A shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times. See also our International guide to Where to store.
The British may be suffering a crisis of confidence at the moment but one of the fields in which we have led the world is professional wine storage. Shame this doesn't qualify as an Olympic sport.
The combination of a cool climate, centuries-old prowess in trading in fine wine and some particularly useful recycled underground munitions dumps has led to an exceptional number of wine collectors all over the world deciding to store their precious bottles in bonded warehouses on, or often under, British soil. The late Baroness Philippine de Rothschild used to swear that bottles of her Ch Mouton Rothschild stored in the cool climes of the UK tasted better than those stored in Bordeaux.
Although the American way if you can afford it is to build your own lavish wine cellar, it is not always possible in big cities. Many American wine enthusiasts keep at least a part of their collection in the UK. California collectors, and wine professionals, were shaken in 2005, however, when the operator of a Bay Area wine storage business, hoping to destroy evidence of his chicanery, set fire to a wine warehouse, effectively cooking 4.5 million bottles of fine wine. The leading British wine storage facilities hold stocks for wine enthusiasts from well over 50 countries, benefiting from the fact that fine wine needs time to show its best.
But British wine storage professionals are under increasing threat from competition elsewhere in the world. Since duty on wine was cut to zero almost exactly 10 years ago, Hong Kong has become Asia's fine-wine hub. In the old days, the colony's connoisseurs would routinely store their wine in the UK – not least because until 2004 there was not a single professional wine storage facility in Hong Kong. Today no fewer than 44 wine warehouses are officially registered with the HK authorities (we list those suitable for fine wine in our Where to store guide).
Red bordeaux is the prime wine investment commodity. Private buyers who in the past would have stored their wine in the UK are increasingly being encouraged to leave their wine in Bordeaux in one of the bonded warehouses that have been proliferating in the Bordeaux suburbs since regulations were eased. Not only are merchants such as Duclot, Joanne and Millésima offering storage as part of the package, there are custom-built facilities such as Bordeaux City Bond (sic) designed expressly for international private clients, and part-financed by those behind the Vinexpo wine fairs.
With the exception of LCB Dinton, comprising 15 reconditioned Ministry of Defence bunkers near Salisbury recently transformed into wine storage, most recent entrants into the wine warehousing field are above ground. This means considerably higher energy costs, but less risk of excess humidity.
Fewer and fewer homes nowadays incorporate perfect wine storage space. Temperature is critical for wine storage, with a constant 13 ºC/55 ºF considered ideal and anything higher than 20 ºC potentially harmful, especially to the most delicate wines. The warmer the storage conditions, the faster a wine is likely to age. Much lower than 0 ºC and the wine may freeze and expand, disastrously pushing the cork out of the bottleneck or even breaking the glass.
Wine likes humidity because it keeps corks damp but wine buyers, particularly in Asia, prefer their labels pristine, so a relative humidity of around 70% is generally considered ideal for wine. The leading British above-ground fine-wine storage facility, LCB Vinothèque in a solid Victorian ex-maltings in Burton-on-Trent, boasts of being 'the only major wine warehouse in the UK with full climate control'.
LCB stands for London City Bond, whose working stocks for the trade are held in Barking, east London. Their big rivals are Octavian, whose ex munitions dump near Corsham in Wiltshire is so far underground that a rack and pinion railway (seen below from ground level) is needed to transport cases of wine in and out.
Not that that much wine moves here. Many a wooden case changes hands every few years – perhaps between customers of the same UK merchant, or a Singaporean may put the wine into auction in London and sell it to an American – but the case itself sits undisturbed deep beneath the turf and simply has a new identifying label stuck to it.
As was demonstrated when a couple of UK wine merchants went belly up in the late twentieth century, for the private customer to retain ownership, it is vital that each lot of wine is specifically identified with the individual who currently owns it. This is particularly important in view of the many UK wine merchants who encourage their clients to store wine with them (in most cases with a third-party specialist warehouse in fact) and then go on to encourage their customers to trade wine among themselves. As LCB's Jeremy Pearson puts it, for them, 'today's en primeur sales are tomorrow's broking sales'.
Two of the few British wine merchants to operate their own bonded warehouses are Berry Bros & Rudd in Basingstoke, who put great emphasis on checking condition and authenticity, and Seckford in Suffolk, whose storage rates are very competitive as a result. The same is true of The Wine Society, although their modern premises on the outskirts of Stevenage are now so full that they will store only wine bought from them.
Another merchant going the extra mile, though storing with Octavian (whose underground premises at Corsham are shown above), is Private Reserves, run by Laura, wife of wine merchant Johnny Goedhuis, who observes that they have recently seen a number of former O W Loeb clients move their cellars into Private Reserves. To celebrate their thirtieth anniversary, Private Reserves are offering an amnesty on landing fees and storage charges for anyone switching to them before 1 April this year. From April their storage rates will be a VAT-inclusive £13.50 a year for a case of 12 bottles and they are particularly proud of offering a six-bottle case rate of £6.75. (Now that fine-wine prices have risen so rapidly recently, six-bottle cases are becoming increasingly common – see below.) LCB charge by the single bottle.
Our guide to wine storage includes more than 100 schemes in 13 countries, 28 of them different offers from various UK merchants and logistics companies, shared between only a handful of facilities. Schemes vary according to how easily and cheaply wine can be extracted and delivered. You could go crazy comparing the details of the deals on offer, but I have cited some of the most prominent storage facilities below.
Many of these offers include insurance in their rates (Octavian up to £500 million per account), but when LCB looked into the detail of insurance policies, they concluded that the only failsafe option is to have policies in individual clients' names. They accordingly decided to switch to offering a reduction in case rates plus specific policies for different total valuations (£100 a year covers wine worth £50,000, for example).
UK storage schemes increasingly offer valuations by fine-wine trading platform Liv-ex as well as online access to individual accounts and collections. Alas, crooks are just half a step behind, so precise security systems are worth asking about before choosing where to store wine.
Jeremy Pearson, approaching the end of a long career in wine storage and, critically, delivery, observes that recently 'the balance in the partnership between merchant/agency house/brand owner and their logistics supplier has changed and the reliance placed on communications and downloads from that logistics supplier to manage their business ... It has taken the wine trade a long time to realise that their focus must be on sales and marketing with a critical reliance on their logistics partner. Look what has just happened to KFC!'
Some notable wine storage facilities
Berry Bros & Rudd
The Wine Society
Western Carriers, NJ
Bordeaux City Bond
Crown Wine Cellars and many more
Recent developments in fine-wine storage as reported by Octavian
- A substantial increase in the number of private customers buying not to drink but for investment, so…
- There are many more requests for detailed information and on-site visits.
- Since 2012 requests for photographs of bottles (for proof of condition, fill level, etc) have increased from 500 to 7,500 a month.
- Pack sizes have diversified. In 2012 over 80% of wine stored was in 12-bottle cases but that proportion is now only just over 50%.
- Security identifiers on cases of particularly valuable wines are increasingly common and require additional time and effort to check – a case for the introduction of an industry standard?
- At least one multi-million-dollar loan has been negotiated with an American bank by a private customer using part of a wine collection held at Octavian as collateral.
For more options see jancisrobinson.com/learn/where-to-store