Why wine collectors look for pristine provenance
Christie’s wine specialists Simon Tam, Noah May and Tim Triptree explain why a wine’s provenance — its source, life cycle and storage — is of paramount importance when buying and selling at auction
What’s the first thing you look for on a bottle of wine? The region? The producer? The vintage? When it comes to buying at auction, there is one element of a wine’s identity that is more important than all these criteria put together. For if a wine’s provenance — its source, life cycle and storage — isn’t pristine, not even the finest vintage from the grandest of grand crus can be saved. For serious wine collectors, provenance is paramount.
The life cycle of a bottle
Wines are living, breathing entities. And much like humans, the best develop character with age. But in order to do so, they need to evolve in optimum conditions. ‘If a wine is destined to be consumed in 20, 30, even 50 years’ time, you need to take good care of it,’ says Simon Tam, Christie’s Head of Wine in Asia. ‘It’s like a child — you need to nurture it. And wines, like children, don’t deal well with upheaval.’
The slumberous intake of air into wines sealed with a cork allows for slow, steady maturation. Lain undisturbed in a cool (a constant 12-14˚C is ideal) dark place, fine wines will gradually develop secondary and tertiary flavours that add wonderful layers of complexity to their primary fruit. But it is a delicate process. Too much heat and the liquid expands, leading to seepage. If the temperature then cools, the additional air space in the bottle speeds up the natural evolution — often to a deleterious degree (known as ‘oxidation’).
Other factors, too, can have a mitigating effect. Overexposure to light will dull the subtle nuances of older wines; sudden variations in conditions, be it temperature, humidity or stability, will also have an adverse effect. ‘Storage is all about controlling the chemical reaction of a wine,’ says Tam.
The signs of poor storage
There are certain key signals that will immediately alert specialists to potential problems with older bottles. ‘The most common [visible] symptoms of poor storage are signs of seepage, low levels, poor colour and shrunken corks,’ says Noah May, wine specialist at Christie’s in New York. ‘And the main culprit is exposure to fluctuations in temperature.’
Christie’s wine experts go through potential consignments in painstaking detail to verify the condition of a collection. ‘A great wine can be ruined by poor storage,’ says Tam. ‘So once we have verified the “correctness” of the wine [i.e. that it is genuine], our checks are about assessing its condition.’
‘The most common [visible] symptoms of poor storage are signs of seepage, low levels, poor colour and shrunken corks’
How, exactly, does he go about that? ‘Firstly, we consider the size of the collection — people can happen upon the odd bottle of something special, but are they a genuine collector? And how has it been stored? It’s easy to mistreat one bottle, and, as a consequence, we rarely take on individual bottles. Then we need all the documentation for the wines — where they were bought, where they’ve been stored… If the consignor doesn’t have that information, we reject it.’
Tam and his counterparts around the world will be looking for impeccable storage conditions. ‘If the wines have been kept in bond with a specialist firm, then great. But if they’ve been kept at home, in someone’s cellar, that raises questions. So first we ask for photographs to check the capsules, labels, ullage — or level — and the cellar itself. If that looks promising, we’ll make a house call.’
Only after having inspected — and often tasted — the wines in situ, will the wine specialists commit to taking on the sale. And even then, Christie’s has complete jurisdiction over the consignment. If any bottles are not up to scratch, they will be rejected.
‘Super provenance’ — what our specialists look for
Tam has taken to using this expression for wines that meet his exacting standards, and to emphasise how he and his colleagues reject most of the wines that are put up for sale. So what type of collections are the most coveted?
Near the top of the tree are those that have been stored ‘in-bond’ — at a professional wine storage facility, such as Octavian in the UK, or Crown Cellars in Hong Kong, to which they will often have been transferred direct from the producer’s cellar on being bottled, and where the conditions all but guarantee optimum storage.
‘We also tend to favour single-owner collections, as the collector invariably really cares about wines and will store them in impeccable conditions,’ says Tim Triptree, director and senior specialist of Christie's London Wine Department. ‘And all these cellars will have been inspected by Christie’s specialists.’
By the same token, of course, such inspections can often throw up issues. ‘I remember visiting the home of an elderly gentleman in New York who had a wonderful “on-paper” collection of Bordeaux, including all the first growths and several vintages of Pétrus,’ says May. ‘Tragically, they had been stored for decades in a wine rack in his sitting room… and those New York summers had not been kind to the wines. They were simply undrinkable.’
Tam and Triptree tell similar tales. ‘One collector’s temperature and humidity control system had broken, but the owner didn’t realise for a long time; the wines were ruined,’ says Triptree. ‘I had a proud Asian collector whose cellar was situated next to the ventilation system of a commercial kitchen,’ recalls Tam. ‘The bottles were exposed to 6-8 hours of heat a day, and the corks had expanded. It was heartbreaking — I had to say no.’
The closest thing to a risk-free consignment
The ultimate, all-but risk-free consignment is a collection of ex-château wines, direct from the producer’s cellar. ‘We’ve had incredible success with ex-châteaux wines,’ says Tam. ‘They resonate with consumers, especially when it comes to older vintages. You’re drinking them as the producer intended, after all.’
Tam references a ‘mindblowing, groundbreaking’ sale of ex-cellar wines from Bordeaux first growth Château Latour, in 2010, as a particular landmark for Christie’s Asia. Cases of the Grand Vin from such heralded vintages as 1990, 1996 and 2003 proved a particular draw, and such sales have been repeated since.
Last year, a sale from the cellars of noted Burgundy domaine Bouchard Père & Fils included several wines from the 19th century, direct from the Beaune cellars. ‘We never know if domaines will release these wines again,’ says Tam, ‘so it’s not just about the sale, but the history of the estate. Hearing their story, over 200 to 300 years, told by a family member is something that really resonates in Asia.’ That, along with impeccably sourced wines, of course.
With most wines at auction boasting a well-chronicled backstory these days, buyers are encouraged to tap into it. ‘Buyers should find out as much as they can about the history of bottles that they’re interested in at auction,’ advises May. ‘They should ask about the storage conditions and find out as much as possible about when and where the property was acquired by the consignor.’
‘With a 1982 Bordeaux, for example, if the level is into the shoulder, one might suspect some seepage caused by poor storage’
Tam encourages would-be buyers to look for clues. Of the visual indicators, the wine’s ullage is the most important. ‘With a 1982 Bordeaux, for example, which should have a 50-year lifespan if stored in a nice cool spot, one would expect the wine to be into the neck of the bottle by now, and such a level would indicate a satisfactory standard of storage,’ he says. ‘If the level is into the shoulder, however, one might suspect some seepage caused by poor storage, leading to advanced maturity and potential oxidation, and, in a worst-case scenario, the wine tasting like old sherry.’
What a label can tell you
Tam also advises buyers not to be preoccupied with the aesthetics of the labels. ‘A pristine label is nice, but it doesn’t necessarily indicate the condition of the wine,’ he says. ‘In fact, a perfect label doesn’t always mean perfect storage — it could be suspicious [indicating a potential counterfeit] or have been stored in too warm a spot. A bottle should look its age.’
A faded label, however, is a worry, since it suggests overexposure to light. Damp stains, too, are not a good sign, although again, Tam has a caveat. ‘European cellars are more used to damp conditions, which can destroy labels with mould, but the higher humidity makes bottles less prone to leakage,’ he points out. ‘That’s why Bordeaux cellars have pebbles on the floor — it’s not for spitting the wine into, it’s to increase the surface area of the space that is in contact with air, and thereby increase the humidity.’ A humidity level of 70 per cent is considered ideal.
Tools of the trade
‘Consumers in Asia are much more aware of the whole issue these days — they demand good provenance,’ says Tam, who points to the rise in popularity of wine fridges in Asian homes.
It’s a similar story in the US, according to May. ‘I have seen some of the most impressive and carefully maintained custom-built cellars here in the US,’ he says. ‘Collectors are very careful about storage and provenance and have a keen understanding of the research to be done when thinking about bidding on collections at auction. Our clients have particularly exacting standards and often require very specific information about temperature and humidity.’
For buyers and sellers alike, such considerations have become of paramount importance.