When wine collection becomes a provident fund

A vertical of Latour – one of the world’s benchmark wines.
A vertical of Latour – one of the world’s benchmark wines. PHOTO: N K YONG
The famous tower of chateau Latour in France, framed in the arch of the cellar passage, taken in June 2007.
The famous tower of chateau Latour in France, framed in the arch of the cellar passage, taken in June 2007. PHOTO: N K YONG

SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - Investing in wine? In the 1980s that would have been regarded as a silly question. That question meant one equated wine with stocks and shares. Perish the thought! But look at the wine market today - it beggars the imagination when one notes what astronomical prices fine wines have escalated to these days.

A good example is Château Latour 1982 which opened en primeur in mid-1983 at £295 for a case of 12 bottles - £25 per bottle. (As did all the other Firsts.) As I had tentatively decided it might be a good idea to buy my favourite Château in a widely-acclaimed great vintage at a reasonable price, I took the plunge.

I still vividly remember picking up the phone (no mobile in those days) and calling Corney & Barrow in London; and asked to speak to the general manager, Richard Peat.

"I would like to order a case of the Latour 1982," I said to him when he came on the phone. He was quite startled to hear a Chinese from Singapore (an ex-British colony!) ordering a case of Bordeaux First Growth 1982 at £295 per case of 12 bottles en primeur. I assured him that I would send him a cheque drawn on a London bank to pay for the wine. (No email in those days!) Today the price in London is £1,400 per bottle - 56 times the en primeur price.

While not at the time realising how lucky I was, I went on a small buying spree and continued to stock on some more 1982 Bordeaux en primeurs. The Firsts were at such reasonable prices. (The exchange was then S$3.1 to £1.) For comparison and to put it in the correct perspective, Château Margaux 2015 opened in June last year at 385 euros (S$586 per bottle). In 33 years, the en primeur price of a First had increased by nearly 800 per cent - an annual rate of 25 per cent year on year.

The Chateau Latour Premier 1970 wine. PHOTO:  N K YONG

Fortunately (in retrospect), in the course of the week, I bought up some more 1982s, First Growths, the top Super-Seconds, etc. With that as an inspirational start, it became a "given" that en primeur buying would be a priority every year, with the emphasis on the good vintages. The lesser vintages also came in for attention but to a smaller degree, concentrating on the favourites particularly.

Thus grew the collection and it became clear that no way in one lifetime could one consume all those wines, however delectable they were. Besides which the cost of the annual storage became an increasing financial burden.

Studying the market prices, especially auction prices, with the passing years; it also became clear that a good way of realising the maximum value was to sell through one of the English auction houses.

Our first sale - a single-owner sale because of the size of the collection warranted devoting the whole sale to one collection alone - realised a very useful total, better than had one depended on one's provident fund.

In any case, being an independent tax-payer and not an employee, one did not have a provident fund, so this collection turned out to be my provident fund, totally self-funded.

Emboldened by that bonus, the collection naturally continued to grow.

Quite apart from the financial attractions, the most valued asset of the collection was the acquisition of vertical collections of favourite wines, enabling the gradually increasing experience of their individual styles and strengths.

Vertical tastings of one wine are most instructive. As well as being most enjoyable. It is one of the best reasons for acquiring a personal collection. And added incentive is that the wines being one's own ensures that they have been properly stored, adding to their value as well.

One soon realised that through one's almost annual and regular visits to Châteaux and Domaines, very enjoyable (and useful) personal relationships with their owners naturally developed. This proved to be an enormous advantage as it enabled one to buy en primeur directly from the Château or Domaine rather than going through regular channels. This of course saves one or more "mark-ups", thus making one's purchases less expensive.

Most important and valuable of all have been the development of relationships and friendships with one's favourite wine-growers, thus adding more and deeper dimensions to one's knowledge and understanding of their wines. The intrinsic value of such experiences cannot be over-emphasised. Their memories and their remarks about their wines come vividly back and personalize their wines to you.

All this is part of one's experience of wine. It is not only the taste and character of the wine. It is the context and environment within which the wine has been raised and made. The culture within which it has developed, a very important facet of the wine's personality. One has to experience this culture to appreciate their significance and impact on their wines.

One cannot replicate the experience of tasting and drinking Mugnier's Musigny in Singapore with the experience of drinking it in Frederic Mugnier's cellar while he explains and talks about the wine. Such memories are priceless; they personalise the wine for you. And, moreover, you also learn to your surprise that even the so-called "poor" vintages have their own merits, fewer and weaker than in good vintages, but nonetheless they do have some merits. And equally surprisingly, they can be good drinking as well.

Coming back to the advantages of buying en primeur even in less good vintages, especially from the same handful of negociants or wine merchants, the relationships one develops ensures that in the red-hot vintages you are one of the first in the queue.

A good recent example is the 2015 vintage. "The vintage of the century!" To be able to get one's hands on a case of a much-desired wine such as Château Ausone 2015 would normally be quite impossible, because in addition to the importance of the vintage, the annual production of Ausone is minuscule, the demand enormous. Don't even ask about price! I had visited Ausone during a short visit to Bordeaux in May 2016 and tasted their 2015s in their cave-cellar with Pauline Vauthier, daughter of the owner Alain Vauthier.

Chapelle d'Ausone 2015 
Barrel tasting in cellar of Ausone, May 17, 2016.

Very concentrated and very complex, yet remaining very elegant. Very ripe fruit, very very long finish.

Ausone 2015, barrel sample 
Cepage: Merlot 50 per cent, Cabernet Franc 50 per cent

Black-red colour, aroma of very ripe black berry fruit. Very backward (naturally), very long finish.

PS. En primeur price of Ausone 2015: 350 euros per bottle.