Written by ken Gargett
The world of wine has changed in so many extraordinary ways in such a short period that a time traveller from only a decade or two ago would be forgiven for failing to recognise what today’s winelover finds commonplace. Not least with respect to what should really be very simple: buying the stuff.
When I first became interested in wine, there were really only a few ways to access a good bottle of wine. Most simply went to the nearest bottleshop, drive-in or otherwise. If you were a little more serious, you’d have worked out the best couple of bottleshops in your region – remembering this is well before the days of the chains like Dan’s – and got to know the staff. Often, this would give you access to limited releases and it is still a good option today.
For those more vinously infatuated, getting on the mailing list of a favourite winery, or perhaps several, was ideal. Wine clubs, like the Wine Society, were popular, especially with those interested but lacking the desire to spend ages reading and tasting to find the picks. Better to leave it to the experts. A couple of importers were emerging and one or two of those were even starting to offer wines ‘en primeur’. This really kicked off with the 1982 Bordeaux vintage. It involves the customer paying for the wine, or at least the majority of it, up front.
The wine would not even be bottled at this stage, so anyone purchasing wine this way had to have faith in the early reviews, the merchant staying in business and that the winery would not muck it up between barrel and bottle (it happens). Purchasers would not receive the wine for a couple of years. The advantage was that you could source wines that might be impossible to find when they were eventually released to the public and usually at a price well below what the wines would attract at that time.
There were also a couple of specialist wine auction houses, for the truly obsessed and members of the trade. These were unrecognisable from what we know today. Bidding was usually done by attending the event and waving the famous paddle (or just sticking up your hand). Some did so by fax or even phone.
Langton’s were one of the early pioneers. Established in Melbourne in 1988, by a Brisbane man, Stewart Langton, a Sydney office was opened a year later bringing Andrew Caillard MW into the fold. I spent a few years in Sydney at the time and I can’t tell you how many hours I spent sitting through auctions late into the night to try and pick up some bargains – often, if one waited, there would only be a couple of buyers left by the end and late entries would go for a steal (I remember picking up a range of de Vogue Musigny for $40 a bottle – sadly all long gone – and numerous others).
The advent of the internet put an end to that as keen buyers could spend hours perusing auction lists. It has provided a much fairer market for both vendor and purchaser. Caillard, Australia’s second Master of Wine, has been instrumental in turning the operation into a world-class fine wine marketplace, not simply an auction house.
The secondary market is still essential to the Langton’s business, which is now part of the Woolworths Liquor Group, as is their always eagerly anticipated ‘Classification of Australian Wine’. They have, however, expanded to meet customer demand and since 2011 have been offering a broker service, allowing them to compete with the retail market but by way of personal service. If picking up a bottle of sauv blanc on the way home to enjoy with dinner is as far as your wine shopping extends then the broking service is perhaps a bridge too far for your needs, but for anyone keen to source quality, hard-to-find fine wine, this service opens an entirely new way to source gems and to ensure that you do not miss out on the many classics.
It is possible to operate in a very general sense or to narrow down your interests to specifics regions or wineries – even a specific wine, if you desire. And to purchase these wines at competitive prices.
The brokers, of course, come armed with both an expertise in this aspect of the wine market and extensive wine knowledge. They have an advantage over many of their competitors as Langton’s is able to provide them with unrivalled access to desirable wines. They will seek specific wines for you, annual releases, even wines from birth years for special events or amazing gifts. You can take up as many or as little of their offers as you wish.
Langton’s is the biggest operator in the en primeur market for Bordeaux wines each year, and should also be your first port of call if you’re interested in Burgundy – the homeland of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – and the noble Nebbiolo wines – notably Barbaresco and Barolo – of Piedmont in northern Italy.
Pre-release offers are regular and it is common for Langton’s to access small, exclusive parcels of Australian and imported wines which may otherwise be seen only in restaurants. Recent examples include some of the best so-called ‘natural’ or skin-contact wines from as far afield as Georgia in the former Soviet Union (Pheasants Tears), Canterbury, north of Christchurch in New Zealand (Pyramid Valley) and the Adelaide Hills (Unico Zelo).
Does it work? I went back through the recent offers I have received from my Langton’s broker over the last month. As well as offers focussing on the great Aussie blend, there was a fantastic bargain for some West Australian Riesling, the 2012 Chapoutier Ermitage Le Pavillon (a 100-pointer for those keen on that sort of thing), the latest Shiraz Viognier from Tim Kirk at Clonakilla – always a brilliant and keenly sought-after wine, big Barossa Shiraz, some single vineyard Central Otago Pinot and, of course, the latest Penfold’s Grange, the 2013.
If that doesn’t set the pulse racing, then you really are not that interested in wine.