When you create and maintain a wine store, you’re aiming for not only an environment in which your wine will be happy, but one which, by being well kept, will never have you searching frantically for a wine you think you still have a bottle of... somewhere.
If you aren’t fortunate enough to have an actual cellar, similar conditions can be obtained either by building one of the kit versions now available into the floor of your house, or by buying a thermostatically controlled cabinet such as the French Eurocave. But if, like the majority of us, you are converting a spare box-room or cupboard into your wine store, you’ll need to start with the basics.
Light is easy to keep out; insulation can help to maintain a steady temperature; and a damp sponge left on a saucer will provide essential humidity. Don’t make it too airtight – you should avoid your store smelling musty – but draughts are to be prevented too.
In general terms, and over a period of several years, the warmer the cellar, the faster your wine will develop or – possibly – decay.
The temperature to aim for is 7-10oC – about as cool as you will normally want to drink your white wines. But 5oC is risky as light wines can freeze at temperatures close to that and corks can be forced out of the bottles. At over 20-25o you risk cooking off some of the more delicate characteristics, particularly of older and more delicate wines. Whatever the average temperature of your storage area, the crucial thing is to keep it as constant as possible: a wine will suffer more from a daily switchback ride from 15o to 20o than from a steady level of 20-22o. Which is why the average kitchen with its violent changes in temperature is just about the worst place you could choose to keep your most treasured bottles.
Wooden self-assembly and folding racks are inexpensive and readily obtainable. Avoid models which have sharp metal edges – these tend to tear labels as bottles are being inserted or remove. Handier folk can, given the space, build bin-units using wooden shelving, chimney pipe or breeze blocks in which several bottles of the same wine can be kept in a pile. It is useful to be able to attach cards with numbers or wine names to the rack so that unnecessary searching is reduced to a minimum. If you buy purpose-made racks, remember that they are not generally suited to half-bottles, magnums and larger bottles. Leave space for these. Save rack space by not unpacking any wine or port which has arrived in wooden cases (important in any event if you subsequently decide to resell the wine). By the same token, cheap daily-drinking wine can be left in stout cardboard cartons – but only provided the store is not too damp.
This is essential, as is a well kept plan showing exactly where all the wines have been placed. A good cellar book will remind you of when you bought particular wines and how they tasted last time you opened a bottle. If you do have a real cellar, or a reasonably damp store, avoid leaving the book in it – otherwise the paper can disintegrate and the ink run. A chinagraph pencil or laundry marker and white plastic cards can be useful for this reason. Similarly, Hugh Johnson suggests spraying wine labels with scentless hair lacquer to protect them from the damp. As a more versatile alternative to a cellar-book, you could, of course, use a spreadsheet or database program on you personal computer – which would also permit you to sort the information by region, price, vintage and even, if you so wish, by the score you have given each wine out of 20 or 100.
Try to establish a pattern for where you store each wine type, but don’t be too rigid in your planning, otherwise you will forever be trying to squeeze 60 bottles into the space you allowed for 48. One way to avoid this problem is to use a system you may recall from the game of Battleships – code the wine racks vertically and horizontally, alphabetically and numerically, so that each “hole” has a code – a56, g12, x78 and so on – that you can assign to the bottle it contains when entering it in your cellar book or database.
One final point. Your cellar will be worth a certain amount when you start to fill it. With luck, that value will rise – perhaps considerably so – over the years. Forgetting to be properly insured would be a pity.
What to buy
I may seem obvious, but if you’re buying wine to drink, then stick to what you like. In other words, if your passion is Burgundy, then don’t be pressurized into buying lots of Bordeaux just because everybody says it’s a must-have vintage. If you never eat fish, then you won’t need so much white; if port gives you a headache, then it’s not a bargain, no matter how low the price.