In Vino Veritas: Notes on Buying Wine At Auction

In Vino Veritas: Notes on Buying Wine At Auction

16/06/2022     General News

Nick Cooper, newly-appointed wine expert at Keys Fine Art Auctioneers says the auction room can be a great place to find something unique to put in your glass.

The supermarkets have done a great job in democratising wine: educating us, introducing us to new grape varieties, new regions and countries, and generally broadening our wine knowledge.  Meanwhile, independent wine merchants, who tend to know their customers better – and whose customers tend to be more knowledgeable and more open to new ideas – do a good job in helping wine lovers experiment, cajoling us and generally leading us into new avenues of vinous pleasure.

But if you are looking for something completely different, a rare bottle which can’t be found on any retailer’s shelves, or simply a fully-mature vintage from a leading producer, one place to find it is in the wine auction room.

I’m not talking about the rarefied London auction houses where collectors’ bottles change hands for six figure sums, but those select regional auction houses which have specialist wine experts, and where there are still bargains and oddities to be found.

The real benefit of buying wine this way is rarity value: you will find bottles in the auction room which are simply too unique (in every sense) to appear on any retailer’s list.

It is at auction, too, that wine’s true value is set.  Those of us who work in the wine auction world have access to information about current auction prices being achieved, and just as importantly, the prices being paid within the trade, and so we are able to offer realistic valuations to sellers, and good pre-sale guide prices for buyers.  Although, of course, in the end it is the bidders themselves who set the actual market price.

And you might be surprised just how much those prices can move.  I know of one wine-lover who bought six bottles of Clos Vougeot 1999 Burgundy from leading producer René Engel; in 2002 he paid £37 a bottle.  Having told me how much he had enjoyed one of those bottles with a midweek fish and chip supper, he was a little taken aback when I told him that the market value had risen to a stellar £3,800 a bottle.

But there are still bargains to be had at auction.  I know of another wine lover who bought a case of Port – at Keys - from his birth year four years before he turned 50, and stashed it in his cellar until the big day.  By which time its value had more or less quadrupled due to the demand for 50 year-old wines to celebrate land mark birthdays.  He tells me that knowing that just made every mouthful even more delicious.

There are some things to bear in mind if you are buying wine at auction.  The most important is that you can’t take it back, so it is definitely a case of caveat emptor – buyer beware.

It is important to inspect any lot you are planning on bidding on, looking for signs the cork has dried out, such as leakage or a low level in the bottle.  And although the state of the label doesn’t necessarily reflect the condition of the wine in the bottle, generally a well-preserved label does suggest the wine has at least been stored in an ideal place.

It’s easier to do this if you are an ‘in-room’ bidder, in which case my advice is to arrive early and take the time to look at any bottles you think you might buy.  If you are bidding online, take a close look at the bottle photos, and contact the auction house with further questions if you have any doubts.

Another tip is to do your research.  Although it doesn’t always work for the rarest wines, there are plenty of online resources which can help you assess how much you should be paying for any given wine.

Lastly, don’t forget that the price you bid is not the price you pay – there is always a buyer’s premium to pay on top.  This generally adds around a quarter to the hammer price, so it’s a good idea to work out in advance how much you are willing to pay, and then calculate your maximum bid accordingly.

But the best advice is to dive in and have a go.  The auction room can be an exciting place, you may wend up with a real bargain, and as long as you don’t get carried away, the worst thing that can happen is you come away thirsty.

Keys next Wine Sale takes place on Friday 29th July.  Bottles can still be consigned for the sale.  If you have wine you would like to be assessed and valued, contact Nick at

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