Not enough restaurants have realised the potential of buying wine at auction," says Serena Sutcliffe, head of Sotheby's Wine Department.
"You don't have to carry quite so much stock because you can top up as and when you need. And particularly for those who have got modern technology such as laser printing for their wine lists, it's so easy if you buy a case or even six bottles of something a bit older to add it, to 'decorate' a list."
Sound advice. Yet most restaurateurs remain nervous about buying wine in the sale rooms. How often one hears the comment: "When you buy at auction you don't know how the wine's been stored, and if there's a problem there's no comeback."
The reality is very different as auction houses rely on repeat business. And if they were to tell a first-time buyer who was unhappy with a wine to go away he would never come back. In practice leading houses such as Christie's and Sotheby's are meticulous in checking the source and condition of the wines they auction, going to all lengths possible to sort out problems.
These occur quite rarely. Paul Bowker, director of Christie's Wine Department, says that of the 15,000 lots that come under his hammer every year, he can count the returns on one hand.
It is all a matter of feeling comfortable in the atmosphere of an auction room. And if you find that daunting or can't go, you can put in a first bid by fax, as overseas restaurants with great lists regularly do. You know how much you want to pay for a wine because you know how much you want to sell it for. So you should just work back and decide your maximum bid, remembering to add the 15% buyer's premium.
There is, of course, no greater reassurance than sampling a wine you intend to bid for. And the purchase of a sales catalogue gains you entry to the pre-sale tastings which is a marvellous experience in learning about the changing flavours of fine wines as they age.
At a Sotheby's pre-sale tasting on 12 April, there was a chance to taste as many as 70 wines and also meet several Bordeaux chƒteaux owners who were in town for a major trade event.
The wine auction market fell to a very low point between mid-1992 and mid-1993. In the tail-end of the recession (a real buyer's market) an awful lot of wine was sold. As a result there is now a slight shortage of supply. Since mid-1993 there has been a steady recovery in prices, the market is increasingly active and Christie's reports that it is revising its schedule of sales this summer, adding an extra one each month.
The essential message is that when good wine comes on to the market, it sells very quickly.
Bordeaux (claret in particular) completely dominates the sale rooms, accounting for up to 80% of sales. Of mature vintages, the 1978 clarets, if carefully selected, can offer real bargains. At a recent sale the solid and reliable Chƒteau Fonbadet, Pauillac, sold for £85 a case and the classy Chƒteau Larrivet Haut Brion, Pessac for £105.
There are still lots of exciting wines around from the 1980s, a golden decade of wonderful vintages. The highly prized 1982s are going up in price, and in certain cases have soared: Chƒteau Mouton Rothschild 1982 has climbed from £850 to at least £1,200 a case during the past 12 months.
That's an extreme case, but below the first growth level, prices for other 1982 "blue chip" chƒteaux are very firm and now is the last chance to buy them before they reach prohibitive levels: 1982 Lynch Bages, for example, currently fetches £400-£500 a case.
The real claret buys at auction are the 1983s, classic wines from an underrated vintage which are ideal for restaurants and drinking well. If you're lucky you can secure first growths at £30-£35 a bottle, and super-seconds at around £20.
The auction rooms are also an excellent source of near-mature Sauternes and Barsac (often available in useful halves). The truly first-rate Chƒteau Climens 1983 in its original wooden case sold this month at Christie's for £240 a dozen.
Vintage ports are the wines which restaurateurs should buy at auction before anything else. They are still extremely cheap. Go for the classic 1970 vintage in general (starting to drink well) and the house of Warre in particular in the price band of £180-£240 a case. o
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