Cellaring wine

“Wine cellar” is such a loaded term. It conjures up images of dark, damp underground rooms lined with ancient bottles festooned with cobwebs. The reality is more likely to be collapsing cardboard boxes at the back of the garage where the bottles become dangerously hot during the summer months.

“Cellaring” wine is all about keeping wine in optimum condition. My definition of a wine cellar is: one or more bottles that you intend to keep for at least 24 hours before opening.

Keep it cool

You’d be surprised at how much damage it is possible to do to a bottle of wine in 24 hours. If you’ve ever left a bottle of wine in the car for an hour or two in summer you might have noticed that a small amount of wine has leaked out of the capsule. The heated bottle expands the wine forcing it to hydraulic against the cork. Eventually the pressure becomes so great that the wine leaks past the cork. When the bottle cools down air is sucked into it to replace the lost wine. If there is no way you can avoid exposing your bottles to extreme heat, choose wine sealed with a screwcap – they tolerate higher temperatures without leaking.

Last summer a winery representative delivered a leaky bottle that was hot to touch. When I explained that the wine quality may have suffered she replied, “Oh, I’m sure it’ll be fine”. By chance I had already purchased a bottle of the same wine. I opened both bottles. The difference in quality was very obvious.

The most important rule when storing wine for any length of time is to keep the temperature as low as possible and as constant as possible. Try not to let the wine temperature rise above 25o Celsius. There’s a fundamental rule in chemistry that applies to wine. The rate of reaction doubles with every rise in 10o Celsius. A wine stored at 10o Celsius will theoretically last twice as long as one stored at 20o Celsius.

Buy now to drink later

There’s something very compelling about having a stash of bottles that you casually refer to as “my wine cellar”. I have yet to meet a wine enthusiast who needs to justify the investment involved in buying wine by the case. However it may be necessary to justify a re-direction of the household budget to your significant other, particularly if it involves deferring such frivolous expenditure as family holidays or painting the house. Here are a few good reasons why you should buy wine now to drink later.

Stock up when it’s cheap. When you spot a good wine at a great price don’t buy a bottle, buy a case. Better still, buy a bottle, taste it, and then buy a case.

Stock up when it’s available. Some of the best wines are only available for a short time each year. If you want to drink them all year round, buy in bulk.

I find that having a selection of wines on hand allows me to make a better match with food, mood or occasion.

A wine cellar will introduce you to the pleasures that mature wine offers. As wine ages the flavours change and, in reds at least, the textures mellow. A ten year-old wine is usually dramatically different to the same wine when it was two years old.

A tale of two cellars

I decided to start a wine cellar many years ago. I purchased three bottles of red wine that a wine store manager had recommended as “a safe bet for long-term ageing”. The bottles were reverently placed in a cool, dark spot under my house. Two weeks later some friends unexpectedly dropped around on a Saturday afternoon. On Sunday morning my cellar was bare. I’m a hedonist by nature. I tend to live for the moment rather than hoard for the future.

I started a new cellar at my parent’s house about 20 kilometres away. Whenever I bought six bottles for the cellar I would visit my parents and allow myself to remove three aged bottles. Eventually, when my parents moved to another town, I took back the wine and stored it under my house.

My stock of wines had by then grown to the point where I was having trouble finding bottles. I lost a few good bottles when some of my soggy cardboard cartons collapsed. I needed a racking system that would support my bottles and help me find them.

Wooden beer crates were the perfect answer. I paid around $1.80 each for crates that each held 12 bottles. Each crate was marked with a number and wine type, such as “NZ Chardonnay” or “Italian red”. I simply put new bottles in the appropriate box and found it pretty easy to locate wines when I needed them.

The cellar was cool, dry and dark – perfect conditions I thought … until I bought a cellar thermometer. When it was hot outside the cellar seemed to be quite cool. However my maximum/minimum thermometer showed that in the height of summer the temperature crept up to an excessively warm 27o Celsius.

There was only one option, or so I told my wife, Marion, already deeply suspicious about my regular upgrades of computers and digital cameras. We needed to build an extremely expensive temperature-controlled wine cellar. A year later I got the thumbs-up.

If you’re thinking of building a wine cellar I recommend Baywick’s Wine Cellars as a good first stop. This Nelson specialist sells everything from cooling systems to wine racks. I bought a chilling unit from them.

My neighbourhood wine shop closed its doors just as I was beginning to look for a wine racking system. I bought all of their handsome cedar wine racks and adapted them to fit in the nearly constructed, partly-underground cellar space.

Any cellar that’s bigger than about 200 – 300 bottles will need some sort of inventory to help you track and find bottles. Cellar records are important to prevent wines getting past their “best by” date. They’re also necessary if you ever need to make an insurance claim. I’d built a cellar that could hold around 2000 bottles so I clearly needed a good tracking system. Eventually I chose the Vinoté system.

You can download free cellar software from www.vinote.com but you have to buy neck-tags that help identify the location of every bottle. I also bought a hand-held scanner (available from Vinoté) that would read the neck-tag data straight into my laptop computer. I search for the wine on my computer which gives me the exact location and bottle number. Finding bottles is a simple task.

The big opening day arrived. My racks were full with neat rows of bottles each sporting its own neck tag. With an immense feeling of satisfaction I turned the chilling system on. My wine cellar gradually warmed up. The builders had installed the machine around the wrong way.


TEN TIPS FOR CELLARING WINE

  1. Insulate your wine against daily and seasonal swings of temperature
  2. Buy a max/min thermometer and don’t allow the temperature to rise above 25oC
  3. Keep your bottles in the dark
  4. Store wines with a cork on their sides (screwcaps may be stored upright)
  5. Store sparkling wines upright
  6. Don’t turn your bottles. In fact don’t touch them if you can help it.
  7. Be aware that warmer temperatures age wine more quickly (14oC is an ideal storage temperature)
  8. Remove any bottles that show signs of leakage
  9. Keep a record of your wine stocks for insurance purposes
  10. Nurture your wine as you would a garden by allowing wines to become fully “ripe” and drinking them before they go to seed.

WHAT TO CELLAR

All wine changes with age but not all wine improves with age. Whether a wine improves or not is a matter of personal taste. I frequently invite students attending my wine courses to compare a Sauvignon Blanc from the current vintage with one that’s four or five years old. Preference is evenly divided.

The three cellaring categories listed below are the likely maximum lives of wine stored at no more than 20o Celsius in a bottle sealed with a cork. Because screwcaps are still in their infancy it is impossible to judge how long wine under screwcap will last, although it’s a safe bet that it will significantly outlast the same wine under cork.

When I talk about a “two year old wine” I mean one that is two years older than the vintage date on its label (vintage date is the year in which the grapes were harvested).

Short Term Wines (0 – 1 year)

  • Winecasks: Drink well before the “best by” date
  • Sparkling wines: Few improve, possible exception is vintage-dated wines
  • Fortified wine: Only vintage port improves with bottle age
  • Rosé: Loses fruit without gaining desirable bottle-aged characters
  • All wines under $10: Made for early consumption

Medium Term Wines (2 – 4 years)

  • Gewurztraminer: Most do not develop good bottle aged characters
  • Sauvignon Blanc: These change dramatically. Some prefer them under 2 years
  • Riesling: A few will develop positively for more than four years
  • Chardonnay: A small percentage will develop well with further age
  • Pinot Gris: Most should be enjoyed while fruit flavours last
  • Pinot Noir: An increasing number may be cellared beyond four years
  • Merlot: More concentrated examples could age longer
  • Botrytised Dessert: A few can age for longer periods

Long Term Wines (5+ years)

  • Cabernet Sauvignon: Thick-skinned grape – plenty of tannin for long life
  • Shiraz/Syrah: Thick-skinned grape, plenty of tannin
  • Vintage Port: Most need at least ten year’s bottle age
  • Some Chardonnay: Positive flavours develop with bottle age

First published in Taste Magazine NZ – Nov 2005.

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