How to start a fine wine collection

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Bottles quietly mature in the cellars beneath St James's
In this article, first published in the Spring/Summer issue of No.3 Magazine, we talk to specialist Nick Pegna about how to start your fine wine collection.

There’s no magic formula for building a fine wine collection. It takes time. Like a painting, it’s created in layers – brushstrokes – some things added, some taken away. But when, at last, you savour a bottle you love at its peak maturity, it is one of life’s great pleasures.

We are firm believers in collecting great wine so that you can enjoy great wine. When you start to build a collection, you’re laying the foundations for years of pleasure – and a corkscrew is most definitely required. Ahead of buying your first case, there are a few things to consider, from when you plan to drink the wines, to how much you want to spend. But, before we dive in, allow us a brief digression.

It is 2018. Berry Bros. & Rudd’s Global Sales Director Nick Pegna is with an old friend in a restaurant. A dish of simply cooked roast pheasant sits untouched. All eyes are on a bottle – 1918 Ch. La Mission Haut-Brion. One hundred years of liquid history have brought us to this point. In 20 minutes, it will be over.

“From the moment we opened the bottle, to the moment that we finished the wine, we tasted again and again. It was delicate, elegant, still very alive. It was quite fine-boned as you might have expected; miles away from the dark, rich, modern vintages of La Mission, but very much together – in balance, with no tannin at all. It had a wonderful, typical, Pessac Graves nose. And then, it began to fade as the levels of fruit and acidity changed. But it was, it was… fantastic.

“We shared it with those around us. We were tasting a moment in history, but we were also creating a moment in history. The wine was a thread which pulled us together; it also pulled moments in time together. It connected us to 1918, and to the ladies at La Mission who harvested and made that wine against the backdrop of a terrible situation.

“You place that bottle in its time in history – in the midst of war but before Spanish Flu – and you know it’s momentous.”

We cannot all drink 100-year-old Claret

Nick would be the first to admit that La Mission moments are not everyday ones – and nor should they be. But his 1918 Claret anecdote shows how enthralling wine can be – an idea at the heart of most collections. A single bottle, whether purchased from an off-licence or a sommelier, represents not just the history of its vintage and its winemaker, but also the moment it is opened and enjoyed. And when a bottle comes from your collection, its appeal is even more potent.

For those who truly collect, fine wines are not just entries in a cellar book. They are living breathing things – they’ve been purchased young, often while still in cask; they’ve been carefully cellared, considered and then – at last – opened. Each part of the wine’s journey, from vineyard to table, has been emotionally invested in. There is little doubt that this heightens the enjoyment of the wine.

“Even the most rational buyers develop an attachment to their wines,” Nick says. “When wine lovers approach us wanting to start their collection, we like to find out why.” You might want to save money. Or make money. Or ensure you have the wines, or formats, in your cellar which you want for the future. (There are, after all, only ever so many bottles of a particular vintage made.) “There are plenty of good, valid reasons why people like to collect wine,” says Nick. “But loving wine in the first place, and wanting to share it, are key to really enjoying the process of collecting.”

Don’t just buy what feels safe

“At the outset of building a collection, people tend to follow their tastes at the time. But just because you only enjoy Claret, it doesn’t mean that you should only buy Claret,” says Nick. To build a balanced collection, you’ll want to cast the net wider. “Buy a few cases of each different wine; spread around your interests. And let us as merchants advise you. If you like this, you might be interested in that. At the outset, take all the advice you need, then rely on it less and less as you become more confident.”

The old adage used to be “buy three cases, and sell one to pay for the other two”. That can still be true, but not at all levels of investment. Instead, a better place to start is to taste as widely as you possibly can. “Buy mixed cases of 12 bottles, and just taste through things that appeal. Get a sense of where your tastes lie,” says Nick. “And also learn where your tastes are in terms of price. There are some people who quite happily drink £6 or £7 wines, rather than £60 or £70: great! They’ll save so much money over the years. But maybe they shouldn’t be laying down wine for 15 to 20 years that will be so valuable that it won’t be of any use to them.”

Consider how much you can afford

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A love of wine is a prerequisite to starting a wine collection, but it’s a passion that comes with a pricetag. And, if you want a wine collection that’s exciting in terms of drinking and flexibility, it will require a certain amount of investment. It’s as well to know from the outset roughly what this might look like.

“You want to have enough wine to make it interesting. If your flex is too limited, and you’ve only got a few lines in your cellar, it won’t reward you with diverse drinking,” says Nick. In practical terms, this means that you’ll want to be comfortable with the minimum level of investment needed. “We wouldn’t expect a wine to be laid down that is less than £25 a bottle, or thereabouts, so yes – there is a minimum spend required in order to build a collection.

“You don’t have to spend a fortune, but there’s a critical mass of spending that you need in order to be able really get started. It used to be £25,000; it’s probably a bit more now, depending on how long you want your cellar to live for. You want to have enough diversity in there. You probably need two or three cases of each wine so that you can sell and trade it.

“If you have the wherewithal, you should be thinking about first growths, too,” Nick continues. “Generally, a first growth is going to be £400-500 a bottle; if you can, we would recommend you should also include Grand Cru Burgundies. For this type of cellar, you’ll need to spend at a certain level.”

Collections of this calibre are not only appealing because of the quality of the wine that you own and have the prospect of enjoying, but also because of the potential to sell cases on in the future, often at a profit. “If you buy wine at the best price, and at the beginning of its life – which means you can be sure of its condition and provenance – then a lot of it does make money,” says Nick. But he has a word of caution:

“If making money is your sole intention, then collecting wine is probably the wrong thing to do. There are many other ways of making money that are faster than through wine.” Look beyond the blue-chip wines.

If all the talk of classed growths and Grand Crus has left you feeling disheartened, fear not. There are plenty of less well-trodden routes to building a wine collection; especially if you’re looking ahead to unearth regions and producers that are likely to become increasingly rewarding.

“For collectors at the moment, I think there are lots of reasons to look to Piedmont and the Nebbiolo grape. There are many parallels to Burgundy – small-scale producers with small plots of single-varietal vineyards. These are brilliant, versatile wines and the prices don’t yet reflect their true quality.”

It is immensely satisfying to be ahead of the curve when spotting a region’s, or a producer’s, potential. “Take Benjamin Leroux,” says Nick. “Jasper Morris MW, our then-Burgundy Buyer, discovered his wines when he was still at Comte Armand. We’ve supported and championed him from the beginning. Now people who bought Ben’s wines when we first introduced him – wines such as the Chambertin and the Bâtard – are absolutely delighted that they’ve got them in their collections. That’s where the wine merchant can add so much value.”

Take pleasure in the planning

When you think about starting your collection, it needs to be with an eye on medium- and long-term pleasure and potential. “What appeals to me,” says Nick, “is the idea of building something that will continue in its own right. I’ve been collecting wine for 25 years, and I have much more than I would ever need. My wine is an aide memoire of places I’ve been to and times I want to remember. It’s also there for future events – weddings, birthdays or parties that I haven’t yet planned.”

The idea of a well-planned collection is that, once the wines start to reach maturity, you’ll have all the bottles you need. “A collection allows you the luxury of choice: you can choose what to share with people. You can choose the right bottle for the right occasion,” says Nick. And that is enormously rewarding.

In order to do this, you’ll need to buy wines at the earliest opportunity in their lifespan. Sometimes, and for some regions, this means buying En Primeur (buying a wine before it has been bottled). The advantage of owning a wine from the earliest possible moment means that it will arrive in your collection with perfect pedigree and provenance. Better still, the release price for a wine is often the lowest price – not to mention your best opportunity to buy wines which have very limited quantities of a particular format.

Don’t be afraid to change your mind

As you get deeper into the wine world, you’ll find that your tastes develop and evolve. But this needn’t be problematic for your wine collection. Indeed, part of the fun is nuancing and re-shaping your collection as and when you see fit.

If you find gaps in your collection which you want to fill with mature wine, the temptation is to find bottles at the lowest-price available. Nick cautions against this: “Take the example of a 1961 Ch. Haut-Brion – there might be five bottles available in the market. In this instance, you would probably want to buy the most expensive bottle because that will be the one with the best provenance and ullage (level of liquid). The cheapest is probably the least desirable. It might be a Belgian bottling, it may have low levels of fill, it may not have a history. So, having the best price isn’t necessarily where you want to go.”

Should you find yourself in the position of having too much wine, or wanting to re-shape your collection, the secondary market (such as our BBX Fine Wine Exchange) offers the chance to buy and sell easily.

“BBX has made it much easier for people to sell, and to see the market for wines that they may have in surplus,” says Nick. “And, of course, you can buy mature wine for your cellar too. If you didn’t have the chance to buy the wine when it was first released, and you want to buy it now, you need to be able to tick the boxes in terms of provenance and knowing it’s in good condition. You can build a cellar with things to drink straight away.” ■

If you would like to find out more about starting a wine collection, talk to one of our team on 0800 280 2440.

Category: Bordeaux Wine,Burgundy Wine,Collecting wine,Miscellaneous,New World,Old World

Bérénice Lurton on making Asphodèle

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Bérénice Lurton, owner and manager of Ch. Climens and the mastermind behind Asphodèle
Photo credit: C. Chadourne

Bérénice Lurton inherited Ch. Climens, a Sauternes powerhouse, from her father in 1992We speak to her about her dry white Bordeaux, Asphodèle 

The fields of Homer’s underworld are strewn with asphodels, whose delicate white petals have long been associated with death.  

Unlikely associations, then, for Ch. Climens’ latest wine, a dry white Bordeaux with only two vintages behind it. Asphodèle is born of Bérénice Lurton’s collaboration with Sancerre winemaker Pascal Jolivet. Its association with death, she explains, is no accident.  

What’s in a name?  

“When I first started looking into it, I saw that it was linked to death and cemeteries,” Bérénice says over Zoom. “But asphodèle is, in fact, a symbol of rebirth. It’s the first plant that grows after land has been burnt. In fact, Asphodèle was the first wine we made after the 2017 frost, which destroyed the vineyard. 

“There’s also harmony in the name. Asphodèle – it starts with this beautiful open sound, moving into something softer and more rounded, then finishing with this long, delicate note. It’s a wild lily, so it has that balance between being very noble and wild. It’s wonderful.”  

Asphodels also grow on limestone soil, which is one of the principal soil types of Barsac – the Sauternes commune in which Climens is located. Bérénice explains that Barsac sits atop an ancient limestone bedrock, with a mix of clay from the degradation of limestone, and sand from erosion. Often referred to as the red sands of Barsac, there’s no other terroir quite like it in Bordeaux. Within Barsac, Climens is different yet again, located between two passages of the Ciron River. “We’re almost directly above the limestone here,” says Bérénice. 

“It’s interesting that Climens in the ancient local dialect means ‘barren land’ – it was considered poor and unfertile, not good for growing anything. But this despised land, through the grace of the vine, has become a real jewel.”   

Just like an asphodel, Climens has bloomed on Barsac’s challenging terroir.  

A dinosaur in Bordeaux 

Ch. Climens traces its history back to the 16th century, but it was only acquired by Lucien Lurton in 1971. Bérénice is the youngest of Lucien’s ten children. Today, her siblings run a handful of Bordeaux châteaux, from Ch. Brane-Cantenac to Ch. de Villegeorge. Bérénice herself inherited Climens from her father in 1992 at the age of 22.  

“I have to forget about that time,” she says, shaking her head. “’92, ’93, ’94 – they were just horrible vintages with a lot of rain. We didn’t make any Climens in those first two years, and very little in ’94.” 

Despite a rocky start, Bérénice has been at the helm of one of Bordeaux’s most renowned châteaux for nearly 30 years. How have things changed in that time?  

“I really have the feeling of being a dinosaur,” she smiles. “There has been tremendous change across the whole Bordeaux area. I was very young when I took over Climens, and there were not many young people or many women in the Bordeaux wine industry.  

“I remember coming into a place that felt like a small island – we were living on our own. Of course, we were selling wine to the rest of the world, but we had very few visits. We’re a family estate, we don’t have many people and we’re all involved – there’s a sense of family spirit.  

“But we’re much more linked to the outside world and more connected to our neighbours, which is very important. It’s a much more open place than it used to be. There wasn’t even a computer when I arrived. I myself had never used one – can you imagine that? That’s why I feel like I’m a dinosaur,” she laughs.  

The tisanerie at Ch. Climens
The tisanerie at Ch. Climens. Photo credit: F. Nivelle

A biodynamic philosophy 

Climens switched to biodynamic viticulture in 2010 – an important turning point in the château’s history. “It was necessary to do something regarding sustainability and the environment, but it was also about recovering the connection between the terroir and the vines. 

“Jean-Michel Comme from Pontet-Canet was the first person to inspire us and make us believe in biodynamics in Bordeaux – because it is a challenge. It’s true that, here, you need more tools than anywhere else, because of the [humid] weather and the danger of mildew especially.” 

Bérénice explains that Climens uses common biodynamic preparations like 500 and 501. Preparation 500 involves filling cow horns with dung and burying them during the winter months with a view to enriching the soil; while 501 refers to filling a horn with silica from crushed quartz, burying it during the summer months, then retrieving it and spraying it over the vines.  

“We also use many different plants which we pick on the estate or in surrounding areas. We have a big attic called the tisaneriewhere we dry the plants. We then make teas which we dynamise [a stirring process intended to energise the preparations] and use them to spray the vines according to periods of the year, the seasons, the weather, the position of the moon. What’s amazing about biodynamics is that it’s so adaptable.” 

From sweet to dry  

Climens has an iconic reputation as a sweet wine producer, classified as a Sauternes Premier Cru Classé. I ask Bérénice what led her to make a dry white wine.  

“Well, first of all, I’m a dry white wine lover – which is very important,” she adds with a smile. “Knowing the qualities of Climens, I always wondered how we could express them with a dry white. We have lots of very young vines, which take noble rot very well, but weren’t quite profound enough for our Climens [the grand vin].  

“Then I met Pascal Jolivet in New York in 2017, whose wines I really liked. We started speaking and he was sure that we could do something wonderful with our young vines on the terroir of Climens. So, we worked together on the first vintage in ’18.  

“We also tried to make a dry white from the old vines at the same time, but the results were much better when we worked with the younger vines. It means that the older vines are better for sweet wine and the younger vines are better for dry – so everything is perfect!”  

How fitting that Asphodèle is born from Climens’ young vines, representing a new cycle of life at the château.  

Take a look at Ch. Climens’ Asphodèle here 

Category: Bordeaux Wine

A closer look: our 2020 Provence rosé

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Our Own Selection Provence rosé

The latest vintage of our Own Selection Provence rosé is here, made for us by Ch. la Mascaronne. Catriona Felstead, our Senior Buyer, takes a closer look at a delicious summer-friendly wine.  

2020 Berry Bros. & Rudd Provence rosé

What is it? 

Our own-label Provence rosé is a dry, pale pink wine made from a blend of Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Rolle (the local name for Vermentino). It is made for us by Ch. la Mascaronne. This is an estate with an excellent reputation, not only for high quality but for its ownership. It was first established in 1999 by the then-owner of another very well-known Provence château, Miraval (before it was acquired by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie). It remained in the same ownership until last year when it was acquired by Michel Reybier, owner of the very famous Cos d’Estournel of Bordeaux, whose purchase has drawn attention to the quality of this estate. 

Why’s it different? 

Ch. la Mascaronne is unusual in Provence in that all the wine they make, including our rosé, is made from their own estate-grown fruit. They don’t buy in wine from other growers, meaning they have complete control over the growing conditions of the grapes, and therefore the quality and style of fruit that goes into their wines. Theirs is, ultimately, a terroir wine in a way that many Provence rosés are not. They are also unusual in that their vineyards lie at 300m altitude, unlike the majority of Provence vineyards, which lie mostly at sea level. This altitude creates a cooler microclimate which allows an even ripening of the grapes and preserves a wonderful freshness in the final wine. 

What about its flavour profile? 

The first taste brings to mind the sensation of biting into a fresh red plum. Its pale colour belies the vivid aromas and flavours of wild strawberries, raspberries and redcurrants that follow. It’s dry and very mineral; energetic, pure and fresh with a long, creamy finish.  

What should I eat it with?  

It’s lovely on its own but also works extremely well with a multitude of al fresco dishes such as grilled prawns and chicken salads – and it also copes unexpectedly well with strong flavours such as paprika or garlic. It’s very versatile! 

Shop our Own Selection Provence rosé here.

Category: Own Selection wine

Bordeaux 2020 En Primeur: tasting the vintage

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Tasting Bordeaux 2020 in our Basingstoke tasting room
Photograph by Krystian Krzewinski
This year, we’re tasting 2020 En Primeur in Basingstoke rather than Bordeaux. With the samples freshly arrived from the châteaux, discover how the team approached the vintage and hear Bordeaux Buyer Max Lalondrelle’s first impressions.

Fresh from the tasting: Bordeaux 2020 En Primeur

The build-up to tasting Bordeaux En Primeur is always exciting. Usually, the final flurry of preparation involves finalising itineraries and flights; this year, with Covid continuing to call the shots, tasting 2020 was going to be different.

Early on, our Bordeaux Buyer Max Lalondrelle started working with the châteaux and the négociants to put a “plan B” in place. The ambition was to create a tasting that would allow the full team to get the most accurate impression of the vintage generally, and of individual properties’ success specifically. This meant preparing, collating hundreds of freshly drawn wine samples and couriering them from Bordeaux to Basingstoke as swiftly as possible.

The first precious pallet, containing six samples from each producer, made its way through customs over the weekend. It arrived in time for the wines to be prepared on Monday. The room temperature was set to 17 degrees; the wines were organised, and the team was split into small groups to taste throughout the day.

The wine samples had to be handled carefully. Each bottle was opened, assessed, and then disposed of within a relatively small timeframe to ensure the contents was at its best. Where a sample was found to be unusual or atypical of a property, it was put aside and another opened.

Compare and contrast

“It’s a very different way of tasting,” commented Max. “When we are in Bordeaux we would, for example, visit all of St Emilion – 10 or 15 properties – in a day, which is about 30 to 35 wines. You would have time in between tastings to discuss and assess the wines. When we’re tasting here, we are tasting a whole bench of St Emilion next to each other, one after the other.

“This means here you are able to compare each château to the others – to compare and contrast very easily. But the disadvantage is that when you’re tasting one wine after another, they can sometimes be very different in style. It makes it more difficult.”

Certainly, the minimalist environment of the Basingstoke tasting room gives a more clinical element to the tasting; there’s no risk of the team being influenced by the emotive surroundings of a pristine château, an atmospheric cellar or an ebullient winemaker.

First impressions: tasting Bordeaux 2020

What, then, was Max’s impression of what he tasted? “It’s very good; it’s not something I’ve tried before.” To give context, Max has been tasting En Primeur since 1993. He has a fair few vintages under his belt. “Compared to a more obvious vintage such as 2016, which was all very fresh, very intense, almost crunchy, this has that kind of freshness to it too. But then, in the middle, you’ve got this kind of mellowness, which comes from the heat of the vintage. So, you have the freshness and the heat all together in one vintage It’s quite interesting.

“I think the vintage for me is going to be approachable; it’s not an aggressive vintage, there’s no saturation of tannins; there are no dry tannins. It’s a vintage of buvabilité; it’s drinkable and thirst-quenching. You’ve got this early drinking freshness and smoothness on top. The wines are not as intellectual as 2010 or 2016; instead, I would say they sit very comfortably with 2018 and 2019. Overall, it’s a very good vintage.”

Over the coming days, we will bring you the team’s first impressions and favourite wines from the tastings. For more from the vintage and to stay up to date with releases, go to our full Bordeaux 2020 En Primeur coverage.

Category: Bordeaux Wine