Invaluable Guide to Buying Wine

Wine consumption has evolved tenfold in the last decade, mainly due to increased availability. Most recent global market research conducted in 2015 by the U.K.’s Intelligent Partnership shows that fine wine experienced 234% growth in the decade from 1995-2015.

Whether it’s a 25-page wine list at a restaurant or a wine boutique retailing bottles that span the globe, wine drinkers today are exposed to many options. While palate preference definitely plays a role in what to buy, when collecting wine it’s important to consider aging, projected market value, and current (as well as perceived) market demands.

Today, collectors can buy rare or valuable wines from auction houses and dealers online. Thanks to smartphones and tablets, you can also quickly retrieve data on wine reviews and past auction prices to research your potential purchase.

Types of Wine

Dessert & Sweet Wines

Often called late-harvest wines, grapes used to make dessert wines are picked late in the season to allow for full maturation. Among the most popular are Sauternes, from the Graves area of Bordeaux, France, made from Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle, and Sémillon grapes. Other dessert wines are Ports, fortified wines exclusively from Portugal’s Douro Valley. Port styles have arrived in recent years in Australia, Argentina, California, France and South Africa.

Red Wines

Red wine grapes are extremely diverse. In fact, there are hundreds of red-wine grape varietals, although only around 25 are recognizable to the consumer as some are used merely in blends. Lighter-bodied red wines include France’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Beaujolais, a wine made from Gamay grapes, each from those respective regions. They also include Syrah or Pinot Noir from many areas throughout the globe.

More intense red wines include Old Vine Zinfandel from California;  Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon;  Nebbiolo from Italy;  Pinotage from South Africa;  Garnacha from Spain; or  Shiraz from Australia.

Sparkling Wines

Demonstrating incredible complexity by region, bubbles are a fun way to experience deeper nuances in taste. From France’s storied Champagne region, to appellations in Napa and Sonoma, CA, to Old World regions in Spain and Italy, sparkling wines are made from a variety of red and white grapes, often in the same blend.

White Wines

The most popular single-varietal white wines are Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio, with Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling as close seconds. White-wine blends in France’s Rhone region and Loire Valley are intensely popular too, and New World regions like South Africa are becoming known for signature grapes (in this case, Chenin Blanc). Flavor on the palate can range from zippy and crisp, like a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, to a balanced, mineral-rich profile such as Chablis in France.

Popular Wines on the Market

New World Wines

Penfolds Grange from Australia’s Penfolds winery is made of a majority of first-growth Shiraz grapes with some Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend. In California, Screaming Eagle Winery & Vineyards in Napa Valley’s Oakville appellation is highly sought after, as are bottles of Rhone-style blends from Sine Qua Non in Ventura County.

French Reds

No doubt the most intense region for wine collecting is Bordeaux, where wines are coveted because they fall under the classification set forth in 1855, which is still used today. From this region you will find First Growths and Premier Cru Bordeaux from houses like Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Latour, Château Haut-Brion, and Château Margaux. As for Burgundy, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is a Pinot Noir producing around 450 cases a year and in high demand.

French Sparkling Wines

No matter the house, a sparkling wine from France that’s up for auction is going to be pricey. Even at retail, as a brand-new vintage, the price ranges from $200-300 per bottle, and higher. But the good news is that most champagne is considered collectible, so there are lots of options in the market. Among the most auctioned are Dom Pérignon, Krug Champagne, Cristal, and Moët & Chandon.

Italian Reds

One of Italy’s largest wine companies, Marchesi Antinori, located in the country’s Chianti Classico appellation, includes 10 wineries. Among them are Solaia and Tignanello. Amarone della Valpolicella from the Veneto region is expensive at the time of purchase, and its value only increases later on.

20 Bottles 1990/1993/1999/2000 Tenuta Belvedere Guado al Tasso, Auctionata Paddle8 AG (September 2015)

South American Reds

Alpha Montes is a winery in Chile’s Colchagua Valley that produces wines often sold at auction, particularly older vintages.

Building Your Collection

Know the Age

Many wines only get better with age. For example, if you purchased a bottle of first-growth Bordeaux, vintage 2010, even four years later in 2014 you would do best to wait a while to uncork the wine. How it tastes on the day you bought it will be significantly less enticing than five or ten years later. Outside of the market for wine and spirits, there are few products you can buy that get better with age. Quite often, the opposite is true, as materials will show wear and tear or damage from environmental elements—so go ahead and celebrate wine’s best quality.

Cristina Campion, Specialist at Clars Auction Gallery with expertise in fine wines, says that it is also important to keep in mind that while some wines do improve with age, others are best when consumed more quickly.

“Many wines have a limit on how long they can age. If they are aged or cellared for too long, they will become past their prime,” Campion says.

Another factor that increases the value of a wine is a limited-release. If only a few cases of a particular wine were produced, and it’s from a renowned vineyard or maker, then it will be in demand and thus drive a higher asking price at retail and at auction.

Serious wine collectors may opt to buy a case or half a case of a particular wine’s vintage so that they can taste the premier year within a multi-decade period. For example, you would open a bottle of that wine every year—or every few years—all the way up until 20-30 years from the date of purchase.

This requires dedicated bookkeeping, especially if you plan to resell some of the vintages. You can use a simple spreadsheet as well as top-rated apps like Corkz and Vivino Wine Scanner.

Unlike with jewelry, rugs, or other items sold at auction, you won’t find a huge variance with the same wine made 10 years ago versus 20-30 years ago. That’s because the winery’s production techniques remain the same and, particularly in Old World regions, the vines are the same, too. Yet due to changing weather patterns and climate variance, some vintages are more compelling and sought after than others. Aged wines sell the strongest at auctions, because over time the best flavors emerge.

Take Notes

The best way to make informed decisions about what to buy at auction is to sip as much wine as possible, particularly for those who will be stocking their own personal cellars (and drinking these wines). Wine auctioneers use the term “drinking wines” to describe bottles that plan to be consumed by their owners. On the flip side, many wine buyers collect bottles solely as an investment, focusing on highly sought after vintages or rare bottles.

When tasting wines, bring a small notebook that’s easy to tuck into your purse or pants pocket and don’t be afraid to write notes on what your palate experiences as you sample each wine. Try to find themes among the wines you enjoy best. If you’re interested in using a mobile device to help you track these wines, try popular apps like CellarTracker and Wine Notes.

Ask Yourself:

  • Am I looking to buy just for myself or for others?
  • What kind of food do I typically enjoy with wine?
  • Where will I be opening these wines—i.e., business dinners, at our second home, casual weeknight dinners, special occasions, etc.?
  • Do I like a wine that’s bone dry or sweet?
  • Do I prefer to drink reds or whites?
  • Is there a specific region I prefer?
  • Am I okay with label or cork damage?
  • Are there gaps in my current collection, such as missing vintages in a vertical tasting?
  • How long will I wait before opening these wines?

Tips for Beginners

Below are some great starter wines and spirits for new collectors:

  • California sparkling wine, such as Roederer Estate Brut, for a celebratory occasion.
  • California Chardonnay from an esteemed producer like Château Montelena, Sine Qua Non or Ram’s Gate Winery, to witness incredible complexity with age
  • Mid-range California Cabernet Sauvignon as a cheaper alternative to Opus One, Harlan Estate and Stag’s Leap Winery
  • 2000 Bordeaux as this vintage was stellar
  • Chianti Classico as a step above Chianti, such as Antinori or Ruffino Riserva Ducale
  • Early 2000 German Riesling, for an immediate look at how this white wine ages

Tips for Buying Online

At first, buying wine online from an auction or dealer can seem intimidating. Before you click your way through a live or timed sale, here are some tips to safely and confidently navigate a wine auction.

  • Research the reputation: Run the individual, auction house or website through a Google search, for starters. Have complaints been filed on any forums or are there published articles about this company’s lack of business ethics? If so, proceed with caution—or nix the deal altogether.
  • Ask about storage history: Were these wines kept at optimum cellar temperature (55 degrees Fahrenheit/13 degrees Celsius)? If not, then a wine’s taste profile has been seriously compromised. “It is important to make sure that the wine does not fall below 45 degrees, and wine should not be stored in a location where it might freeze. Wine should also not be stored for long periods of time in a refrigerator,” says Campion. “Buyers should research and be aware of the potential issues that might arise during wine storage.”
  • Set a limit: It can be easy to be swayed by what looks like a good, once-in-a-lifetime deal, especially when the clock is ticking. Determine how much you can realistically afford to spend at auction, perhaps as it relates to a specific lot, a bottle or an overall cost.
  • Know the terms and conditions: Is this a final-sale auction? What is the return policy if you change your mind in a few days or weeks?
  • Review an auction index: Most auctions will release a catalogue before the first bids are accepted. Run the offerings through Wine Spectator’s Auction Index, similar to Kelley Blue Book (KBB) in terms of reporting values.
  • Seek out certification: More often than not, an expert has appraised the wine up for auction, just like for jewelry, art, or furniture with historic value. Look for this in the auction description or contact the auction house to ask questions. “Inquire about the provenance of the wine. This would include information on purchase history, and also how the collection was cellared,” reminds Campion. “Has the auction house or dealer sampled various vintages from the collection?”

Resources & Sources