Collecting guide: Starting a wine cellar
Specialists Charles Foley and Noah May offer expert pointers for nascent collectors, from choosing the right vintages to the options for storing those precious bottles
Buy what you like, whether that is the ethereal charm of a Burgundian Pinot Noir, the cavernous depth of a Classed Growth Cabernet or the floral aromas of a Sauvignon Blanc.
Fondness for certain foods may relate to your tastes for different wines. Use this to your advantage by seeking out and buying only what you will enjoy drinking in the same way you shop for ingredients for favoured recipes.
If you like sushi then perhaps you should explore the crus of Chablis. If steak is often found sizzling on your stove perhaps an Argentinean Malbec is more your bag. Wines usually have a suitable dancing partner — Sauternes with blue cheese, Champagne and oysters, Syrah and game, and so on.
Strong vintages make all the difference. Stellar vintages in Bordeaux for example — 1982, 1986, 1989, 1990, 2000, 2005, 2009, 2010 — will have prices to match the high quality. Seek out lesser young vintages such as 2012 and 2008, which are not so highly priced but still have bags of concentration and complexity.
If your birth year happens to be a good vintage, count your blessings and start stockpiling curious bottles to celebrate with in years to come.
The latitude and longitude of wine is breadth and depth, enabling an enthusiast to draw parallels between the same grape variety grown at opposite ends of the earth, or explore the effect of Mother Nature on different vintages of the same wine.
Finding a much-loved wine is a great thing and can lead you to new discoveries. If a bottle of 2009 Bordeaux blew you away then you may wish to explore Napa Valley wines such as Shafer’s Hillside Select or Harlan Estate, which are usually Cabernet/Merlot dominant, or McLaren Vale’s powerful Cabernets in Australia.
And why not seek out horizontals and verticals to discover the depth of a particular wine? Avid fans of Bordeaux may collect various wines from Châteaux in the same year as a horizontal to discover the variation between one patch of vines and the next. Or you may wish to assemble a run of vintages of a particular wine for a superb vertical tasting.
In days gone by there were only a handful of trusted wine critics; today we are spoilt for choice. Finding a voice that you trust in the melee of opinion available is not easy but will pay dividends as recommendations will be made that concur with your own preferences.
Much is made of the difference between the American and British palate, with the former, perhaps best typified by Robert Parker, the Svengali of fine wine, thought to enjoy higher-alcohol, more robust and concentrated red wines. The British palate, meanwhile, is thought to favour higher-acidity, lighter-alcohol wines with complexity and elegance of structure.
Putting the wine to bed in a cellar is the best way to guarantee it a longer life. Lying it horizontally in a rack means the liquid is in touch with the cork, which prevents it from drying out.
A perfect cellar should be cool, between 11° and 14°, with 12° striking the most happy medium. Temperature swings will affect the taste of the wine — too hot and the wine will age quickly with cooked flavours. If the cellar is too cold the cork will suffer from low humidity and begin to dry out, causing seepage and oxidative flavours.
Bottles like nothing better than sitting in the dark; sunlight will dissipate the molecules in the wine and leave it insipid and colourless. Light bulbs may fade labels but as the glass is dark most low-level light will not cause harm to the wine. Perhaps the best tip for new collectors is to simply leave the bottles in their original cases.
Serious wine collectors can be found pacing the terraces of Quinta do Noval, cycling around the vineyards of Champagne and trekking up the flinty slopes of a Grand Cru in the Mosel Valley. New experiences, new wines and a wealth of knowledge can best be gained by packing your bags and jetting off to your nearest vineyard.
Most wineries offer tours for a small fee and many merchants and auction houses will host tastings with a range of great wines to get your teeth into. One of the best in London is the Decanter Fine Wine Encounter, which happens twice yearly and sees winemakers pitching up with their bottles. It’s a great opportunity to talk to artists who coax a sensuous liquid from the whims of Mother Nature.
When Christie’s sold bottles of 1780 Dark and Light rum from Harewood House last year we were lucky enough to visit the old cellars, where a leather, gold-trimmed ledger contained a complete inventory of the cellar since the 18th century, noting where the wines were purchased, how much for, where they were stored and which bottles, according to the butler, had been consumed.
Not every cellar has such a grand book, but keeping a record of the bottles in your collection is a good idea. It not only lets you know when you need to replenish a favoured tipple, but it excites auction house specialists — trust me!
The wine trade has its own season, which is useful to know. In late January merchants will offer Burgundy En Primeur (wine sold in barrel from the latest vintage for bottling and delivery in two years’ time). In March/April Bordeaux will host its own En Primeur, and collectors can visit châteaux or expect merchants offerings in their inbox. In May Italy holds tastings of Barolo, and most London merchants will follow suit with offers of younger Barbaresco and Baroli. In November most merchants focus on the Rhône Valley and Christmas offerings of hearty reds and Ports.
At Christie’s, we host the Hospices de Beaune Barrel Sale on the third Sunday in November, when the streets of Beaune are filled with wine-lovers.
In youth, fine wines — like people — are generally robust, vital, yet somewhat one-dimensional in their appeal. The old adage is that once a certain age is reached, there are no great wines, only great bottles — there is indisputable truth here. It is nothing short of tragic when corks are pulled on older bottles and it quickly becomes clear that a once glorious bottle is now oxidized, lifeless — the victim of circumstance, of neglect.
Perhaps the relative frailty of these older bottles helps add to the joys of finding a great one. When fully mature wines show well, they can be transcendently wonderful. My earlier reference to the human condition rings true here, too, I think. Youthful wines may show a vitality that a bottle approaching its half-century would struggle to muster, but there is nuance, charm and a singular sense of character in a bottle of Latour 1959 that a 2000 or 1982 could only dream of.
We sell around 16,000 lots per year in our wine auctions around the world. These are usually by case, but we also offer interesting and rare old bottles. Our strength is in older vintages of wines that you don’t tend to find at retail, expertly curated cellars of old curiosities, and private collections of perfectly stored wines with impeccable provenance.