Much like buying whisky at auction, a lot of the fun and excitement for the wine buyer comes from perusing the wonderfully eclectic bottles that appear in our auction each month, depending on what treasures our sellers bring. Whereas retailers are largely restricted to recent releases, or a select number of mature fine wines with impressive price tags to match, our auction provides the opportunity to buy single bottles of diverse wine styles, many of which have been gaining in complexity over many years.
Here are are some tips to consider when buying wine at auction:
Vintage is important, but so is producer
Grape growing and winemaking techniques since the late 1990s have resulted in much more consistent, riper wines than those of yesteryear, when vintage could often be a decisive factor. In spite of adverse weather conditions, a great producer can work miracles with individual vineyards or bottlings, even in supposedly terrible vintages.
There is a tendency amongst wine critics to focus on particular, atypical ‘great’ vintages, with huge concentration and the capacity to age for generations. Supposedly lesser years will generally be drinking much sooner, and can sometimes provide more charming, subtle wines.
Some grape varieties and wine styles age better than others
Over 95% of all wines sold are consumed within two weeks of purchase. That said, certain wines benefit enormously from cellaring.
Cabernet Sauvignon, the backbone of most Bordeaux blends due to its thick skin, depth of colour and tannin is responsible for many of the world’s longest-lived reds, be it from France, California, Australia and beyond. Nebbiolo, Italy’s chewy (and often deceptively pale) red wine aristocrat is responsible for the ‘tar and roses’ bouquet found in Piemonte’s Barolo and Barbaresco wines, which also make regular auction appearances.
Wines from the north and south of the Rhône Valley are also regulars – with the most celebrated appellations of Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie and Chateauneuf du Pape always attracting plenty of interest, if not the big ticket hammer prices of their Bordeaux and Burgundy counterparts.
In terms of white grapes, Riesling from Germany, Alsace, Australia and beyond ages magnificently, with even relatively modest bottlings often surviving for many years. Other age-worthy white grape varieties to look out for include Chenin Blanc (notably from Loire appellations such as Vouvray or Savennières), and Chardonnay, such as Burgundy’s Chablis Premier and Grand Crus.
But remember – age does not always equal beauty
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder when it comes to maturity, and there is a huge range of opinion amongst even the finest palates in the business as to a wine’s window of drinkability. Traditionally the English have enjoyed their wines on the mature side, long after drinkers from other nations (be it France or the USA) have enjoyed the more youthful charms and vigour that younger wine offers. For many drinkers a happy medium is the answer. But remember, the older the wine, the less obvious, up-front fruit it is likely to have.
The devil is in the detail when it comes to labelling
New World producers generally make wines with very consumer-friendly labels, where the grape variety is centre-stage and the back label guides the buyer in terms of the particular vintage conditions, longevity, food-matching tips, and amusing stories relating to the winemaker’s dog etc.
Traditional Old World wine producers tend to prefer for the wine to tell its own story, which generally means that the wine is named after the village or particular vineyard with no reference to grape variety. In regions like Burgundy, where Pinot Noir is almost entirely responsible for the region’s red wines, this is of huge significance.
A wine labelled Gevrey-Chambertin, for example, can be made using fruit picked from vineyards anywhere within the village of Gevrey, whereas the 26 Premier Crus (e.g. Les Cazetiers, Clos Prieur, Clos St. Jacques) generally come from a single vineyard or plot, and are a distinct step up in terms of quality, concentration and potential longevity.
Shrewd buyers always keep in mind the trade-off: a great producer’s more basic wines will often trump a lesser producer’s Premier Cru.
Look out for New World Classics
Bordeaux has historically ruled the roost in terms of wines sold at auction, due to quality, longevity and, crucially, the relatively large quantities produced. Scarcer fine wines from other French and European vineyard regions have often been squirreled away and drunk with relish by collectors, though are still prized when they do come up.
So don’t forget to look out for New World classics from countries such as Australia, the USA, Chile and Argentina. The secondary market for these wines is not particularly well-established and they are often overlooked. It’s often possible to pick up superb, mature bottles for not much more than their original retail prices.
Magnums and large format bottles
These are not only a huge amount of fun, providing an undoubted wow factor when opened, but they also mature more slowly than regular bottles due to the more limited access that oxygen has to the wine through the cork.
Wines bottled in magnum can still be singing when the same wine in a regular bottle has dried out and oxidised. It’s worth noting, though, that the reverse is true, with smaller bottles maturing more quickly than their big brothers and sisters.
Temperature, serving, to decant or not to decant
Having won your lots, it’s worth giving a little bit of thought as to how best to get maximum enjoyment out of them. Many people serve their red wines too warm and their white wines too cold. Tepid, soupy red wine tastes flabby and lacks vitality, but when served cool, at around 12˚C to 18˚C, the acidity, freshness, subtlety and perfume are all to the fore. For white wines 8˚C to 12˚C is generally about right: any colder and you risk numbing your palate, or robbing the wine of the lovely aromas and bouquet which you’ve paid your money for.
Old corks are prone to being incredibly fragile. Our guide to opening whisky bottles provides a wealth of tips, most of which are directly applicable to opening wine bottles.
Once opened, very old wines have a habit of flowering beautifully before sometimes fading and oxidising quite rapidly, so only decant well in advance if your wine is youthful or, at best, in its middle age. It’s worth noting that many purists refuse to decant Burgundy (or Barolo and Barbaresco), as they believe this robs these more aromatically fragile wines of their perfume.
Conversely, enthusiastically chugging young wines, be they good quality White Burgundy, young Bordeaux, Australian Shiraz or muscle-bound Ribero Del Dueros into a decanter, even at short notice, helps get oxygen in to the wine and open it out for you to more fully appreciate.
Do some research
There’s a wealth of information to help you research bottles, vintages and producers further, whether it’s publications like Decanter or Wine Spectator or professional critics like Jancis Robinson MW, Robert Parker, Antonio Galloni and many others. Online forums such as Cellartracker provide recent tasting notes and experiences from knowledgeable collectors.
Last but not least, there’s an old wine trade adage, certainly true of whisky too, that must be kept in mind: ‘there are no great wines, only great bottles’. Bottles of wine can, and do, mature at different rates and show different sides of their personalities on different occasions, which is where much of the excitement and interest of this ever-evolving product lies.