Maybe you’ve been turned off by the auction numbers (“case of Romanée-Conti brings $59,000!”) and think wine collecting is just a one-percenter’s status game.
It’s not just for those with the fattest wallets. Although major price inflation has hit first- and second-growth Bordeaux and grand cru and premier cru Burgundy, under-the-radar collectibles are still out there for those starting out or trying to decide what to do with this year’s bonus.
Here’s what you need to know and what to collect now.
Have a Plan
Please. Like many wine lovers, I started out haphazardly squirreling away a few prized reds and ended up with a disorganized mix of bottles and cases in a corner of my basement. I’ve become systematic about my quietly aging stash.
There are plenty of reasons to collect. For example, there's convenience in having fine wines on hand so you don’t need to dash out at the last minute in quest of serious bottles for a special dinner. And you save a lot by buying the better stuff when it’s young and cheap—and aging it yourself—rather than paying jacked-up-prices for hard-to-find mature examples.
Although the majority of wines are made to be consumed within months, the best reds taste way better after they’ve aged at least several years, even a decade, or more. The wines’ edgy tannins mellow, and fruity flavors evolve into layers of earthy complexity that repay time spent waiting to drink them. (A number of whites, preserved by high acidity, also improve with time.)
Follow Your Taste
Buying wine is like buying art, except that you have to consume at least some of it along the way to enjoy it. So pick what you like. The only wines really worth collecting are ones you actually like to drink. Investment potential? Remember that wine isn’t as liquid (no pun intended) as stocks, and there are no guarantees that prices for your bottles will rise to bragging levels by the time you want to sell.
Taste Before You Buy
Buy a bottle and try it before buying a case. But I wouldn’t advise buying more than two cases of any one wine.
Why? Collectors’ tastes evolve. I’ve watched former cult cab fanatics sell off case after case at auction so they can splurge on their new passion, Burgundy.
Think About Storage
There’s no point in keeping fine wines reposing in a fancy rack in the kitchen. Sadly, I’ve observed too many expensive reds displayed as decor and gradually destroyed because the temperature was too warm (a steady 55 degrees is ideal) or low humidity dried the corks. Invest in a temperature-controlled unit, keep an inventory of what you buy, and don’t forget to list it all on your insurance in case of power failure.
Get a Solid Seller
Purchasing from a reliable merchant, or direct from a winery, is better than running off to an auction, at least when you’re starting out. And don’t be seduced by prices that are too good to be true. California retailer Premier Cru offered amazing deals on Bordeaux crus classes and is now being sued by angry customers who never got their wines.
And Now … Where to Start?
What to collect? Forget much-hyped trophies and hunt wines from regions that big, established collectors overlook. Pick a place you love (such as Provence) or wineries you’ve visited.
Here’s my pick of a half-dozen regions that are undervalued today, in which it’s still possible to find older vintages at reasonable prices.
California & Oregon: West Coast pinot noirs don’t turn up in auctions the way Napa Cabernets do, so some can still be had for under $50. Yet many have the balance and acidity to age. Look for the less-expensive bottlings from Kutch, Failla, Ceritas, and Knez (all from the Sonoma Coast and Anderson Valley) and from Eyrie from Oregon.
Loire Valley: This is first-class collectible territory right now, with reds from Cabernet Franc and whites from Chenin Blanc that age brilliantly for up 30 years and sometimes more. Best-bet reds are from Chinon, Bourgueil, and Saumur-Champigny. such as Olga Raffault Chinon Les Picasses (current vintages $25, 1989 $75) and Catherine and Pierre Breton Bourgueil Les Perrières ($40, older vintages $80). (For dry whites, look for Savennières (Domaine du Closel), Montlouis (Jacky Blot), and Vouvray (Domaine Huet).
Provence: The region isn’t just for rosé. Full-bodied reds from Bandol, east of Marseille, for example, are made primarily from Mourvedre and have the power and depth to last. The most elegant one is deep, intensely aromatic Château de Pibaron (current vintages $40, older vintages $65).
Beaujolais: Reds from the crus of Moulin-à-Vent and Morgon, made from Gamay grown on granite soils, have weight and structure as well as rich fruit and can be as impressive and age-worthy as some Burgundies. Recent vintages 2014 and 2011 (along with 2005) are outstanding. Dynamite bottles come from Domaine du Vissoux (Moulin-à-Vent) and in Morgon, Domaines Louis-Claude Desvignes, Jean-Paul Thévenet, and Jean Foillard. Most current vintages are about $25.
Rioja: This historic region in central Spain is noted for its long-lived reds, and many wineries regularly release elegant old vintages from the cobwebbed “cemeteries” in their cellars. One is CVNE (Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España), whose highly complex, smoky toned Imperial Gran Reserva (current $55, older $60 and up) and brighter, spicier Viña Real Gran Reserva (current $35, older $65 and up) are made mostly from Tempranillo.
Germany: Why the Rieslings from this country are still so undervalued remains a mystery to me. These whites are bright, zippy, and food-friendly when young, and they develop amazing complexity after five to 10 and more years. I’ve had bottles from the 1920s that are still singing. Even the top “Grosses Gewächs” (grand cru) wines from such stellar producers as Keller, Dönnhoff, and Zilliken cost $25 to $50 a bottle.