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Published:  23 July, 2008

Garage wines operate outside the mainstream investment market, and while these small-scale Bordeaux wines have enjoyed huge success in the Far East, they have attracted criticism and suspicion closer to home. So how are they currently performing? Margaret Rand gets the inside track from some of the UK's leading importers

I have reassuring news for all those people who failed, back in 1985, to buy a case of 1982 Le Pin at Christie's at the then going price of 310. Congratulations: you also didn't (at least, I hope you didn't) buy 1996 Valandraud en primeur. If you did, of course, then you won't need me to tell you that, as Stephen Browett of Farr Vintners puts it, the wine was released in the summer of 1997, three months before the Asian crash, and almost all went to the Far East. It was a stupid price, 3,600 a case, and it was less good than the 1995. Now it's selling for half that.' It's a salutary lesson. I have just traded in my old car for a new one, and that, too, has served to remind me that most of the time it's the garagiste that makes the money, not the punter. And curiously, just like my new Peugeot, garage wines are now to be thought of as for owning, not for investing in. This neat piece of rebranding also comes courtesy of Browett, who points out that garage wines are not a financial investment. Most are very hard to buy when they're first released; they're very expensive, and they don't go up in price. They're immediately rare and sought-after, and all the profit is already there. Wines like La Mondotte and Valandraud are not a good investment. Most small-production wines are not being drunk by people, but are being owned. It's a collector's market,' he says. The main selling point of La Mondotte is that if you buy a case, there are only 799 left for the rest of the world.' Whether you feel this is a sufficiently good selling point must depend on your temperament and on your finances, but instinctively I feel that it is a situation that is unlikely to endure for very long. If something is genuinely sought-after by collectors, and the quantity of that something is decreasing, then prices must rise. If they do not, then it must be that demand is decreasing at the same rate as supply. What we do not know is how great that supply is. One can only speculate about how much of any given garage wine in any given vintage has already been drunk. And while Paul Bowker of Wilkinson Vintners says of garage wines that, They're always in demand,' he also says, My gut feeling is that many have tailed off a little.' Gary Boom of Bordeaux Index is more forceful: There's a limited market, and it's notable that it's becoming harder and harder to sell these wines. In the past there was massive demand, more than supply; now there's a fine, knife-edge balance and no demand.' But of course, all garage wines are not alike. Le Pin is universally acknowledged to be in a different category: Le Pin is healthy,' says Browett. Some garage wines can be seen as a flash in the pan, but Le Pin has lots of followers, especially in the Far East. It's the equal of Ptrus in quality and therefore in price; we never have a problem selling Le Pin. Even cynics have to admit that Le Pin is fantastic. It's not jammy or over-concentrated.' Boom agrees: The only one that has become part of the establishment is Le Pin. It's been around since 1979, and it's bang in the middle of where you expect good wine to be made. With Valandraud, people scratch their heads and say, "Where is the vineyard? Is it on the plain, or the cte?" The problem is the concept of terroir. If you have the terroir, you can do it.' Nevertheless, 1994 and 1995 Valandraud are in the basket of wines that Boom's company uses for its eponymous index, and are likely to stay there. Traditionalists, both in Bordeaux and in Britain, were raising questions about garage terroir back in the late 1990s. Pascal Delbeck, winemaker at Belair, warned early on of a dissociation between the wine and the potential of the soil'. People shook their heads then, and warned that it would all end in tears. Is that what's happening now? It's difficult to be certain, as the evidence is still too mixed. Valandraud's first vintage was 1991; La Mondotte and Le Dme first saw the light of day in 1996. Others were even later. The only investment vintage of 1982 calibre to have come along in all that time is 2000. One could argue that as investment wines they haven't had a chance to show their mettle, even though, as Anthony Hanson MW of Christie's says, people tended to go for the classics in 2000, from good sites. Questions were asked about the opening prices of the garage wines, and rightly so.' People knew the situation was frothy when they bought; it was a speculation,' says Boom of earlier vintages. Valandraud and Le Pin were the same price a few years ago, and now Le Pin is just behind Ptrus. 1998 Valandraud made money, but 1996, 1997, 1999 and 2000 Valandraud are still at the same price. None has risen.' Browett says: The 1998 was selling en primeur from day one at 1,800 a case, and it's still 1,800 a case.' But the 1995 was a different matter: it was en primeur from us at 1,000 per case, and now it's 2,500'. Bowker adds that, 1996 Valandraud was selling for 2,200 in November 2000, and it's the same today. We didn't buy it en primeur, so I can't quote an en primeur price. Lafite over the same period is up from 1,800 to 2,300. But it's not a particularly popular vintage for Lafite, so let's compare it to 1995 Ptrus: that's up from 5,000 in November 2000 to 5,800 now. That's fairly typical of Valandraud. It tends to be stagnant for a few years, but I'm sure it will go up. If you get both Valandraud and La Mondotte early on, then yes, they're good investments. They always make a significant jump in price when they're released. If you were to buy the 1996 now, it would be as a medium- to long-term project.' If merely owning them is what interests you, however, then Browett has another suggestion: Other Valandraud wines are not very expensive, and some are nearly as good as Valandraud. Axel de Valandraud, with only one hundred cases in 2000, has probably the smallest production in Bordeaux. However, L'Interdit de Valandraud [this was the 1,000 per case non-vintage vin de table Jean-Luc Thunevin made when the INAO cut up rough about his use of plastic sheeting on the vineyards] didn't sell very well.' Hanson picks out Valandraud, La Mondotte, Le Dme and La Gomerie (the garage end, as it were, of Chteau Beau-Sjour Bcot) as the key wines. There's still a cult following,' he says; prices are holding up well. But the problem is their price on release, which makes sale at auction more difficult.' His counterpart in New York, Richard Brierley, head of North American sales, adds, In a currently very discerning marketplace, classic wines are at healthy prices. Prices for wines with some hype have softened considerably, and that includes those from California. I would certainly draw parallels between cult Californian wines and garage wines. Both are a little soft.' And he's not talking about tannins. Le Dme remains a bit of a mystery. Some traders seem remarkably out of love with & Brooks exclusivity: one source, who declined to be named, called it one of the all-time stinkers as an investment'. If people come to us with a case o sell, we send them to J&B,' says the more circumspect Browett. We've had it on the list, but there's no interest, we can't sell it. Exclusivity is a dangerous thing. You have to get it talked about, written about, compared.' Not least by Robert Parker, who - as far as anyone knows - has never tasted it. Bowker, who likes the quality of the wine, says, If I were a gambler I might say, "Take a punt, Parker must taste it one day".' Does that make it potentially undervalued? It's difficult to say that a wine that costs 1,400 a case is undervalued. It's an investment only if you're a gambler.' The reason why Parker hasn't tasted it seems odd. We wouldn't send him samples,' says Huw Blair of J&B. He'd have to go to Chteau Teyssier [where it's made]. He could ring up and do that. We might invite him, but it would be nice if he rang up. Yes, [a good Parker score] could put the price up. We have a policy of not chasing him at the moment. 1996 was the first vintage, and the opening price was 690 a case; now it's 1,350. The 1997 was not an investment wine, so there's no point in talking about that. The 1998 was 900, and now it's 1,600; 2000 was 1,200 and is currently 1,450, though that will probably change quite soon.' Blair is referring here, of course, to Parker's assessment of 2000 as the greatest vintage in the history of the world. The latest word is that the 1998 vintage sold for 1,600 a case at Christie's on 4 April. The 1999 vintage made 800 a case. In what is currently a finely balanced market, the buyers are, says Boom, a combination of people who think that garage wines might go up in price - though that's not my experience - or they buy because of Bob [Parker] and most goes to wholesalers in the US. There are very few private buyers here; in the beginning,when these were new wave wines, there were more.' Hanson has a typically even-handed air when he says, Garage wines started by doing something new and changing the rules, and they have woken up a lot of people in St-Emilion, some of whom were somewhat old-fashioned. They brought about a change in attitude among winemakers who were a bit sleepy, and who realised that it was worth taking a careful look at their winemaking. Garage wines have been a beneficial catalyst in that respect.' Let's hope my new Peugeot will be as good.