There’s nothing more special than opening a bottle of wine that you’ve cellared for years at just the right moment. It involves planning, patience and thoughtfulness. But which wines do you cellar? And for how long? It’s as much art as science. And in the end, it’s the challenge that makes it so rewarding.
Words by our in-house sommelier Ben Moechtar.
FIND THE RIGHT ENVIRONMENT.
While you might have visions of a grand underground cellar, not everyone has this luxury. Remember the pillars of ‘cool, dark and constant’ when you’re hunting for a location.
• Enough space to lay the wine down, preferably on its side. This is particularly important for bottles sealed by cork, as it will keep the cork expanded. • Humidity of around 60% and a stable temperature of 12 to 13 degrees Celsius. The temperature should not fluctuate too much or it will cook the wine. • Find a dry spot. While ‘cool and dark’ is good, ‘wet and moist’ is not. A mouldy cork or label (a ‘cellar damaged’ bottle) is the sign a cellar is too moist. • No direct sunlight is also important, as it can damage the wine very quickly.
If you don’t have somewhere suitable, consider investing in a wine fridge or storage vault; there are a range of options on the market across all price points. Or, if the value of your wine justifies it, there are wine storage companies who will keep your bottles in top condition!
2. CELLARING THE RIGHT WINE.
Aged wines are a particular preference. Before committing to the long haul, it’s important to see whether your palate actually appreciates older wines; they simply aren’t for everybody. The best way to do this is to visit a good wine bar or restaurant. Take a notepad and try as many as you can, across a range of styles and ages. It’s possible (or even likely) that you’ll enjoy some aged wines but not others, which will help you pick the right wines to put away. It won’t take long to work out which brands and vintages are going to cellar well. The big wine commentators and brands will also give out great tips on which wines to stock up on!
3. HOW MANY WINES SHOULD I BUY?
One of life’s great pleasures in life is grabbing a bottle of wine from the cellar, and then revisiting the same wine a year or two later. How has it changed and evolved and improved? To do this, you’ll need at least a couple of bottles of the same wine. I usually suggest multiples of three, but if you’ve got the space for more you’ll notice you can get better prices if you’re buying six at a time! If you’ve got a friend who shares your passion it can also be cost-effective to team up and split a case.
• Clearly, the size of your cellar will affect how many wines you can fit in it. Each wine will need to deserve its spot! • How long are you planning to cellar the wine? If a particular wine is going to take decades to mature, you might not want to dedicate too much of your cellar space to it. Similarly, if the wine will have a shorter life span, you may not want to buy too many. • While you will often be buying wines on the recommendation of a friend or a review, it’s not a good idea to buy too many bottles until you’ve had a chance to try it. When you find something you love (and that you know will reward cellaring over a long period) it may be worth investing in a case or two! • It goes without saying that the amount of money you’re prepared to spend will also affect how many wines you will buy.
4. HOW LONG SHOULD I KEEP A WINE?
This is a complicated question without a definitive answer. Every single wine is different and can be stored for different lengths. Wines that are built for cellaring taste different to normal, everyday wines. The fruit, acid, and structure of the wine is ‘balanced’. Oak plays a role, too. This idea of balance is something winemakers work their life towards and use to judge whether a wine will age well. While they’re not always right it will form the basis of cellaring recommendations by brands and critics, which will be the simplest way to figure out how long to keep certain wines.
The question of how long to cellar a wine becomes even more complicated when you consider the closure. With a cork closure, each bottle can develop very differently. A case of wine stored for ten years in the same conditions can result in bottles ending up with marked differences. The cork itself, because it is a natural product, is the biggest influence in this, as no cork is the same. The old adage goes that ‘there is no such thing as a well-aged wine, just a good aged bottle.’ Despite some snobbery in the market the beauty of a screwcap closure is that it guarantees consistency.
Overall, though, when a wine ages for too long the fruit fades, the colour drops and the wine turns to vinegar. It’s natural for the fruit characters of wine to evolve and change. That’s why you’ve cellared it, after all. However, when it’s too old the fruit disappears completely, replaced by a dank, earthy jumble of unpleasant flavors. If you’ve tried a wine that has changed colour dramatically (usually to an orange hue) I’d look to enjoy the rest promptly, before it’s too late.