Guide to Cellaring Wines
All you need to know about storing wines - for real. Screwcaps considered. Absence of perfect underground cellar encouraged to apply.
Why cellar wines? Because often they’re sold before they’re peaking. Cellaring a wine gives you the chance to drink it at its best. You deserve that chance, so read on!
Of course, it comes down to personal taste – I wouldn’t be the first person to have started a cellar, committing to years of restraint, coveting, only to discover that I would have enjoyed the wine more when I first bought it.
But that nice place when a wine starts to develop some bottle age – those funky savoury secondary characters…
I heard a story from a renowned wine critic – I think it was Huon Hooke, but I was well into the evening at a function at the time, so the details are a bit sketchy. He was in France, trying some amazing new release wines, and he commented to the winemaker something along the lines of “gee, this is impressive”, to which the winemaker replied “yes, but it is not yet wine…”
Largely due to financial reasons, producers release their wines as soon as they can after bottling. Many would love to be able to release their wines with a bit more bottle age (which basically means time in the bottle before you drink it).
And it’s a well-quoted stat that a lot of wine bought in this country is consumed within hours, not even days or months or years. We’re buying a bottle of wine on the way home from work or the shops to drink that night.
So most of the wine produced, certainly in Australia, is being cracked too early.
And this, my patient friends, is where cellaring comes in…
How long should you cellar a wine?
Well, that’s a case-by-case proposition. Or bottle by bottle, as the case may be.
Some wines are built to NEED some age before they’re drinking the way the winemaker intended. Some wines are fine to drink young, but will also develop into interesting and sexy things with cellaring. And other wines should only be drunk young, and will only go downhill with too much cellaring.
How can you tell which is which? Well, google it. Or ask the producer. There are so many factors that come into play here – the vines, the vintage, the winemaking style…
Most of the time, you’ll see recommended drinking age on the website, often on the back label these days, which is very helpful. Guides like Halliday’s Wine Companion, and a lot of websites will also give you this information.
A very broad, sweeping rule – more expensive wines will age better. That’s not due to some mystical link between cash and bottle age, it’s just that better-made wines from older vines cost more, and are generally made to be able to develop a bit. Cooler vintages age better than warmer vintages, that’s another relatively safe generalisation.
But look it up, that’s my advice.
But keep in mind two things: 1) the recommendations by producers are generally conservative, and 2) James Halliday assumes you’ve got the perfect cellar and love aged wines.
So what IS the perfect cellar?
I have my dream cellar… just there, in my dreams. It's awesome, or it will be, when I win lotto and build my dream house. In the meantime, I recently bought a wine fridge, because I was sick of my wines getting f@#ked over summer. Most of my friends keep their wines in a little cupboard under the stairs.
So cellaring wines can, theoretically, happen anywhere. But most places you think your wines are safe and ageing nicely aren’t actually doing much good at all.
Let’s look at what’s most important with storing your wines:
A lesser-known fact here is that consistency of temperature is more important than the temperature itself. What really hurts a wine is when temperatures go up and down, especially daily. It expands and contracts the liquid – no good. Blame oxidation. So that rack in your loungeroom or above your fridge? Fine for planning on drinking very soon, not so good for long-term cellaring.
A gradual change between summer and winter, for instance, is not so critical.
Yes, it’s optimal to store your wines at 12-16 degrees centigrade, but if you can’t manage that, then they’ll be better off at a constant 20 degrees than an up and down 5 – 15, believe it or not. Sure, they’ll age a bit faster in 20 degrees constant that in 15 degrees constant, but they won’t get ruined.
Higher temperatures will age a wine faster, lower temperatures will slow down the aging. Slow aging is the better option. If your wine has to endure 28 to 30 degrees, even if it’s constant, it will likely be damaged goods within a month. Yes – it’s that drastic.
Whites are even more vulnerable to high or fluctuating temperature than reds.
And don’t keep your bubbles in the fridge for too long – it’s too cold and it can dry out the cork - doesn’t do it any favours.
In fact – don’t keep any wines too long in a fridge – it’s too cold, the temperature goes up and down too quickly with all the opening and closing of the doors, and fridges vibrate, which is also not so good for a wine.
They talk about 70% humidity being also optimal, but a lot of that was to keep corks moist and supply, ‘cause when a cork dries out, it shrinks, and air gets in, and your wine is ruined. Air and wine is how you make vinegar.
That’s also why we lie wines down on their sides – the wine stays up against the cork, keeping it moist. You can just keep the box on its side if you don’t have wracking.
With screwcaps, humidity isn’t so important. Nor is lying a wine down. Ahhh... screwcaps. More please.
If humidity is too high (eg: in the tropics), then your labels and your cartons may rot. Doesn’t particularly hurt the wine, but doesn’t make for a good look. You can always wrap the wines in cling film (glad wrap) to save the labels.
Light can kill a wine. It ages it too quickly. It’s why wines are kept in coloured bottles – clear bottles let in more light. So you want to keep your wines in a dark place. Keeping them in the box helps with this.
If you’ve got a wine fridge in your loungeroom, better if the glass is tinted for UV protection.
Vibrations agitate the bottle, and that speeds up the chemical reactions going on as the wine ages, and not in a good way. Don’t pick it up and shake it all the time.
Just leave it lying down, calmly and comfortably aging, until you’re ready to drink it. Of course, I like to just hold my good wines every now and then, call me crazy, but I try to be gentle.
If your house vibrates ‘cause your on a train line – not so good. Find a new house ;)
You know what wines don’t like? Rats. You know what rats like? Cork. And snails like labels.
Know what else wines don’t like? Bad smells. They can make their way in through the cork and taint your wine. Keeping your wines in the shed with your petrol cans and your paints? Not so good. Keeping them in a dank, musty place is also not so good – you might end up with dank, musty-smelling wines.
Don’t store food with wines. You don’t want anything that might ferment or rot near your wine. It’s fermented enough, thank you.
Dust is cool. Dust is authentic. But nice dust, not smelly dust.
So what’s the solution?
Well, depends of course on your budget and living arrangements. Here are my recommendations, in order of preference:
- Underground cellar – with temperature and humidity control? Even better!
- Wine fridge – preferably stored in a dark place where people aren’t traipsing past every five minutes.
- Professional Storage – but make sure they do it properly, not just lock-ups in big tin sheds! Added benefit of not having such easy access to your wines at 3am.
- Under the stairs – preferably in the middle of the house, not near an outside wall
- In a cupboard – again, in the coolest room of the house
- In a wine rack in the loungeroom – not ideal
- On top of the fridge – please don’t. In fact avoid the kitchen (they heat up and cool down all the time!) and any place high (hot air rises)
- In the shed – seriously? Unless it’s a clean, temperature-controlled shed, this is not the place for vino.
I think the golden rule should be: if you don’t have anywhere decent to store you wines, drink ‘em!
Honestly, the amount of times I’ve had friends show off their treasured bottle of Grange they’ve kept for six years – in their loungeroom… it breaks my heart. It’s just not going to drink well when you open it.
Drinking wines too young, while not ideal, is infinitely preferable to drinking a badly aged or “cooked” wine.
My advice – get a wine fridge. You can pay anywhere from $200 to $20,000, but even a $200 wine fridge will save those good bottles, and give you a chance to experience the joys of a properly aged wine drinking at its peak.
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