How to Identify the Best Vintage Wines on the Market

In 2010, the only known imperial (6L) of Château Cheval Blanc 1947 sold for $304,375 at auction in Geneva. It is the best-known, but certainly not the only, example of record-breaking prices at auction for rare wines by top producers.

The increasing number of wine collectors today is one reason wine prices at auction continue to rise. Collectors seek out particular releases for several reasons: the label may feature an auspicious symbol, the chateaux is well-known, or the type of wine is a favorite. More often, collectors base their decisions off the wine’s vintage, or the year in which the grapes were grown and harvested.

Due to weather patterns and vintner skill, vintages in Bordeaux and in Burgundy have produced some of the world’s best wines. In particular, red Bordeaux wines with vintages from 2005, 2009, and 2010 and Burgundy wines from 2005, 2009, and 2012 may be worth collecting.

“These vintages are all high quality and have long aging potential,” says Laurie Matheson, wine expert at Artcurial. “They are great vintages that should never lose in value and should be fantastic to drink, as long as one purchases the top wine producers and Châteaux – First Growths mainly.”

Bordeaux: The Original Collector’s Wine

In the case of the 2010 record-breaking Cheval Blanc imperial, several obvious factors combined to boost the bottle’s price: the quality and scarcity of the vintage, the château’s status as one of only two A-grade Premier Cru Classé châteaux in St. Emilion, and the size of the bottle. Today, large formats of old St. Emilion and Pomerol wines are virtually unheard of.

Traditionally, the Bordeaux region maintains a high status among wine collectors due to its close ties with the British wine trade and its château-focused ranking system, which unintentionally launched the concept of branding among wineries. More recently, the pronouncements of American wine critic Robert Parker have also had an effect on the desirability and prices of certain wines.

Bordeaux’s Left and Right Banks have different soils, and grape varieties are planted to suit. Climatic conditions can be unstable, so a great vintage on the Right Bank may not necessarily produce great wines on the Left, and vice versa.

Robert Parker’s ranking system influenced the prices of fine wines, in particular Bordeaux wines. The effect was initially felt in the first great vintages of the 1980s.

Below is a timeline of some of the pivotal – and serendipitous – years that have contributed to the production of the best Bordeaux available today.

Selection of wines including Château Lyonnat, 1953,
Auctionata Paddle8 AG (December 2015)

Rare Bordeaux 1950–1980

1953 was a hot, largely dry year with a delayed harvest. The Left Bank produced some of the best wines, in particular Pauillac, with Château Lafite Rothschild earning special acclaim. Outside of the First Growths, Ducru-Beaucaillou and Calon-Ségur are favored.

Frost three years before 1959 meant that production was low in 1959 but the weather was warm and dry, which is ideal for a good vintage. Quality was high across the region, including the sweet whites of Sauternes and Barsac. Today, Châteaux Mouton Rothschild and Latour are particularly prized as they developed the longest in bottle. Adding more to their appeal is the fact that most of these wines were uncorked early and are very scarce today.

1961 is considered a landmark vintage for quality, in particular for the Left Bank, including Pessac-Léognan (Châteaux Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion).

A late harvest in 1975 due to unpredictable rains helped fruit to ripen but also allowed particularly thick skins. This resulted in red wines with extremely high, dry tannins; however, Sauternes had one of its best vintages. The Château d’Yquem 1975 is one of the château’s finest, according to Wine Cellar Insider.

Left: Lot 48, 3 bottles of Château Mouton Rothschild Pauillac, 1982; Right: Lot 9, 2 bottles of
Château la Tour Pauillac, 1982, Waddington’s (February 25)

The Parker Era: 1982–2000s

1982 marked one of the best vintage years ever for Bordeaux. The wines of Pauillac, St Julien and, on the Right Bank, Pomerol earned special acclaim. Some of the First Growths were not consistently high quality, however, and it was not a successful vintage for the sweet whites in general. Wines to look for include Château Lafleur, Château La Tour Haut-Brion, and Pichon Lalande.

High temperatures followed by rain and warmth made 1983 a top year for Sauternes and Barsac, as conditions were ideal for botrytis, a fungus commonly found on grapes that can impact the vitality of the season’s harvest. While it makes the winemaking process more complicated, botrytis can also result in a more concentrated sugar content that leads to distinctive dessert wines. The Château d’Yquem from this vintage is famous.

Lot 45, Selection of wines including a Château D’Armailhac Pauillac, 1989,
Waddington’s (February 25)

A dry, hot year in 1989, coupled with the clay-rich conditions of the Right Bank, resulted in particularly fine wines. Haut-Brion of this vintage is much sought after.

1990 was the second hot year in a row. Both banks produced rich, smooth wines and the vintage is famous among wine connoisseurs. Because of the temperature, many of the lesser producers’ wines aged quickly, so it is worth seeking out those from the grands châteaux.

Prices for all wines accelerated upwards in 2000, and they continue to rise today. The weather conditions produced near-perfect wines across the board for red wines. Dry and sweet white wines from this vintage are, sadly, less admirable.

In 2005, the temperature contrast between warm days and cool nights lead to high fruit quality – and excellent wines throughout the region. A consistent vintage on both banks, with top Parker scores going to L’Eglise Clinet and Ausone.


Burgundy’s Growing Appeal

Whereas Bordeaux’s classifications are based on château designations, Burgundy’s classifications are based on terroir. Soil type and quality vary even within vineyards and temperatures are more extreme than those in Bordeaux, with rain and hail posing frequent risks. Two grape varieties dominate this region: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Vineyard ownership is not monolithic: one family purchases parcels of vineyard(s) and the ownership is further divided as families grow. For example, a single domaine may own a few rows of vines in one grand cru vineyard, and more rows in several premier cru vineyards elsewhere. Naturally, quantities are smaller compared with Bordeaux, and the name of the village or vineyard does not denote top quality in the same way.

Because Bordeaux prices have increased exponentially, Burgundy is now looking more attractive to investors. Wine collectors, though, have appreciated the region for many years. Enthusiasts claim Burgundy produces the best white wines in the world, and it is still the standard bearer for Pinot Noir. Furthermore, its big winemaking personalities are just as glamorous as Bordeaux’s.

Lot 14, Selection of wines including 4 bottles from Remoissenet Pére & Fils Vosne-Romanée
Clos des Réas, 1953, Waddington’s (February 25)

Rare Burgundy 1950–1990

Unsettled summer weather turned warm and dry in August 1953, allowing fruit to ripen fully. Wines from this vintage are quite rare now, but possess equally high quality between whites and reds.

12 bottles of Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé Musigny, 1959,
Baghera Wines Auction & Trading (May 2016)

A perfect growing and harvest in 1959 made for excellent, age-worthy red wines this year. However, their popularity at the time now makes these wines extremely difficult to find. “Some may say that 1959 is the real titan of the region,” notes Aarash Ghatineh, Head of Sales at wine investment firm Cult Wines. He adds, ‘“these wines are so inaccessible, they are beyond collectible unless you are pulling bottles from the producer’s cellar.”

1966 is another top year in quality and quantity for reds and whites, especially for particularly elegant whites.

1978‘s late, sunny harvest made for a small crop but excellent quality from top growers. The wines are considered classics, but are difficult to find on the market.

6 bottles of Faiveley Les Cazetiers, 1985 & Domaine Fontaine-Gagnard Bâtard-Montrachet, 1985,
Auctionata Paddle8 AG (November 2014)

1985 is a landmark vintage for white wines. The winter was cold and fruit came on late, but summer and the harvest season were warm and dry, producing plenty of healthy fruit.

The reds from 1990 are distinctive for Burgundy for possessing darker colour and richer texture than normal for Pinot Noir. According to Ghatineh, this is “the most collectible vintage for Burgundy (red)…because it is so reliable. The wine will never let you down.”

Lot 966: 2 bottles of Montrachet Grand Cru, 1992 & Lot 813: 6 bottles of Bonnes Mares Grand Cru, 2005,
Artcurial (February 24)

Collectible Burgundy 1991–2005

1992 produced a collectible vintage for the grand cru whites from the Côte d’Or. While the weather was far from ideal, the resulting wines were structured and age-worthy.

Cooler weather than normal in 1996 resulted in particularly high acidity in the grapes. This helped to create wines that have aged extremely well.

1999 was a top year for reds from the Côte de Beaune in particular, but the whites are also more concentrated than usual.

2002 is collector’s year for reds, this vintage produced the Platonic ideal of Burgundian Pinot Noir.

2005, another famous vintage, is known for particularly concentrated wines. Red wines are scarcer as hailstorms destroyed many Pinot Noir vines in the previous year.

There are still vintage treasures to discover from these two French regions, with a number of wines that are drinking well today, despite their age. As Laurie Matheson points out, “Collectors can focus on those wines that are most prized, but there is many a good drink to be had among the ‘lesser vintages,’ too.”