Premature oxidation (premox) catches even the most seasoned wine collectors by surprise, and it’s easy to accidentally invest in an oxidized case at auction. Collector Billy Grippo has an expansive collection containing several thousand bottles at a time, and even he’s fallen victim to premox wines. Grippo explains, “A lot of people put their wines up for auction knowing that out of that box there are two or three that are likely oxidized.” While you can’t always avoid premox wines at auction, there are a few guidelines that you can follow to improve your chances of finding quality bottles that will age for decades.
Notorious Premox Regions and Vintages
The first step to avoid premox wines at auction is to recognize which regions and vintages are most likely to suffer from this problem. Experts have found premox bottles mainly in white Burgundy, however, you’ll also occasionally see it in bolder, high-alcohol styles of white wine from Bordeaux, Alsace, Australia, and Germany. White Burgundy should get most of your attention at auctions because this region has been hit hardest by the premox epidemic; treat these wines with extreme caution.
Any white Burgundy vintage between 1995 and 2005 is susceptible to premox, and a few more recent vintages have also suffered from this problem. The older the Burgundy is, the more likely it will show signs of premox. Knowing this, you can handle vintages in two ways: buy mature wines after examining them for the telltale signs, or buy young wines and drink them early. Only investing in and drinking young wines means you won’t get the experience of a beautifully aged Burgundy, but you’ll likely avoid premox.
The 11-Bottle Rule
Put yourself in a wine seller’s shoes for a moment. Imagine that you’re a collector who has just opened the first bottle in a case of 2002 white Burgundy, only to find it woefully oxidized. You might open a second or even third bottle to check for further oxidation, but you know that every additional bad bottle you open is equivalent to pouring money down the drain. In this scenario, it’s tempting to try to make your money back by reselling the case at auction, knowing that it very likely has more oxidized bottles in it. While this is ethically dubious, it happens every day on the wine market.
To avoid premox wines at auction, be suspicious of any less-than-full case, especially if only one or two bottles are missing. An 11-bottle case could be a sign that the collector opened one bottle, found a serious flaw, and decided to sell off the rest of the case in an attempt to recoup some of his investment. Not all partial cases have premox problems; sometimes, collectors simply decide that they dislike the taste of the wine, even though it has no obvious flaws. Still, it doesn’t hurt to ask the auction house or the collector why the partial case is being sold or invest in individual bottles (or full cases) only.
Color Is Everything
You’ve found a case of your favorite white Burgundy up for auction. How do you tell whether the wine has suffered from premox without opening the bottles? Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple answer, as you can’t be certain of premox unless you do open the bottle. The only way to tell whether a case might have premox issues is to hold a few bottles up to the light and see if any of them look darker than their peers. Often, premox will impact some bottles in a case and not others, which is why inconsistent coloration across bottles in a case is a giant red flag. If you find that all of the bottles have the same opacity and don’t appear especially dark in color, you might be in the clear.
Buying from Trustworthy Sellers
Your greatest weapon against premature oxidation is choosing a trustworthy seller who would never knowingly offer you a case of spoiled wine. Some of the best sellers will allow you to try a bottle for yourself if they’re selling a large lot of white Burgundy, and I recommend taking advantage of this offer every time. Choose which bottle to open yourself, and select the most opaque wine of the bunch (the one most likely to be oxidized). Pay close attention to its color and smell. A healthy older Burgundy should be slightly golden in color, with a cooked fruit smell. A younger Burgundy will be straw-colored without a hint of brown, and will smell like sweeter, fresher fruit. If you smell anything resembling sherry or bitter smoke, the wine is oxidized.
From here, decide whether you want to take a chance on the rest of the lot. One spoiled bottle isn’t a sign that they’re all bad, but be prepared for at least half of the bottles, if not more, to have that same problem. Shop with retailers or auction houses that offer refunds for spoiled bottles, or account for this risk in the price of the lot. Without a refund, you need to decide how much money you’re willing to lose on your purchase. If you’re only willing to lose $500, never spend more than this amount on a lot, even if you think the wine will be fine. Should the wine be of high quality later, you can be pleasantly surprised when you get to keep your investment.
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