LIQUID assets

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 May, 2012, 12:00am


Putting together a personal wine collection is a serious undertaking. It involves a substantial investment of money, time and emotional energy. There is a world of difference between collecting wine and buying a few cases for the consumption of family and friends.

Planning is required. Only a very wealthy few can afford to buy fine wine opportunistically at auction or to simply acquire complete collections from other people's cellars through private brokers.

Most serious collectors start out buying wine with a particular set of criteria in mind, then either stick to the formula or gradually broaden their purview. Many Hong Kong collectors started out buying nothing but red Bordeaux but now target wines from Burgundy and outside France.

One of Hong Kong's most prominent Bordeaux collectors is lawyer Vincent Cheung, Asia grand ma?tre of the Commanderie de Bordeaux and head of its Hong Kong chapter, which is the most active in the world. Two dinners in a single week are not unusual for the Commanderie, which raises significant funds for charity.

Cheung estimates Hong Kong has 'maybe 200 to 250 Chinese collectors who are serious'. Those collectors, along with wealthy new buyers from the mainland, are known for a devotion to Bordeaux that has pushed prices en primeur and at auction to unprecedented heights since the introduction of zero-rated wine tax here in 2008.

'I primarily buy Bordeaux,' Cheung says. 'Of course, I have some Burgundy, but Burgundy white wine in particular needs to be drunk relatively young. It doesn't age well. I do have some American wine and some Italian wine, but that's purely for drinking. My expertise is in Bordeaux - for the rest, I know about 10 wines in each country.'

He does occasionally buy at auction, but more often deals with negociants or ch?teau owners in Bordeaux, many of whom are close friends. He has been a frequent visitor to the region since he began collecting in the 1980s.

His buying strategy is simple. 'I go to Bordeaux every year for the en primeur tastings and I mark down the wines I like and buy those. The most important thing is your own taste. You have to like the wine.'

Although he has invested too much time in studying Bordeaux and nurturing relationships there to be seriously interested in diversifying, Cheung thinks many other Chinese collectors are likely to buy Bordeaux more conservatively and are investigating other avenues.

'The height of Bordeaux was the middle of last year. Collectors have probably bought enough Bordeaux and are starting to collect Burgundies, American wines, Italian wines or Australian wines because they want to have a more rounded private collection. They will become very selective with Bordeaux,' he says.

Collectors have different acquisition strategies and goals. Some are keen to build vertical collections of vintages from particular chateaux. Others concentrate on the wines of a vintage year. Some, such as Cheung, choose to focus on the wines of a single region while others are keen to have a cellar containing a balanced collection of the great wines of the world.

Those of more modest means may opt to collect wines below investment grade for which they have a particular liking and which they expect to improve over time. As general manager of Crown Wine Cellars, Greg De'eb oversees the storage of the wines of many of Hong Kong's most passionate and prolific collectors. He says many consider their collections as having three distinct areas - wines laid down for future drinking, high-value investment wines and a third group he describes as 'old and interesting'.

'They seem to be on the hunt for anything obscure, old and interesting - possibly from Bordeaux or Burgundy, but not the very obvious wines from these areas. Also, very much from Spain, or California, with more and more people chasing after the great cabernets of the '50s, '60s and '70s,' he says.

'Because the prices are not stratospheric, people are prepared to take a chance on an older bottle, based on the obvious physical conditions that you can check - the neck level, the cork condition and so on. Faking of these wines is not an issue because you're talking about prices as low as US$60 per bottle. It's not worth the counterfeiter's while to fake it at that level.

'The only issue you have to worry about is provenance. That's very nice because it is one thing opening up a 1925 Rioja and finding it's not drinking very well. It's another thing opening up a 1947 Lafite and thinking, 'This tastes way too fresh, it's probably a fake'.'

A collector himself, De'eb buys both investment wines - he recently sold a case of 1952 Latour for three times what he paid - and wines to drink. He has 1,000 to 1,500 bottles in the 'old and interesting' category that he likes to open with friends.

'It's just the discovery of wine. I'm having more fun with that category than anything else. I also have a couple of favourite estates in South Africa. Whenever I try one of their wines that is spectacularly good, I will try to get perhaps two or three cases from that vintage and just lay them down. That is only from the estates that produce vintage variety rather than commercial consistency,' De'eb says.

Simon Tam, China head of wine for auction house Christie's, says that although in his experience most collectors are knowledgeable and methodical, they are otherwise impossible to categorise.

'We have some collectors who are very open-minded and just collect on the basis of intrinsic good taste,' he says. 'We have collectors who simultaneously collect first-growth Bordeaux, Burgundy, old Champagne and Madeira from the 19th century. You can't put them into boxes, which is why when you look at our auction catalogues they are anything but predictable. There will always be collectors who want something beyond the norm.'

Tam and De'eb stress that serious wine collectors are not necessarily looking for the cheapest price. What they want more than anything else is pristine provenance. De'eb says that because its documentation was sound, his case of Latour fetched a price about 100 per cent above the going market rate.

'For serious collectors, provenance is very, very important and that's why they buy at auction. They don't mind paying 20 per cent to 30 per cent extra for the assurance of having a great wine because there is so much fake floating around,' says Patricio de la Fuente Saez, managing director of wine and spirits importer Links Concept. Also a collector, de la Fuente Saez says he always buys to drink. 'I never buy for investment purposes. It's not easy to sell a case of wine, so I think it's a horrible investment. You can't take a case of wine to HSBC and get them to give you what is supposed to be its value,' he says.

His collection is broad and includes both a backbone of Bordeaux and Burgundy and an international range. 'I always buy a lot of Almaviva because I'm half Chilean and that's probably the only collectible wine from Chile. My birth year is 1972, so I always buy a lot of 1972, although it wasn't a particularly good year.'

Some collectors are motivated as much by a collector 'gene' as by a passion for wine. Tam points out that many of the same customers who attend wine auctions are there when the house is auctioning antique furniture, jewellery or vintage cars. 'I've always bought to drink,' Cheung says, 'but unfortunately the appetite gets bigger and you buy more and more. That's the trouble with being a collector.'