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Library Wines Speak Volumes

Not all libraries lend out books, but even those that don’t can deliver spine-tingling experiences that speak volumes about the classics. It’s time to check out library wines.

Library wines are portions of vintages held back by wineries to be re-released years after their debut. They’re named as such because wineries refer to the section of their caves where they store their private stock—usually a few cases from each vintage as libraries. Wineries are holding back more stock for this purpose and, increasingly, opening up their libraries to the public. How and why they do this, and how you can access a bottle or two, varies greatly by producer. Read on for a few examples.

Why Buy Library Wines?

There are several reasons why wine lovers seek library wines:
•The wines have generally reached peak maturity.
•Many collectors stock up on favorites they may have originally missed.
•Most wineries hold back slow-aging, large-format bottles (magnums and up), which are popular as wine-cellar trophies and gifts.
•People often seek vintages for milestone celebrations, and many wineries accommodate those requests.
•Library wines have been stored properly, and their authenticity is guaranteed. “Restaurant owners don’t go to auctions to buy older wines, but if they buy wines that have been aging at the winery, they know they have been well-kept,” says Paolo Domeneghetti, founder of wine importer Domaine Select.

Late Releases Versus Library Wines

Library wine offerings are different from “late releases,” which is the term for when wineries hold back all inventory until the wine is aged and ready to drink, rather than selling futures. Some top Bordeaux producers like Château Latour do late releases. Doing so commands a higher premium on the wines.

Château Palmer is another Bordeaux producer that selects certain vintages for late release.

“We late-release Palmer 10 years after the harvest,” says Jean-Louis Carbonnier, the winery’s director of the Americas. “For example, in September 2015, we offered 1,000 cases of Palmer 2005 to the négociants [Bordeaux wine merchants]. Selling price to their customers was 275 euros, when their en primeur [first release] selling price was 150 euros,” says Carbonnier.

Library wines on a shelve.
Photo by Meg Baggott

How to Find Library Wines

Restaurants and wine shops are often the best conduits to find library wines. Tasting rooms and wine clubs are another avenue. Sometimes, however, there’s a pecking order as to who gets the wines.

“We offer these older wines first to our loyal wine-club members in December, then we offer the balance to our tasting-room guests during the winter and spring seasons,” says Hagafen’s Weir.

Such rewards are commonplace, especially among American wineries. But there are other methods to acquire library wines.

Many producers sell older wines on their websites. Online wine merchants are also often offered allotments of library wines, which they’ll offer to loyal customers. They can also contact distributors or wineries to find special bottles. Finally, for wine lovers who visit overseas wineries, older vintages are often available for reasonable prices.

What the Wineries Say

Château Palmer, Bordeaux: Like many Bordeaux wineries, Château Palmer retains some inventory for later releases, called tranches. Palmer is unusual, however, because it retains half of its estate wine and about 1,000 cases of its earlier-aging Alter Ego for this purpose.

Silver Oak, Napa Valley: David Duncan, whose father, Ray, founded the winery in 1972 with winemaker Justin Meyer, says it started its library program when it held back about 300 cases of the 1,400 cases produced in 1974. “Today, we hold back between 1,200 and 2,000 cases, depending on the vintage, out of the around 100,000 cases we produce,” he says.

Hagafen, Napa Valley: “We have a…library program that re-releases our noteworthy red wines after 10 years of aging,” says founder Ernie Weir.

It’s not just the blockbuster producers offering library wines. Many smaller, funkier, more affordable wineries are holding back bottlings too. Don’t be afraid to ask.