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Tips From An Expert: How To Get Started On Wine Collecting

For most wine enthusiasts, becoming a collector wasn’t something they set out to do; it just sort of happened.

Looking back, I wish that ten years ago, when I started to think about collecting, I had someone to take me under their wing and help me think strategically. To be fair, there was no dearth of willing wings, but I was loath to let on that I didn’t really know what I was doing.

The truth is that most of us are just winging it, seduced by the latest sale or trendy region and rarely doing much in the way of long-term thinking. Of course, there are people whose approach is purely rational and profit-driven, but I have very little wisdom to impart to them. Instead I’ve assembled a guide for those just on the verge of becoming collectors to figure out where to start.

Identify Your Goals

To quote motivational speaker Simon Sinek, start with why: what do you hope to achieve by stockpiling bottles rather than just buying a nice one whenever you fancy? Money might be a factor. In this age of rapidly rising prices, it can be tempting to see wines from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Domaine Leroy as sure bets to increase in value. However, allocations of these examples are increasingly rare and buying on the secondary market carries risks. Plus the cost of storage, trading fees and taxes can put an unhealthy dent in your profits if not carefully managed.

Another fairly straightforward reason to collect wine is to guarantee your ability to drink well a decade or more down the line. Wines that are somewhat affordable now might not be by then. Even if you can plump for newly released vintages, properly matured bottles might well be out of your league.

A less common but very valid reason to collect might be that you enjoy mature wines that are rarely available second-hand, like Oregon pinot noir or New Zealand chardonnay. Because these wines aren’t yet broadly deemed “collectible”, resellers aren’t often interested in stocking them and the wineries themselves rarely have a library of “back vintages” (older vintages). These may not increase much in value, but if you enjoy them then to you they are, effectively, priceless.

A final reason, though you may not love admitting it, is that you want a flashy collection to impress your friends. There’s no shame in this and it’s better to accept it so you can construct your collection accordingly. You’ll want to buy a lot more mature wine that’s ready for drinking now or you’ll be of advanced years before you’re ready to drink with the big dogs.

Prepare Yourself

While I wouldn’t say training from a professional organisation is necessary, you should have at least a basic understanding of how to taste wine, particularly for spotting quality and age-worthiness. Though professional wine courses will give you a grounding in tasting, the best way to gain experience tasting mature wines is to join events run by enthusiasts’ organisations like the International Wine & Food Society or standalone groups like the Hong Kong Wine Society, which provide varying degrees of rigour in tasting and are good places to meet fellow collectors.

Promotional organisations like the Knights of Alba for Piedmont, Confrerie de Chevaliers de Tastevin for Burgundy, the Ordre de Coteaux de Champagne and the Commanderie de Bordeaux are great venues as well. Many wine merchants organise dinners where you will likely encounter someone who can give you an entrée into an association or private group of wine lovers.

Visiting the regions themselves is a wonderful way to understand the wines on a more profound level. However, you can’t just sign up for a guided tour (unless you’re in California, and even there many cult properties are off-limits). For your first visit, it’s often better to join a trip organised by a professional group to give you access to interesting producers. Otherwise, you may find yourself limited to the often uninspiring options that accept walk-in visitors.

Do your homework, but don’t put your faith in scores, which might be appealing for their simplicity, but completely erase differences in style. I would start by choosing a region I like, try to find, say, five favourite producers and then stick to them for several years, until I get an adequate sense of their wines’ development over time. That experience can be applied to a much broader range of wines going forward.

Finally, to understand wine’s investment potential, there are several helpful online tools. The London International Vintners Exchange, or Liv-Ex, is a marketplace with useful price indices. A pro subscription to Wine-Searcher is a great tool for determining individual prices, while another data-driven tool, Wine-Lister, aggregates critics’ scores and past performance to generate a single score of a wine’s market potential.

Set Yourself Up

There are a few key things required to consider yourself a collector:

If you ever plan to resell your wine, you need professional storage. A bonded warehouse in London like Octavian Vaults or London City Bond is the gold standard; you usually won’t have your own account but instead store with a merchant who does. Expect to spend about Åí15 per case annually.

In Asia, facilities either have locker-type set-ups that you alone can access or managed systems where you need never actually touch the wine. While the latter might seem less of a hassle, be cognizant there may be fees any time bottles are moved in or out.

Unless you delight in making unexpected discoveries among your own possessions, you’ll also need a record-keeping system. Professional storage helps, but if you store wine in many locations it’s best to have a consolidated database, whether an online service like CellarTracker or a humble Excel spreadsheet. You will need to be diligent about updating and should create a column with suggested drinking dates or you’ll end up missing the window on many wines.

Finally, choose a proper sales channel. For most beginners, I recommend merchants, particularly English ones with longstanding supplier relationships. There are the oldies Berry Brothers and Rudd (BBR), Corney and Barrow and Justerini and Brooks, plus comparative newcomers Farr Vintners, Goedhuis & Co, Fine + Rare and Bordeaux Index (BI)—all good choices. Alternatively, many storage facilities and merchants like BI, BBR and Fine + Rare have online marketplaces or exchanges. (There are also standalone exchanges like Cavex and Wine Owners that cater principally to collectors; their advantage is that fees tend to be lower than for merchants.)

Merchants’ exchanges also usually stipulate that the wine be stored with them or at least in a facility that meets certain standards, and those that do take possession of the wine will usually also note flaws like low fill levels, overseas import labels or damage to cork, capsule or label. These are probably your best bet if you want to amass an impressive collection quickly.

Be very careful at auctions, as the enticingly low starting prices and high-adrenaline environment can quickly lead to buyers’ remorse, particularly for those who forget to factor in commissions of 20 per cent on the hammer price.

Once you have a few years of collecting experience, you might explore en primeur, which involves buying wine while it is still in the barrel, to be delivered about two years after the harvest. However, there are risks: the prices aren’t always better than buying back vintages, and should the merchant go out of business before the expected delivery date, you might be out of luck. These wines typically take decades to mature, so this only works if you’re not in a rush.

And steer clear of “wine funds” that promise guaranteed returns and a veritable “expert” managing your portfolio. Mostly unregulated and prone to shady behaviour, wine funds also have more mundane issues like long investment periods, long redemption periods and hefty fees.

Buyer Beware

If you stick to reputable merchants or buy directly from producers, you shouldn’t have to worry much about counterfeits. However, for bottles older than 15 years, paper trails are less likely to be complete and labelling may be inconsistent (especially in countries like Italy), so a good supplier is extra important.

Authenticity is vital, but poor provenance affects real bottles just like fake ones. The more stops a bottle makes, the more opportunity for damage. In Asia, US import labels are often an ominous sign, as many come from questionably stored collections. As opposed to fairly temperate locales like France or the UK, origins with extreme climates are riskier still.

Having had one too many poor experiences with second-hand wine from Australia, I mostly avoid it.

My Approach

My own motive for collecting has always been to protect myself from being priced out of the market. Looking at Liv-Ex, you can see clear differences in regions’ recent performance: growth for the Rhône Valley and Bordeaux has been comparatively slow, while for Burgundy it has been astronomical. The first two are probably not headed for imminent unaffordability, but Burgundy is arguably already too expensive.

Hence I’m focused on Champagne and Italy, two regions that have seen considerable growth over the past five years (I also adore the wines).

I might also glance at recent reports from Wine-Lister or a magazine like Decanter to figure out which brands are trending. If a property I don’t know well is taking off, I try to sample some older wines to form a view. Meanwhile, if one of my favourites has become a hot ticket, I know I need to buy quickly.

If I were just starting today, I would set a budget for one year with roughly half allotted to purchases meant to be consumed within the next two years (reds aged 10-30 years; whites and champagne aged 5-20 years) and the other half for wines to store for at least five years (releases that are currently at least five years old). I would make adjustments depending on my “why”. Over time, I would reduce my “drink now” budget as my stored wines become ready to drink. The goal should be to buy wines that appreciate enough to cover the cost of their storage.

You won’t always get it right: many wines won’t appreciate at all and will be widely available pre-aged, so you might kick yourself for wasting money storing them. But you’ll develop a better sense of which wines tend to rise in price and which don’t, and hopefully, you will enjoy many great bottles along the way.

Five I Wish I’d Bought

Hindsight is 20/20, as they say, so here are the wines I should have bought in my early days of collecting

Jacques Selosse Initial Blanc de Blancs NV

I remember the days when this creamy, hazelnut-suffused NV from superstar grower Jacques Selosse was no more than a slight self-indulgence and a hip alternative to your nicer big-house NV Brut. Having experienced a 110 per cent price increase since autumn 2010, it’s now more of an occasional treat.

Armand Rousseau Clos St Jacques Premier Cru 1993

This wine used to feel like the insider’s grand cru (Clos St Jacques is a premier cru but many argue it deserves grand cru status). These days it’s priced like one, having risen 430 per cent in value since 2010. However, 1993 was a deeply underrated vintage and remains lower in price than other strong vintages from the Nineties. The wine itself remains a lyrical, perfumed epiphany.

Giacomo Conterno Barolo Monfortino Riserva 2004

Ten years ago, Roberto Conterno’s Monfortino was considered roughly on a par with his uncle Aldo Conterno’s Granbussia, though many believed the brighter future belonged to the seamless and approachable Granbussia.

It’s a sign of the swing towards traditionalism that Monfortino, with its austere, unyielding grip only gradually unveiling tar and rose laced splendour, has risen 200 per cent in price while similar vintages of Granbussia have only gained about 50 per cent.

Roagna Asili Vecchie Viti 2004

Had I known that the unassuming Luca Roagna, with his wild, heath-like vineyards and penchant for handsoff winemaking, would be the name to watch by the end of the decade,

I might have been less quick to glug down his ethereal, unexpectedly dainty Barbarescos. Now that they’ve increased 360 per cent in price in a decade, I’ve become sadly stingy with my Asili.

Bartolo Mascarello Barolo 2004

It was already apparent a decade ago that these wines were rock-star material, and a 560 per cent price increase later, it’s confirmed. These hardcore traditionalists have eschewed every trend—single-cru Barolo, aggressive green harvests, new oak ageing—and have come out smelling of roses, both literally and figuratively. Their beguiling mix of rigour and blossoming charm has proved a dynamite combo.

Five I Plan to Buy

Wisdom comes with experience. And these winners are coming home with me now

Philipponnat Clos des Goisses 2002

Inexplicably one of the most undervalued prestige cuvées in an era that fetishises single sites, the Clos des Goisses has a winning blend of generosity and poise that makes it a true wine lover’s champagne. The vintage’s blazing acidity will keep this baby singing for decades to come.

Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 2004

Long held back by its hokey “Champagne Charlie” moniker, Charles Heidsieck has undergone a major restoration of credibility thanks in large part to the Blanc des Millénaires. They are only released ten years after the vintage and epitomise the house’s rich, smoky, sexy style.

Azelia Barolo Bricco Voghera Riserva 2014

The Scavinos of Azelia have long lived in the shadow of their cousins at Paolo Scavino, with whom they share the famous Bric del Fiasc. Despite having taken a fairly modernist path through the 2000s, since the 2010s they have been producing a more elegant, vertical style but with serious ageing potential. The 2014 Voghera Riserva promises to be a sleeper hit when it is released in a few years’ time.

Sassicaia 2001

Sassicaia, despite being the quintessential Super Tuscan, has never led the pack on price (except the legendary 1985). It’s also one of the most consistent agers, far more like Bordeaux than fickle Burgundy. The 2001 is an aroma juggernaut, evincing layer upon layer of sophistication, polish and intrigue as the night wears on.

Montevertine Le Pergole Torte 2015

In the move towards traditionalism, Pergole Torte, the first 100 per cent sangiovese Super Tuscan, stands as a somewhat ironic standard bearer, a novelty (first made in 1971) that feels more traditional than wines with much more history. The 2015 is a powerful vintage for what is normally a delicate framed wine, but the extra stuffing (braced by still-ample acidity) suggests it has more staying power than most.

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