Your First Wine Cellar

By Ryan Snyder on March 18, 2005

Category: Wine for Newbies

We’ve all heard stories about legendary wines opened 60 years after bottling where the critics all agreed it was the perfect time to open that wine. Touted as one of the best wines of the 20th century, some critics believe the 1961 Château Latour may need another 20 years in the cellar before reaching its peak. Our tasting panel recently opened the Dow’s 1977 Porto and although absolutely delicious it displayed youthful tannins that needed another decade to reach the stage of maturity it was destined for. But occasionally we taste perfectly aged wines, like the Château Belair St.-Émilion 1990, that enter a realm beyond description and provide an experience that can only be called sublime.

Not all wines become fairy tales after years in the cellar. Two months ago a friend brought over a 1975 Chianti. We poured it and instead of its normal crimson color it was burnt orange. Another friend opened a 1985 Beaujolais Nouveau for Christmas dinner. Beaujolais Nouveau is a wine that is sold less than two months after the harvest and all over France people with purple teeth revel in the streets as if it were New Years Eve. The wine isn’t supposed to be kept long after this celebration, let alone for 20 years. I tasted it just for fun, and it had ventured far beyond the vinegar stage to the just-plain-bad stage.

Keeping a wine too long is one problem, but opening a wine too soon is another. Last week I opened a bottle of Patricia Green Cellars Pinot Noir Washington County 2003 – the fruits were tart and tightly woven, meaning it needed at least a couple of years before they would develop into the expressive, delicious flavors we love about Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs.

Wine is a living and breathing thing, and like a person it goes through stages of infancy, maturity and old age. Some wines reach maturity very quickly while others are heartier and need a decade or two for each facet of the wine to join together in harmony. Drinking wines that are a touch young can still be enjoyable, but sometimes you'll realize that they had potential to be so much more.

To Cellar or Not to Cellar

Almost every wine available at the grocery store is designed for early consumption. Fruit forward wines from Australia, New Zealand, North and South America and South Africa typically need to be consumed within 2-3 years. Many European wines also lack the structure necessary to help a wine age gracefully. In fact, there are many variables used to determine a wine’s age worthiness, including a wine’s vintage, varietal, quality, and winemaking techniques used. But sometimes it's difficult to determine a wine’s aging potential without tasting a barrel sample or popping a cork shortly after the wine is bottled.

Young wines that tend to age the best display pronounced tannins, acidity or sugar, all of which are natural preservatives. Big reds, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo, have the best aging potential because of their intense tannins. White Burgundies and Rieslings from Germany and Aslace make up for their lack of tannins with high acidity levels. Meanwhile, dessert wines like Sauternes and German Beerenausleses contain high amounts of sugar that help them age gracefully. But these wines also require vivacious fruit and a firm structure that will stick around until the tannins and acidity soften.

Until you start to become more serious about collecting wine or start purchasing bottles priced over $25, don’t worry about trying to age the wine you purchase. But if you’re looking to shed your newbie status and don a pair of spectacles, one of the quickest ways to geekdom is to start a wine cellar with plenty of age-worthy wines. Here is a quick list of regions and varietals that tend to age the best:

· Alsace, France – Gewürztraminers and Rieslings
· Bordeaux, France – reds and whites from Cru Producers.
· Bugrundy, France – reds and whites labeled Grand Cru or Premier Cru
· Champagne, France – vintage Champagnes
· Germany and Austria – fine Rieslings
· Italy – robust reds such as Barbaresco, Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Taurasi
· Portugal – vintage Ports
· Spain – reds from the Rioja and Priorato regions
· United States – Cabernet Sauvignon made by notable California producers

Keep in mind this is a general guideline. The wine could age better or worse depending on variables such as the vintage or the winemaker's techinques. For example, 1997 and 1999 red wines from Bordeaux should be consumed young, while the same wines grown in 1998 or 2000 could use some time in the cellar. Be sure to check out our wine database for drinking recommendations on individual wines, or drop a line in the discussion board if you have any questions or concerns.

Creating a Wine Cellar

A wine cellar can be as elaborate or as simple as you want it to be. You can throw a 12-bottle pine rack in the corner of your living room, a 60-bottle metal rack in your pantry or a custom-designed cherry storage facility that holds 3000 bottles in your refurnished basement. The options for where you store your wine are endless, but there are important guidelines regarding how you store your wine that you must follow.

The first principle for starting a wine cellar is to ensure temperature control. The perfect temperature for wine storage is a constant 55°F. Lower temperatures will throw the wine into a state of dormancy. For example, storing wine in the refrigerator at near-freezing temperatures will numb the wine, making it taste flat instead of fruity and lively. Higher temperatures will not only accelerate the wine’s aging, but when kept above 75°F the wine will slowly bake.

You may not be ready to construct an insulated room with a built-in air conditioner that will ensure perfect temperature regulation. The important thing is to keep temperature fluctuation to a minimum. In the summer, the temperature in your dining room may balloon to the mid-80s in the middle of the day then fall to the mid-60s during the night. Excessive temperature fluctuation will cause the wine to expand and contract in the bottle, which will draw in air through the cork and cause oxidation.

If you have a basement, you immediately have a great place for a cellar. Underground basement temperatures are relegated by the ground surrounding the basement walls, which creates ideal cellar temperatures. Apartment life can be tricky, so you will want to make sure your apartment stays a little cooler than normal, even in the scorching summer months. Or you can also buy a professional wine cabinet, which will keep your wine at the ideal temperature and humidity and will fit perfectly in your kitchen or dining room.

Humidity control is another valid concern. Damp air keeps wine corks from drying out, which forces the cork to stay expanded and ensures a firm seal. Laying a bottle on its side will also ensure the cork remains moist on the inside, which is just as important to keep the cork swollen. The ideal humidity level for your cellar is 55%-85%. If you’re concerned about humidity, buy a hygrometer to measure your cellar's humidity level. You can always install a humidifier if your cellar is dry, but be careful not to let the humidity rise much above 90% as this will cause mold to grow on the corks.

Wine is also extremely light-sensitive. We winegeeks keep careful tabs when we’re wine shopping, and whenever a bottle is kept on the top shelf beneath bright lights, we follow one simple rule – don’t buy that wine. I’ve opened bottles for tastings and five-course meals that were dramatically affected by light. The cooked fruits, caramel and bourbon flavors were not what the wine maker intended. Needless to say, keep your bottles in a dark place until it’s time to pop the cork to avoid putting a damper on your evening.

Vibration is another factor to keep in mind. Wine needs to rest without distraction or constant rumblings in the environment. Keep wine away from any motors or heaters, and if you live near the metro, you may want to find another location to store your wine.

Finally, as your wine cellar grows like wildflowers you can use two simple things to help organize your cellar. Plastic tabs containing the wine's name and vintage can be placed around the bottle's neck to help you determine which wine is in front of you without having to pull the bottle off the rack. And keep track of you cellar contents online with our cellar inventory program called My Cellar. You'll need to login to use it, but you'll love it.