Columns 26 May 2020

Sarah Heller MW on the psychology of wine collecting

Are you a Broad or a Deep? Our woman in Hong Kong on the key distinction between obsessive collectors

Words by Sarah Heller MW

Photography by Stuart Patience

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In wine as in politics, tribalism runs deep. Opposing tribes’ disdain for each other’s taste sparks debates that make parliaments look meek and orderly. And the key distinction I’ve found is between collectors who go deep and those who go broad.

Personally, I identify more with the Broads. I find the wine world’s abundance too tempting to pledge my troth to one region or grape. Though I adore Nebbiolo, for example, I can’t imagine why I’d deny myself pleasures from still-developing corners of the wine world – as with a fellow Broad who confided he was ‘getting very into Argentinian Malbec’ (still relatively underexplored here in Asia). Deeps have no time for such distractions.

In its purest form, deep-hood is an almost monastic pursuit, demanding one funnel all one’s resources of mind, purse and palate into pursuing an encyclopaedic knowledge of one region. And the deepest Deeps are almost always Burgundy collectors.

Come to think of it, in fact, most Burgundy collectors are Deeps. Being a Burgundy Deep, however, isn’t the same as being a Burgundy snob. The true Burgundy Deep loves the region in its totality, loyally awaiting annual allocations from his or her chosen producers across the region, cherishing the village wines along with the Grand Crus. The challenge in Asia is that new collectors often end up as Burgundy Deeps by default. It’s easy to see how it happens: much of the continent views wine enjoyment as a group activity and the wine one contributes is seen as the vinous expression of one’s esteem for the group. Burgundy’s price premium relative to virtually all other regions can make even the most extravagant non-Burgundy wine seem something of a slight. Among still more rarefied circles only certain Côte de Nuits Grands Crus will do, with even DRC considered ‘too obvious’.

The beauty of Burgundy for new collectors is that, despite its expense and exclusivity, it retains an aura of intellectualism and pastoral wholesomeness that is antithetical to the crass brand obsession and pomp they attribute to Bordeaux drinkers. I’ve met Burgundy lovers who maintained without irony that they prefer Burgundy to Bordeaux because it’s a ‘land of humble farmers’, even as they dropped sums that dwarf many people’s monthly rent on one or two bottles.

I’ve met Burgundy lovers who say they prefer Burgundy to Bordeaux because it’s a “land of humble farmers,” even as they drop sums that dwarf most people’s monthly rent – on a single bottle

A part of the inescapable trap of becoming a Burgundy Deep too early is that you come to equate everything good in the wine world with Burgundy. You see loving Burgundy as a sort of shorthand for loving ‘elegant’ wine styles, small family-run producers and, above all, terroir. Declining to rank Burgundy above all other wines is like admitting you like big, juicy wines made by giant corporations that lack ‘site expression’ (which, since that loosely describes Penfolds Grange, I am certainly guilty of).

Producers from other regions often reinforce the issue by describing any of their wines that are less bombastic, more site-specific or even (and this is truly absurd) marginally lower in alcohol as ‘Burgundian’. So liking those wines – often, admittedly, among the most exciting in any region – is further testament to the insurmountable greatness of the Côte d’Or.

The unfortunate thing is that among the default Deeps I suspect there are covert Broads who would thrill to the illicit, pillowy charms of a great Napa Cabernet, the flowing caress of a Bordeaux Blanc, the ethereal lilt of an immaculately aged Barolo. Meanwhile, these treasures that they so quicklydismiss as ‘overblown’, ‘buttery’, or, most frustratingly, ‘Burgundian, but not quite Burgundy’ never really get their due in the Asian market, despite the occasional nibble of interest.

Still, in the past few years I’ve seen more of these encouraging nibbles, suggesting perhaps the stranglehold of orthodoxy is loosening. Whether it’s the Rousseau drinker dabbling in Roagna or the Coche-Dury diehard becoming enamoured with Kumeu River, I dare to hope this exploration will ultimately lead them further afield. In the meantime, the hardcore Deeps will grudgingly pay ever more for their beloved Cathiard village wines and my fellow Broads and I will be here waiting for default Deeps to come over to the dark side and join us in our hunt down all the wine world’s rabbit holes.

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