A taste for liquid assets

It's ironic that some of Australia's most expensive bottles of wine are unlikely to ever be drunk. Take the half bottle of 1952 Penfolds Grange Bin 4 that sold recently for $3600 (including buyer's premium) through Theodore Bruce in Sydney. If opened it would become worthless.

It's ironic that some of Australia's most expensive bottles of wine are unlikely to ever be drunk. Take the half bottle of 1952 Penfolds Grange Bin 4 that sold recently for $3600 (including buyer's premium) through Theodore Bruce in Sydney. If opened it would become worthless. And, as one expert says, the drinking experience may not be worth much anyway. By now this wine would be well past its peak.

The true value of such wines is as a (literally) liquid asset.

Grange this old is a part of Australian history that investors can keep for 20 years then pass on to the kids or sell as a retirement bonus. The 1951 is even more valuable. This was the year that Penfolds' legendary winemaker Max Schubert first experimented with a small-scale production of 160 cases. These are Holy Grail items among collectors.

In 2009 a single bottle of 1951 Grange sold for $43,700 (hammer price) at a Langton's auction.

A consecutive collection of 40 bottles spanning 1951 to 1990 sold for $138,000 at the same auction. A bottle of 1956 Grange made $12,000. This is one of three "secret" vintages made by Schubert without the knowledge of Penfolds management.

Grange dominates the Australian auction scene, especially for those interested in wine as investment. It has the same cachet as Bradman memorabilia.

But Theodore Bruce wine specialist Lee Stone says that those who attend his auctions are divided between the collectors and the drinkers.

The drinkers are looking for celebrated vintages that they can store for a few years then open on special occasions.

Good choices in this category include the product of highly regarded Australian boutique wineries such as Greenock Creek, Clarendon Hills and Giaconda at Beechworth.

One with investment potential is Greenock Creek's 1998 Roennfeldt Road shiraz. Only 235 cases were produced and demand (and values) spiked in 2004 when influential American wine critic Robert Parker gave it 100 out of 100.

Bottles now sell for more than $300. One online retailer is offering them for $485.

The influence of critics is considerable and, apart from Parker, Stone recommends the opinions of Australian critics Huon Hooke, James Halliday and Jeremy Oliver. For the record Hooke, who writes for this newspaper's Good Living section, strongly disagreed with Parker's "100 out of 100" verdict.

Some imports are also in demand at auction, especially bottles of Chateau Lafite Rothschild. Stone has sold a bottle of 2003 for $1560, a 1998 for $1080 and a 2001 for $1020 (including buyer's premium). He regards these as good investments.

Theodore Bruce holds regular wine auctions at its new Sydney premises at 31 Queen Street, Beaconsfield, with the next one due in May. There seems to be growing interest in this area. Every lot sold at the previous auction in February.

Lawsons also holds exclusive wine and spirit auctions at its Annandale rooms in Sydney. And this scene is booming online.

Some wine merchants have also tapped into this growing market. In a recent ad in the Herald, Dan Murphy repeated a quote he first made in November 1976. "I have a small piece of advice to give you ... Buy up your Penfolds. Their red and white table wines are magnificent, at the very top of the winemaking skill in Australia."

Murphy followed his own advice, storing huge quantities in his own cellars and offering them to the public at the peak of maturity.

Recent releases include bottles of 1998 Penfolds Bin 389 cabernet shiraz, available online at $110 a bottle.

Stone nominates this series as one with good investment potential. Of course, not everyone agrees that any bottle of wine is worth keeping beyond its drink-by date.

"There are very few wines around the world that are good investments," says Hooke - a drinker, not a keeper. "The only really legitimate reason for keeping them is if you intend to drink it yourself."

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