The Brave New World of wine collecting means an ever-expanding array of wines with enough cachet to garner big money on the auction circuit.

Collecting wine used to be easy. Twenty years ago, all you had to do was memorize the top Bordeaux chateaux, a few well-chosen Burgundy and Rhône producers, and a smattering of Ports. Adventurous souls may have included an Australian wine such as Penfolds Grange, perhaps a couple of Italian high-fliers and three or four top California Cabernets. Not much diversity, but you could teach yourself to be a wine snob in only a couple of hours.

The wines from 20 years ago were themselves different. They took longer to mature, and positively demanded years of cellaring to reach maturity. Now, grapes are picked riper, and controlled fermentation temperatures have cut required aging times in half or more. Take Château Latour: the 1928 Latour is famous for taking 60 years to shed its tannins and become drinkable. A modern vintage, such as 1990, is drinking well now, although it will improve for another five years. The need to cellar wines for decades has all but disappeared.

The way Americans buy wine has also changed. The 100-point scale has given consumers a new confidence; they can buy wines based on their quality (or at least their score) without regard to where the wine comes from, or whether the region has a long tradition of winemaking.

Fancying More Than French Wines
The Languedoc is a case in point. It certainly had a tradition, but not an enviable one. It was famous for making some of the nastiest wines in Europe. Now the best wines of the region—Domaine D’Aiguiliere and La Peyre Rose—are among the most interesting wines coming out of France. There is greater diversity to be found in American cellars than ever before: A well-rounded collection will certainly have its Bordeaux and Burgundies, but it is also likely to have a variety of wines from Australia, America, Italy and Spain, as well as other French wines.

These collections will reflect not only the top wines of the regions but also the best years. A great vintage may bring a whole wine region to the attention of collectors. Five years ago, Australia was known for its clean, fruity wines; nice commercial stuff, but very few—outside of Penfolds’ Grange and Henschke’s Hill of Grace—were considered collectible.

For Australian wines, the 1998 vintage was a watershed year. A magnificent vintage, coupled with a small number of winemakers who had been quietly changing the way wines were made, resulted in widespread critical acclaim for the wines. Many scored in the mid-to-high 90s, and the market changed from disinterested to frenzied. Fox Creek’s Reserve Shiraz sold on release for around $28, skyrocketed to more than $250 at auction and is now trading for $100. “When Parker gave the wine a 98+, everybody wanted to get hold of it, at least to try,” says John Kapon, president of Acker Merrall and Condit’s auction department. “Now they have tried it, and it is good, but not that good.”

Many of these wines are produced in tiny quantities, and are prized as much for their rarity as for their quality. A couple of wines, Three Rivers Shiraz and Wild Duck Creek Duck Muck Shiraz, are produced in lots of as little as 100 cases and regularly flirt with 100-point scores. They are trading for around $500. With larger productions, and therefore with less of a premium for rarity, top cuvées from Fox Creek, Veritas, Noon and Torbreck hover around the $100 mark. The original Oz collectible, Penfolds Grange, produced in much larger quantities, retails for around $200.

A Very Good Year…To Pay A Thousand Bucks for a Bottle of Wine?
The speed with which the market can change has taken most producers by surprise. “That is because every year is a whole new ball game,” says John Bueti of Outlet Liquors in Westchester, New York. “In a good year you can sell everything. In a poor one, you take a fraction of the wine and hand-sell it.” With the release of the 1999s—a solid vintage, but not as highly regarded as 1998—Australian wines are selling at release prices, and selling fairly well, but without the gotta-have-it mentality that greeted sales of the 1998s.

In contrast with Australia, no single vintage ignited California’s recent run. A succession of top vintages (’90, ’91, ’94, ’95, ’97) coincided with an economic boom that found buyers happy to pay prices that, a few years before, would have been considered daft. Among the high-flying so-called cult Cabernets, Screaming Eagle still leads the pack, with prices in excess of $1,000 per bottle common. Just behind come Bryant, Colgin, Harlan and Dalle Valle’s Maya.

Among other California varieties, Chardonnays from Kistler and Peter Michael attract plenty of auction attention, while Marcassin—Helen Turley’s own label—is in a league of its own. Single bottles of her single-vineyard Chards from Sonoma can reach $500 or more.

Turley’s Marcassin Pinot Noir is even rarer, but other Golden State Pinots haven’t made quite the same splash. The ongoing proliferation of single-vineyard Pinots gives consumers something new to look forward to every year, rather than focusing on particular bottlings. Even Zinfandel, the workhorse grape of California, has a couple of producers making wines that rate among the most collectible of California. The single-vineyard wines from Martinelli and Turley are superconcentrated, high-alcohol fruit bombs that sell for stratospheric prices.

Consumers can expect some softening in the market for California collectibles over the next couple of years. The run of great vintages in California ended in 1997; although there were a number of fine wines produced in 1998, the vintage is not considered anything special, and the prices in the secondary market even for top wines is likely go down. In fact, super-cult buyers are so fickle that the recently released 1998s will probably cost half of the more highly regarded 1997s.

Eyes on the Old World
Meanwhile, the collector’s attention is back on Europe, where Old World producers in Italy and Spain have become hot. Despite its less-than-predictable climate, Italy has put together a run of superb vintages. Piedmont—home of the Nebbiolo grape, from which Barolo and Barbaresco are made—has been especially fruitful.

Thanks to an unprecedented succession of great vintages that began in 1996, Piedmont has never been more desirable. Collectors can choose the modern style of wine from the likes of Gaja, Sandrone, Scavino or Bruno Rocca, while lovers of old-fashioned wines can bask in the heavy, smoky flavors of Giacosa and Valentino. The bottling of wines from specific microclimates or crus has added the luster of scarcity to the mix. These single-vineyard wines are highly collectible.

Elsewhere in Italy, the Veneto is producing some stunning Amarones that are finally getting the attention they have long deserved. Dal Forno and Quintarelli produce super-intense New Wave versions of a style of wine that was already pretty intense. Dal Forno prices may reach $250; Quintarelli will fetch about half of that.

For years it seemed that Spain produced light vanilla-scented wines that were old and faded by the time they reached the market. There have always been beautiful Riojas, but none qualify as real collectibles. For that, Spanish connoisseurs turned to Vega Sicilia’s Unico from Ribera del Duero. But the last 10 years has seen a revolution in the wines of Spain, not just from Ribera, but also Rioja and Priorat, and top Spanish wines are finally getting the recognition they so richly deserve.

In addition to Unico, Pesquera’s Janus bottling (made only in top years) and Dominio de Pingus are Ribera del Duero’s high-flyers. The 1995 Pingus is particularly rare since the American allocation was lost at sea. Other Ribera producers are already planning to introduce limited-production wines aimed at collectors.

From Priorat, where luxury cuvées based on old-vine Garnacha and Carineña are all the rage, Daphne Gloriane’s Clos Erasmus and Alvaro Palacios’ L’Ermita are the current darlings of the auction set. In Rioja, the stars are Artardi and Muga. “It seems every ten minutes there is a new $50 cuvée, and unlike some collectibles, they do seem to be generally available,” says Brad Kane of Winebow, a New Jersey-based importer and distributor. But that is changing; some of the most serious wines are being presold to top customers and never make it to retailers’ shelves.

Finally, France, the most traditionally collectible region. The 2000 Bordeaux vintage has sparked enormous interest, but the hottest Bordeaux are the super-expensive wines coming out of St. Emilion. Led by Valandraud, La Mondotte and La Dôme, the combination of microproduction and sexy, intense fruit creates something of a bidding frenzy when these rare wines appear at auction.

New regions will continue to join the success throughout this decade. Although Chile, despite valiant efforts, has yet to produce a collectible wine, South Africa is likely to be the source of the next wave of great wines. Vintners on the Cape are only beginning to properly exploit the superb natural resources of their land, and some of the experimental wines I tasted there last year were brilliant. Within five years, I expect South Africa’s best wines to be among the world’s elite.

And beyond that? Interesting wines are being made in India, China and New Guinea. In the past there would have been very few outsiders willing to try them, but now, if a region can produce great wine, the chances are that consumers will find it.

Published on September 1, 2001

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