A User's Guide to Buying Fantastic, Affordable Old Wines
Well-aged wine doesn't have to be hugely expensive. Here, a guide to finding and buying it.
For some people, being a wine-lover is all about bagging the big beasts—Petrus, the world’s finest expression of Merlot; Screaming Eagle, the cult Napa Cabernet to which Robert Parker gave the first vintage 99 points; or, the rarest of all, anything made by Domaine de la Romanee Conti in Burgundy. Others take the opposite approach, seeking out the obscure; that Vin Jaune from a producer that nobody has heard of. For me, however, the greatest thrill is serendipity. I had a remarkable case of this last month. My father had been to his local auction house, a place that specializes in house clearances, and he bought a lot of wine, unseen, for about $100. Among the filthy bottles of sweet sherry and Chilean merlot was a 1975 Rioja Reserva from Berberana. First signs looked good, the level was high, the cork came out cleanly and the wine... well, it was undoubtedly one of the finest riojas I’ve ever had. The fruit was so pure and vibrant, bolstered by layers of tobacco and cedar with just a little tannin.
After we’d finished the bottle I decided that I wanted to drink more excellent-quality old wines, but for not much money. You may say I’m a dreamer; but this is not actually an impossible task. A few weeks after my encounter with the Berberana, I visited a London wine bar called Vinothec Compass, which opened in North Greenwich this summer and is owned by wine buyer Keith Lyons and Arnaud Compas, a Frenchman who founded Bedales Wines and later became head of business development for Robert Parker. The wine bar stocks the usual big names, but Arnaud has picked up taste for something a little different. He likes mature left bank Bordeaux: “French people generally drink wine after 10 years, so when I first came to England I was amazed to try really old wines.”
He opened a bottle of 1985 Château Dutruch Grand Poujeaux, which he sells for £55 ($80). It’s a good vintage but from an often neglected part of the Medoc, Moulis. There was a scent of tobacco and a good vein of ripeness running through the wine. Age means that “you can see the soul of the wine,” Compas told me, sounding extremely French.
But how to find these coveted wines—high-quality, well-aged, and miraculously affordable? According to Arnaud, it’s possible to buy wines such as this at provincial auctions in France—where the wines usually come from cellars of the deceased. Arnaud seeks out less sought-after Bordeaux vintages such as 1994 and 2001. “They blossom as old wines,” he says.
But we don’t all have the time or the contacts to go scouting around France in pursuit of wine-rich estate sales. Thankfully, many auction houses in Britain and America—like Sotheby’s and Christie’s as well as wine specialists Acker Merrall & Condit—allow you to bid online or on the phone. I also have a friend who buys a lot of good mature wine on eBay, but to do this you have to really know your stuff; the site is rife with novelty wines at overly-optimistic prices. Instead, look for specialist wine auction sites. In the US there’s WineBid, and in Britain there’s BidForWine, where you can buy cases or individual bottles. Winebid, for instance, has a bottle of 09 Chateau Poujeaux that’s currently at $35 a bottle. The label is slightly soiled, but it doesn’t matter if, like me, you’re buying to drink, not to invest. Both sites also have wines for sale at a fixed price rather than auction.
When buying via online auction, there are a few things to consider. For one, pay special attention to how the wine has been stored. “A good way to check that it has been properly stored is by looking at the level in the bottle. For example, don't buy a 30 year old wine—such as an '82 Bordeaux—if the wine level is below the top of the shoulder,” says Jamie Hutchinson from London wine merchant the Sampler. Auction houses both online and in person will provide this information.
Jane Roberts, a UK-based writer who buys at auction on a semi-professional basis, has some more practical advice: “Make sure you leave enough time for logging onto your account and bidding. A lot of auction houses use systems that are not quite as sophisticated as more established online auction websites. And don’t forget about auction fees or taxes that may be liable on top of what you purchased.”
But how do you know what to look for in the first place? Hutchinson's big tip is to “taste, learn about wine, and read wine writers.” Jane Roberts echoes this: “Know your vintage years. Know the climates of particular areas. Know what producers and vineyards you have tasted and liked previously.” Don’t buy to impress. “Buy something because you want to drink it,” says Roberts.
I now feel armed and ready to take on the world of wine auctions so that I may pursue my old wine goals. Meanwhile, the Berberana wasn’t the only find in my father’s haul. A bottle of Mercurey, a red Burgundy from 1990, was vigorous and earthy. There are also a few other Riojas and some Chateauneuf Du Pape from the 80s that I’ve got my eye on. Not bad for $100. There are bargains to be had for those with a little knowledge and daring.