WINE OPINION SARAH HELLER

Tips and tricks for would-be wine collectors

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 March, 2015, 6:12am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 March, 2015, 6:12am

In the popular imagination, the archetypal wine collector is a creature of Harris tweeds, leather club chairs and crystal decanters, laced together with a whiff of Cuban cigar. To the wine sceptic, wine collecting has its own whiff - of elitism, decadence and, above all, great expense.

This very much needn't be the case. The prerequisite for being a wine collector is simply the act of accumulating bottles for later consumption. A Rolls-Royce is not required; however, a genuine enjoyment of wine is. My suggestions relate to wine collecting for drinking; those investing for profit will find no lack of advice elsewhere.

One caveat to this simple definition of wine collector is that collecting should be intentional. At the end of university, I had to admit to myself that the 20 or so heat-damaged bottles gathered in my cabinets over four years of parties didn't really amount to a collection.

More intrinsically, wines should be chosen that will evolve positively over time. On the one hand, this is a limited group. Most so-called "commercial" wines - that is, anything with a flashy label or a fanciful name of the Menage a Trois or Skinnygirl variety - are designed for instant consumption, a goal they usually fulfil admirably.

On the other hand, it is not nearly so limited a group as one might think. I recently enjoyed a toothsome, cedary 2006 from Bordeaux originally bought for HK$140, hardly bank-breaking for anyone intent on pursuing wine more seriously. I've had similar experiences with eight- to 10-year-old everyday reds from Italy, Spain and Portugal plus a handful from Washington state and Australia, almost always from "traditional" producers.

Does this apply equally to whites? Sadly no, most whites - particularly "aromatic" varieties such as gewurztraminer, muscat, viognier and sauvignon blanc - quickly lose their fragrant charm. Sauvignon blanc, in particular, will often exhibit a bouquet of skunk cabbage if left to slumber too long. However, riesling frequently pulls it out of the bag, even fairly inexpensive kabinetts (and even ones withcartoons on the label), layering a mineral topcoat over their base of crystal fruit. The greatest stunt of all is to stash away bottles of non-vintage champagne for a few years and watch them emerge, if not as Krug, then as something appreciably more toasty.

All this is to say that style often trumps price when judging a wine's longevity. Acid, sugar, tannins and alcohol are preservatives, although wines with lots of the latter and none of the former often sag with time. Since you can't always tell acid and tannin levels from a label, the trick is to buy one bottle, assess acid (think lemon juice) and tannin (think black tea), and buy more if these are plentiful.

Conversely, high price is no guarantee of age-worthiness, as many a disappointed buyer of gigantic (and now disintegrated) cult wines can attest. This is rather inconvenient for anyone hoping to forgo careful research and simply grab the priciest bottle available. That said, if money is no object, buy classed growth Bordeaux (bottles not futures). Like treasury bonds, although they may drop in value, the underlying wine won't usually fall to pieces, at least over 10 to 15 years.

If, like me, you are fairly young and highly impatient, you can find already-aged wines on the market. These are useful for collector dinners, where more seasoned hands often bring wines they bought decades ago. I hunt for damaged label bargains and shun bottles with bulging corks or low levels like they were bell-bottom trousers.

This strategy is solid for old Bordeaux, but potentially shaky for Burgundy (white especially) and positively wobbly for everything else. Because of a less-established collector market, pre-1980s Italian bottles especially are a game of vinous Russian roulette, albeit one where every few bullets is a liquid epiphany. However, if you're buying today to stash away, Italians are the horses to back: all life-lengthening acid-tannin "backbone" and very little fat.

And I don't necessarily mean an iconic brand such as Sassicaia. The true beauty of building a wine collection is saving bottles nobody would necessarily think to keep. A decade from now, drinking that '14 Sagrantino may be a transformative and genuinely unique experience.

Finally, before embarking on your collecting journey, a quick note on storage. In our torrid climate a wine fridge is a must. Otherwise, today's treasures may not end up much better than the bottles of oxidised plonk I had to throw out at the end of university.

Sarah Hellar is a Hong Kong-based wine writer