A Private Wine Cellar

There seems to be a certain romantic flair to owning your own wine cellar.  However, there is a very practical side to this as well.  The price of wine has been increasing exponentially since before the year 2000.  As a result, many wines have become prohibitively expensive and even more so in the past couple of years with the U.S. imposing trade restrictions on wine imports.  This has resulted in reduced sales of, and decreased profit margins for international wine producers which have led to further increases in wine prices.

Many wines are now prohibitively expensive, even those that have been aged just a few years in the bottle.  The solution requires individuals to purchase cellarable wines at a young age and store them until they attain the desirable age for consumption.

The simplest storage option would be to purchase a wine fridge.  This provides a relatively inexpensive solution but is really only practical for short term storage for a minimal number of bottles of wine.

If you are looking to cellar more than just a few bottles for a significant period of time, I recommend doing what I have done, convert or construct a room for the purpose of storing wine.  Such a room needs to meet certain criteria necessary for the preservation of wine.  Things that need to be taken into account are temperature, light, humidity, odours, storage, and record-keeping.

Temperature

Wine that is being stored for a long period of time should be stored at a temperature between 45 oF to 68oF or 7oC to 20oC.  Ideally the temperature should be maintained between 55oF and 57oF or 13oC to 14oC.

Temperature fluctuation between hot and cold can have more of an impact on wine than the actual temperature.  If the temperature rises and falls quickly with the change of season, negative or positive pressure can occur within the bottle.  This would place pressure and strain on the cork which can result in air seepage that would compromises the quality of the wine.

Light

Colour, taste and smell are all impacted by light filtering into the wine bottle.  Therefore the storage area should not be infiltrated by outside light.  Artificial lighting should only be switched on when necessary and fluorescent lighting should never be used.

Humidity

According to the experts the level of humidity of the cellar should be between 75% and 85%.  The higher than normal humidity level is required in order to prevent the corks from drying out and shrinking which could result in spoilage of the wine.

Such high levels can result in mold and other moisture related issues so I have opted to maintain humidity at a slightly lower level; between 62% and 65%.  I have maintained these levels for the past 10 years and have had no issues with either the wine or the building structure.  

Odours

Although wine corks prevent the wine from escaping from the bottle they don’t prevent gases from penetrating through.  Therefore things such as paint, sealant, cleaning agents or air fresheners should not be used or stored within the wine storage area.

Storage Position

Wine bottles should be stored on their side for a couple of reasons.  The most obvious of which is to ensure that the cork remains moist and doesn’t dry out and as a result shrink.  If the cork shrinks and allows oxygen into the bottle, the wine quickly spoils. 

Even though not all wine has a cork any more, another reason for laying a bottle on its side is to allow for the equal distribution of the sediment that is often found in a wine with high tannin content.  During the aging process the tannins can solidify and drop to the bottom.  With the bottle lying on its side, the solids are distributed more evenly, keeping the flavour of the wine consistent.

Once you have placed your bottle in its resting place, it should not be disturbed until you retrieve it to drink.  You don’t want to shake up the tannins that have been slowly settling in the bottle.

Record-Keeping

The wine cellar is pretty much rendered useless unless you have a way of knowing which wines should be held, which ones are drinkable, and the final date the wine should be consumed by.  This can be done in a couple of different ways. 

If you have a small collection, each bottle or shelf can be labelled with the “drink from” date and the “drink by” date.  For a larger collection the wine should be catalogued in either a cellar book or an electronic spreadsheet.  Cellar inventory books can often be purchased at stationery stores, kitchen supply shops or specialty book stores. 

Personally, I have used a spreadsheet for this purpose for the last dozen or more years.  In addition to tracking the consumption dates, I also track the label name, vintner name, varietal, country of origin, year produced, reviewer notes, and a few other facts.

The big advantage to having your own personal wine cellar is that you can drink wines of a vintage you would otherwise consider an extravagance.  It is very satisfying to open an aged bottle of wine that would have a current purchase price (if you could even locate one) in the hundred to two hundred dollar range knowing that you purchased it for much less.

Generally speaking, I am able to locate cellarable wines at my local liquor store at a cost ranging from $17 to $50.  When selecting wines to cellar you can spend as little or as much as you like.

However, when laying down a wine it is important to understand the difference between the length of time a wine can be cellared before it begins to deteriorate and the time it needs to reach its peak.  That is a discussion for another day.

Also a discussion for another day would be identifying and understanding the requirements for creating a proper storage facility.

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Drink or lay down and how to cellar those you keep

Given all of the images of wine cellars out on the internet, people often get the impression that most wines should be held for many years before popping the cork and enjoying the contents.  However, in reality 90% of wine that is released by the wineries is ready for consumption when it is released and 99% within 5 years of release.  Only 5 to 10% of wines will improve after a year of cellaring and only 1% will continue to improve after 5 to 10 years of cellaring.

In order for a wine to benefit from aging, it requires a high acidity level.  Acidity adds to a wine’s vibrant, full-bodied texture. It fades with age, so cellared wines must start out with a high level of acidity. Wines with low acidity (<0.65g/100ml), like Pinot Grigio, will become flat much sooner and lose most of their flavour in a short period of time.

The second characteristic of a cellarable wine is a significant amount of tannin.  Tannin is created by allowing the grape skins, seeds and stems to remain in the juice after processing.  Additional tannin is created when the wine is stored in wooden wine barrels (French Oak or American Oak).  Bold tannins give wine the structure to age well.  Tannins create the dryness in wine and can make the wine somewhat bitter. In a young wine they can make your mouth pucker up, somewhat like a sip of a strong black tea.

Without tannins and acidity, there is nothing to be gained by keeping a wine for more than a year or two.  When a wine is kept beyond its prime it begins to lose its flavour and becomes very acidy.

Wine reviewers and vintners can give you suggestions as to how long to retain a particular wine.  Why guess when you can take advantage of their free advice.

If you are going to store wine, whether it be for a week, a month or a decade, there are some dos and don’ts to consider  to help ensure that wine tastes as good as it should.  You don’t need to have a wine cellar or even a wine fridge to store wine but there are some things to keep in mind.

Most importantly all wine should be kept in the dark.  Both sunlight and incandescent light can harm your wine.  Think of wine as being like fabric.  Fabric exposed to sunlight can bleach out the colour and eventually cause the material to rot.  Light has a similar effect on wine, causing the wine to begin breaking down, resulting in lost flavour and spoilage.

If you have a means of chilling your wine, the experts have differing opinions but generally speaking it seems safe to store them anywhere between 45 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit, although 55 degrees is believed to be about the perfect temperature.

If stored at a temperature over 70 degrees Fahrenheit, the wine will age more quickly than expected and therefore begin losing flavour and aroma.  It is also beneficial to keep your wine stored at as consistent a temperature as possible.

Traditionally wine is stored on its side.  This is done in order to ensure the cork remains wet.  If a cork is allowed to dry out, over time it will shrink and allow oxygen into the bottle.  Once wine is exposed to oxygen, it quickly spoils leaving you with an undrinkable surprise when you open it. 

Even though not all wine has a cork any more, another reason for laying a bottle on its side is to allow for the equal distribution of the sediment that is often found in a wine with high tannin content.  During the aging process the tannins can solidify and drop to the bottom.  With the bottle lying on its side, the solids are distributed more evenly, keeping the flavour of the wine consistent from the first glass to the last.

Once you have placed your bottle in its resting place, whether that is in a wine cellar, wine fridge or even a closet, it should not be disturbed until you retrieve it to drink.  You don’t want to shake up the tannins that have been slowly settling in the bottle.

One final no-no and my pet peeve is never store wine in an open wine rack in a kitchen.  Kitchen designers seem to love including a wine rack in the end of an island or even worse, next to the stove.  I admit these wine racks often look very enticing and professional but resist the temptation to slip a bottle of wine into one.  The kitchen is the brightest room in the house with the greatest fluctuation in heat and humidity – a total wine killer.  The only time wine should appear in the kitchen is when it is being poured into a glass.

Lastly, when you go to serve that bottle of wine, both reds and whites should be pulled from the fridge or wine cellar about 20 minutes before opening to be allowed some time to warm up a little.  On the other hand, if your wine has been stored at room temperature, even most red wines should be chilled for a few minutes before serving.

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