Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 18, 2021
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Buyers and Cellars

Whether you're stocking up for dinner parties or buying for investment, collecting wine is a passion that ages well

Sometimes the lure of the label is just too much. That highly revered or 90-plus-rated bottle is just begging to be owned -- by you. Alas, for just that reason many of the world's private wine cellars are awash in wasted, decaying wine; bottles that have lapsed beyond their prime. It makes a wine lover weep.

This vinous carnage is rooted in a prevailing reverence for fine wine that overlooks the fact that, unlike coins, stamps or art, it is a perishable living and breathing commodity. The problem is compounded by collectors who tend to be obsessive and over-buy certain labels and vintages. Then there are misconceptions about the aging process and which wines need aging; some styles are not meant to age at all.

So it's important to understand your objectives when buying wine, to realize that there are different styles for different uses and at least three general buying strategies -- investing, collecting for the fun of it and buying everyday wine to drink at home. This is not to say that one objective is more appropriate or that you can't have all three going at once, but you will get the most enjoyment out of your wine buying by understanding what you are doing and dividing your budget accordingly.

The world's most famous wines -- the top labels of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Italy and increasingly California and Australia -- can be a good financial investment. They're easy to spot because they are already among the most expensive in the world. But it takes a bit more research to know which vintages are most desirable in a given region.

The other challenge for wine buyers in Canada is knowing when the liquor boards are releasing them. The best wines are tightly allocated to markets around the world, and not usually found simply by walking into a wine store. So far, only Bordeaux is being sold as futures, which you can buy while still in barrel at a speculatively lower price than when it is released two years later.

The trick for investors is that there is only one legal way to sell your personal collection and that's at a commercial wine auction. In Canada only the Liquor Control Board of Ontario holds an annual auction each November, but they do buy collections from other provinces. Charity auctions will gladly snap up your wine, but you'll only get a charitable donations receipt in return. Some Canadian wine investors trade offshore where regulations are looser and they don't have to worry about importing, paying stiff Canadian taxes or housing the wines.

When buying for investment you are best to buy wines by the case or half-case, and then never open that case! You must spend time and money to ensure top-notch storage conditions because future buyers will want guarantees that the wine's provenance is ironclad, including records of where and when you bought it. This also means storing bottles in a cool 14-16°C (55-60°F), humidity-controlled (50-75 percent), vibration-free environment. Unless you are very handy you'll have to hire a wine-cellar specialist to custom design your storage.

Most wine lovers simply want to enjoy collecting and drinking fine wine -- buying bottles on release and aging it themselves in order to drink mature, expensive wine much more cheaply than if they bought it off the shelf. Mature wine is so rare on the shelf in Canada that this is about the only way to drink it. Most collectors are in this category, and it is where most mistakes are made.

By abandoning the idea of investing for financial return it won't be necessary to buy the most expensive wines or to order by the case. Your budget will go a lot farther. You can also begin to buy for personal taste instead of what the market dictates is valuable. You may not need to devote as much space or money, but you'll still need proper storage conditions.

But there are pitfalls, like knowing which wines to buy and how many bottles you should have. The whole notion of buying from lesser-known properties in established regions, and new producers from new regions also comes into play, and requires a fair bit of research.

It's also easy to get caught up and buy too much wine -- especially too much wine of the same style and age that will be ready to drink all that same time. The risk of waste can increase quickly.

On average you should consider purchasing four to six bottles of each wine. With six bottles you can open one immediately to get to know it and make your assessment of when to drink it. I strongly advise this try-one-bottle-right-away strategy; you must know what is in your cellar. You can then decide when to open the other bottles -- but be sure to earmark at least one bottle for a mid-term exam.

How many bottles should you have? Most styles of collector wines drink well at six to 10 years of age, so you should consider a six-year supply of which you'll drink roughly one-sixth each year. To calculate that annual consumption, consider how many times a week you open a fine bottle and multiply by 52, holding an extra case or two for special events. If you drink one fine bottle per week you'll need 60 bottles per year, multiplied by six years -- or a 360-bottle collection, maximum. Depending on the total figure, you may not need a built-in cellar, rather a larger free-standing unit.

Assembling that collection from scratch is the hard part, but achieving a critical mass as quickly as possible is paramount: you don't want to keep drinking bottles intended for later. You may want to do some saving and financial planning and buy 360 bottles within the first year. It's great fun but ensure you spread out the vintages and styles. Or for four years you could buy 80 bottles a year (two per week) that you set aside for aging rather than immediate use. Then you can slow down to about 50 bottles per year thereafter.

Collecting is not the only reason to stock wine at home. Another is simply to have a stash of favourites on hand so you don't have to run out to the wine store continuously. Yet another is to have a wide enough selection to satisfy every meal that lands on your table, and accommodate your partner and frequent dinner guests.

Thinking of wine as an ingredient in your kitchen cupboard completely changes the dynamic of buying wine. Instead of focusing on certain styles for their age-worthiness, and buying by the case or half-case, you purchase individual bottles, maybe in twos or threes, across the full range of styles. And most need not be expensive wines, just well-chosen examples of various styles.

This type of wine purchasing also changes your storage needs. Most of the wines you buy will not need ideal, long-term storage conditions, so the space and cost dedicated to cellaring will be limited. Indeed a wine rack placed in a floor-level cupboard in your kitchen, located away from appliances, might be all you need. For special, age-worthy bottles you could invest in a small, temperature-controlled 100-bottle storage cabinet that doubles as a piece of dining room furniture. And you could keep the most frequently used white wines, sparklers and dessert wines right in the fridge, ready to go.


This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.