You like wine. But you don’t have lots of space at home. What’s the best way to go about starting (or improving) your wine collection?
Listener Steven from Belfast asked the question, which was our cue to spring into action, doling out handy tips and advice, even doing a mini stock-take of our own at-home collection (with eye-opening results…)
We talk to Nathan Hill, chairman of wine club/merchant Honest Grapes and himself an avid amateur collector when starting out, and Alexander de Valle of Bacchus Concierge, an independent advisor on building wine collections, who makes a generous offer to our listeners.
You can save yourself money and drink in style by following the advice in this episode. Though fans of Marie Kondo might want to look elsewhere…
Nathan Hill (NH): So I started collecting wine probably 25 years ago. Literally using a cupboard under the stairs. I was living in Germany and then I moved back to the UK. And I wanted to get beyond the student thing, buying bottles and popping them that evening. And I realised how much more fun I would have, by allowing wine to mature a bit, enjoy it a bit later. So that’s really how I got started, by just investigating.
Susie Barrie MW (SB): What advice would you give to people now based on that, for people who want to start or improve their wine collection at home?
NH: the first thing I decided was: is my cupboard suitable? For about £6.50 you can buy a thing that tells you the maximum and minimum temperature, and the humidity of the cupboard. Ideally you want a temperature around 12 degrees. But doesn’t matter too much, just as long as it isn’t bouncing around too much – not freezing in the winter or boiling in the summer. And the humidity ideally around 65%, if it’s too dry the corks will dry out, so your cupboard won’t be suitable and you’ll need to store somewhere else. And then most importantly, can you resist the temptation to drink the stuff you’ve just bought?! I think surveys have shown the average bottle in the UK is drunk within 4 hours of being bought. What this is about – if your greatest pleasure is drinking alcopops and Ribena, and you just want sweet fruity wines, then you don’t really need to spend your time developing a collection. Developing a collection, it’s like a collecting thing, a lovely thing of nurturing a collection, but it’s also about having wine that will become more savoury, complex and interesting as it gets older.
SB: Would you suggest people buy 12 bottle cases or is it more interesting to buy 3-4 bottles of different wines?
NH: What I did is, once I’d worked out what space I had, which in my case was about 60 or so, I divided it up into 3 ‘lots’. The first lot I called rotation. What I mean by that is there are lots of wines that just benefit from looking after for a year or two. At the time, I was drinking a lot of Macon and Cote Chalonnaise and Italian wines. And just having an extra year or two of bottle age you can get lovely savoury notes and enjoy the flavour and texture of those as they evolve. I definitely recommend buying in 6s, avoid 12s if you have a small collection of eg 60 bottles. But buy 6s of things you like. Why? Firstly, people like me at Honest Grapes appreciate it if you buy things by the case. You generally get better prices. You’ll have the chance to try the same wine over time as it evolves. And it’s also better for the environment as you’re not packing and unpacking cases and putting them together. So part one was rotation: I like drinking everyday but things I can keep for a year or two. So generally £12-25, so above basic supermarket level, which aren’t really worth keeping. My second part is a bit of luxury – I’d wait for the new season releases and see if I could afford something maybe, Burgundy and Italian, a bit of Bordeaux, that I could afford to keep a bit longer. Again those I’d buy by the six, and try to avoid the temptation to pull them out too early. And then my third section is oddments, I’d find the bin end sales of nice older wines. Because the older wines the merchants have isn’t rubbish, it’s generally odd bottles they haven’t sold. They’ve paid to store it, so you can have wines that are a year or 3 older, and you can drink those wines to see how they’ve evolved. And that was a great way – I’ve still got bottles of Bordeaux from the 1980s that I picked up in sales, where people were just emptying their lines with 10% off.
SB: In terms of your luxury section. Do you think it’s important to buy from good vintages or, if on a limited budget, is it betrer to go for a good producer in a lesser vintage?
NH: That’s too difficult! It’s a bit of both. If you’re starting afresh, I’d think about the regions as much as the vintages. For example, Italian wines are often sold 3-4 years older than their French equivalents. So San Leonardo in Trentino that we sell, have just released the 2016. Whereas Burgundy we’re selling 2019 and Bordeaux in a few weeks we’re selling 2020. Not only has a 2016 wine from Italy been stored for longer, it’s had longer to evolve in the correct cellar conditions. And the critics will have reviewed it. And to be honest, for the same price you’re getting a better deal in Italy or Spain or Portugal. As much as I love France, France is not necessarily the place to get bargain wines.
SB: Do you think there are any absolute must-haves in an at-home collection?
NH: the stuff you enjoy drinking! I really hate it when people just buy show-off wines and say they’ve spent far too much money and they’re scared to drink it! So for me, I’m a huge collector of village Burgundy and Grosses Gewaches German wines. A lot of which is affordable drinking level, £15-25, but I’ve got the benefit of having stored it for a few years. Once you get past those first 2 years of sitting on your hands not drinking stuff, I can now drink Burgundy, that’s very hard to find and a lot more expensive, and I can pull it out and not be embarrassed about it. So I’ve got great Bourgogne Rouge, things like that, which are just a pleasure to drink now.
SB: You talk about buying things you like, but how can people reconcile a bit of experimenting with sticking to what they know and love? What’s the best way to strike a balance in that sense?
NH: I’m going to say join a club like Honest Grapes but it could be any decent wine merchant. We do about 250 wine therapy online events a year so we’ve got loads of opportunities to taste wines, sending wines out in little samples and having time to taste them. Post pandemic, of course we’ll go back to doing those as real meets, as it were. For me, having a good sommelier/wine sales person to look after you… Joining a cellar plan where you put in a bit each month, shows then you’re serious and are putting a bit aside to buy things when they come out. And then joining tastings. For me, joining tastings then gives me the confidence to buy 6 of something.
SB: How can people know they’re drinking their wines at the right time?
NH: you can’t really because a lot of it’s about your personal taste. I like my wines to have good forward fruit. I don’t like the old-fashioned British tradition of letting it all go old and brown and stewy. I like my wine fresh and vibrant but with some level of maturity. So that’s another reason to buy in 6s, Susie, that you can taste the first one and think: ah that’s how long I need to wait. Decent wines you can find review websites that will also give you drinking windows. And also your wine club like Honest Grapes will also tell you honestly: I had one the other week, the 2017 Bourgogne Rouge, that’ll taste nice now. So getting that lowdown information from people is also helpful.
SB: Nathan, thank you so much, it’s been lovely talking to you.
NH: It’s been a pleasure. And I’d say to anybody: get started collecting! See if you can sit on your hands for a year or two while you can let a bit of that lovely plonk mature!
Alexander de Valle (AV): I was hoping you were gonna ask me this, and I’ve been going through my own wine collection to decide. Bordeaux is always an excellent starting point and I love good under-the-radar Bordeaux. For me a really good one is Chateau St Jacques from Haut Medoc, it’s a producer which is actually made by the winemakers at Leoville Poyferre, a 2nd growth, it always gets 90+ points and it’s really good value for money at less than £20. Also Rioja – really excellent value. Only in the last year, La Rioja Alta brought out their Viña Ardanza Reserva Especial 2010, it received rave reviews and great Rioja, especially Gran Reserva Rioja, can go on for decades…
Susie Barrie MW (SB): We’ve got that in our cellar, absolutely!
AV: I love talking to people and finding out what’s on their radar, what’s really good value for money, so I can impart that onto someone. So they know they’re getting the very best their budget can get, their lifestyle can afford. I just love talking to people about wine.
SB: What about where to store your wines? If you don’t have a cellar or somewhere appropriate to store them?
AV: Somewhere dry, somewhere that’s not warm, room temperature or below and definitely no bright light. Just to allow the wine to settle. At the same time, if you’ve bought wine en primeur or you’ve bought in cases, I’d always say put that into professional storage – somewhere like Octavian or Enotec or London City Bond. So you know when you get it out, it will be at its absolute best.
SB: I think you work with London City Bond, what cost does that incur for a buyer?
AV: I’ve set up accounts with all those major wine storage companies. In terms of cost, they work on different bands. So usually per case, £6-7 per case + VAT. Goes down with the more cases you buy so in reality you’re saving money as you put wines away.
SB: And that’s an annual charge?
AV: Usually annual charges, yes. Either every 6 or 12 months.
SB: In terms of what you offer at Bacchus Concierge, why should someone come to you rather than going to a retailer or online merchant who might also offer advice on building a collection?
AV: Bacchus Concierge was set up with the sole purpose of working for the customer themselves. I’m a specialist wine consultation service, and I’m filling a gap in the market – when people want to collect wine, they want independent knowledge from someone. Someone to sit down with and say: what is it you want to collect, what is your lifestyle, what is your budget, most importantly, what can you afford?
SB: You work with more modest collection and sellers as well as big budgets? Your subscription service starts at £100 per month?
AV: Yes, it’s completely tailored. I buy through Berry Bros and Corney & Barrow, I also buy through smaller accounts, just opened an account recently with Yapp. So I’m trying to find wines that suit the customer in particular. So not necessarily buying top-end wines, but those that suit the client. So if it’s a wine tucked away around the corner from a Petrus or a Trotanoy, I want to go out and find it. Because I love giving great value wines and tips to customers.
SB: Fantastic, Alex: thank you so much for talking to us!
AV: Thank you, I really enjoyed it!