The first thing that pops into your mind as an everyday wine drinker who’s looking to start laying down a few bottles is, inevitably: “Don’t I need a big temperature-and-humidity-controlled dungeon, replete with rustic stone walls, candles, and old first-growth Bordeaux?” The answer is “No.” Cellaring wine is, really, all about understanding the rules and knowing when to break them. Truth is, a nice cool place to store your aging wine is all you need. Well, that, and a few choice tips on the types of wine to buy, how to manage it, and when to drink it.
Let’s start with a few basic questions, shall we? What are the benefits of cellaring? Why bother? Realistically speaking, most wine is ready to drink right now, today, yesterday, so why do you need a cellar? Well, because that small percentage of wine that is built to age has something in store for you that no young wine can deliver. Tannins, which preserve the wine, soften up and become another layer in the wine’s expression. Flavors and aromas that were abrasive and unkempt at an early age tend to develop, mature, and mellow, leaving a fundamentally more complex and interesting wine than what you started with.
(Also, on a practical level, it’s just really nice to have a personal collection of hand-picked wine that reflects your palate and personality.)
Now, when it comes to cellaring wine (and drinking aged wine), there are a few general rules that should be followed. Temperatures in a cellar should generally range between 45 and 60 degrees; the higher the temps, the faster the wine will age (which is not always a good thing), but for most cellars, mid-50s is a good benchmark. Humidity is also an important factor in your cellar: If the environment is too dry, the corks can dry out relatively quickly and lead to leakage. While the optimal humidity for a cellar is around 70 percent (this is, again, a good goal), most basement cellars should strive to stay above 50 percent as often as possible. Additionally, you want to avoid any direct sunlight, so a basement corner is ideal.
Achieving these conditions on a DIY-scale is not impossible, but, depending on the investment tied up in your wine cellar, you may want to consider a professional consultant who specializes in cellar design. While smaller cellars can utilize standalone fridges, as your love of aged wine grows into an obsession, those fridges fill up very quickly.
Next on your checklist is finding a solution for managing your inventory well. Sure, when you have three or four cases in your basement, it’s easy to know everything about each one of those bottles. When did I buy it? Where? How much did it cost? How many do I have?
But as your collection grows (growing your cellar can easily become an obsession), wine inevitably gets “lost.” For many, this is their management strategy: put it in an unmarked box and forget about it for a while…out of sight, out of mind. Too haphazard for an investment like this; wine can be forgotten, the perfect meal missed, the special occasion spent with the wrong bottle.
In this arena, technology is our friend. There are many proprietary cellar management software suites, but a free, cloud-based solution such as CellarTracker (www.cellar tracker.com) is actually functionally more useful for most collectors. Not only does it keep your live cellar inventory “in the cloud,” accessible from anywhere (even your phone, via such apps as Cork.z), but it also utilizes professional reviewers and other users to give you ratings, reviews, and (most importantly) recommended drinking windows for your wines. When you have 150 bottles of Cabernet, it’s extraordinarily helpful to be able to sort those wines by “when to drink.”
O.K., so you have your cellar management strategies down; now what wines should you buy? Of course, this is a question to which there is no one answer, but as a rule, you should buy wine that has the tannic and/or acidic structure to last. Predicting “ageability,” to be frank, is a skillset that is both subjective and fraught with hits-and-misses; however, most wines that are built to last for an extended period of time in your cellar will typically have substantial tannic structure (that gritty, sandpaper-esque texture that many reds exhibit), and/or sufficient acidity to make it seem a bit brusque upon release but which will preserve it for many years to come.
Last but not least, buy at least three bottles of everything. This is a mistake that everyone makes early on: buying a single bottle of something. It’s expensive. I can’t commit to any more than just one. We’ll savor this one bottle. No, absolutely not. Years later, when you haul that dusty bottle out of your cellar and discover that it’s pure magic, nothing will sting you more than realizing that there’s no more left…and since it’s years later, you can’t get any more. Two bottles is better, but having at least three is what you should strive for. One bottle to try after a few years; another just in case the wine’s not ready, and a third (or more) to enjoy when you can be sure it’s ready.
Oh, and never forget: Don’t be afraid to open a bottle. It’s just wine, and sometimes, a special bottle can turn a workaday weeknight into a special occasion. That’s what your cellar should be all about.