Friday, May 1, 2009

Cellar, you mean my box of wine over there?

Cellaring wine can be a daunting task. It begins with space and ends with money. If you are anything like me you want to save wine, but when your friends come over and drink all six of the bottles you purchased for the barbecue in the first hour of your party you are forced to go to the basement and select one of your crown jewels. Which by the way they are already intoxicated, you could give them swill and they would drink it.

Here are a few helpful tips that will assist you in creating and managing a cellar. The first is space, cellar conditions matter, especially if you have bottles that require 10 to 15+ years for aging. As a general rule people tend to drink their wines way to young, some wines need age to develope. Then again most wines produced today are meant to be consumed tomorrow. 85% of all wines produced today are meant to be consumed within three years of bottling. And for good reason, almost 90% of all wine purchased in a liquor store is consumed that weekend.

So if you are looking to build a or create a cellar in your living quarters here are some tips. Pick an area that is cool and dark. Wines ages best between the temperatures of 50 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Anything colder and the wines will not age appropriately, anything warmer and they will age prematurely. A room that is too warm can also cause wines to "cook". This may cause leakage, maderization (like Madera) or oxidation (like Fino Sherry). For these same reasons it is also important to create an environment with a constant constant temp. Putting a thermostat in the room will help you regulate the temp.

Humidity is another important variable. You want the humidity in your cellar to be around 80%. This is an important factor because if the cellar is too humid it can cause mold to form on the top of the bottle (some mold can be a good thing with older wines, it is a sign of appropriate aging). If the humidity in the cellar is too low this can lead to a contraction of the cork. This can cause the wine to be exposed to oxygen and ultimately turn in to a vinegar like state. Also, if the humidity is too low the cork can shrink and cause evaporation, and there is nothing worse than less wine.

It is also important to refrain from moving the bottles or having any vibration in your cellar. Movement can cause the wine to age prematurely and cause sediment to be disrupted. Also, it is nice to have a bottle rest for six months after you purchase it. Some times the ride over on the boat or plane or even the ride on the truck to the liquor store can cause a wine to be cloudy and unsettled. Letting it settle will ensure optimum drinkability.

Light is the last important factor in a cellar. You want to try not to use florescent lights. They cause the wine to prematurely age, especially in clear bottles. The light will literally chemically effect the bottle. Also light and sunlight in particular can cause heat, again affecting the wine. If you have a light in your cellar make sure you turn it off every time you leave. To sum it up you want your cellar to be a movement free, dark, damp, cool place. Which is why a basement is such a natural home.

There are a few ways to going about getting a cellar. One is to just put up some shelving in your basement and have a makeshift cellar with a humidifier and a heating and cooling unit. Make sure no matter what you do all of your bottles are laying on their side. This will allow the liquid from the bottle to help keep the cork moist which will leave less room for the bottle to be affected. The second option is to hire someone to come in and do it. There are some amazing manufacturers out there who do pretty great stuff, for a price. Usually to do this option right you must hire a professional. They will come in and look at your house, ask you how many bottles you plan to store, assess and give you a price. You can find a number of them in the back pages of the magazine The Wine Spectator. If you can afford it this is the most fool proof way to go.

The last option is the wine refrigerator. This option is a tricky one, because every one who makes a cooling unit has a product on the market that they have deemed a wine cooler. Here are the things to consider when looking in to buying one. Is there dual temperature control? You do not need this feature, if the purpose of you wine fridge is to cellar wine than it all needs to be at 55 degrees F. If you want your whites cooler throw them in the fridge for fifteen minutes before you open it. Also, most of these fridges do not have humidity controls and usually the ones that do are very costly. These fridges also limit the number of bottles you can purchase. This is not a problem for most of us right now. But ten years down the line when we have 100 bottles we need a new solution. The wine fridge can be a great thing to get you buy right now, but it is really not the optimal storage facility.

In my opinion your best bet is to monitor and area of your basement and set up shop there. Try to keep the conditions as close to the numbers as possible. If you are handy and ambitious they do make devices you can buy that allow you to cut a hole in your foundation and vent to the outside. These are fairly inexpensive considering what you would pay to get those conditions. There are a number of books on the market for do-it-yourselfers that you can pick up that walk you through the different steps of building your own cellar. Whatever you choose consider your time, money, and investment in wine.

Wine is an investment, especially in these rocky times with the market being so touchy. Wine bottles bought on futures from Bordeaux in 2005 for $100 are already selling for more than double that price. If you watch the market and do just a little reading you can find some great prices in great regions. Some regions however you will just have to pay the premium, but they will still continue to rise in value. I like to read Robert Parker's early Bordeaux predictions. The market tends to fluctuate upon his command. So if he says it is good, whether you agree or not, the market will usually drift that direction. Then in 15 years you can sell if for four times what you paid for it at Zachy's or Christies.

I always tell people who are getting in to wine cellaring to buy what you like. If you only buy wine for investment purposes you won't experience the fun and excitement of buying. Plus if you end up not being able to sell it you will have to drink a wine that you don't even like. Also when purchasing wine remember to inspect it before you buy it. There is absolutely nothing worse than paying $150 for a bottle, aging it for 10 years and then opening it to discover that there was a problem with leakage all along.

Inspect the label, does it look preserved or beaten up? Did it get tossed around on the loading dock? Look at the foil, do you see any wine, did it get cooked on the ship across the Atlantic? Take the time to look over the bottle, because on the flip side some bottles sell for less than others due to a label problem. Perhaps the label machine put them on upside down for 100 bottles before they caught it. These bottle still hold amazing juice, they just have an upside down label, and are half the price. Simple inspection can save you a lot of time and money. If you are weary about the bottle, don't buy it.

Also know who you buy it from. I am real weary of these internet sites you purchase wine from. Of course the ideal situation is to get it direct from the winery, but that is not often an option. So the next best thing is to find out where it came from. This can be a problem at liquor stores but sometimes the buyer can inform you why in 2008 they have a new shipment of 85' Dow Vintage Port. Perhaps an investor just sold their lot back to Dow and now Dow is putting it back in to the market. Some times a winery hold bottles that they plan to introduce at a later date for more money. No matter what the reason it is always good to ask, the worst they can say is "I don't know" and again you don't have to buy it.

One last thing you will want to do when cellaring wine is monitor your wine collection. You will buy bottles and not bring them out for ten to fifteen years, in this time you may forget you even have them. Create a simple Xcel spread sheet to put your wines on. Write the date you bought them, how much you paid, and when you expect to drink them. Some people just categorize them as Drink Now, Hold/Drink, Requires Aging. Whatever your system make sure you continually check out sources of people who are consuming those vintages and regions. This will help you consume it when it is just right, or sell it.

Cellaring wine can be a fun adventure and does not have to be expensive. Wait for the buy to come to you. Look through bin ends and different stores to see what gems you can find. Take the appropriate steps to create and environment for your treasures to age. It is important to remember that wine is as much of an investment as you IRA. Whatever you do make sure you always have a few bottles of "drink now" on hand, because it is a bad day when the seventh bottle of wine you share with your friends has to be a 2005 Puillac.

Nicholas Barth
Wine Director
Cru Wine Specialists


Kristian Twombly said...

Nick - will laying the wine on it's side in a lower humidity environment help keep the cork well "watered" and help prevent leakage.

Cru Wine Specialists said...

Great question. Laying the wine bottle on its side will certainly help but for cellaring for longer periods of time there is no substitute for a humidity controlled environment. The top of the cork will not be privy to the wine exposure and there for will not have the appropriate moisture to maintain a good seal. I have had some corks that are really brittle on the top half and are well preserved on the bottom. It is just a matter of time before the rest of the cork would have dried up. This is why if you are looking to cellar wine for an extended period of time (more that say 4 years) you will want to have a humidity controlled environment. Thanks for the comment KT, it means a lot to me.