Collectors preference for library wines means more on the shelves in the future
Library wines have become fashionable with collectors, so expect to see more of them on the shelves, writes Robin Lynam
Now that buying wines en primeur is no longer de rigueur, it seems that "museum release", "late release" or "library" wines are coming into fashion with collectors.
As asking prices have risen, the practice of buying Bordeaux, in particular, en primeur - that is to say investing in the wine before it is bottled, dealing either directly with the estate or using the services of a well connected wine merchant - has come to be perceived as risky.
Secondary market prices when the vintage is released can be lower then the en primeur cost. Wines which have been kept by the producers long enough to show some form, however, are seen as a safer, if more expensive, bet. Some of these are sold as "library wines" by the producers long after the vintage is released.
Altaya Wines supplies library wines from some of the most prestigious names in France and Italy, including Salon and Pol Roger champagnes, DRC, and Gaja. Older vintages command a substantial premium.
"Ultimately, the value of old and rare wines comes down to supply and demand," says James Rowell, Altaya's corporate & VIP sales manager.
"Each one of these wines represents a unique combination of place, producer and vintage which can never be reproduced in the same way. There are significant numbers of connoisseurs, trophy hunters and those who wish to impress who have both the desire and the ability to buy or consume these bottles," says Rowell.
"At the risk of stating the obvious, each time a cork is pulled and a bottle consumed there is one less bottle in existence, and both the rarity status and price are bound to rise."
But what exactly is a "museum" or "library" wine? The connotations of the terms are age, quality, rarity and provenance, and they can add a zero or two to the price, but there are no rules governing their use. In some parts of the New World they are casually used to describe any wine not from the current vintage.
According to Adam Bilbey, Berry Bros & Rudd's sales director, Hong Kong, there is no generally accepted definition of terms such as "museum release" or "late release", but both are commonplace in the industry.
"In Bordeaux it is common to use the term 'ex Chateau release' and, in fact, first growth Chateau Latour now use this as their only method of sales," he says.
Penfolds - which celebrates its 170th anniversary this year - has made its library or museum stock available through the Icon and Luxury Collection wines programme.
Traditionally, those wines have been released in May each year, following the release in March of the Penfolds Bin Series.
That changes this year. On a recent visit to Hong Kong Penfolds chief winemaker Peter Gago announced that the Icon and Luxury Collection is to be renamed the Penfolds Collection, and combined with the Bin Series.
All the high-value wines will henceforth be released together each year on the third Thursday in October - this year on October 16, a date chosen with an eye on the gift market in the run-up to Christmas and Lunar New Year.
"There is no better time to change the date of release of these wines than with the highly anticipated 2010 Grange and 2012 reds," says Gago. "This is a wonderful fine wine message and a perfect entrée into Penfolds next 170 years."
Combining the Icon and Luxury Collection with the Bin Series also reflects the fact that some of the wines from the latter are special rare editions.
"Only two wines were ever made of the Bin 170, the 1973 and the 2010. Our most famous special Bin wine was the Bin 60A," says Gago.
"James Halliday in Australia used to say that was the finest Australian red wine of the 20th century. He's now changed that statement to the finest Australian red wine ever made. That wine was made in 1962. There wasn't another Bin 60A until 2004, and there have only ever been two.
"We launched our Bin 620 here last year. The first was in 1966 and there wasn't another until 2008. We don't use those terms loosely. When we talk about a special bin it's either a one-off or a two-off."
The October release highlights include Cabernet Sauvignon Bins 707 and 169 from the 2012 vintage, 2012 Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz, 2012 Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz, and 2012 Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon. Other items of note include the 30th consecutive release of Magill Estate Shiraz from vintage 2012.
Also included in the collection are the 2013 Reserve Bin A Adelaide Hills Chardonnay, the 2011 St Henri Shiraz, and the 2014 Bin 51 Eden Valley Riesling.
Most of those can be classified as library wines - they span five vintages - but Penfolds' regional PR manager Asia, Tommy Tse, stresses that Penfolds does not hold wines in reserve with a view to selling them later at an inflated price.
The Penfolds Collection comprises wines only now deemed ready for release, and the bottles in the Penfolds Museum at Magill are kept for special tastings. Some rare bottles Penfolds has retained are occasionally released to the market in the form of one-of-a-kind special offers.
"Our magnum formats tend to be sold in special limited releases and special gift set collections," says Tse. "For consumers who visit our cellar in Magill Estate or Barossa, it is actually possible to find some non-current release wines."
In regions with developed wine tourism, visiting cellar door outlets is a good way of acquiring library wines.
Most wineries keep a limited number of bottles of old vintages for entertainment purposes, historic reference and as cellar door specials.
But upmarket wine merchants such as Berry Bros & Rudd and Altaya also maintain library lists of old wines bought directly from the producers.
Champagne looms large on those. Until recently, as Bilbey points out, Dom Perignon more or less claimed ownership of the word "oenotheque", which is French for wine library.
"Oenotheque is a slightly confusing concept, inherently referring to anything older than the current release - library stock in other words," he says.
"Purloined, albeit not permanently, by Dom Perignon, who now seem to prefer the term plénitude, it does not necessarily mean a wine that has been late disgorged."
Plénitude Dom Perignon is "late disgorged", meaning the wine spends longer on the lees - a yeast deposit in the neck of the bottle which is a by-product of fermentation. Over time, this contact contributes to its evolution.
Each "plénitude" - the word translates as "fullness" - is defined by Dom Perignon as a point in the wine's maturation at which certain characteristics of the wine are at their peak or "moments where the wine sings higher and stronger".
The first plénitude is deemed to take place at seven years, the second at 12 and the third at 20.
Other notable producers of late disgorged champagnes include Bollinger - which pioneered the practice - and Pol Roger. Previously the preserve of a small number of connoisseurs, interest in these champagnes is becoming more widespread.
Bilbey says connoisseurs like to compare vintage champagnes which have been disgorged at different times, identifying subtle differences between them, and that producers are holding back some for later release to cater to that market.
Says Bilbey: "Practically and commercially, more houses are now forward planning, and therefore holding back stock for such a purpose."
So expect to see more library wines on the shelves.