How to buy wine at auction

Buying wine at auction can be a lot of fun and the source of great drinking experiences. Before you dip your toe in the waters, here are some things you should know.

Words Campbell Mattinson

Wine auctions are now almost always conducted online, which means they’re accessible to all internet-connected computer users, no matter where they are. This has turned a niche section of the wine-buying market into a raging bull. No raised paddles, no nervous scratches of the face, no public confrontations; just a computer screen, lots of enticing wine, some amazing prices and the thrill of the chase. The greatest difference between online wine auctions and physical ones is simple: in the online world, all the lots on offer close at the same time. There’s no going home once you’ve bought enough; all bids are live at once.

Always check this, especially on older wines. It’s the best indication we have of how well a wine has been stored, or how well its cork has performed. Ullage is the headspace between the cork and the wine. The greater the space, the more likely the wine has been stored poorly – and the more likely it is to be oxidised or in poor drinking condition. Auctioneers use terms like ‘base of neck’ and ‘mid-shoulder’ to indicate the amount of ullage. The greater the ullage – the more wine that has either evaporated or seaped along the sides of the cork – the more a your purchase becomes a lottery. Wines less than 15 years old shouldn’t be much lower than base of neck, while anything beyond mid-shoulder is getting dicey.

Label stains
Auctioneers will always list any stains or marks on a label, or scuffed capsules. These have zero bearing on the quality of the wine or its condition, but they may indicate how carefully the wine has been treated. Restaurants and other commercial outlets tend to avoid label-stained wine, which can keep the bidding competition (and hence price) down. If you’re just going to pour the wine into a decanter anyway, bid away.

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