The winelover’s secret map

Standing in his sun-drenched hallway, my friend and I stood before the newly-hung painting that he bought not long ago. “With a bit of luck, it might even go up in value,” he said, with an arched eyebrow. I couldn’t help but think of the altogether stranger investment of my wine collection.

It’s not much to look at – a couple of hundred dusty bottles behind a mop and a vacuum cleaner. It’s outwardly illegible to all but other wine lovers. Unlike a record collection or a library, you can’t pull out individual entries and enjoy them from time to time. Once you extract the cork, that’s it – with every bottle opened the collection is depleted. Will it increase in value? It’s a moot point – I’m going to drink every bottle, one by one. The drinking of each bottle is the pleasure it provides of course – but not the only pleasure.

The collection isn’t the aim, it’s not even the real investment. The true asset is an ever-growing network, a puzzle solved, a map gradually sketched out. The winelover’s most prized possession isn’t his or her rarest, most expensive bottle, it is this – the glorious, sprawling, detailed, internal wine map. I once tried to replicate just part of it infographically with the help of someone far smarter than me, but it proved impossible – it’s too complex and dynamic to pin down. It has multiple dimensions, comprising regions, varieties, styles, producers, vintages and more. And it’s constantly changing; producers hone their styles, bottles gradually mature and a new vintage is delivered every year.

With every bottle drunk this network gains intricate new connections. As it grows, the map gives greater context and meaning to every bottle drunk.

Each individual bottle is a tasty breadcrumb that guides you down a path towards better and better wine. The wine map encourages you to extend your reach to outlying styles, and emboldens you to stretch for higher levels of quality. It leads you to glimpses of the ancient, the bizarre and the beautiful.

Part of the enjoyment of creating the internal wine map is the challenge. Some set out purposefully to explore the undiscovered country; others stumble upon it by accident and become enthralled. Perversely, part of its appeal is that you can never know it all; there is no destination, you can’t complete the collection, it’s a game that can’t be won. But wine exists, and it is wonderful; you might as well grasp of it what you can, no matter how vainly, rather than ignore it.

Sure, there’s a geeky element for some winelovers; there is a certain crossover between the record collector and the wine collector. But a wine collector who doesn’t drink his bottles is like a record collector who doesn’t listen to his records – both are joyless exercises. And beware of collecting wine with speculation in mind – you can easily find yourself mired in the tourist traps of Bordeaux and Burgundy. It’s better to follow your heart than your wallet.

The internal wine map is an artifice built of memory, experience and pleasure. Unlike other collections it’s weightless and goes everywhere with you. It’s invisible: to be shared and displayed it must be discussed – no wonder wine is famous (or infamous) for its vocabulary. Wine is intrinsically sociable, and the map needs words to breathe life into it. Each map is unique to its owner, and they’re best compared over a bottle of wine; an anchor, a benchmark, a starting point to commune over.

Although the ever-growing wine map can’t be stolen or mislaid, it is only as permanent as a memory. It dies with us – it can never be sold or bequeathed. And it can be expensive to produce and maintain. I’d rather not calculate how much money I’ve invested in mine.

Do I regret it? Not for a moment. It’s not just a map but a prism through which you can experience the world. Mine has led me to villages, cities and breathtaking countryside. It’s introduced me to fascinating people. Looking back, many of my most treasured memories were generated or accompanied by brilliant wines. The internal wine map I’ve invested in may never increase in value like my friend’s piece of art, but to me it’s worth much more than any painting.

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