The nose for an investment

The price on a bottle of 1995 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild shot up at Christie's to pounds 150 in June, doubling in a couple of months. Is now a good time to put money into wine? John Andrew reports
Last month buyers appeared to be falling over themselves to buy red wine at Christie's first ever sale of en primeur, or pre-arrival clarets. It was the 1995 vintage that was on offer. Not even bottled, the wine currently lies in casks at chateaux throughout Bordeaux. One American buyer paid nearly pounds 150 a bottle (when UK Duty, VAT and the auction house's commission has been paid) for 240 bottles of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. A couple of months ago, the price was half this sum.

Does this mean we are approaching a period of wine fever? Certainly considerable interest is being shown in purchasing wine for a possible financial profit as opposed to the pleasure of drinking it.

Serena Sutcliffe, Master of Wine and head of Sotheby's international wine department, has recently become quite used to being asked whether champagne is a good bet. "People are sent literature about investing in completely unknown champagnes," she says. "But to buy is wildly dangerous. While there is a great demand at the top end of the market, such as for vintage Bollinger, Dom Perignon and the like, these should be bought for your own future enjoyment."

Pressed to discuss wine as an investment, Serena Sutcliffe had one recommendation: "The 'blue chip' buy is the best Bordeaux claret of a well recognised vintage from a top chateau." At Christie's, Paul Bowker agreed, adding that there have been some quite extraordinary returns in recent years. In addition to European and US buyers, there are now purchasers from Singapore, Hong Kong and Thailand fighting for what is a dwindling asset.

The output from the chateaux is fixed, so a greater demand means that prices rise. The most dramatic increase that Paul Bowker can recall is Le Pin, a Pomerol chateau that was only founded in 1979. In 1983/84 a case of a dozen bottles of its 1982 vintage of only 600 cases was selling for around pounds 150. In June 1994 this had risen to pounds 3,100 and in September Christie's is hoping for pounds 15,000-pounds 20,000 for a case.

Although '82 is an outstanding year, cases of reasonable chateau claret are still available from the trade from about pounds l50 to pounds 400 a case. These are likely to have been available in the pounds 25-pounds 50 range in 1983. This emphasises that it is the very top quality that has been an exceptional investment.

These prices are also a long way from the average price of pounds 1,250 a case for the 1995 Chateau Mouton Rothschild paid at Christie's last month. Does this mean that last year was a superb year for claret? Whereas vintage charts rate 1982 as "outstanding", 1995 is a notch below at "very good, some outstanding wines". In Serena Sutcliffe's view, it is the market which is polarising on too few chateaux.

So, what are the golden rules for buying wine? Paul Bowker has two. First buy the very best that you can afford. It is far better to purchase a few expensive wines than a larger number of cases of average ones. Second, try and buy as young as you can. In other words, purchase, say, the 1995 vintage for delivery in 1998 for drinking in the first quarter of next century. Serena Sutcliffe emphasises that wine is a living thing and is highly vulnerable to wrong storage. Professional cellars charge from around pounds 7 a case a year.

One novel way of buying "young" is Matrix-Securities 1996 WineBond. For details, telephone Jacinta Armstrong on 0171-734 8334. For a payment of pounds 2,650 now, bondholders will receive 50 cases of Chateau Teyssier over a five- year period. Every year from 1997 to 2001 inclusive, they will receive six cases of L'Espirit de Teyssier claret and/or L'Espirit de Teyssier Rose. In addition, every year from 1998 to 2002 they will receive four cases of Chateau Teyssier Saint Emilion Grand Cru for laying down. At current prices, Matrix-Securities values the total wine to be received at pounds 5,000. Of course, the quality of future vintages is an unknown quantity.

For those who wish to get in at the beginning and be in control by only buying the better vintages, one of the finest ways forward is to become a member of The Wine Society (telephone 01438-741177 for details). This is a highly respected co-operative owned by its shareholder members who pay a one-off pounds 20 for their share. The society's main wine list contains over 600 wines from more than 20 countries. Each year members are offered the opportunity to purchase clarets, burgundies, northern rhones and ports en primeur. Members may also store their purchases in the society's state- of-the art cellars for just pounds 4.56 a year per case. Delivery of cases to UK addresses is free.

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