward cheeses. Some, jammy, soft or creamy, are desserts in themselves.

Today, an entire industry has evolved to meet the needs of wine lovers. They join wine clubs, read wine reviews, take wine classes, enjoy wine tours, frequent wine festivals and savor wine tastings. But how does a wine enthusiast, someone who enjoys a sip of this or that with his meals or on his balcony on a balmy evening, evolve into a collector?

Chateau Haut Brion wineA dozen bottles of Chateau Haut Brion 1961 fetched $21,511 in April 2012 at Heritage Auction Galleries. Wine aficionado Robert Parker describes the vintage in the Bordeaux Book as “pure perfection, with gloriously intense aromas of tobacco, cedar, chocolate, minerals and sweet red and black fruits complemented by smoky wood. … This wine is akin to eating candy.”
vintage Harlan Estate wineDescribed by wine critic Robert Parker as offering “a dense purple color, and a splendid sweet nose of minerals, black currants, toast and spice,” this 1992 vintage from cult vintner Harlan Estate in the Napa Valley fetched $448 in June 2011 at Heritage Auction Galleries.

“Wine,” admits Charles Curtis, Master of Wine and Head of Wine for Christie’s, Asia, “is meant to be drunk, to be enjoyed, and it seems rather beside the point to have heaps of it gathering dust in storage.” Yet “the inconvenience of thirst,” he adds, “is inarguable.”

Among connoisseurs, having the right wine on hand for any occasion is a powerful incentive to accumulate a bit of stock. To those with means, a few extra bottles can easily multiply into dozens, scores, cases, then hundreds of cases – far more than one could possibly drink in a year or more.

Wine cellars vary with taste. Some feature a particular types of wine, wines from particular locations or wines in limited productions. Others may concentrate on a single wine arranged vertically, vintage by vintage. Most wine cellars, however, include a wide variety.

One of the delights of wine is enjoying each in its due season. So a typical cellar might include youthful wines, suitable for day-to-day drinking alongside newly released vintages, which are expected to be consumed in the future. Cellars may also include a selection of rare, fine wines at the peak of their aroma and flavors, ready to savor. How does a beginner know the right age to drink a wine? “There is no right age,” admits Curtis. “It is completely and totally a matter of personal taste.”

Fine wines not only improve in quality over time, but may also appreciate. So connoisseurs, in addition to collecting for personal enjoyment, often cellar wine as investments. Of course, they must know how long to hold and when to fold, while still realizing a profit. Investing in wine is no different from investing in a stock. If you buy the right wine at the right time, it will go up in value. If you “miss the boat” either buying or selling, it will go down.

Ideally, collectors buy young and sell old. Many purchase wines directly from the vineyards themselves – if they can. Older wines, no longer available at retail, are bought and sold through private transactions, brokers or at auction. As wines become more rare, however, prices rise considerably. A single 1997 vintage bottle from California’s Napa Valley’s Screaming Eagle, for example, is currently up for auction at Christie’s for $2,000 to $3,000. Christie’s expects two bottles of Harlan Estate, another Napa Valley cult wine, to sell for between $650 and $1,400, depending on their vintage.

vintage Windsor Vineyards wine Twelve bottles of 1970s Cabernet Sauvignon from the Windsor Vineyards in Healdsburg, Calif., all with customized labels noting that the wine was “Our Perfect Selection for the Table of / John Wayne,” included with the original shipping box addressed to Wayne’s Newport Beach home. Each Bottle Height: 12 inches. The selection realized $2,868 in October 2011 at Heritage Auction Galleries.

The wines of the Bordeaux, France, region are collectibles of choice. They are not only produced in quantities that sustain a secondary market, but reliably improve with age.

Indeed, some, if stored correctly, may “drink well” for a century or more. Bordeaux prices, like all wines, vary according to quality, vintage and availability. While a case of everyday Bordeaux may retail for around $150 at local wine stores, Christie’s has recently offered a case of Mouton 1986 for $9,000, Latour 1982 for $16,000 and Petrus 1998, one the world’s rarest wines, for $31,000. Châteaux Lafite, Mouton in Pauillac, Margaux in Margaux and Haut-Brion Bordeaux are also highly collectible. Particularly successful vintages can be particularly costly. Some Bordeaux command more than $75,000 a case.

vintage Chateau d’Yquam wineChateau d’Yquam 1949, Sauternes, France, outstanding amber color, $1,314, Heritage Auction Galleries, April 2012.

Others command considerably more.

Burgundies, both red and white, are also highly collectible. Vintage variations are great and small yields insure some of the world’s highest prices, however. So wine investors, lacking professional guidance, may easily be led astray. Still, bottlings in any vintage of Domaine Leroy, Henri Jayer, Christophe Roumier and Armand Rousseau, for example, offer delightful pleasures. While an everyday Burgundy may cost as little as $200 per dozen bottles, a case of Romanee-Conti could easily top $130,000.

Currently, Champagnes (Bollinger Grande Année 1990, Krug 1985), as well as wines from the Rhone Valley (Guigal La Turque 2005, Jaboulet La Chapelle 1990), Italy (Sassicaia 1990), and Australia (Henschke Hill of Grace Shiraz 1998, Yquem 1986, Yquem 2001), are also good investments.

With so many different wines with so many different characters from so many different vineyards at so many different prices, how does one begin a collection?
Slowly.

Duncan Sterling, Vice President, Head of New York Auctions, Sotheby’s Wine, advises enthusiasts to “to drink as many different kinds of wine as you can and decide what you prefer. Once you decide what region you prefer, concentrate on it and drink different vintages and different wines in that region and slowly you will build up a base of knowledge about that particular area.”

Beginners should expect to spend at least $2,000 per dozen bottles for investment-quality wine.

 

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