I can't remember the last time I bought a bottle of wine. I prefer to buy by the case. There's almost nothing as satisfying as taking delivery of your very own instant mini-cellar. And not having to part with coins and notes is so much more painless for the naturally cheeseparing like me. Apparently, I'm not alone. The average price of a bottle of wine is around £3.50, but the average spend at Majestic Wine, which has made a virtue out of its by-the-case discount, is £115. Armchair browsing on the internet makes the shop windows of mail-order clubs and specialist merchants better value than ever for everyday or fine wines bought by the mixed or unmixed case.
The fevered excitement currently surrounding the 2005 Bordeaux vintage highlights the advantages, and some of the pitfalls, of buying a case for tucking away. The cheapest way to buy a dozen, or half a dozen, as is becoming increasingly common, is before the wine is yet bottled and delivered (en primeur). "Not that cheap" are the first words that spring to mind in the case of Bordeaux 2005, where overheating at the top end of the market will put paid to many a would-be investor's aspirations. But, the three-dozen-odd overpriced châteaux apart, it's still the best way to acquire an excellent wine for drinking as long as you're prepared to play the waiting game and, once it's shipped and delivered, sit on it or store it as it matures (for price comparisons, consult www.wine-searcher.com).
Why bother? I started picking up the odd case or two with the 1982 vintage and I've never looked back. Plucked from its wooden box for special occasions and special friends, wines like 1982 Château Cos d'Estournel and 1983 Palmer, bought for a song as it now seems, have provided an endless wellspring of pleasure. There's no way I could afford them now. A case of wine becomes a family of siblings. Each bottle shares the same parentage, each expresses itself in a different way as it sheds its puppy fat and the elements in the bottle produce increasingly complex aromas, flavours and textures over time. This is what distinguishes a great wine from an everyday wine and the reason for squirrelling a case away.
Bordeaux's success at this market has encouraged producers around the world to follow suit. Young burgundy, rhône, German riesling, chianti classico and, increasingly, wines from Australia, New Zealand and California can now be snapped up and left to mature, or broached early on. Modern cellar techniques have been developed to make top wines more readily approachable younger. An added attraction of whites, and reds with earlier-drinking potential like pinot noir and shiraz, is that you don't necessarily have to wait till your teeth and hair fall out before the wine's ready for drinking. Specialists such as A&B Vintners (abvintners.co.uk), Stone, Vine & Sun (stonevine.co.uk), the Vine Trail (vinetrail.co.uk) and Ozwines (ozwines.co.uk) now cater for those keen to stock up on exciting new wines from the less well-travelled vineyards.
Although many young wines are more drinkable, the basic principle that the wines need time to show their best side holds true in particular with top bordeaux. As Robert Parker rightly points out in his report on the 2005 vintage, "Do not let anyone suggest that many of the renowned northern Médoc classified growths will be drinkable in the next decade, unless you are a masochist with an addiction for tannin. These wines will possess 30-50 years of longevity." Hence one sprightly 60-year-old friend's decision not to bother with the top wines this year, not just because of the expense, but "because I probably won't be around when they're drinking at their best". E