How to start a fine wine collection

There are some myths to debunk about fine wine collecting.

Firstly, that it is just for the super wealthy - it isn't.

It can also be flexibly adopted as a lifestyle, or merely a hobby, depending on how much time you wish to invest.

Secondly, you don't need a large underground cellar.

And, thirdly, you don't need to part with a large up-front investment. All that is really required is a real passion for wine.

Here are three big reasons to start a fine wine collection:

  • So you always have wines ready to drink at their optimum peak. Most wines sold by merchants are new, and their drinking condition won't peak for years
  • To buy wines that will be unavailable or significantly more expensive in the future. Some top wines, like certain Bordeaux, can later be impossible to find
  • For investment returns. Since the 1980s, many top wines have outperformed stock indexes. Also, wine is a "wasting asset" (i.e. meant to be consumed within 50 years) and therefore not liable to capital gains tax.

Step one: set yourself a budget

Wine collecting is driven by passion and excitement - and can quickly get out of hand. So, to avoid finding yourself hunting for those great wines and forgetting the impact on your wallet, decide how much of your money to spend and stick to it.

For instance, at an average cost of $10 a bottle an average case of wine can be around $120. So, by buying one case a month you'd spend just under $1,500 a year... or, at $30 the annual cost is $6,000, and so on...

Twelve cases a year isn't a bad target. This would give you 144 bottles overall, equalling a bottle to drink every three days or two bottles a week.

Step two: define your strategy

You've determined your total spending, now figure out how and where you're going to spend it. This could reflect your drinking patterns.

For instance, you may like one glass of wine during a night's meal. At four glasses per bottle, you will need about two bottles a week, or a case of wine a month.

Maybe factor your family and loved ones into the total, and any special events or family holidays. Let's assume there are an average of 12 major events in a year. For these, factor in another 24 "special bottles".

Then ask yourself: can I afford this strategy?

Twenty-four cases of $10 per bottle wine are approximately $3,000. Another two cases of "specialty" wine at $20 per bottle will cost approximately $500. So, to support your buying strategy, you'll need about $3,500.

How does this compare with your budget? If you're over budget, then perhaps consider less costly wines, or simply fewer cases.

Step three: now let's look at the wine itself...

Wine storage can be simple and hassle free... if you plan to drink your wine within six months. If not, you may want to invest in ageable wines which can be stored for many years.

Here are three crucial factors to bear in mind:

  1. Not all wines are created to be aged. In fact, most wines are best drunk while young
  2. Improper storage will easily and likely ruin your wine
  3. Wine's value decreases after its prime time.

How do you know which wine is ageable?

Wine without much "personality" (i.e. lacking a strong structure and with no character to its taste) won't benefit at all from ageing. In fact, ageing the wrong bottle is a bit like watering down a good bottle of wine with water.

Good, ageable wines are tannic, acidic, well-structured, and complex.

Tannins, the natural preservatives that come from the grape's skin, will soften as time passes. It will round up the wine, bringing out its best bouquet and balance.

Good, ageing wines include (from France) Medoc, Graves, St Emilion, Pomerol and Pommard, (from the US) Premium California Cabernet Sauvignon, and (from Australia) Penfolds Grange, among many others.

Also remember, wines under $25 are best drunk in 3-5 years. If you want to keep a collection for 3-5 years, invest in wines in the $25-35 category. If you want to keep a collection for five or more years, invest in wines over $40.

Finally, here are some other tips before you buy:

  • Look for discounts. Usually, you can get 10-20% discount when you buy 12 bottles of wines. Buy from wholesalers, via restaurants, or visit vineyards and join their wine clubs
  • Try before you buy a dozen, or review online tasting notes. And only buy from places which take special precautions to store their wines
  • If you buy wines en primeur - meaning before it is bottled - thoroughly research the merchant history and its reputation, and opt for the pay-on-delivery payment method.

Step four: plan out your collection

As a suggestion, the ideal wine collection should comprise a cross section of wines, some for long-ageing and some for ready drinking. But how can you successfully collect and balance the two?

For starters, you've already determined how much wine you are looking to consume over the coming year, and how much money you can and are willing to spend.

Among lovers of fine wine, it isn't unusual for drinkers to develop three-season palates. In the summer, we go for light-bodied, refreshing wines and, in the winter, for more full-bodied reds.

So, why not buy your wine to match the seasons? About eight cases of light-bodied bottles for the summer, and 10 cases of full-bodied wines for the winter, and the rest somewhere between the two?

Also, look for wines with a three to five year maturity window which can be enjoyed at their peak at certain times over the coming years.

Step five: storing your wine

Many would advise that, for a beginner collector, storage is best left to the professionals. However, here is some advice on storing it yourself.

Wine, like any perishable food item, is sensitive to its surroundings. Fortunately, the alcohol in wine does act as a preservative. But heat and air and the natural enemies of wine.

Therefore, your wine storage area should have the following attributes:

  • A cool, constant temperature: ideally between 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit (or 10-16 degrees Celsius) with minimal fluctuation. Try not to exceed 68 degrees Fahrenheit. The warmer the temperature, the faster your wine will age. Also, temperature fluctuations can result in "ullage", meaning wine is lost as the liquid expands and contracts in the varying temperatures
  • Moderate humidity: ideally 65-75%. The cork in the bottle requires this to maintain its seal and stay moist. Keep your bottles on their side, and avoid having them inverted
  • No vibration: vibrations will break up the alcohol and acid chemical bonds - or Esters - which give aged wines their "bottle bouquet"
  • No light: wine is badly affected by UV rays (this is primarily why wine bottles are coloured either green or brown, for minor protection). Therefore, store your wine in darkness.

Another storage tip: leave your wine alone! Once you have put your wine down for ageing, you should leave it without any further contact or movement until you are ready to drink it.

Correctly storing wine doesn't necessarily mean getting the builders in. Depending on the size of your planned collection, you can buy a wine fridge, turn an existing basement or spare room into a wine cellar, or rent a wine storage facility (like a temperature controlled wine warehouse).

Whatever your choice, be sure to set and monitor the temperature, humidity, and ageing period. Computer software packages and tech devices are available to help you do this.

A final thing to remember is: the quality of your wine's storage will affect its value.

Step six: know when to drink or sell your collection

Wine's value drops after its ideal maturity, which differs for each grape and is affected by the wine's region or vintage.

A premium Bordeaux, for instance, may take 15 years to peak (or "open up"), whereas a premium Burgundy (based on thin-skinned Pinot Noir grapes) can peak in eight years.

You can find out the recommended aging period from various online resources such as Wine Spectators and Robert Parker.

If you plan to sell your wine, you will get the best price one-to-three years before the recommended serving time.



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