YOUR FIRST WINE CELLAR

 

Remember that first plunge into the deep end of the pool or the wobbly first 10 meters on a 2-wheel bike? How about that first time you took your daddy’s car out for a spin, alone behind the wheels?

And who can forget that insidious first night with someone whose name you don’t need to know?

Some experiences go down well and your life will never have to be the same again. Others would flop, probably because they are not really you.

Your first wine cellar can be just as romantic - a tad frightful but curiously inviting. Unlike some other kinds of romance, there is no reason why you can’t do this one right the first time.

Admittedly it does help to have a small dose of knowledge and a tinge of passion. Some might find a no-nonsense starter’s kit helpful. Here is one that might help you to plan for a cellar, store bottles properly, and select the appropriate kinds of wine to put in your cellar.

Starting your first cellar can be such a lot of fun. I can’t wait and it is not even my cellar. Let’s start, shall we?

 

What’s the point of keeping a cellar?

A lot of mistakes stem from the fact that we embark on projects without a clear understanding of the objectives. Strange as this may sound, a lot of us do not actually know why we want our own wine cellar.

There is a myriad of nonsense in home and restaurant wine cellars, enough to convince us to set things straight before more wine myths are born and wine lifestyle writers would have to work the nightshift to bash them. Although nights are good for a bit of writing and some bashing, there should be alternatives that leave a more stylish impact in our lives.


There are many reasons why every wine lover should own a cellar. Let’s start with three of them. There are more, lots more but I doubt that you need them. With so much lifestyle in your blood, it shouldn’t take more than one of these reasons to convince you.

 

1. Money

The financial benefits are obvious. On the average, you save 50% on retail prices for a bottle of good vintage wine if you had bought and cellared it say, 5 years ago. The cost of money is more than equitably defrayed by the (price) inflation. Your wife will be expecting an anniversary wine this year. That’s a wine from the same year as your marriage. Do you have those in your cellar? You don’t want to experience the nauseating feeling from staring at the price tag of say, a Latour 1970 which is what it takes to carry you safely through a special evening. Often, it’s either that or the dog house. If you had a cellar, firstly there’ll be no more room for a dog house and then there will be plenty of anniversary and birth-year wines bought when they were so affordable.

 

2. Sediment needs time to settle

Did you say money is no object? (ouch, it burns the fingers writing that) You might bask in the suffisance of finding a matured bottle of a 1976 Vieux-Chateau-Certan - a superstar from Pomerol. But that won’t mitigate the insanity of opening it for dinner that same evening. In wine of even medium age, there is usually a mass of sediment sleeping harmlessly until it is rudely disturbed in the journey from shop to home. It will require months to return them to their original position at the bottom of the bottle. Sure, a suave BMW 740 in the steady hands of a savvy driver may shorten that process by two weeks. Buy to store (in a cellar) and pull (from cellar) to drink.

 

 

3. The style of romance

How about spending a precious 10 minutes (30 minutes if you are pleasant and your cellar is cute) with your date in your temperature controlled wine cellar? It’s cold there so your arms are naturally around each other for warmth. There two minds meet and decide on a common choice of pleasures for the evening. Old-fashioned wine enthusiasts insist on a really cold cellar. Perhaps you can tell me why. I’m just a simple-minded wine guy.

Nothing beats that simple pleasure of going into one’s cellar on the spur of the moment for a special bottle of wine. This could be a prelude to a 4-hour engagement with your TV watching a super-girl tee it up with the boys at the Colonial on Star Sports. Or the wine could be your special condiment to a T-shirt and underwear dinner centered about some profound nonsense like fate, destiny and the concept of a forever. I can’t imagine you starting off an evening like that with a quick dash to the nearest wine store for a couple of bottles. Not exactly a great way to set the mood, is it?

Your reason for building a cellar can be as unique as your taste of wine and the next best thing in life. As long as you know why you are doing it, you can’t be very far off the mark.

 

How to plan for your cellar

 
A well-planned cellar serves you like a 70-year-old English butler. It caters to your requirements, predicts your whims and addresses a spectrum of contingencies.

A compellingly charming woman once told me that nothing beats a case of Dow 1963 Vintage Port and a crate of Café Tassé 70% cocoa Chocolate Noir to nurse a broken heart. I suspected that a case was really an overkill but she did share some of it with a good listener.

The first step in planning for a cellar is to gather the facts. You start by doing some research on yourself. Yes, you, the hard-to-please. You can examine the way you use wine in your private, social and business activities. Make a list of celebrations each year. Think about business and social gifts. Take note of the kind of food that you will eat with your wine. Then of course, think about how much you drink. Most wine lovers average at least two memorable bottles per week, many more if you are fond of sharing good things with friends.

Now we get to the bad news – money. A budget is necessary to prevent us from splurging. We can start a cellar with as little as P250,000. A lot of people start off with a budget of P500,000. Examples of these two cellars can be found in this article.

Think management. Make sure you have a cellar book. This can be anything from a pad of writing paper to a piece of computer software. It serves two purposes: to keep inventory and to record tasting notes. One can get seriously lost in a cellar of just 100 bottles. Imagine how confusing things can become at 1,000. And of course, you should remember how much you paid for each bottle and when you bought it.

How big should the cellar be? Most people start off with an initial population of 50-100 bottles. Before they know it, they are in the 500 level and threatening to break 1,000 by next Christmas. Don’t panic if you don’t really have any idea exactly how many bottles you want to store in your cellar. Try 1,500 bottles on for size. If you break that limit, you will be so involved in wine that nothing will give you more pleasure than to redo the whole thing or start a second cellar to separate the legendary from the others (see picture of two-tier cellar).

Again, don’t clutter your wine cellar with anything that is less than special. Your beloved wine cellar deserves more respect.

 

 

How to store wine properly

Blame it on modern advertising, but too many of us have been swayed into purchasing outrageously expensive wine storage devices. And to add salt to the wound, it is filled with mediocre wine. That good money could have been spent on good wine itself and maybe some good wine glasses and decanters.

For the purists, the ideal environment for storing wine would be something like this:

 

  • 15C temperature with a variance of up to 1C intra-day and 3C inter-day;
  • shielded from direct sunlight;
  • no artificial vibration;
  • humidity at 50-70%;
  • steady stream of light airflow;
  • bottles resting in horizontal or slightly inclined from horizontal which is better in my experience.

This may sound dangerously close to fung shui. Allow me to assure you it is not. Best choice for direction of your cellar is to have it face the northeast. If the chief editor of this magazine would allow it, I would defer explanation in favor of a write-in contest from readers on why this is the case.

The word “ideal” is for writers and professors. Let’s get back to the real world where prudence and compromises rule.

It is perfectly acceptable to store 1,500 bottles in a 15-sqm wine cellar fitted with wine racks on walls (see picture of home-style cellar). A 1.5 horsepower window-mounted air-conditioner will be sufficient to keep temperature at around 19-21C. Humidity control is usually not a big deal in this country. If the air gets too dry in your cellar, a large wet sponge in basin of water will do the trick.

Air conditioning will add about P2,000/month to your power bill or about P16 a year per bottle. This is negligible in comparison to the price rise of your bottles.

I hope by know you’ve arrived at the conclusion that it is quite easy to start a wine cellar. There is no reason why everyone has to go out and spend hundreds of thousands on wine storage devices. Spend it on wine. Nothing beats the rustic charm of bottles collecting dust on rows of wine racks in a room or the Hogwarts chambers of secrets. Opening the door of a high-tech wine fridge doesn’t quite have the same poetry.

 

 

What wines should we select for your cellar?

Exercise patience. No wine lovers like the sight of empty wine racks in their new wine cellar. But this is not a cultural dance show. You don’t have to fill up the seats with snorers to prove something against the facts. You must avoid buying cases of cheap meaningless wine in a hurry to make your cellar look full. Every bottle in a cellar must serve a purpose, a subject on which we will elaborate shortly.

There is another pitfall that we should avoid. A wine that appealed to us over dinner last night when we were feeling anxious, hungry and thirsty is not necessarily the one that we should buy 5 cases to put in our cellar today.

90% of the wine available in supermarkets and wine retail outlets are not suitable for cellaring. They are made to be drunk right away and will not improve with age. These wines are not “cellar-grade”. They will not appreciate in value with age. Here are examples of wines that we should NOT store in our cellar:

  • All non-vintage wines (wine without a specific year on the label). It is quite silly to collect non-vintage champagne for example. It is meant to be enjoyed within a year or two after release. The one you buy in the wine store is no worse or better than the one you have stored in your cellar for one year and they should cost more or less the same.

 

  • Most medium-to-low priced (below P 4,000) wines from U.S., Chile, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand etc. loosely referred to as New World wines. They are not built to age. Just buy what you want to drink tonight.

To be fair, let us not confuse aging potential with the quality of the wine. A lot of excellent modern-day wines are produced for early drinking. Most restaurants prefer to serve them believing that their patrons just want something pleasant to distract the palate from the fat and spice. The qualifications for entry into a private cellar are a different matter entirely. Take away the aging potential of a wine, and you would have eliminated just about any real reason to stack bottles of it in a cellar.

A simple wine does not become more interesting with age. It simply loses freshness. Anytime you want a pleasant simple wine, just buy one off the shelf anywhere. Don’t waste quality cellar space.

Here is a little mind-tickler. Australian statistics reveal on the average a bottle is consumed within 20 minutes after purchase. I guess it must mean that traffic movement is very good in Sydney. Rest assured that a lot of good Australian wines, Penfolds Grange notably, are built for the long haul.

Examples of some examples of cellar-grade wines:

  • your trusted clarets, great Red Bordeaux;
  • fine Red Burgundy like Le Chambertin, Le Corton, Clos Vougeot;
  • White Burgundy – it is a myth that white wines don’t age well;
  • great Spanish wines like Vega Sicilia Unico, Pingus;
  • Italian masters, the great California Reds like Heitz, Beaulieu Vineyards, Opus One, Dominus, Dunn;
  • Vintage port, the perfect reason for owning a cellar;
  • Great Sauternes, Loire and the great but very rare German Trochenbeerenauslese;
  • Good Hermitage and Cote Rotie reds;
  • Vintage Champagne.

 

Cellar-grade wines have two things in common. Firstly, they all possess the potential of improving with age over many years. Secondly, they become exceedingly difficult to find and terribly expensive to purchase even if you are resourceful enough to find it.

Many wine lovers find it interesting to observe the development of a wine as it ages. To do so, you need more than one bottle of that vintage in your cellar so that you have a chance to taste the same wine again. Eager salesmen might try to talk you into buying cases of it for this purpose. In reality all you really need is 3-4 bottles. Remember that you will develop that same interest in a large variety of wines and their vintages. It is not a good idea to get stuck with excess inventory of any particular vintage. Your interest will most certainly sway as new encounters capture your attention.

Resist the temptation to buy really young wines to age them for 10 years. Smart wine collectors hardly put any bottle in their cellars that will require more than a few years to reach maturity. For classics like Red Bordeaux and great Red Burgundy, this means vintages in the 80’s and older. For White Burgundy, it may be early 90’s or older. For vintage ports, it should be 70’s and older.

Your friendly wine importer usually does a much better job storing and ageing wines until they have reached adolescence. You can adopt them after that and avoid the hassle of dealing with a problematic childhood. Let the wine merchants take all the risk. Prices don’t increase much over the first 5-10 years.

Furthermore, final judgment on the quality of a wine doesn’t come out until it reaches the age of about 10. Why take the chance to buy young wines, store time for years only to find out later that they are not up to the hype?

 

Like a home garage workshop or a rooftop herb garden, a wine cellar might become one of those lifelong affairs we call hobbies. Henceforth before we buy wine for the cellar, install some powerful state-of-the-art refrigerating system or give the dogs and the cats away to make room for an extension to your cellar, be gentle on the conscience by first knowing what we are doing.

This business of lifestyle is about an attitude of the mind. A wine cellar is not about rows of bottles in a cold dark place. There’s a lot more magic in it. It is about a heartbeat in a home or a breeze of class in a restaurant. That’s the “life” part of the story. The “style” is in the wines lying quietly in the cellar. For the wine lifestyle savvy, the evidence of class needs not be revealed, let alone expressed, only savored and just.

 
 

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