A Quick Guide to Collecting and Investing in Vintage Wine

Château MOUTON-ROTHSCHILD. Sold for €600 via Tajan (October 21). 1 bouteille Château Mouton-Rothschild. Sold for €600 via Tajan (October 21).

What makes the prospect of collecting and investing in vintage wine (older wines) a worthwhile endeavor is that their taste only gets better with age. Rounder “mouthfeel,” a less restrained palate, and a lingering finish are just three examples after a wine has been aged for 10 years or longer. 

Needless to say, wine isn’t like a painting or work of decorative art, where the value may increase but the viewing experience remains the same. By tucking away a bottle of wine in your cellar, you may be spiking its worth at auction while also adding new flavor nuances to the wine once it’s opened years later. 

That said, many bottles of wine sold at auction are retained as valuable objects and never drunk. Because once you uncork the bottle you can no longer sell it – and its value has already plummeted. A major question as you start to build your wine collection is whether you plan to sip these wines yourself – or will you be their steward as they age even further? There’s no right or wrong approach.

What is vintage wine? 

Before we get into starting a wine collection, let’s take a minute and define “vintage.” When taken literally, this refers to the year in which the wine’s grapes were harvested. The year is printed prominently on the label. Nearly all wine sold around the world carries a vintage with the exception of some non-vintage Champagnes, due to the winemakers blending the best of different harvests in recent years. At auction, the term “vintage” more than likely refers to a wine that – say it’s a Pinot Noir – was released several years before the current Pinot Noir releases you can find at your local wine shop.  

Domaine Olivier Bernstein, assortiment de Grand cru, 2017.

Domaine Olivier Bernstein, assortiment de Grand cru, 2017. Est: CHF1,500 – CHF3,000, via Dogny Auction (November 2021).

How to start and store a wine collection 

There are two ways to begin accumulating a wine collection that will be worth something later on: you can buy new-release bottles at your favorite wine shop and store for five to 10 years at a minimum; or you can scoop up already aged bottles at auction. In both cases, you’re not buying these wines to drink now. Instead, you are cellaring them, allowing their value to increase over time.   

Studying and following auctions is the best method to not only pick up gems for your collection but also begin to notice patterns in the value of wines of interest.

Not sure about proper cellar conditions? Because, just like art, where framing quality and room temperature (in which the art was kept) are considered when determining its value, you may be required to disclose the ways in which you cared for the wine. Wine should be stored in a cool, dark and slightly damp area where the temperature hovers between 55 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. This is why it’s worth investing in a wine fridge: you can verify the temperature is kept within a consistent range. Nine times out of ten, collectors set up cellars in their basement. Whether it’s a dedicated room or not doesn’t matter. You can just as easily plug in a wine fridge or arrange wine racks in a subterranean space without it being behind a second door.  

A wine cellar with several bottles of wine laid down on their sides

Wine expert Jancis Robinson provides a few key tips on how to ensure your wine is stored properly. First, store the bottles on their sides and avoid harsh sunlight. The reason is that you want to keep this wine as cool as possible and if humidity levels are too high this could actually damage the cork. Keeping the wine away from vibrational appliances such as a washer or dryer is also considered to be a good rule.   

What’s a good vintage wine? 

If you’re at all into wine, you likely already know that some wines don’t age well at all; ageing can cause their flavor profile to suffer over time. You want to drink such wines within 2-3 years after purchasing. Otherwise, you may have moved past the window in which this wine performs well on the palate. As a general rule, many red wines are ripe for ageing but only a select white wines are. For a white wine to age well, it needs to have been aged in oak, not stainless steel, before its release. You should also consider the palate: are there tropical-fruit notes or a chalky undertone? Bright, fresh fruit notes rarely age well while something with a backbone, like chalkiness, is prime for ageing.  

According to WineFolly.com’s handy White Wine Ageing Chart, white wines can be aged for as much as 30 years. The chart lays out the probability of success for 15 different white-wine grape varieties, such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, for ageing periods of 2.5. years, five years, seven years, 10 years, 12.5 years and 15 years or more 

Rows of white wines aging on cellar shelves

In general, a winery’s tasting notes for the wine will always include suggestions for how long to age – in other words, when this wine will drink at its best. This doesn’t mean that the wine tastes terrible now. It’s just only realized some of its potential.     

Customizing vintage wines to your palate 

As you head down your journey of collecting vintage wine, remember that this should be fun. What you choose to add to your collection could be as personal as one’s taste in art. There may be wines you simply cannot get enough of and yearn to see how they further develop over time, whether you age and sell (unopened) or uncork for a memorable occasion.