Leave the nice after-taste for your wallet

You could just drink the stuff, of course, but some wines will increase in value if they stay corked. Nicholas Faith discovers how to invest in the grapes of worth
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The Independent Online

t's a pretty good rule that the only way to make money out of collecting is to concentrate on what you love – be it record covers, Renaissance bronze statues, or matchboxes. All, you hope, will soon be in the category of "traded art".

The same rule applies to wine, but wine's got a catch. Other "collectables" do not grow old, whereas wine is living stuff – it matures, ages and finally dies. Only a few wines are drinkable after their first decade in a bottle: the best clarets, the finest sweet wines of Sauternes, vintage port, a few wines from the grape the Australians call shiraz and the rest of the world call syrah.

To reduce the field still further, the only truly "traded art" where wine is concerned is claret – for Sauterne, the other great wine of Bordeaux, simply does not rise enough in value over the years to make it a worthwhile investment. (The only exception is Château-d'Yquem, not a wine available at a reasonable price even when it's put on the market at something over £100 a bottle).

The catalogues of auction houses Christie's and Sotheby's do contain lots of bottles of older Burgundies, vintage champagnes and other older wines and even spirits, but they're rightly regarded as oddities. Vintage port is an exception. But, unfortunately, the profits are not that great, except for a handful of truly exceptional wines in extraordinary vintages, and the wines are in such short supply that the importers ration them, even to favoured customers. So no joy there, nor in Burgundy where the finest wines are doled out by the single case.

In the past, punters, generally City chaps, used to buy cases of the best wines, hoping to sell half some years later and drink the rest free. They could do this because not many other drinkers were buying the wines and because of the nature of the Bordeaux market as one of the oddest in the world. The best wines are offered for sale "en primeur" the spring after they are made while they are still maturing in oak casks, but they are not released to the buyer until they have been bottled a couple of years later.

In the 50 years after the second world war, any half-decent vintage did indeed rise in value enough for the tactic to work. The profits could be spectacular if, as with the 1982 vintage, the original price was low, and in the following decade the wine was seen to be something special. Today, alas, the market has broadened, and there are buyers the world over competing for the inevitably limited quantity of wine available. Hence the inflated prices – up to £100 a bottle – asked for the best clarets of the 2000 vintage.

In the past few years, a number of the British-based merchants involved have gone broke, leaving punters without the wines, and there are still a lot of scamsters around offering vintage clarets and in some cases champagnes as well.

In all cases the prices are absurdly inflated and it's unlikely that the firms – some of whose owners are now in jail – actually own the wines.

Fortunately, a leading wine journalist called Jim Budd has a website (investdrinks.org) which alerts potential victims to the latest vinous Arthur Daleys. Also, it is worth checking Christie's website (christies.com) or the leading trader in fine wines, Farr Vintners (farrvintners.com), to compare prices. It is odds-on that the newcomer will be overcharging.

So, the new wine investor should buy cases of wines which will improve for at least a decade but are not yet "traded" – in this country at least. I suggest that Californian and Australian wines could be the shape of things to come.

The best Californian wines are ludicrously over- priced, even by Bordeaux standards, because the quantities are so small – a few hundred cases a year, compared with the big estates in Bordeaux which often make 20,000 cases or more every autumn, with far fewer of the dud years that were common before modern science moved into the vineyard and the winery.

But Australia is different, for one basic reason. Its best wines are big and in-your-face when young, but they're sold and drunk years, sometimes decades, before they have settled down, matured and realised their full potential. Moreover, although there are a few cult wines, like Grange Hermitage or Hill of Grace, which could never be profitable, dozens of wine-makers are producing superb wines from both shiraz and cabernet sauvignon which will improve with age and could show a profit even though they won't be cheap. A decent bottle won't cost less than £15.

And the way to find them? Below, I've given the names of a few reputable merchants.

If you only buy wines you like, you can be sure that if it all goes wrong, you could always follow the advice of my old friend Anthony Barton, owner of Château Langoa and Leoville Barton. Asked by Americans who had made some dud purchases what they should do, he said simply: "Invest another $10."

"And what in?" they asked.

"A corkscrew."

Reputable merchants: Oddbins, where the staff are knowledgeable enthusiasts; Lay & Wheeler, 01206 764446 or laywheeler@ndirect.co.uk; Adnams, 01502 727222 or wines@adnams.co.uk; John Armit, 0207 727 6846 or agency@ armit.co.uk; Liberty Wines, 0207 720 5350; Corney & Barrow, 0207 251 4051; Australian Wine Agencies, 0208 577 5866.

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