The hunt to buy old wine can be fascinating in itself, and the capacity for mature and rare vintages to surprise in the glass often impresses even the best reviewers.
‘The 1934 could have been a good 50 years younger,’ said Decanter’s Jane Anson, at a Lafite Rothschild anniversary tasting in 2018.
Okay, so you might not be uncorking a bottle of 80-year-old Lafite direct from the first growth’s cellars anytime soon.
But the extraordinary ability of fine wine to age means that you do have several options across different budgets.
Styles to consider
Bordeaux is an obvious choice; plenty of top châteaux have the pedigree and many of them also produce relatively large amounts of wine, as discussed by Decanter‘s Georgina Hindle in this guide to Bordeaux anniversary wines, spanning 10 to 60 years.
If Bordeaux is not your thing, then how about vintage Champagne, mature Rioja, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, German Riesling, Barolo, Napa Valley Cabernet or top South Australian Shiraz?
These are just a few examples, and you can find more detailed advice in Anthony Rose’s article on anniversary wines for 2020, as well as recent appraisals of mature vintages on Decanter Premium.
Don’t forget about fortified wines, such as Port and Madeira, or sweet wines, like Tokaji or Sauternes. They may not be as fashionable today, but that means you’ve got a higher chance of finding older bottlings with wonderful complexity that won’t break the bank.
Mature Burgundy from a vaunted domaine will seriously stretch the purse strings, but there is some availability if you have the means.
Vintage can be important, because stellar ones provide the structural weight that will help the wine hold together over time – as Jane Anson explains in this video tutorial on tasting Bordeaux en primeur wines.
But, a good wine can still deteriorate if stored badly, and there are always variations between producers in any vintage, so it’s important to check tasting notes and ratings.
Where to find them
It’s never been easier to look up fine wine reviews, or compare prices, in the internet age.
However, if that dusty-looking bottle of Petrus 1959 for £25 ($31) looks too good to be true, that’s because it is. Check the source of the wine carefully, and stick to reputable merchants, retailers and auction houses as far as possible.
Once you’ve checked for recent reviews of wines, or looked at vintage charts, tools like Wine-Searcher and Vivino can help with an initial look at prices and availability.
Check pricing directly with specific merchants and retailers, though, and make sure you know if the wine is available in bond or with duty and sales tax already included in the price tag.
There are also several fine wine trading exchanges that allow collectors to buy and sell wine, including Berry Bros’ BBX, BI Fine Wine Spirits’ LiveTrade and Wine Owners, among others. BBX, for example, allows you to buy wine from private collectors who are storing their bottles with Berry Bros.
Sign up to email alerts with the major merchants and auction houses, where you can often track specific wines or vintages.
If you’ve got a favourite winery, why not join its mailing list, too? Some also have membership schemes, and that’s where you’re most likely to find library vintage releases coming direct from the estate.
Sometimes, the old methods are also the best, so think about picking up the phone.
‘It’s definitely worth letting your merchant know that if something comes up, you’re interested,’ said Will Hargrove, head of fine wine at Corney & Barrow.
Auctions can be a good place to hunt rarer wines, and you can often find single-owner collections being sold off. Jamie Ritchie, Sotheby’s global head fine wine, said that auctions can be one of the best places to look because you’re generally getting wines from serious collectors with proven provenance.
However, auction prices will naturally be harder to predict, and watch out for the buyer’s premium payable on hammer prices.
Questions to ask
Try to find out as much as you can about the wine’s condition and its history of ownership.
Bottle variation can be an issue and good storage can make a difference. Professional storage with temperature and humidity control is likely to significantly improve your chances of opening a bottle that still has some freshness and fruit.
As Anthony Rose stated in his anniversary guide, ‘The further back in time, the more fragile the wine, so the condition in which the wine has been kept and the ability to trace it back to a reliable owner become all the more important.’
Auction buyers ‘ascribe more value’ to those wines that have proven provenance and authenticity, Sotheby’s’ Ritchie recently told Decanter magazine.
At auction, you can often get photos of the wine, so it’s possible to check details such as the fill level – or ‘ullage’ – as well as the label. Read this guide to ullage, which also includes advice from auction house Christie’s.
If you’ve done some checks and are unsure about a wine’s authenticity, then you can seek professional valuation advice, too. The Latin phrase ‘caveat emptor’, meaning ‘let the buyer beware’, is one to memorise.
Finally, it’s probably an obvious point, but make sure you’ve checked all terms and conditions with the seller. You should also be wary of any cold-calling, as expert Jim Budd explains here.