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The importance of provenance
WE would like great wines to be immortal, alas, like all their fellow brethren, even the mightiest are not. My host served me a red wine the other night at dinner, I espied the bottle's label, old and tattered, covered with grime, but still discernible. So with heightened expectation I took the first mouthful, expecting special effect. Sadly, the fruit had begun to dry out. The wine's ghost remained haunting though. It was Château Mouton Rothschild 1982. I was flattered and sad at the same time. Because this famous great wine should at 34 years be still holding its own.
Provenance! As I explained to my host. The provenance of each individual bottle is the clue to the condition of the wine. And it is the provenance of each bottle, from the time it left the cellar of the Château to the time it landed on the dining table, which is critical to the condition of the wine.
And with famous wines it is even more critical because a famous wine such as Mouton 1982 could well have changed hands several times before it landed in the cellar of my host. And the most damaging of all travel would be if the bottle had seen the shores of the United States. Because that would have entailed a journey to the US and back to Europe.
It is likely that while in the US the bottle could have travelled all the way from its port of arrival, almost certainly New York, all over the US, before it finally got on the boat for the return journey to Europe. And guess what, it may not have travelled in a refrigerated container ("reefer")! Hence the advice I received very early on in my wine days: "Do not buy bottles with a US strip label "USA bottle"!
The best source is, of course, direct from the Château or Domaine but this is generally not possible especially from the top growers, Châteaux, Domaines, etc.
The next best source is directly from the merchant whose stock came directly from the grower - for example, the negociant, in the case of Bordeaux. This is not ordinarily possible as the negociants main business is to sell to merchants in Bordeaux as well as to importers all over the world. And not directly to private buyers, except to those few favoured ones, those who have visited them regularly over a period of time, and whom they have come to trust are genuinely private consumers who love wine.
Locally, the best sources are the wine merchants whose stocks are known to be reliable from past experience or known to have come directly from source of origin of wine (Château or Domaine, etc), or from the all-important intermediary, the broker, or the chief distributor in the town of the wine's origin - for example, Bordeaux, or Beaune.
In the case of overseas purchases, the method of transfer back to Singapore is also relevant to the subject of provenance. The best method is by refrigerated container all the way, via refeer trucks first, to temperature-controlled warehouses, then reefer if shipped by sea.
By air, one has the problem of differential air pressure during flight. The much reduced cabin pressure at flying heights may well result in one or two bottles arriving with popped corks and therefore spillage of wine. Imagine this happening to a bottle of Mouton 1982!
The standard of provenance maintained by the local vendor remains the final link in the chain. It would not be wise to assume that this is at the highest level except in the case of known reputable vendors. One notes the profusion of wine stores that have sprung up in Singapore in the past couple of decades.
And be wary of wine sales. It is a convenient way of getting rid of stocks with suspect provenance. Again, the reputation of the wine store is one's best guide.
My host for the Mouton 1982 was unable to recall where and from whom he had purchased the bottle. I know his own wine storage is impeccable so one would wonder about the provenance of the bottle before he bought it.
Mouton 1982 is a legendary wine, with a 100-point score from The Wine Advocate's Robert Parker. The en primeur release of the1982 Bordeaux took place in the spring of 1983 - that is, around May-June 1983.
Opportunely I had decided early that year 1983 to start a personal wine collection, so seeing the news in the Decanter about the 1982, it seemed a good idea to buy some "1982 futures" as it was known at the time. Our principal sources were London's fine wine merchants and quite fortunately they were able to offer me small stocks of the 1982 en primeurs. En Primeur offers were sent by fax as there was obviously no Internet at the time.
To give an idea of the ex-London en primeur pricing of the 1982s the First Growths were being offered at £250 (S$450) per case of 12 bottles. I was able to secure a couple of cases of each of my favourite wines, including the First Growths, and was quite fortunate in this regard.
Lafite 1982 at £230 per case of 12 bottles was my star buy! I had to telephone London merchants to buy the 1982s. Today its price is S$6,000 per bottle ex-London! Like drinking liquid gold!
This brings me to the subject of wine as an investment. Given the kind of wine market today for top wines, especially the so-called "100-pointers", that would seem a "no-brainer". Undoubtedly wine could be, and is used as, a vehicle for investment.
Although one's principal aim in amassing a collection is for one's own enjoyment it does happen that in the course of time the cellar has grown beyond one's needs and it then becomes necessary to be practical. Part of it will have to be sold and the proceeds become one's pension fund!
A comforting thought in one's old age.